From the very first episode, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has addressed political and social issues, stratifications, and political prejudice. Making allegorical remarks to the bad political history of America and the widely condemned ideology of white supremacy, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has reiterated a specific point throughout its run until now. The way the show has dissertated on the biased political agendas, a divided world, and the long-established legacy superheroes within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is remarkable. While the show focuses on the two previous aides of Captain America trying to find their place in this "new world order", it also is trying to align Cap's ideals and beliefs with the socio-political changes across the globe after "life" returned five years after the events of Avengers: Infinity War. And in doing so, the show is eventually proving why Captain Steven Rogers was indeed God's righteous man, someone who made the right choices, even if it meant forgoing some rules, and had the will to stand alone in front of a massive alien army because it was the right thing to do.
Let's talk about how The Falcon And The Winter Soldier went full circle to Captain America: The First Avenger, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline, through its subtly included subplots symbolic of the current world filled chaos and orthodox doctrines.
The first time MCU got mixed up with political subplots was in Captain America: Civil War, when the Avengers' actions caused some severe public damage in Nigeria, at a time when the public's opinion concerning the Avengers was already under scrutiny given the destruction of Sokovia. And the one person who strictly opposed this intrusion was Captain Steven Rogers/Captain America. When Thaddeus Ross proposed the Avengers either register with the UN and give the organisation full operational control of the superheroes or retire, Captain was averse to going either way. He was adamant that political agendas would destroy the very idea of the Avengers and the purpose on which the team was built. He knew how people with ever-changing agendas can deprive the team of self-choice and can manipulate its powers for political gains and war-waging operations.
Though the entire conflict over the Accords was eventually drifted to a personal quarrel between Steve and Tony Stark/Iron Man, the American government was able to establish Accords as a valid law and have Tony's faction under its administration. And it was indeed the Americans controlling the Accords as Thaddeus Ross, an American, headed the overwatch committee composed of members probably from diverse ethnicities. Of course, the Accords had no meaning left after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, but Steve was right about handing over the team's control without analysing the repercussions, and the final shot of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier's fourth episode makes that point stunningly and shockingly clear.
Sam Wilson, an African American man, is given the mantle of Captain America, the First Avenger and the leader of the modern variant of the team. His reluctance to carry on the legacy of the world's greatest soldier ever, along with his responsibilities towards his family, which he has sidelined due to his service, led him to eventually turn over the shield to the government. He is made to believe that the shield will stay among Smithsonian's exhibits, commemorating Steve Rogers, and, for a minute, one would think it was the right choice. To let that symbol of patriotism and righteousness be respected in honour of the man who wielded it with honesty and selflessness.
But, the authorities surprise Sam Wilson by introducing a new Captain America, John Walker, wielding the shield, which was passed on to him. A Caucasian man brought in to take over Cap's legacy from a Black man based on completely new ideas is just the beginning of what Cap predicted can happen if the heroes are stripped of their right to choose. Cap knew how the agendas of people in politics can change over time, which would impact their legacy.
Now, in 2023, Avengers are disbanded and the world is overcoming a chaotic reversal of Thanos' snap. At a time when remaining heroes can help restore peace and order around the globe, governments and power-hungry individuals have swooped in to change things around per their goals and personal gains. The borders are being built back, people are being displaced, the ones with no power or authority are left at mercy of a politically run welfare group, which is unable to touch the ones actually in need of help. And on top of that is the reversal of all the ideals Captain America left behind.
When announcing John Walker as the new Cap, the official clearly says, "We need a hero to defend this country. We need a real person who embodies America's greatest values."
Though Steve was an American, being a super soldier, being Captain America was not about just saving the States. It was protecting the good and innocent. Abraham Erskine, the creator of the super-soldier formula, wanted Steve to be a good man at heart above all, as only then would the serum take proper effect on both the mind and the body. Now, John Walker isn't a super soldier (at least not when he is made Cap), but he has been given the mantle to keep "American values" intact and not to concern himself with global, extinction-level threats. He is a war veteran who, at his best, can defend his nation from foreign and domestic threats.
Steve Rogers chose the greater good over everything else, even if some values and some ideologies had to be sacrificed to achieve it. Politicians and authorities have changed their perception towards superheroes and the entire concept of being a hero, as suggested by their actions of sidelining a Black man wholly capable of wielding that shield and focussing more on American interests rather than on global peacekeeping in chaotic times; all of this reflects Steve's opinion concerning political authority over them during Sokovia Accords' establishment.
