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Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 2: The Star-Spangled Man

Welcome to our continuing examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, spoilers abound; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the second episode.

Episode 2 of Falcon and the Winter Soldier opens with a development I didn’t see coming:  a relatively sympathetic portrayal of John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the man revealed as the new Captain America at the end of last week’s episode.  We find him in his old high school locker room, surrounded by football gear and the echo of his early glory days, preparing for an appearance on Good Morning America that’s one part interview, three parts publicity stunt.  A woman who was clearly his high school sweetheart and who I assume is now his wife joins him, noting his nervousness.  He admits he feels the weight of the world’s expectations, and doesn’t want to fail anyone.  She tells him to just be himself.

Walker tells his assigned super-hero partner, Lemar Hoskins, who arrives as Walker’s wife is leaving, that while being named Captain America has been great, it’s “been a lot of handshakes, a lot of suits, a lot of speeches, and senator meetings, and I just want to do the job.”  This is the job, Lemar tells him.

The marching band music cues up over the Marvel Studios and series title cards — a nice touch!  — and the new Captain America gets a big, splashy welcome, like a Super Bowl halftime show, full of cheering crowds, high-fives, bright lights, and autographs.  It’s hard to miss the parallel with Steve Rogers in Captain America:  The First Avenger, who had his own slate of cheesy USO appearances that he resented.

John Walker, the new Captain America (Wyatt Rusell) and Sara Haines, played by herself

The GMA interview, conducted by The View‘s Sara Haines, playing herself, serves as a deft bit of exposition for John Walker’s history.  He’s the first (and presumably only) person in American history to win three Medals of Honor; he’s a specialist in counter-terrorism and hostage rescue; and he was the subject of a government study at MIT, where he “tested off the charts” in speed, endurance, and intelligence.  In terms of capability, at least, he’s more than qualified to be Captain America.  And he’s unexpectedly humble about all of it:  “Look, here’s the thing.  I’m not Tony Stark, I’m not Doctor Banner, okay?  I don’t have the flashiest gadgets, I don’t have super strength.  But what I do have is guts.  Something Captain America always had, always needs to have, and I’m gonna need every ounce of it, because I got big shoes to fill.”

Sara asks Walker if he knew Steve Rogers.  Walker says he never met him, but tried to model himself after Rogers.  Sara Haines is impressed.  Bucky Barnes, watching the interview in his empty, featureless apartment, not so much.  He intercepts Sam Wilson and Lieutenant Torres, who are gearing up to fly to Munich to investigate the Flag Smashers.

Bucky gets right to it.  “You shouldn’t have given up the shield.”

“Good to see you too, Buck.”

Bucky tells Sam that this wasn’t what Steve wanted, and that Sam had no right to give up the shield.

Sam tells Bucky that he’s not going to just show up and start telling Sam about his rights.  Besides, says Sam, he’s got bigger things to worry about now, what with these super-soldier-ish Flag Smasher operatives running around Europe.  Bucky disagrees — “What could be bigger than this?” — but invites himself along on Sam’s mission.

Sam and Lieutenant Torres have tracked the Flag Smashers to a rural warehouse, where Sam and Bucky see the Smashers loading stolen medicines and vaccines on to trucks.  I’m a little fuzzy on how exactly Sam and Lieutenant Torres managed to track the Flag Smashers so specifically to this time and location, but why nitpick?

Sam’s for following the Smashers, to see where they go, but when Sam sees someone huddled in one of the trucks who he thinks might be a hostage, Bucky unilaterally elects to go the straight-forward route.  He overruns the departing trucks, and breaks into the one with the hostage…who turns out not to be a hostage at all, but a Flag Smashing teen-aged girl with super strength and kung fu moves.  We’ll learn later from an Interpol alert that her name is Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kelleyman).

A spectacular set-piece fight ensues on top of the moving trucks between Sam and Bucky and half a dozen Flag Smashers with enhanced super-soldier abilities, and just when it looks like our heroes are about to be taken out…enter John Walker and Lemar Hoskins by helicopter.  Walker and Hoskins make the fight a more even contest, but the Flag Smashers prove victorious, making their escape on the trucks.  Not sure why the helicopter that delivered Walker and Hoskins couldn’t have continued to track the trucks from a safe distance, but again, why nitpick?

The defeated quartet confer afterwards, John Walker arguing that the mission will be a whole lot easier if everyone agrees to work together, but neither Bucky nor Sam seem all that impressed by John and Lemar, and the admission that John and Lemar tracked the Flag Smashers by tracking Sam’s Redwing drone doesn’t help matters.  The group splits, each pair going their own way.

