In the comics, Sam Wilson is a social worker, as established in Captain America #134 by Stan Lee & Gene Colan in 1971. When the character first appeared in the MCU in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely’s script militarized him, making him ex-Air Force, but kept the social-work aspect by making him a counselor to military folk.
That aspect of his backstory is front and center in the fourth episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and it gives us one of the best scenes in the series so far.
One of the themes that has emerged from the first four episodes of this show is questioning the very notion of heroism. On the surface, we’ve got four costumed heroes going after a group of terrorists, and we’ve also got two of those heroes using a villain to help them find the terrorists.
But it is significantly more complicated than that. From the beginning, the Flag-Smashers have proven to have noble goals, if not particularly noble means to achieve them. And our four costumed heroes include a former Soviet assassin and two guys who have been thrust into their roles by the U.S. government but who may not be up to the task.
I’ve gone back and forth as to whether or not John Walker is a dick in this space, and this episode makes it clear that it’s not that simple in either direction—indeed, that happens a lot in this episode. In a very revealing conversation between Walker and Lemar Hoskins, we find out that the three medals of honor Walker received were due to a horrible mission in Afghanistan that Walker describes as the worst day of his life. We don’t get specifics, but we don’t need them: the point is that something that we assumed was a badge of heroism (the medals) is in fact an attempt to prettify something very very ugly.
The flip side of that is Karli Morgenthau. She’s trying to help people who have been screwed by the restoration of half of humanity and the attempt to return to normal, but she’s going about it in a way that is also ugly. We pointedly hear a news story that mentions that one of the victims of the destruction of the GRC building last week had only just started working for the GRC and left behind a family. As Sam says to Karli, when you’re killing people, you’re not making the world a better place, just different. If your noble goal can only be fulfilled by leaving children without a parent, then your goal may not be so noble. Then again, even Karli’s fellow Flag-Smashers were caught off-guard and not entirely happy with her blowing up that building…
So maybe it’s the power that corrupts. That’s certainly Zemo’s thesis (though it’s interesting to see that even he admits that it didn’t corrupt Steve Rogers). He manages to track down Karli and destroy most of her spare vials of the Super Soldier Serum, thus keeping to his MO.
He also refers to Karli as a supremacist, a characterization that Sam passes on to her, and which she rejects about four seconds before talking exactly like a supremacist. Karli herself realizes it, though she tries to backtrack. Sam, though, makes significant progress with her before Walker goes and fucks things up.
Fucking things up is mostly what Walker does. The hints dropped about the mission that got him his medals are enough to question how much of a great soldier this guy really is, and he also gets his ass kicked by the Dora Milaje. (More on that in a bit.) In fact, up until the end of the episode, we’ve never actually seen the new Captain America win a fight against someone who was fighting back. And then he goes and ruins Sam’s conversation with Karli. Sam asked him to give him ten minutes to talk to her, and Walker barrels in before those ten minutes are up, leading Karli to think that Sam was just stalling her until his boss could show up. Because of course the guy in the Captain America suit is going to be the leader.
Except he’s pretty lousy at it. Zemo misses one vial of serum to step on, and Walker pockets it. Throughout the episode, people ask if they’d take the serum if they had the chance. Sam says no without hesitation (which impresses Zemo), while Hoskins says yes with an equal lack of hesitation. We don’t see Walker actually take the serum he lifted, but in the climactic fight scene, he’s much more skilled, and shows much more strength (throwing the shield hard enough to be embedded in concrete, being strong enough to yank it out of the concrete, and making a jump from a high window onto a van that should have broken his legs).
And then they fridge Hoskins. Sigh.
I get what they’re going for here, but did they really have to resort to the trope of killing the black sidekick to motivate the white guy?
Nonetheless, this sends Walker over the edge. After Hoskins is fatally tossed into a pillar by Karli, the Flag-Smashers scatter. Walker chases one of them down to a public square and he proceeds to beat and murder him in front of a very large crowd of people with cell phones that have been set to “video.” The final shot, which in the previous three episodes was used to have someone new show up who would be important in the next episode, is instead this time used to show Walker standing in the middle of a crowd of people who just witnessed his committing a murder, with blood staining the shield. The symbolism is painfully obvious, but no less effective for all that. Bucky has been saying all along that Walker isn’t worthy of the shield, and that final shot encapsulates that characterization perfectly.
