Falcon and the Winter Soldier
The demolition – at very least as a ratings/box office powerhouse – of the superhero genre now appears to be taking effect. If so, Martin Scorsese for one will be pleased. The studios that count – Disney and Warner Bros – are all aboard the woke train, such that past yardsticks like focus groups are spurned in favour of the forward momentum of agendas from above (so falling in step with the broader media initiative). The most obvious, some might say banal, evidence of this is the repurposing of established characters in race or gender terms.
One might argue this as a rather sloppy sign of respect, were the purpose simply to bolster representation (“The best we can do is repackage you through white male iconography, and expect your gratitude for it”). Evidently, however, the intent is equally to foster concomitant guilt regarding any validation of traditional white maledom; the encouragement to shame, besmirch and deface is, of course, brought to you largely by traditional white maledom via the latest Hegelian conflict, filtered down through an elite upper echelon thereof, yet somehow bought into by the general public – or at least, those thereof who are the principle targets of such indoctrination –as entirely organic. This is the way society “evolves” towards a better place.
The media, as the cheerleader and principle external mover of this, is self-evidently bound to respond to any antagonistic – reactionary, even – mutterings as racist, sexist, patriarchal, multi-phobic or right wing, for this is the intentionally designated and acutely polarised level of “debate”. To suggest this process is absent of a malign intent beneath the apparently virtuous external merits of balance and equality for all is, alas, to view the world with the eyes of poor naïve Falcon, now Captain America, as he lectures the Global Repatriation Council on how to achieve a better world, apparently under the illusion they have any say in the matter.
Marvel (and DC) has a history of replacing its heroes in various forms, either through retirement of killing them off, so it’s easy to argue the precedents of the process the MCU/MTVU is currently undergoing. However, this also underlines that these replacements are invariably seen as ephemeral or placeholders, jazzing up a brand (for sales) until an inevitable reboot of some kind occurs down the line. Which rather serves, when this occurs along representation lines, to underline the disservice (or at best backhanded compliment) of the act in the first place.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier enters this fray as a mess and a mass of hot-button MSM topics, all serviced with predictable lack of finesse and muddled thick-headedness – immigration, overpopulation, globalisation and, of course, race – but then, this is the new foot forward for Marvel. Long gone are the glory days, when uber-woke Joss Whedon (you think those who shout loudest really believe this stuff?) could slip in jokes about Prima Nocta. Or when Ike Perlmutter took an “over my dead body” stance with regard to the prospects for a female-led superhero movie.
Ike was proved wrong, of course, with the Captain Marvel sales. Well, not if you’re one of those “crazies” who believes the scuttlebutt that Disney were buying a high proportion of those tickets to boost figures and make her a huge success. Either way, it seems widespread loathing for Carol Danvers is at such a level, even Disney is calling her next movie The Marvels, so avoiding overtly referencing her (never mind that Wonder Woman, a long-established character, was genuinely popular. At least, until Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins were enabled to do their own thing with the sequel. DC gets to go full woke, via former Lucasfilm woke bunny JJ Abrams, with their upcoming Black Superman, though).
Was Feige a virtue-signalling secret Kool-Aid drinker from the get go? Were the first three MCU phases simply a prelude to ensnaring a captive audience, eager to hoover up indiscriminately whatever new woke goodies they were then served? Or did he get got to? Either way, these best or not-so-well-laid plans don’t appear to be washing. Disney can expect new viewing lows with Ironheart (teen African-American girl filches Tony’s armour and is the best-est evah! As Diktor Van Doomcock would say). And then there’s Feige’s absurd take on Stephen Strange’s non-appearance in WandaVision: “Some people might say, ‘Oh, it would’ve been so cool to see Doctor Strange. But it would have taken away from Wanda. We didn’t want the end of the show to be commoditized to go to the next movie – here’s the white guy, ‘Let me show you how power works‘”.