Remember when Cap found about Phase 2 of S.H.I.E.L.D., an advanced weapons development program? He mocked Nick Fury saying, "I was wrong, Director. The world hasn't changed a bit."
It was probably at that moment that Steve lost trust in governments. He had laid down his life fighting a madman trying to overpower the world using war and weapons he fully didn't understand. And now, seventy years later, he was witnessing history repeat itself, where governments were diverting funds to create an arsenal of destructive weapons; which, in turn, is allegorical of the massive funds allocated to defence research by modern governments. But that was weapons and war. The Falcon And The Winter Soldier displays a more horrific evocation of a deep-rooted evil ideology of racism and stratification based on colour.
In Episode 2, Bucky takes Sam to meet Isaiah Bradley, the second Captain America, who is also a person of colour and is the first volunteer of a recreated super-soldier serum after Steven Rogers "passed away". It's revealed that Isaiah Bradley was sent on critical missions after World War II and was eventually captured, imprisoned, and tortured through experiments in his own nation for acting out of orders, only to be later disavowed. Now, in 2023, he is forgotten and resides with his grandson Elijah (the alter-ego of New Avengers member, Patriot). The encounter with Isaiah further angers Sam, who is already having mixed feelings about giving up Cap's shield. While earlier he was facing a dilemma as to whether he was capable of becoming the symbol that Steve was, he now faces the opposite situation. Is America even prepared to release him and the people of colour from the shackles of race and prejudice?
The scene will leave viewers shocked and stunned due to the twist in Captain America's legacy. And before that sinks in, we see two cops rounding up Barnes and Wilson, with one of them easily assuming that Sam (a person of colour) is somehow harassing Barnes (a white American). This is the first time MCU has addressed race issues so openly and the fact that even in a fictional world that has witnessed threats and events of universal scale couldn't get past through the immoral and unethical beliefs of history is ironic and somehow relative to the real-world scenarios of modern times.
This neat and subtle inclusion of a significant social issue in the show proves how Steve's understanding of the world, which he developed after fighting so many wars and conflicts, was right. Even after restarting his life by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., he never fully trusted the people behind large desks, and when the time came, he decided to end S.H.I.E.L.D. with HYDRA, collapsing the wrongs of both factions altogether.
The Flag Smashers are in reality those people who were displaced and forced out of their homes when older regimes were brought back from the dead, creating the same political borders, differences, and conflicts that have haunted their previous lives. Now, forced into refuge once again, they have taken up arms and have converted themselves into super soldiers to gain upper strength over the governments they are opposing. Violence is indeed unjustified no matter the reason. The principles of Flag Smashers connect to the real-life cross-border conflicts that cause the communities and groups residing in nearby areas to face the most brutal collateral consequences. And as many world leaders fight international court battles, use diplomacy as a façade, and neglect these people's welfare, society plummets to lower levels of ignorance and corruption. Flag Smashers are symbolic of those who are losing lives as collateral in wars fought under the pretence of peacekeeping, and those losing their prosperity due to colonisation under the pretence of development.
Steve Rogers, while refusing to sign the Sokovia Accords, asked Tony what the team would do if the council didn't allow them to be someplace they are needed. He was scared that policymakers might not feel that helping overseas territories was in their interests, which would make him helpless. And we all know Steve always had to be there to help, as he felt that his absence during a conflict put his conscience at risk. Being a superhero was about making the world a better place and not just one particular country or a territory. This was the same belief that led King T'Challa to distribute the technological advancements of Wakanda to the world. But, the new world order in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, without the presence and guidance of the Avengers and the likes of Steve Rogers, is going back to the old, divided ways of keeping and distributing power and wealth.
Helmut Zemo has not been the traditional supervillain of the comic books. Zemo, a Sokovian war veteran is devastated by the loss of his family during the Battle of Sokovia. Zemo is a perfect example of Marvel improving on their villains since the first film. Unlike the others, who are hell-bent on destruction and defeating the Avengers (even in their solo outings), Zemo decided to break the Avengers apart and make them vulnerable as a team. He exposed the inner demons of the superheroes everyone adored, eventually becoming the first villain to win against the team.
In The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, we go deep into Zemo's psychology. Turns out that his hatred for superheroes not only comes from the loss of his family, but also because he is against the idea of supremacy. Zemo believes that the idea of having power and control led the Nazis to wage war on the world, led Tony to create Ultron using a power he didn't understand, and led eventually to the Avengers. His belief is based on how people with power can breed catastrophe in their quest to achieve peace, as the definition of peace and how it shall be achieved may differentiate. He either made peace with this principle after his family died during the Battle of Sokovia or maybe over the years of service in Sokovian special forces. But his theory about the "warped ambition" of becoming powerful as a superhero makes a fair point, directly linking it to John Walker and the pressure he has on him to fill in the shoes of Captain America.