It’s telling that the closest anyone has come to solving things has been Sam talking to Karli, and that it doesn’t work because of the intrusion of violence. And then Karli doubles down on her terrorist tendencies by using Sam’s sister to set up a meet with Sam alone—and by “using,” I mean “threatening Sarah and her kids.” Karli’s insistence that she never would really have hurt Sam’s family rings hollow after the bombing of the GRC building last week. She insists that she’s a revolutionary, not a terrorist, but that line is a thin one to begin with, and hard to reconcile with threatening kids.
And yet, again, Karli’s ends are understandable and from a place of good, it’s her means that need a ton of work. Sam himself points this out to Bucky: the world came together during the five years of the Blip, as borders became meaningless because everyone wanted to help. (Here’s another shade of gray: an actual positive impact from Thanos’s actions.) Then everyone came back, and everyone fell back into their previous pattern. But it’s not that easy (as we’re seeing in the 2021 of the real world, starting to slowly crawl from the wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic) and there are consequences.
Speaking of consequences, there’s also the Dora Milaje, who are perhaps the only people in this entire episode who are unequivocally doing the right thing: they want to bring Zemo to justice for killing their king. For that matter, the opening scene is a flashback to shortly after Captain America: Civil War, with Ayo working with Bucky, determining that the key words used to trigger him no longer work. Unfortunately, in the present, the Dora Milaje are stymied by Walker and Hoskins—and eventually, reluctantly, Sam and Bucky—because they still need Zemo. Except, of course, Zemo takes advantage of the confusion to escape.
So now the new Captain America is a murderer—and has become one in a way that is pretty damn hard to walk back—Zemo is on the loose with the Dora Milaje after him, the Flag-Smashers are on the run, and Hoskins is dead. This is probably going to get uglier…
Odds and ends
- The Dora Milaje first appeared in the Black Panther series that debuted in 1998 by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira. (Priest—who has also written under the name Jim Owsley—also wrote an excellent Falcon miniseries in 1983.) Established as the royal security force, they are all women, and all kick serious ass. They were first seen in the MCU in Civil War, in the person of Florence Kasumba’s Ayo, and have also appeared in the MCU in Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame.
- One of the things the comics have established, at least in part to explain why there aren’t a ton of super soldiers floating around, is that there are nasty side effects to the serum, which are in part mitigated by Vita-Rays, which Steve Rogers was given. That’s why, for example, the Captain America of the 1950s went binky-bonkers after giving himself a version of the serum. There were lots of nasty side effects suffered by the African-American soldiers who were experimented on in Truth: Red, White, and Black, as well. And the serum’s track record isn’t great in the MCU, either, beyond Rogers: the Red Skull, the Winter Soldier, the Hulk, the Abomination, and now the Flag-Smashers and John Walker.
- This episode reminds us, not only that Sam is a counselor to former soldiers, but also a canny observer of humanity. Probably my favorite moment in the entire episode is when he talks Bucky down from getting into it with Zemo. Sam tells Bucky, “He’s just gonna extort you and do that stupid head-tilt thing.” As soon as he says that, Zemo self-consciously straightens his neck out. It’s a beautifully played scene by Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, and Daniel Brühl.
- We see Sharon Carter only briefly, and she is somehow able to track Walker and, um, how? Related to that, the Power Broker still hasn’t been seen (at least not explicitly), but Carter tells Sam that he’s pissed, and he also texts the Flag-Smashers to say that he’s coming after them. (I’m only using the male pronoun here because Carter did when referring to the Power Broker.) There’s another shoe or three to be dropped here.
- Zemo escapes by going through a giant drain in the bathroom while the Dora Milaje are fighting Walker and Hoskins. Sam says he “pulled an El Chapo,” which refers to the drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, who escaped into the sewers with his mistress when he was about to be arrested in Mexico in 2014.
- One thing I’m curious about, that will probably never be addressed: the “present day” of the MCU (Endgame, Spider-Man: Far from Home, WandaVision, and this show) is 2023: Thanos snapped his fingers in 2018 (Infinity War) and then the Hulk snapped his five years later. So what I’m wondering is: did the COVID-19 pandemic happen in the MCU? Did the lessened population (and greater international cooperation) in 2020 result in the pandemic being manageable?
Keith R.A. DeCandido also does the Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch every Monday and Thursday. His takes on the MCU films can be found in his “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” that started on this site in 2017. He’ll be doing a panel on WandaVision at the virtual HELIOsphere tonight at 6pm Eastern time.