Meanwhile, the Flag Smashing contingent arrives at a safehouse, where Karli gets a text from a private number saying, “You took what was mine.  I’m going to find you and kill you.”  Never a good sign.  Karli tells her people she needs to know they’re all committed, because after tomorrow, there’s no going back.  Very mysterious.

On the plane ride back from Munich, a brooding Bucky Barnes advocates for taking the shield back and doing the mission themselves.  Sam tells him that they can’t just go beat up on Walker and take the shield, and more, recent first-hand experience in living like an outlaw suggests that it wouldn’t be a good idea.  Bucky tells Sam there’s someone he should meet.

The pair travel to Baltimore, to meet a man named Isaiah Bradley.  The young man who answers the door they knock on denies that anyone named Isaiah lives there, but Bucky tells him to tell Mr. Bradley that the guy from the bar in Goyang is here.  The kid goes to check and then comes back:  “Today’s your lucky day,” he tells them, letting them in.  “He says he wants to see for himself.”

Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), super-soldier

Bucky introduces Sam to Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) as “a hero; one of the ones that Hydra feared most.  Like Steve.”  Isiah is an intense black man who looks to be in his 70’s but must surely be older than that, if Bucky’s claim to have met Isaiah in Korea in 1951 is accurate.[1]I’m assuming Isaiah was born sometime between 1926 and 1931, which would have made him 20 – 25 years old in 1951, and puts him just shy of 100 years old in 2023.

“If by met, you mean I whupped your ass, then yeah,” Isaiah says.  “We heard whispers he was on the peninsula,” Isaiah tells Sam, “but everyone they sent after him never came back.  So the US military dropped me behind the line to go deal with him.  I took half that metal arm in that fight in Goyang, but I see he’s managed to grow it back.  I just wanted to see if he’d got the arm back.  Or if he’d come to kill me.”

“I’m not a killer anymore,” says Bucky.  Maybe he believes it himself.  Isaiah sure doesn’t.

“You think you can wake up one day and decide who you want to be?  It doesn’t work like that.  Well, maybe it does for folks like you.”

“Isaiah, the reason we’re here…is because there’s more of you and me out there…”

“‘You and me.'”

“…and we need to know how.”

“I’m not going to talk about it anymore!” says Isaiah, and angrily hurls a small tin box hard enough to lodge it halfway into the wooden wall near him.  Super-strength, even in his old age.  Sam looks surprised and alarmed.  “You know what they did to me for being a hero?” says a bitter Isaiah.  “They put my ass in jail for 30 years.  People running tests, taking my blood, coming into my cell.”

Isaiah orders Bucky and Sam out of his house.  Outside, Sam, ashamed and angry, asks, “Why didn’t you tell me about Isaiah?  How could nobody bring him up?  I asked you a question, Bucky.”

“I know.”

“Steve didn’t know about him?”

“He didn’t.  I didn’t tell him.”

“So you’re telling me there was a black super-soldier decades ago and nobody knew about it?”

Whatever Bucky planned to say in reply is interrupted by the police arriving in a squad car.  “Is there a problem here?”

The police ask to see Sam’s ID, and ask Bucky if Sam is bothering him.  “No, he’s not bothering me,” says an irritated Bucky.  “Do you know who this is?”

The police recognize Sam as an Avenger, which diffuses the immediate situation, even as more police are arriving, but of course the point here is what would this encounter have looked like if Sam wasn’t an Avenger, if the police didn’t recognize him?  The police arrest Bucky in any case; there’s a warrant for him for missing his court appointed session with his therapist.

Sam meets Dr. Raynor at the police station, and thanks her for getting Bucky released, but she tells him that wasn’t her doing; rather, it was John Walker, using his new-found pull as Captain America to not only get Bucky released from custody, but also from his scheduled therapy sessions.  “He’s too valuable an asset to have tied up,” Walker tells her, “so just do whatever you got to do with him, then send him off to me.  Got some unfinished business, him and I.  You too, Wilson.  I’ll be outside.”

Dr. Raynor pulls Sam and Bucky into an impromptu couples counseling session.  After some cute Lethal Weapon-ish banter between the two frienemies, we get down to it:

“Why’d you give up that shield?”

“Why are you making such a big deal out of something that has nothing to do with you?”

“Steve believed in you.  He trusted you.  He gave you that shield for a reason.  That shield?  That is…that is everything he stood for.  That is his legacy.  He gave you that shield and you threw it away like it was nothing.  So maybe he was wrong about you, and if he was wrong about you, then he was wrong about me.”

John Walker and Lemar Hoskins are waiting outside following the abortive therapy session.  Walker proposes that they all work together to track down the Flag Smasher operation in eastern Europe, but Sam and Bucky undiplomatically decline the offer, and the two sides part ways just this side of open hostility.