Here, John is even overpowered by the respect and admiration that the shield and uniform give him. He now introduces himself as John Walker, Captain America. Steve, however, never used the term to identify himself. He was simply Steve Rogers. This implies how being a superhero figure was getting on Steve's nerves and was draining him of his beliefs and ideals, which led him to be hand-picked for the role in the first place.
From the moment John Walker is introduced to the world as the new Captain America, a new incarnation of the famous superhero, focussing more on the safety and prosperity of America first and the world later, he is shown to be under a lot of pressure and high expectations. Being a decorated soldier, given the Medal of Honour thrice, the Americans now expect him to expand the boundaries of his service to the nation in a new way. Though initially he is willing to make a difference by being a new inspiration and role model, being a soldier, his confidence very much lies in his strength and ability to fight. However, when he meets a new match in the form of the Flag Smashers and then the Dora Milaje, the humiliation of defeat hits the Medal of Honour-decorated soldier with an epiphany. "They weren't even super soldiers," he remarks, disgruntled on being defeated by two women. John Walker later gets his hands on a super-soldier serum vial, which he takes after his partner supports his reasoning that consuming the serum is in favour of saving innocent lives. We all know how it turns out.
For John Walker, taking that serum was about gaining an upper hand in a fight. It was forced out of defeat, anger, and powerlessness. And as Lemar Hosking reiterates Abraham Erskine's words, the serum amplifies everything inside, John Walker strengthens his brute force and increases his power, giving him uncontrollable rage towards his opponents. However, Steve was the man who stood his ground even when he was physically weak, despite knowing the ensuing fight would end in his defeat. He never had the urge to become powerful, but only to serve his nation in a war that threatened mankind. Overall, he was a good man. For him, being Captain America was not an exceptional feat, but for John Walker, Captain America was a symbol of American supremacy and heroism, which led him to give himself to violence and anger.
After taking the serum, Walker and Hoskins ambush a Flag Smashers safe house, without knowing that they will now face a man equivalent to them in strength. However, during the ensuing battle, Karli kills Hoskins and what follows is a horrific and bloody sequence of brutal murder.
The very concept of passing on a hero's mantle to another person evokes a question: what qualities deserve the mantle of Captain America? John Walker was, though not perfect, a good choice to carry on Cap's legacy. A war veteran, a decorated soldier, who has shown qualities of valour and courage, something that runs deep in American patriotism. He is also an ex-military pararescueman who has been an aide to global peacekeeping missions.
For now, the answer is none, because the legacy of Captain America and his shield is difficult to comprehend. What does that shield mean? Steve Rogers wielded that shield in his honest service to the world, but when the time came, he gave up the shield for his friend as it was the right thing to do. During Avengers: Infinity War, when wielding a new type of shield, Cap fought with the same valour and selflessness that he had fought with covered in stars and stripes. So, is who Captain America is defined by who wields the shield? Being Captain America is about being a believer in good. Steve Rogers, despite facing some hard fights, believed in good and acted in favour of it. He was able to lay down the shield when it was needed and was even courageous enough to stand against an entire army with a broken one. Unfortunately, John Walker, a perfect soldier, believes in the harsh realities he has witnessed in war. He has his own definition of good and bad, and, like every soldier, his idea of good lies in the American way of victory in war. This is what leads him to a violent frenzy, which proves that Cap's legacy has nothing to do with his shield.
When Hoskins dies, John Walker follows Flag Smashers to apprehend Karli but catches Nico. Though Nico is innocent of the murder, John, in front of a large crowd, all recording the moment, bashes Nico multiple times with Cap's shield. When he gets a hold of his senses, Nico is lying dead and the shield, the symbol of new American patriotism, is covered in blood. The killing of Nico over John's friend's demise, who was also Black, reflects the sudden rage in American youth due to police brutality against Black people in America in the past year.
The shot also implies how American values of heroism have changed with time and that the shield no longer represents the ideals Steve followed. In fact, the shield represents the man who wields it, which is probably why Sam and Bucky will steal it, as shown earlier in the show's promos: to not let John's radical principles corrupt Captain America's mantle.
