“How does it feel?”
“Like it’s someone else’s.”
You don’t make a Marvel series called The Falcon and the Winter Soldier without dealing heavily with Captain America’s legacy. The scene references above from the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, in which an older Steve Rogers hands the shield to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) weighs on every scene of the first episode, the only one screened early for press. But it weighs most on Sam, who feels the burden of responsibility that comes with the shield, not just as a hero, but as a black superhero in a highly-divisive country.
While it’s not explicitly talked about in this first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, race does play a key role. That shouldn’t come as a surprise for those who have read Falcon’s recent adventures in the comics pages; nor should it to those who are expecting higher creative goals from Marvel TV after the groundbreaking WandaVision. While there are definitely superheroics of the true MCU fashion, at least early on the series resembles a political drama more than anything else, closer in style to Homeland or The Americans.
Don’t worry, Bucky (Sebastian Stan) gets high own weighty issues to deal with, but his feel a bit familiar, dealing with his past as the mind-controlled assassin the Winter Soldier. He’s got a lot of atoning to do, and has taken up befriending the family of some of his past innocent victims as a means of doing that. It doesn’t prove all that successful, but it does get him a date, at least. There’s also court-mandated therapy sessions that reveal to us that…hey, he’s a pretty closed-off dude. We’ve known that for a long time now with very little progression.
It’s Sam’s story that takes precedent here and holds the most dramatic weight. He get the episode’s only real taste of battle, in an exhilarating aerial fight against terrorists led by a returning Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), who is just as douchey as he was in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It gives us a chance to see Falcon, working for the government, as a solo hero for once…well, unless you count his robotic “bird” sidekick Redwing that aids in battle.
But the fight, cool as it is, really takes a backseat to Sam’s struggles on multiple levels. Can a Black man even be Captain America in the world today? Would the people accept him? And does he even want to do it, given how much respect he has for all that Captain America did? Agreeing to speak at the Captain America museum we’ve seen a few times previously, Sam decides that he can’t take the shield, entrusting it to the museum, and thus the U.S. government.
From there, the story finds us delving into Sam’s family life. His sister Sarah (played by the wonderful Adepero Oduye) is one of many who, like Sam, was gone for five years because of the “blip.” Now she’s back and ready to sell the family shrimping boat and pay off mountains of debt. But Sam, ever the hero, believes all he’s done as an Avenger will count for something. It’s a harsh lesson he learns at the bank, where the man he must convince for a loan is little more than a fan. Worse, Sam experiences the kind of everyday humiliation that black celebrities, in particular athletes, face all of the time. They love you when in uniform, but don’t give a damn when you’re not. Why should Sam be Captain America in a place that treats people like him in such a way?
While we know this will eventually change, in the first episode we don’t even see Sam and Bucky together. They’ll have to team up at some point soon, as we’re also introduced to the threat of The Flag Smashers, a terrorist group that believes life during the “blip” was better than it is now. How they intend to get the country back to that diminished dynamic, and how Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) fit in we’ll just have to wait and see.
I’m not going to even attempt to judge the future of this series based on a single episode. Showrunner and writer Malcolm Spellman, aided her by director Kari Skogland, have laid the groundwork for an intriguing exploration of being a Black superhero, and how all of the powers in the world don’t change the everyday battles that people of color face. It’s a promising start, and if the show can continue to delve deep on larger societal issues as the superheroics take a bigger role, we could be looking at Marvel’s second Disney+ success in a row.