The white guy, you see, is now a Disney persona non-grata, due to be mostly phased out in Phase Four amid such enticements as Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (I think it was Lord Doomcock who suggested the lead actor mustered all the charisma of an Uber driver) and Eternals, proudly bringing you Marvel’s first trans character, courtesy of billionaire’s daughter and Oscar winner Chloe Zhao. With Vision rumoured to follow the trans suit. Hailee Steinfeld is to become the new Hawkeye, doubtless almost as interesting as the old Hawkeye (a bit of a Captain America redux there, then). And Ms. Marvel, bringing you Marvel’s first Muslim superhero. Then there’s Natalie Portman as the new Thor. Which is, admittedly, hilarious (more so than she will be). And She Hulk (which is fair enough). And trying to make Rhodesy interesting (Armor Wars). Good luck there.
It will be interesting to see how Disney fares with these mostly loaded dice. Disney+ may believe it can do no wrong with its subscription model. And perhaps, to an extent, they’re correct; series that wouldn’t stand a chance, and even movies, are now insulated and failure proof. Parents will subscribe just to keep their kids in toons, after all. But you can only dictate demand so much in the face of discontent at forced content before the bad smell starts to seep out.
As happened with a rumoured mass switch off during Episode Two of Falcon and the Winter Soldier (1.2: The Star-Spangled Man), in which Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) are stopped by racist police assuming Sam is just another black man. Lord Doomcock reasonably suggested viewers didn’t “tune in to get lectured at” and “watch social issues”, so it would be no wonder if they then “tuned out to avoid” them. A character hitherto best known for attending support groups in terms of social awareness now finds himself facing the transposed challenges of a “Trumpian America”, as Malcolm Spellman and his team lean heavily into themes of race and identity.
So Sam finds he can’t get a loan, an absurdity, even given the “cushion” rationale of the Blip. He can, however, take delivery of a Wakandan supersuit. In terms of the character pile up then, Sam is denied a loan because he is black. Just as he is hassled by cops because he is black. And doesn’t want to be Cap because he is black. It’s no wonder every other character in the series, just about, comes out of Falcon and the Winter Soldier more effectively, because Falcon’s entire purpose is now to be black, choking on the torch of representation lobbed his way.
Falcon was usually mildly engaging in the MCU hitherto, but that in no way suggested he was lead character material, any more than Hawkeye or Black Widow. Repositioned as Cap, or Cap in waiting, Sam becomes as incredibly dull as his mentor (sorry Cap fans). And when he finally takes up the shield and dons the apparel, he looks very silly in his comics-authentic outfit (I was curious to note Sam only stepped up to the role during the Disney era in the comics, which figures). Sam’s also entirely unconvincing as a super guy, what with all this over-busy ducking, rolling, diving, throwing, retracting and extending his wings. There’s altogether too much business, because they’re trying to make him fit too many (pigeon) holes. He’s basically an over-capable Condorman.
Perhaps because SF and fantasy traditionally lend themselves to expression of themes and ideas through metaphor, there’s a tendency when addressing real-world issues directly to lead by the nose. Particularly in the current era of abject literalism and linearity. Which means Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s attempts to follow suit are mostly clumsy and groan inducing. Everywhere you look in the show, there’s a counter to the Cap archetype, one that was already being disinherited as a dubiously motivated propaganda vehicle in The (otherwise fairly lacklustre) First Avenger. There’s nary a scrap of commentary in Falcon and the Winter Soldier that hasn’t been exhaustively addressed in other and significantly better shows and movies. Marvel is playing weak catch-up.
Bradley’s super soldier (Carl Lumbly) is an excruciatingly lumpen plotline, whereby the black equal to Steve Rogers was – effectively – subjected to thirty years of slavery (confinement, testing) while his white counterpart was upheld as a paragon. This fosters turgid speechifying about how they “erase me. My history. But they’ve been doing that for five thousand years”, and “They will never let a black man be Captain America. No self-respecting black man would ever want to be”. The second part of that position is a solid response to any “progressive” recasting, admittedly. Are you prepared to accept a sop?