The shot of a bloodied Cap's shield reflects the effects of modern warfare and civil terrorism on both a soldier and the victims of collateral damage while conveying that the new America has got blood on its hands.
The scene where John lands continuous blows on Nico directly connects with Steve Rogers landing similar blows of his shield on Tony Stark during Civil War. The difference is that Steve landed the final blow on Stark's armour's power source, thus defeating him in the fight. He does not succumb to his anger, and he ultimately drops the shield when his honour is questioned by Stark for saving the man who killed his father, who himself helped Steve become Captain America.
But John succumbed to the grief of his friend's demise at the hands of the people he sees as a threat to society. Just as a soldier's psychology is affected during war, the escalating events of the show lead John down the same path of "warped ambition" Zemo mentioned and converts him into a cold-blooded killer. What makes this scene more ironic is that the man lying dead earlier revealed how he admired Captain America, and he now lies murdered by an incarnation of the same figure. This further establishes how two different individuals donning the same mantle can be poles apart because they promote and represent two different agendas. And as Steve said, a hero acting per the ever-changing agendas of politics and civil or social conflicts defeats the purpose of being a hero in the first place.
When Steve Rogers was first experimented on and became a super-soldier, he was nothing but a show-stopper for the United States government. Since the US government expected an army of super-soldiers, Steve Rogers alone was no use to them. So they decided to use him as a showman to represent the valorous American military. He was forced to appear on stage shows, knocking out a parody of Hitler every time, and "saving America" from the atrocities of Nazi-bred World War II. It was only after Steve launched a one-man attack on the HYDRA facility and rescued Barnes and the rest of the battalion that the army realised his importance and his capabilities.
But, the new world order has turned all things upside down. The more complicated and politically motivated agendas outrank the sacrifice of soldiers fighting overseas. They are just deemed hollow beings, studded with medals, with no regard to what they've lost. John Walker knows that. He is aware of what acts have given him those Medals of Honour. Despite the world praising him for his military record, he knows that those medals have come at a great price: the loss of his comrades and the loss of his inner peace. Unfortunately, John pays the same price as Steve, but the events were reversed. While Steve was put on a show before he could show what serving truly meant for him, John was used as a political bait to calm the people down and was stripped of all he did for America despite proving what serving meant for him. In a way, this symbolises the role reversal of Captain America and U.S. Agents in the MCU.
Episode 5 of the show started with an action-packed sequence, which ended with Bucky throwing the shield at Sam's side, forcing him to realise he has to take up the shield. But Sam is still reluctant. So to get answers, he once again visits Isaiah, to ask if it's even acceptable for people to call him Captain America. Isaiah responds negatively while narrating the horrors he endured at the hands of his own people, just to act out of orders. The narration immediately reflects Steve acting out of order, single-handedly saving a battalion. But while Steve, a white man, was praised, Isaiah was punished. The narration also reflects N'Jobu being radicalised after witnessing racism, eventually deciding to take up arms.
But Sam takes this up as a challenge, an opportunity to change things around. He realises that the only way to undo the wrongs of white people is for him to prove that a Black man can live up to the standards that a white Captain America set. He can abide by the same principles, same ideals, and can be the symbol America needs. He may remain Falcon, but he doesn't need the name or a mantle to prove his worth. So he trains, he fails, he gets back up, and he gains control of himself, both physically and emotionally, in hope that he will succeed, despite the hard journey that lies ahead of him.
The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has tackled issues like overcoming grief, mental health and therapy, racial abuse in America, political corruption, exploitation of overseas conflicts, and the adverse impact of wars and political enmity on second-world nations. Marvel Studios' idea to introduce humour, and light-toned construction of the screenplay and cinematography often cloud the core significance of these issues, but the series nevertheless does a great job in passing on the message.
The show has gone full circle back to the first film in the MCU timeline and has reversed everything the character of Captain America established in the first film and then throughout his appearances in the MCU. The show has shown how Captain's ideals were adjacent to pragmatic truth, which made him the most righteous one among all, worth enough to wield not just the shield, but the mystic hammer, Mjolnir. Furthermore, the show has established that Captain America represents the shield and not the other way round, making him the true hero of not just America, but the entire world.
There are still episodes to go, but the sudden transition in John's character arc has made the show socially relatable and intriguing. The show's new promo suggests that John Walker has probably no remorse for his actions, and he may end up in a fight with both Sam and Bucky, which may have its own repercussions. Regardless, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier's story is full of interpretations and instances ripe for critique, which may make the show the new foundation stone of the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.