If any Marvel Cinematic Universe fan felt skeptical about whether introducing Phase Four on the small screen would go well, WandaVision dashed any such fears by midseason, but I gotta say this: Disney+ keeps upping its own game, and it’s already doing so marvelously with Episode 2 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. That is to say, whereas WandaVision was a mediation on trauma, through which Wanda Maximoff felt compelled to escape into unreal-land, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are here with a major reality check. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and it’s important to point out that while WandaVision was never trivial by any stretch, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is certainly tackling things on a more real-world scale. Look, people (myself included) were obsessing last month over silly Mephisto, and now, we’re watching systemic racism in action as it unfolds in the MCU. Not only did the debut episode show a Black man (Sam is also a veteran) being pressed to relinquish the shield (and Sam also struggled to secure a bank loan after helping to save the world), but this week, sh*t gets even realer.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of Marvel fun here, which is mainly illustrated through Sam and Bucky’s antagonistic, begrudging buddy-comedy chemistry, and the way that’s woven into the reality of what it’s like to be Black in America is stunning. Take, for example, the scene where cops mistake the grumbly conversation between Sam and Bucky as the former “bothering” the latter. Bucky finds himself insisting that, nope, he’s not being bothered, and then the cops realize that they didn’t recognize a pair of Avengers. Not only that, but they tried to explain that they didn’t realize that they were trying to arrest Falcon because he wasn’t wearing his wings and carting around props. It’s not a good look, but it’s an accurate one.
Plenty of social media attention is rightfully landing upon that scene, along with the other heavy hitter, which is the introduction of Carl Lumbly’s mystery character, who is (as suspected) Isaiah Bradley, a.k.a. the first Black Captain America and a Black veteran. Isaiah explained to Sam and Bucky that he received the super serum decades ago and was subsequently criminalized and imprisoned by the U.S. government for 30 years. His story is a one-man stop in worldbuilding and adds a lot of texture to what we see Sam going through in his post-blip life (after we also learn that, unlike Tony Stark, the other Avengers didn’t make out so well financially).
As Bucky later revealed to Sam, he knew about Isaiah’s plight for years, but he never publicly revealed what happened because the guy had gone through enough already. That says a lot. It’s also worth noting that when the Isaiah Bradley character surfaced in comic form (in 2003’s miniseries, Truth: Red, White and Black), his backstory went way back to the 1940s and acted as a scathing commentary upon the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that took root during that era. There’s no telling if we’ll see Isaiah again on the series, but regardless, his cultural resonance weighs heavily upon Sam’s current treatment by the U.S. government, cops, and the system at large. Once again, a Black Cap is being pushed down, so a white dude (no offense intended to Steve Rogers, who clearly wasn’t aware of what Isaiah went through) can carry the shield and be all shiny for the American public. I love that Bucky isn’t being subtle at all about how he feels.
Speaking of the new white guy, John Walker, lordy. The former U.S. Agent can’t even be bothered to walk with his own two legs after the group’s confrontation with the Flag Smashers.
And about those Flag Smashers… Again, this series is throwing out a real-world threat (as opposed to the “big three” that Sam and Bucky discuss earlier in the episode “androids, aliens and wizards”). Essentially, the Flag Smashers stand for everything that’s opposed to the Captain America mantle. The group’s a bunch of anti-patriotic, chaos-spreading bank robbers who are tearing through Switzerland before heading to Munich and Slovakia. They want to remove the world’s borders and destroy the concept of nations, and somehow (the answer to this mystery remains to be seen), they got their hands on some sort of super serum. They’re led by Karli Morgenthau, who hails back to the 1980s, comics-wise as the MCU’s Flag-Smasher villain, but there are some changes to update the story (and Karli is gender-swapped) to make sense in 2021-ish. Yes, this militia-esque group strikes some parallels with what we’re seeing in the U.S. today, even though the group’s wreaking havoc in Europe on the show.
Hopefully, we’ll find out soon who helped to serum the Flag Smashers up. It probably wasn’t Baron Zemo? God only knows, but we see him imprisoned at the end of the episode with Sam and Bucky en route for a little conversation. Speaking of conversations, every single line between Sam and Bucky was great. Even while they’re bantering about The Hobbit, it’s delightful to listen to these two squabbling. We even got some “couples therapy” for them, which was a real treat for the ‘shippers out there who surely enjoyed them inadvertently rolling around in a field together.
A few side notes: (1) Sharon Carter got a mention this week, and she needs to show up soon; (2) I must say that I did not enjoy any of the Bucky-in-peril moments. Thank god he’s got that Wakanda-crafted vibranium arm now, right? We all know what happened the last time Bucky fell off a massive, high-speed vehicle: HYDRA-city.
Disney+’s ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ streams new episodes on Fridays.