BEFORE ITS DEBUT in March, no one really knew what to make of the new miniseries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (FATWS). We knew it would follow closely on the heels of the events of Avengers: Endgame and would to some degree concern the legacy of Captain America. Early in the show, we are introduced to Isaiah Bradley, a Black super soldier covered up by the American government, and Karli Morgenthau and the Flag Smashers, a group of super soldiers fighting for some unknown and purportedly criminal aims. When the new Captain America, John Walker, is unveiled and eventually reveals himself to be an impulsive and violent militant, the stage of the show is set with a myriad of antagonists and circumstances poised to tread a compelling narrative trajectory. Despite this promising beginning, however, FATWS deserts its noble ambitions as the story moves forward and ends up back where it started: beseeching change, yet somehow also comfortable with the status quo.
Released just two weeks after the conclusion of WandaVision, FATWS investigates the global fallout following the return of the billions of people who were erased from existence during the events of Avengers: Infinity War. While Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and WandaVision all began to address some of the social and economic effects of Thanos’s Snap and the return of the world’s population, FATWS delves beyond those surface-level stories and confronts the refugee crisis and the communities of displaced persons facing increasingly calamitous hardships in our world. It is quickly revealed that Karli Morgenthau and the Flag Smashers are members of the forced migrant community who were cared for by the matron Mama Donya and are engaging in their actions against various nations and state entities because of the newly reignited refugee crisis.
In the events of Avengers: Endgame, following the Snap/Blip, which caused half of all life in the universe — including half of the population of humanity on Earth — to be erased from existence, the Avengers manage to bring those erased back to reality. FATWS introduces the Global Repatriation Council (GRC), an international organization tasked with reestablishing the lives, homes, and legal status of formerly erased persons. As they had been gone for five years, the political realities of the world had changed to accommodate the reduced population. While the new job opportunities and increased resources were incredibly significant, perhaps the largest positive political change was an end to the refugee crisis. Countries opened their borders and welcomed people into new lives as they contributed to the rebuilding of human civilization. Then five years later, the return of the erased persons doubled this newly adjusted population and the refugee crisis restarted as the sovereign nations that had welcomed the refugees began the process of expelling them.
Enter Karli Morgenthau and the Flag Smashers, dedicated to resisting the efforts of the GRC. Stealing the super soldier serum from a scientist in the fictional nation-state of Madripoor, they become an unstoppable covert force that disrupts GRC efforts and spreads a new kind of anti-nationalist philosophy. Their chant of “one world, one people” resists the efforts by the powers-that-be on the global stage to brand them as violent terrorists only interested in destruction and savagery. They find refuge with sympathetic supporters around the globe and manage to create a network of communication that grants them unfettered transnational mobility.
Falcon takes a circuitous journey through the six episodes on his collision course with Karli. For a series that moves through some plot points far too quickly, a surprising amount of screen time is given to various shots of the New Orleans waterways and Sam’s efforts to help his sister and their family fishing business. Encountering Isaiah Bradley, Falcon is horrified to learn that the US government not only covered up the success of his super soldier transformation, but also imprisoned and experimented on him for years to discover the secret of his success. What was once a given for the legacy of Captain America — Wilson replacing Rogers — becomes complicated as the series brings a part of the Black experience to the MCU, addressing the ongoing atrocities perpetrated against Black communities in the United States. Isaiah Bradley wants no part of the Captain America legacy, and tells Wilson that the US would never permit a Black Captain America and that, “even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever want to be.”
While Wilson’s transformation from Falcon into Captain America is the show’s ultimate purpose, Barnes is on his own journey to redemption. Though audiences of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War had multiple opportunities to see the Winter Soldier massacre innocents while enthralled under Hydra’s conditioning, FATWS also shows flashbacks from the former villain’s exploits as he casually dealt death on the criminal organization’s orders. Barnes’s friendship with an elderly Asian man early in the series shows his sincere efforts to redeem himself, though he is frustrated by failure multiple times as owning up to the evil actions of his past.
Perhaps even more so than Wilson, Barnes cannot stand the thought of John Walker as the new Captain America. He and Wilson ignore Walker’s early attempts to join forces, a move that would legitimize Walker’s new identity as the national superhero. Their view of Walker is soon shared by the wider public after Walker is seen killing a helpless combatant in a fit of rage, having lost his close friend in the preceding fight. Walker’s decision to use the final dose of the super solider serum to empower himself adds a wrinkle to Barnes and Wilson’s plan, but they manage to defeat him and he is stripped of his nascent heroic status and expelled from the military.
