After last week’s crimson red cliffhanger, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier poised itself for some major fallout and reconciliation for our nouveau Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell). The fifth episode manages to keep up the momentum of the story following Walker’s bloody public mishap, with some performative flourishes and the usual long-term implications for Disney’s suits-and-spandex saga.
After brawling with the disgraced Cap, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) recover the iconic shield, bringing Walker to a court marshal, which in theory ends the short-lived story of the Captain America-who-couldn’t. With Flag-Smasher extraordinaire Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) having fled the scene of the very public crime, what’s a dynamic duo left to do? Evidently, take some time off.
The fifth episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier sees our heroes return to the States after the botched Eastern European op. Sam deals with his and his sister Sarah’s (Adepero Oduye) financial predicament, and Bucky…well, helps Sam out with his boat. The fifth episode is largely a lull in the immediate plot of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Walker gets a mysterious visit from the shady, smooth-talking shadow player, Valentina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus for whom I was waiting to end her sentences with “Jerry!”), egging the disgraced supersoldier on in bitterness.
That’s the thing with the way Falcon is playing out with this fifth episode. It feels like forces are being pushed against each other arbitrarily, for the sake of a neat six-episode conclusion. There is room, of course, for a big tease.
The aforementioned brawl between our title heroes and Walker that kicks the episode off is convenient for the plot but not without narrative merit. Walker’s stubborn, back-against-the-wall fighting is the mark of a man who knows he’s ultimately wrong. At one point he even yells “Why are you making me do this?” while slugging it out with the boys, crusted blood still on his shield.
In a world where Americans seem to witness, day in and day out, tragedy on the news involving police officers and the brutal, wrongful deaths of innocents in their communities, Walker’s leaning in on his title and authority feels eerily plausible. If there’s a point to Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s drama over Steve Rogers’ star-spangled shield, it’s that the man makes the title and not the other way around.
Similarly, upon returning from Latvia, Sam pays a visit to Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), the former supersoldier whose past was hushed up by the government after he took a moral stand against wartime crimes by Uncle Sam. A Black man, Bradley laments Sam’s optimism in the upkeep of the Captain America mantle; “They erased me; my history. But they’ve been doing that for 500 years.” He’s not wrong.
Bradley’s point in denouncing the shield, refusing interest in holding it, is a condemnation of the country and institutions it represents, saying that no “self-respecting Black man” would bear that burden. It’s a modern-day Uncle Tom that Bradley sees in the Captain America that Sam envisions, and brings to light some of the most interesting musings on superheroes the MCU has entertained in its decade of films. Are these heroes more than the titles they represent? Can a legacy be changed to mean something new?
How Sam responds to his meeting with Isaiah can be read as several things. Later, some good vibes with Bucky and Sarah done in, a training montage ensues, Sam commits to the Captain America title as he hurls the shield, does push-ups: you know, typical training montage stuff. Is this Sam defying Isaiah’s cynicism, looking to rewire the perception of Captain America, the “blonde-haired, blue-eyed” American poster boy for a modern, inclusive world? Or is it simply Sam accepting the weight of the institutions that would fill the Captain’s boots with some other slovenly knuckle-dragger, hoping to at least do a better job than Walker did? If someone has to do it…
While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier gets to some interesting points with its leads, unfortunately, the Flag-Smasher/Karli Morgenthau-angle begins to crumble for the sake of a villain and a resolution. After the Latvian debacle, Morgenthau finds herself further radicalized, betrayed by Sam and Bucky. They approached in good faith only to have their negotiations crashed by Walker’s brash approach last episode. Morgenthau, now planning a large-scale attack unlike her previous Robin Hood-style raids, is being radicalized at a rate convenient for Falcon‘s plot.
Shown thus far to be nothing but a sensible, morally-inclined “villain” (which is to say, simply the underdog against our increasingly impure heroes), the fifth episode begins to position her as a simple extremist. Meeting over an arms deal, an associate prods her, saying that what they’re doing is criminal. “Haven’t you heard? We are criminals.” Whereas Isaiah, and later, Bucky preach to Sam about defining oneself without the input of others, Morgenthau is being defined by the bad press her Flag-Smashers receive. It’s the flip side of the coin Falcon and the Winter Soldier inspects, though I can’t help but feel they’re souring yet another nuanced villain for a final-act resolution.
It’s wrought with cliche, perhaps, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is proving to be one of the MCU’s most thoughtful entries perhaps ever. It’s sad that the brutalization of Black Americans and abuse of power is such a definition of our lives that something as bread-and-circuses as Disney’s Marvel programming begins to address it, but such is the world we live in. It feels overdue, as I’ve mentioned, for the MCU to take responsibility in truly criticizing its heroes and giving them brains to question their roles, but better late than never.
I anticipate a flashy, action-packed finish next episode on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, with Sam decked out in red, white, and blue and the occasional catchphrase. A feel-good time, by all accounts. Yet my own cynicism towards the Marvel productions aside, the fifth episode showed that this series was set on returning to its interesting topics. Whereas it felt to have abandoned the question of a Black Captain America or the buffoonery of Walker’s scorched earth approach to law enforcement, we’ve come back to address the issues in Falcon‘s own, Disney-sanctioned way.
Extreme action begets extreme consequence, even if you’re wearing a mask. Perhaps especially so.