Occasionally, there’s a glimmer of a deft touch that better fits the Sam character. Called “Black Falcon”, he parries “So, are you like, black kid?” Zemo extols the virtues of Marvin Gaye’s Troubleman (“It captures the African-American experience”) to Sam’s baffled agreement. There are also germane discussions elsewhere more directly addressing the philosophy behind the superhero milieu, and therefore reflecting their cultural status today (they have, after all, swallowed up most of cinema). But every foray into (over-)earnestness quickly descends into preaching and is shot of all discernment.
Tim Pool attempted to argue Falcon and the Winter Soldier as anti-woke in nature (“I was so excited watching a dude reject wokeness, pick up the American flag, and beat Antifa with it…”) Except, of course, Sam is extolling the values of Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), minus the violence, and persuades the GRC to halt the relocation programme she has been protesting (well, terrorising). So she wins. And you have to ignore such gems as “I’m a black man carrying the stars and stripes. What don’t I understand?” Well, where does one start with such a pejorative statement? Oh wait, there’s more: “No super serum. No blonde hair or blue eyes. The only power I have is that we can do better” (concealed beneath the strident messaging is a far better reason for turning it down, beyond the painfully overwritten politicisation; that Sam doesn’t have superchops). That Sam believes “You people have as much power as an insane god or a misguided teenager” is itself insane and misguided. Unless the MCU manages to exist in a world of parallel concerns to our own, yet where aggression, hatred and discontent are not coordinated by unseen hands and are “naturally” arising. Remember, this is Disney.
So much empty preaching culminates in revealing a statue of Bradley, which amid recent history of tearing them down cannot be a coincidence. Perhaps such facile gesturing got a pass in the writers’ room because it was, at least, straightforward. There are numerous points in Falcon and the Winter Soldier where the makers appear to lack a clear grasp on what they’re doing and where they’re heading. Pool compared the Flag Smashers to “open borders antifa types”, but the positioning of these refugees (“internationally displaced persons”) is organic, independent and – laughably – coordinated by a personality-bereft teenager. As opposed to, you know, by George Soros.
The Global Repatriation Council knows that for many it wasn’t that easy. So much has changed. But we’re here to help you find your way. Helping you back into your homes and jobs. Helping you navigate changes to society, laws, and borders. Helping you get back to the way things were. GRC, the Global Repatriation Council. Reset. Restore. Rebuild.
Notable in this, however, is that the Flag Smashers’ “mission statement was to restore things… to the way they were during the five years; a world without borders or patriotism, helping each other in times of need”. What better way to achieve this than to wipe out those pesky three billion who came back? At least, that would fit with rumours the actual Plandemic forced rewrites of a Falcon and the Winter Soldier plotline. This has been denied, naturally. But you would, wouldn’t you? If released a year before, you might put it down to uncanny prescience, but here and now is a little too close for comfort on all levels. There’s a reference to stealing vaccines and medical supplies, but that’s about the extent of it (also, historically, ulterior methods masquerading as a tetanus shot in Bradley’s case). Another take has it that the need for vaccines etc is a result of a disease hitting those the Smashers represent (a selective one, then).
So the implication of Falcon and the Winter Soldier is that a depopulated world without borders is on balance a better place to live; even the new Cap understands their argument and vouches for their principles. This globalist fantasy has been undermined by the blip, and required the formation of the Global Repatriation Council/World Economic Forum (“Reset. Restore. Rebuild”). The GRC presents relocation as necessary; as a fusion of pre/post blip ideas, this may represent a piece of predictive programming. I’d suggest quite likely. We haven’t experienced a blip, but further drastic changes to lifestyles as part of the depopulation agenda are envisaged, and when starvation is in focus, you can enforce reason to move anyone almost anywhere.
Certainly, as presented, the Flag Smashers are a mish-mash of motivations, taking in immigration, terrorism and under-representation, packed in such a low-cal, clichéd fashion they’re immediately a terminal drudge. Erin Kellyman is a non-entity as their leader Karli. Maybe she’s done great things in previous series, but she’s a wipe out in both this and Solo (I hold little hope for the upcoming Willow). Any attempt to make the Flag Smashers (misguided) humans – well Karli, as no one else gets a look in – with motivation, rather than portraying them as all out villains, is undermined by the persistently extreme measures Karli takes.
