It’s the finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Sam Wilson is about a give a speech. Spoilers ahead!
For what may be the only time in television history, a show has changed its title in mid-episode. Because while it’s still billed as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at first, at the end just before the credits, it’s billed as Captain America and the Winter Soldier. For that matter, when the captioning needs to indicate that Sam Wilson is speaking, he’s not identified as “SAM” or “FALCON,” but as “CAPTAIN AMERICA.”
Which is pretty danged fantastic.
One of the hallmarks of the comic book version of Captain America is that he tends to give a speech at the drop of a hat. Indeed, many of Cap’s greatest moments in the comics have been his speeches. To give just three great examples, there’s the passionate lecture he gives to both sides of a riot that breaks out between neo-Nazis and a group of Jewish protestors in Captain America #275 by J.M. DeMatteis & Mike Zeck (1982); the brilliant discourse on patriotism and how America is a work-in-progress and the dangers of blind patriotism in What If…? #44 by Peter B. Gillis & Sal Buscema (1984); and the magnificent “no, you move” speech he gave to Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man #537 by J. Michael Straczynski & Ron Garney (2007).
The MCU version played by Chris Evans didn’t really have that tendency. He was much pithier—”I don’t like bullies,” “I can do this all day,” “Whatever it takes,” “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” He’s the sound-bite Cap. Tellingly, when the “no, you move” speech was spoken in the MCU, it wasn’t Cap’s speech, it was Peggy Carter’s.
The first time we see Sam Wilson in “One World, One People,” he’s wearing the new flight suit that he got from Wakanda, via Bucky Barnes last week, and it’s a star-spangled version of it. (It also looks almost exactly like the comic-book version that Sam Wilson wore when he took over as Cap for a while.) Plus, he’s carrying the shield. He then very publicly, in front of huge crowds of New Yorkers, saves the lives of the GRC committee that was about to vote on resetting borders and resettling people who have been taken hostage by the Flag-Smashers to stop them from having that vote.
This entire episode is Sam’s coming-out party as Captain America, and it’s not just that he saves lives, but it’s what he says to the GRC at the end, in front of eighty billion cameras both from the press and on people’s smartphones, that changes things. Because wars end when people sit down and talk to each other, and that’s how this particular war ends.
I especially love what Cap says to the GRC: They have the same power as a mad god who can wipe out half the population, and how they use that power will send a message to the rest of the world. It’s easy to dismiss the Flag-Smashers by calling them terrorists. It’s easy to trivialize what the people are going through by calling them refugees. And those labels obscure the reality: The Flag-Smashers have massive support all over the world. Hell, they have people inside the GRC, inside the military, inside the police, which is how they were able to kidnap the committee in the first place.
There’s a third term that Cap mentions: “thug.” Nobody was using that term on the show, really, but it’s one that is often applied to people of color who are deemed “suspicious” or “scary,” usually right before a police officer shoots them for wearing a hoodie or taking their phone out of their pocket, and you know that the use of it was incredibly deliberate here.
Right now, today, it’s incredibly important to the people watching the show that Captain America be a black man. In fact, that this episode that establishes Sam as Cap aired the same week as the verdict in the George Floyd trial is a rather bittersweet bit of serendipity. For every step forward, there’s a step back. We elect a person of color president and then we elect a candidate supported by white supremacists as his successor.
Sam Wilson wears this dichotomy on his sleeve (or wings, I guess?). He comes out and says that he knows that his wearing the suit and carrying the shield will piss off a lot of people. But—as he says to Isaiah Bradley in one of the episode’s many denouements—African-Americans built this country, bled for it, and he’s not going to stop fighting for it.
There’s another great Steve Rogers speech from the comics that applies here, one he gave in Captain America #332 by Mark Gruenwald & Tom Morgan (1987) right before he gave up being Cap and John Walker took over: “I cannot represent the American government; the President does that. I must represent the American people. I represent the American Dream, the freedom to strive to become all that you dream of being.”
John Walker’s version of Captain America represented the American government, and he did it very poorly. Sam Wilson’s version follows in Rogers’s footsteps of representing the American ideal—which is often very far from the American reality, but that makes it all the more important to fight for it. Rogers’s line in Avengers: Endgame—”whatever it takes”—was his hallmark. He stood against corruption, stood for people standing up for themselves rather than relying on people in power, so much so that he took S.H.I.E.L.D. down in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and broke the Avengers rather than be constrained by the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War.
Now Sam gets to pick up that fight. America has always been a work in progress, and indeed the user manual is designed to be adjusted and changed and fixed—the most important part of the U.S. Constitution is the capability to amend it. Cap knows it’s gonna be a hard row to hoe, but he’s gonna hoe it anyhow.
This storyline is also a work in progress. While it’s the last episode of the season (and, probably, the last episode of a TV show that will have the title The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), it’s nowhere near the end of the story, and the episode acknowledges that. Yes, the Flag-Smashers are broken (most of them are dead, many killed by a mysterious old white guy in a car who blows up the prison truck they’re in, though at least one is still alive), but they have a huge number of people on their side. Sure, the GRC has decided not to reset the borders and displace people, but one thing the nameless Senator was right about is that this is a very complicated problem with no easy solutions.
