A New Hero
When Sam Wilson/Falcon holds a speech after giving up the shield, he says:’We need new heroes suited for the times we live in-courageous, righteous, the best in all of us’. Ever since that moment, many have anticipated the time when the first Afro-American superhero would switch out his wings for the iconic shield.
But the words spoken run a lot deeper. They are a clear nod to the fact that heroes arise in times of profound crisis. After the Blip, the fallout occasioned by Thanos snapping his fingers in Avengers:Infinity War was significant. Referenced in Spiderman: Far from Home, Ant-Man 2 and WandaVision, the consequences ranged from dilapidated and abandoned cities, criminals running loose on streets as well as the formerly vanished returning to find themselves without a job, a home or a family.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the vigilante group The Flag-Smashers band together partially to protest said injustice. They oppose being sidelined by a world struggling to return to ‘normal’, a normal that threatens the liberties of the people who had so far scrambled to create a new world out of the ashes of an old one. As material needs clash with mass alienation, a crisis in trust sets the stage for the hero who is compassionate, competent and dynamic, willing to rebel against the existing social order. Ergo, Falcon.
With many of the traditional, superpowered heroes being MIA or having died in Avengers:Endgame, Sam’s emergence as the Captain America of a post-blip world is poignant. We are reminded of the fact that the original Cap did not inspire due to his strength, agility or stamina but due to the force of his own character.
That moral grit is referenced by Bucky in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier when he asks John Walker, the government appointed Captain America, whether he has ever thrown himself on a grenade before. Walker’s answer that he has done the maneuver several times using a ‘re-inforced helmet’ falls short of the heroism we associate with the moral icon. Rogers threw his body at a potential grenade, even before he had super powers, without back up-it’s that kind of moral fortitude that renders him not only the leader of the Avengers but also that of the Justice League when he was voted their collective leader (endorsed by Superman as well as Batman!) in the 2003 Marvel/DC comic crossover.
It’s a moral stance that Sam emulates when he declares that ‘shield or no shield, I am not gonna let anybody tell me I can’t fight for this country’. We are reminded of Steve fighting for freedom and self-determination in Avengers: Civil War and still, five years later, before Endgame, long after Tony Stark/Iron Man had taken the shield from him. (Ironically, it’s Tony himself who tells Spiderman in Homecoming that ‘if he is nothing without the suit, he should not have it’.) The common denominator seems to be that the trappings of a superhero-the costume, the gadgets and the team-mean nothing in the end without the person behind it. We realise that Sam Wilson is the true hero of the story by witnessing his willingness to fight the good fight regardless of recognition whilst John Walker gets caught up in name recognition when fighting, asking a bad guy ‘Do you know who I am?’ in Ep 4.
By getting us to witness the (re-)birth of Captain America, the series pays tribute to what has always been an underdog-to glory fairy tale. But rather than staying on the surface level of the icon who casts a halo on everything he touches, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier shows us a hero who is willing to listen to everyone ranging from a potential terrorist like the leader of the Flag Smashers, Karli Morgenthau, to the unexpectedly philosophic ramblings of a mass murderer like Baron (it feels good to have Marvel acknowledge its ties to the comics 😃 ) Zemo.
The Myth of the Superhero
The word ‘hero’, in its translation from the original Greek, means both warrior and protector.
These days, it’s the martial nature of the person in question that gets highlighted. By establishing Sam as not only a fighter who saves the world but as a brother trying to protect both his sister, his nephews as well as their family business, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier shows that someone who only fights against rather than for something stands to loose everything. Having Bucky take care of the aged father whose son he killed as a Winter Soldier before showing him fight super-soldiers is a similarly well-calculated move. The gist seems to be humanity over heroism. Or heroism grounded in humanity.
In Ep 4, it is that self-same question of humanity that is at stake the most.
In a surprisingly deep conversation, Sam, Bucky and Zemo argue about the nature of so called super-soldiers. Zemo proclaims that the urge to be ‘super’-human is evidence of a canker that corrupts as soon as one takes the serum. To Bucky’s counter that Steve was never corrupted, he maintains that ‘there has never been another Steve Rogers’. In a previous episode, the archvillain warned against the dangers of excusing the negative impact of well-meaning heroism.
This is what he had to say:
The problem with people like him is that we put them on pedestals. They become symbols, icons-and then we start to forget about their flaws. Cities fly, innocent people die and movements are formed, wars are fought…Do we want to live in a world full of people like the Red Skull?
Fans were surprised to see former S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Sharon Carter and former love interest of Steve Rogers echo the sentiment when she chastises Bucky for believing in ‘all that stars and stripes bullshit’.
In many ways, it’s interesting to observe that all the people in direct orbit of Captain America subsist in a grey zone-as if there was a need for moral ambiguity in order to prop up all that idealism.