All of this means the show’s best material relates to the lesser characters. Obviously, Bucky is a title role, but he is generally handled better than Sam. I mean, he’ll only ever be really interesting as a masked Winter Soldier, as the flashback scene proved, but he lands more effectively here than in his previous outings, in spite of some deathly material regarding atonement.
Also on the debit side, his strength and skills don’t seem half what they were as a killer. Perhaps his heart just isn’t in it, but that’s the usual variable superhero strength thing for the purpose of bolstering tension (and in this case, up against Dora Milaje, kickass femmes). For someone who hasn’t “dated since 1943” he also seems remarkably sure of himself, getting over his reticence towards interaction by pursuing African and Asian American ladies, all grist to Feige’s coding mill.
Wyatt Russell has a difficult task with John Walker, personifying the “blonde hair or blue eyes” gnawing on Sam and so presenting a counter not to Cap’s purity (as in the original conception) but the affront that is whiteness. Captain America is repurposed as a really bad white guy, until he isn’t, coyly, and then he is again (as US Agent). It’s interesting that the comics John Walker Cap elicited fan responses that they didn’t want Steve back, partly because he was “more interesting because they didn’t know what he would do next”. This is why, for all that the writers of Falcon and the Winter Soldier lurch from pillar to decapitating post with the character – he has demons, you see – he’s way more interesting that anything true-blue Cap ever did.
The best of the bunch here, and surely one of the reasons, besides the general trajectory, positioning and intent, that the last two episodes take a marked nosedive, is Zemo. Daniel Brühl is having a whale of a time, and it’s one of those instances where you’re unsure if the writing team plain loved writing him so upped their game, or it’s down to Brühl in his regal, courteous and considered pose (“I hold no grudges for what you thought you had to do”). Falcon and the Winter Soldier is simply a much better show when he’s paired with the reluctant protagonists. He’s also clearly defined and consistent in his agenda, which obviously requires extremist zeal, but it’s refreshing to have that in a frequently muddled show.
“She’s a supremacist” he insists of Karli, as he tells Sam “Nazis, Ultron, Avengers. These are your friends”. He essentially identifies the entire problem with the idolisation of this genre and the quandary anyone with a moral compass contributing to it must face: “The desire to become a superhero cannot be separated from supremacist ideals”. So it’s entirely understandable that Zemo should suggest of the Flag Smashers “Yet another faction of gods amongst real people cannot be allowed to exist”. He also gets some of the coolest moments in the show, such as the scene in which he breaks out of prison during Sam and Bucky’s conversation about the same. And the way in which he procures information via Turkish Delight, like some kind of fiendish Child Catcher. Best of all is his chivalrous “Ladies” as the Dora Milaje escort him away.
The Power Broker being Sharon Carter feels like an afterthought; well, now she can’t be seeing Steve, we may as well turn her bad (and again, illustrative of current thinking, bolstering an underdefined female character by integrating her with a male villain). Emily VanCamp had a slim character before, and that’s continued here as she flits in and out of the plot here with little impact either way. She also forwards the more invested thematic angle on the show than the exhausted exhumation of racial politics (“Look, you know the whole hero thing is a joke, right? I mean, you gave up that shield. Deep down, you must know it’s all hypocrisy”).
The occasional line raised a smile, such as the “crazy, crazy conspiracy theories” like Steve is in a “secret base on the Moon”, and the assertion that “Half the artwork in museums like the Louvre is fake”. I think one of those is pretty likely. Unfortunately, Falcon and the Winter Soldier as a whole is a misfire. At one point, Sam says “I’m trying something different. Perhaps you should do the same”. Feige and co aren’t trying anything different, though, after leading the way in a cinema-devouring fashion for more than a decade. Feige is now truly chastened, applying the same chapter and verse as all major brands and singing from the woke songbook like a canary.