SPOILERS for ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ will be found below.
Man, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier switched gears this week in a huge way and far away from the “buddy comedy” vibe of the introductory phase. I wouldn’t be surprised if that tone came back, but this week turned into a very blunt examination of what happens when heroes go villainous and vice versa. The most prominent and obvious example of this happening would be the climactic moments of Episode 4, called “The Whole World Is Watching,” where the new Captain America, John Walker, basically loses it and vengefully starts pummeling one of the Flag Smashers with the shield.
This confrontation turns fatal with Walker standing over his foe and ruthlessly letting him have it. This ends up being a cold-blooded killing while a crowd films the brutality with their smartphones. So, we’re left with the face of America (and replacement for Steve Rogers) standing there with a bloodied shield for all to see. Not a good look!
The altercation that led up to this moment was an all-out brawl between Sam and Bucky, John and Lemar, and several Flag Smashers. I can’t say that the conflict between the groups has been entirely clear because the Flag Smashers’ cause has remained nebulous with many wondering if they’re villains at all. Well, Karli Morgenthau clashed with Lemar and ended up hurling him into a pillar, instantly killing him. It appears to have been an inadvertent (although inevitable) outcome, and John’s reaction — after all his talk about wanting to be the best runner-up Cap who doesn’t even need the serum to save the world — screwed the proverbial pooch after he decided to inject himself with the damn serum and go mad with power. And yeah, the U.S. government is going to have a lot of explaining to do, after they signal-boosted their own systemic racism by deciding to hand the shield to what seemed like any Rando white dude (although, given US Agent’s history in the comics, this was never going to turn out well).
It’s seriously dark stuff. I would argue that it’s the darkest moment ever in the MCU, which has seen a ton of bleak moments. After all, it’s only been a handful of MCU years since Thanos killed half the universe. Before that, we saw Tony Stark’s parents die, Killmonger take down T’Challa, and many more horrible things. We even saw Thor behead Thanos, although no one could possibly blame him for that. Yet now we are seeing a hero (and someone holding the shield) turn villainous. And it’s also a direct callback to the Captain America: Civil War final battle between Steve and Tony Stark, where Steve used the shield to render Tony powerless and defeat him, but he stopped far short of what John Walker did.
The fallout next week should be enormous, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the show handles dealing with John Walker’s major f*ck-up in front of the world. Before that, we got a few other indications that The Falcon and the Winter Solder might turn into an action-packed meditation on the fine line between hero and villain. One of these scenes — a flashback to Bucky’s time in Wakanda — was incredibly touching. Until now, we’ve only seen glimpses of that period in Bucky’s life, although we know that he was allowed to take refuge in Wakanda and even emerged with a new (vibranium) arm. Yet in this episode, we got to see the moment where Ayo freed Bucky from HYDRA’s Winter Soldier programming. (All of the tears, people.)
Clearly, Bucky’s still been on the road to redemption since that time, and he’s still a work in progress. A ton of lingering trauma is only to be expected after his decades as the homicidally-programmed Winter Soldier, although we saw how he was able to resist Zemo’s attempt to turn him back into a HYDRA-hired gun. Seeing what actually happened to Bucky in Wakanda has been a revelation that the MCU held back for years, and it says a lot that Kevin Feige reserved the moment as a juxtaposition to what’s happening with John Walker. Heroes turning into villains, and villains turning into heroes.
Then there’s the biggest unanswered question for this series to resolve: are the Flag Smashers actually villains or nah? It’s something that the show’s played with to degrees of varying success, and hopefully, we’ll see more followup on whether Karli Morgenthau is a terrorist or a revolutionary. This was a telling moment, though, when Sam pointed out to Karli that she’s a “supremacist,” and she was totally surprised to hear that coming her way. The real-life parallels here are astounding, and I hope we’ll see more.
Disney+ streams new ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ episodes on Fridays.