Comic lovers will know, however, that Steve Rogers did not only choose to oppose the government in the Civil War storyline but grew disillusioned enough with his status as hero to drop the shield for a short while.
In Secret Empire, a story that drew on Watergate, Captain America uncovers a conspiracy that leads him right into the heart of the White House. He finds out that the President, who later kills himself, is the head of a shadowy organisation seeking to undermine democracy. Shaken by these revelations, Steve Rogers gives up the shield and becomes ‘Nomad’, a man without a country-eerily echoing the sense of displacement that both Bucky, the man out of time, Sam, a black hero in a white society as well as the Flag-Smashers fighting for a world without borders experience within the series.
The Hero/Anti-Hero in Marvel
Complex interpersonal dynamics are what render Marvel’s superhero stories so compelling. Heroes and villains have shared origin stories (think the Hulk and the Abomination!), their choices often reflecting moral ambiguity. Next to the clubhouse atmosphere that is DC’s Justice League, the Avengers are a messy hothouse of stewing conflicts and shifting allegiances. Wanda’s own trajectory as Scarlet Witch that has been hinted at in the series finale of WandaVision pays homage to that legacy. The comics even introduce a team-up of ‘Dark Avengers’ who are willing to operate in a legally grey area to get things done, similar to DC’s Suicide Squad. The fact that Marvel uses the same name for both of its supergroups is telling in and of itself of its willingness to blur the lines when it comes to the fantasy of clear-cut heroism.
Having John Walker set up as a foil to Steve Rogers is no co-incidence.
Nominally the same as army veterans united by their wish to serve their country, it’s with regards to the super-serum that they deviate from each other. Episode 4 is, in essence, a meditation on the nature of power as well as its temptations as both Sam and John contemplate the power-enhancing injection. While Sam point blank refuses to take it should he ever be given the opportunity, John is tempted to do so after being bested both by the Flag Smashers and the Dora Milaje, the elite Wakandan bodyguards of the royal family. We see him anxious after the latter confrontation, bemoaning the fact ‘that they weren’t even super soldiers’.
It’s a far cry from Steve Rogers willing to battle Thanos on his own against all odds. The first Captain America was not corrupted by the serum because he never sought strength to triumph over his enemies but as a means to obtain peace. He was a fighter who knew what was right long before he was injected which is why the serum enhanced all the good traits he already had. Having an unflinching sense of moral justice can be hard in modern times where good and evil are more skewered as Karli Morgenthau’s friend declares when he talks of growing up admiring Steve Rogers only to realise that the world is more complicated these days.
Walker, despite his big boy bluster, quietly admits to his partner Lemar Hoskins/Battlestar that he is haunted by what they did in Afghanistan. We are prone to forget that the man who ‘consistently makes the right decisions in battle’ probably suffers from untreated PTSD.
In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Dave Grossmann offers some insight into the character that fans love to hate:
Numerous studies have concluded that men in combat are usually motivated to fight not by ideology or hate or fear, but by group pressures and processes involving (1) regard for their comrades, (2) respect for their leaders, (3) concern for their own reputation with both, and (4) an urge to contribute to the success of the group.(5)
Walker’s mad spree of public killing (refer to header image!), inspired by the death of his friend Battlestar is indicative of where his loyalty lies-with point (1), regard for his comrades. The book contains an interview with a Vietnam veteran who talks about the powerful bond of trust between men literally depending on each other for their mutual survival, one a ‘hell of a lot stronger than [that] between man and wife’. The guilt and trauma associated with loosing one’s comrade in battle can be debilitating, coming to haunt survivors decades later. In light of this information, Walker’s act of revenge appears understandable if not worth emulating.
In keeping with the shared roots of so called heroes and villains that Marvel delights in, even this dichotomy has its parallels. Steve Rogers lost Bucky at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger but rather than go off the rails managed to get his head back in the game to fight the good fight. Interestingly, he manages to strike an accord with Sam after finding out that Sam too lost his partner and chose to help veterans overcome their own trauma, something the first Captain America emulates after loosing against Thanos the first time around.
Compassion and integrity in the face of significant loss is what makes a hero.
Not growing disillusioned by the state of affairs or even his own powerlessness to confront the world is what distinguishes Captain America from other superheroes. He is someone who ‘understands pain’ rather than being someone who can solve all the world’s problems with brute force. A person who can wield the shield in order to serve and protect rather than just fight, in homage of the true meaning of the word hero.
As the series gears up to an end, that is the conviction to keep in mind the most.
Grossman, D. (1995) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Paris: Backbay Books.
Richard, S.(2017) Lead Like a Superhero: What Pop Culture Icons Can Teach Us About Impactful Leadership.Ontario:Brendan Kelly Publishing.