As mentioned in the introduction, each step of the series’s narrative increases its promise of confronting the institutional and political injustices in our world. Not only are the revelations of Isaiah Bradley and the corruption and downfall of John Walker powerful commentaries on how those in places of precarity and privilege are harmed and cause harm through the machinations of the larger systems of capitalist power in the United States, but the series hints at a different possibility with the Flag Smashers and the massive grassroots system of support that facilitates their success. “One world, one people” in this case goes beyond an empty platitude because those saying it are displaced persons with no other option than to exist as part of the “one world.”
However, with FATWS well positioned to show a better vision for the future, the series goes off the rails as the events at the end hit a kind of reset button that ultimately leads back to the status quo for the MCU. While the first hints of this change in direction occur before the final episode, the events of the finale nail the coffin shut on the potentialities of the new ethos presented in the first half of the series.
Our first look at Wilson in the finale shows us the new winged Captain America, wearing a suit that provides a perfect combination of the abilities of airborne combat and the armored durability and enhanced strength to preserve the vision of Falcon with his new identity as the national hero. The new Captain America visits Isaiah Bradley to explain his decision to take up the mantle and that Black Americans “built this country. Bled for it. I’m not gonna let anybody tell me I can’t fight for it. Not after what everybody before me went through.” Though Wilson’s success in the preceding confrontation with all of the political factions involved does prove that he can be effective in the role of Captain America, this claim is also a resistance against what Isaiah Bradley stated, as mentioned earlier, that “no self-respecting Black man would ever want to be” Captain America. It’s only after showing Bradley a new addition to the Smithsonian featuring Bradley and honoring his service that he approves of Wilson’s new role. Thus, with such an effective indictment of the US government in their brutal treatment of Bradley in hand, the show instead decides to allow that oppressive system to erase the worst of those actions with a simple apology rather than a gutting and restructuring of the status quo.
That the GRC is an international organization seems to be more symbolic than representative of a real global effort. As usual, the strongest economic powers — most significantly the United States — are at the heart of its governing structure, and they represent a thoroughly nationalist political agenda reflective of the UN Security Council or Davos: a group meeting out of supposedly shared global concerns but ultimately serving only the interests of their own sovereign nations. The new Captain America confronts the members of the GRC’s governing council following the last big fight of the series finale to chastise them for their failures. His speech to them — broadcast on camera to the entire world — is the series’s final abandonment of the powerful ideas that it introduced. He says,
This girl died trying to stop you, and no one has stopped for one second to ask why. You’ve gotta do better senator. You’ve gotta step up. Because if you don’t, the next Karli will. And you don’t wanna see 2.0. People believed in her cause so much that they helped her defy the strongest governments in the world. Why do you think that is? Look, you people have just as much power as an insane god or a misguided teenager. The question you have to ask yourself is, how are you going to use it?
Rather than calling for the dismantling of the structures of power that have always led to oppression in favor of something more equitable, Wilson chooses to give the power back to the nationalists of the sovereign nations of the world. These are the same people — or at least, the latest versions of the same people — who imprisoned and experimented on Isaiah Bradley and kept refugees locked outside of their national borders until their best interests dictated otherwise. With this choice, Wilson is not effecting any kind of lasting change in this scene, but is rather claiming that we should all trust in the ability of capitalists to show unprecedented remorse and set their own self-interests aside.
It’s shortly before and after this speech that Karli and the remaining Flag Smashers are killed in their struggle for agency in a world that despises the displaced. Wilson’s utterly tone-deaf speech discards the concerns of the millions of people Karli was fighting for in favor of the same governments that have killed far more people than the Flag Smashers ever did. Throughout the entire series, it is apparent that the supporters of the Flag Smashers are everywhere and inhabit many levels of society, but with the death of Karli and the other super soldiers, the series has removed the only voices left that were loud enough for us to hear.
In the end, the only change to come out of FATWS is a new Captain America, as Wilson returns to New Orleans for some nice music and scenes of food and fellowship in a community still drowning in debt. But there are only smiles to be found because everything is okay now, right? Wakanda has equipped the new American national hero with a suit that will allow him to champion a nation built on slavery, Walker has found some undeserved hope of redemption as the US Agent, and Karli, the “misguided teenager” fighting for the millions of refugees looking for a home in the world, is now as dead as her dream.