Another denouement in this episode full of them sees Bucky finally telling Yori the truth about how his son died—which ends their weekly lunches together, obviously. And then when Sam goes home to Louisiana to celebrate with his family, Bucky’s there, too. (My favorite visual of the whole episode is when Sarah’s kids are hanging off Bucky’s left arm.) Bucky also gives Dr. Raynor his notebook with all the names crossed off, and a thank you. And while Bucky’s arc pales (sorry) in comparison to Sam’s and doesn’t get anywhere near the same screen time, it is completed nicely. I’m totally okay with the white guy taking a back seat to the black guy for a change (even if the black guy won’t move his seat forward).
Walker’s ending is a bit anticlimactic for him but fitting: He tries to be Captain America with his new shield, which doesn’t work all that well and gets broken. He also tries to save the truck full of hostages from falling off a building and fails—it’s left to Sam to do it successfully. Instead, he winds up as the U.S. Agent (just like he does in the comics—it’s even the same outfit!), and still working for Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, though in what capacity remains unclear.
What brought a tear to my eye, though, was Sam going to talk to Isaiah. Isaiah still gives Sam shit, and still thinks he’s wasting his time, but appreciates that he’s making the effort. What finally gets Isaiah to stop being a (justifiably) cranky old man is when Sam takes him to the same Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian that we first saw in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and shows him the newly installed Isaiah Bradley display. Because Captain America fights for the truth.
Odds and ends
- In the least surprising development, we learn that Sharon Carter is, in fact, the Power Broker. In a slightly surprising development, she manages to keep that fact from Cap and Bucky thanks to the Flag-Smashers being conveniently killed. And, because Captain America also keeps his promises, Carter gets the pardon that Sam promised her several episodes ago, so she’s now got an in with the government—which, as the mid-credits scene informs us, means the Power Broker has a lot more power to broker. I suspect that there may be a second season of this show (or first season of Captain America and the Winter Soldier) that puts Carter front and center as the bad guy.
- Ah, Batroc, we hardly knew thee. Batroc the Leaper is one of Captain America’s sillier villains, introduced in Tales of Suspense #75 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (1966) with a comedy French accent. Still, he has endured (with varying levels of comedy French accents depending on who’s writing him), and they made him a weapons dealer with savate skills in the MCU, showing up here and in The Winter Soldier. But he’s taken out by Carter when he tries to extort her for more money in exchange for keeping her being the Power Broker secret. Sucks to be him.
- The U.S. Agent outfit that Walker is given by the Contessa is not only the same as the one he wears in the comics, but it’s one that started out life as Steve Rogers’s. After he gave up being Cap in the aforementioned Captain America #332, he wound up back in costume as “The Captain” five issues later. At the end of #350 by Gruenwald & Kieron Dwyer (1989), Rogers took the star-spangled costume back from Walker, and then four issues later, Walker debuted as the U.S. Agent in the same costume that Rogers wore as The Captain.
- Rumor has it that Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is also appearing in Black Widow as the Contessa. Of course, that movie was originally supposed to come out before this show debuted, but the recent apocalypse has continued to screw with release schedules, so we’ll have to wait until July for more hints regarding what the Contessa is doing. One rumor is that she’s forming the Thunderbolts. Originally created as a long con by Baron Zemo during the “Heroes Reborn” era when the Avengers and Fantastic Four were believed killed (in truth they were shunted to a parallel Earth where they were written and drawn by creators who had left Marvel years earlier to form Image Comics—long story), they were villains pretending to be heroes in order to take over the world. They failed at that, but for some of them, pretending to be heroes led to them becoming actual heroes. The team has had various incarnations over the years, and both U.S. Agent and Black Widow have been part of the team…
- Redwing’s back! After being destroyed in “The Star-Spangled Man,” the new red-white-and-blue suit has a new Redwing drone. While I still miss Sam Wilson having an actual bird as a familiar—the red bird has been his companion since he was introduced back in the late 1960s—I’m glad he’s got his favorite toy back. (The scene in Civil War where he tries to get the Black Widow to thank Redwing is a classic.)
- Overall, this series has had its ups and downs, but it’s ultimately a good meditation on race relations (done through the larger-than-life lens of a world of superheroes and that also went through the Blip). Like WandaVision before it, it explores two characters who got short shrift in the movies, and moves them forward in interesting ways. And also like WandaVision, it has the storytelling space to explore consequences in a way that the movies just don’t have time for. It’s not a coincidence that the fallout from the Sokovia Accords was better explored in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than it was in any of the movies, and likewise that the fallout from Thanos’s dusting half of the population and the Hulk’s restoration of same is being better explored in these first two Disney+ series. Looking forward to seeing what’s next for Bucky, for Carter, for the Contessa, for the U.S. Agent, for the people of the world trying to find their way post-Blip, and most especially for the brand-new Captain America.
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.