Back in eastern Europe, Karli Morgenthau and her Flag Smashers are loading their stolen medical supplies on a plane when she gets an alert that the Power Broker’s men have found them, and are arriving imminently, in force.  Presumably, this Power Broker is the same unidentified party who sent Karli the threatening texts earlier.  One of the Flag Smashers offers to stay behind to ensure the rest of the group’s escape.  His reward is an early death in a hail of henchmen’s bullets, but it does the trick:  the Flag Smashers’ plane takes off while the Power Broker’s men watch, helpless to stop it.

The episode concludes with Sam and Bucky, out of options and short on leads, deciding to consult with the captive Sokovian terrorist Zemo, keeper of Hydra secrets, last seen in Captain America:  Civil War (2016).

____

Notes, etc.:

  • While there’s plenty of series left for him to show a different set of colors, this portrayal of John Walker as a relatively reasonable person is not at all what I expected.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the John Walker of the comics is an unmitigated asshole, openly disliked by practically everyone.  He’s a very capable asshole, mind you; if you need a thing done, and you’re not overly concerned with property damage, dead people, or the maintenance of diplomatic relationships, then Walker’s a great choice for whatever you’ve got in mind.  He’s very much the bull to the Winter Soldier or the Black Widow’s snake, say.  The hammer, not the scalpel.
  • Interesting to note here that Walker tells Sara Haines he doesn’t have super-strength; he does in the comics, along with enhanced speed, stamina, and durability.
  • Lemar Hoskins, a.k.a. Battlestar

    Lemar Hoskins, a.k.a. Battlestar, created by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary, first appeared as a nameless ‘Bucky’ henchman in Captain America #323 (Nov 1986), and became Battlestar, with the sage advice and urging of the late Dwayne McDuffie, in Captain America #341 (May 1988).[2]Gruenwald, a white guy from rural Wisconsin, was apparently unaware that the name ‘Bucky’ could be offensive when applied to a black character.  McDuffie let him know, and the two … Continue reading  In the comics, Hoskins carries a vibranium shield similar to Captain America’s original triangular model.  Like Walker, Lemar has super-human physical enhancements.

  • While we’re talking super-powers or the lack thereof, the Winter Soldier of the MCU is the beneficiary of a super-soldier serum developed by Arnim Zola, who, as we saw in Captain America:  The Winter Soldier (2014) was attempting to reverse engineer the formula Abraham Erskine used to turn Steve Rogers into Captain America.  The Winter Soldier of the comics, however, never received any such serum, and has no super-human abilities, cybernetic arm notwithstanding.
  • The Bucky Barnes of the comics is a lot closer to the Black Widow in temperament and ability than to the super-soldier Flag Smasher types we see in the MCU.  While he’s certainly no weakling, straight-up fights and applications of brute force are not his specialty.  And he’d most definitely have a plan.  He’d have several plans.  He’s not an impulsive person.  (The impulsive member of the family of Captain America acolytes is Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye.)  To put it in D&D terms, this being the opposite of cool, Bucky’s a rogue, not a warrior.
  • Truth: Red, White, & Black #1 (Jan 2003), by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker

    Isiah Bradley, the ‘black Captain America,’ was created by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker; he first appeared in Truth:  Red, White, & Black (Jan 2003).  Bradley is the only long-term survivor of a Tuskegee Airmen-type experiment to recreate the super-soldier serum that produced Steve Rogers (a process that’s been much less successful in the comics than it has been in the movies).  Isaiah didn’t serve in Korea — he was in prison while that war was going on — and he’s from the Bronx, not Baltimore, but in most other respects, what we’ve learned of Bradley’s history so far in the series is close to how it was in the comics.

  • The appearance of Isaiah Bradley is as big and as wonderful a surprise as any I’ve encountered in the MCU.  Even better, his inclusion here is completely fitting, given the series’ themes and preoccupations.  Very, very cool.
  • Though he’s not named in the encounter, the kid who greets Sam and Bucky at the door is likely Isaiah’s grandson Elijah, a.k.a. Patriot, a super-hero in his own right.  Eli was created by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung — the same people who created Wiccan (Billy Kaplan) and Speed (Tommy Shepherd), the adult versions of the Scarlet Witch’s twins — and his first appearance was in Young Avengers #1 (Apr 2005).
  • Karli Morgenthau shares a name with the Flag Smasher of the comics, Karl Morgenthau.
  • We don’t learn anything about him but his name and his enmity with the Flag Smashers in this episode, but the Power Broker of the comics is Karl Malus, a mad scientist type who specializes in granting people super-human abilities, usually for a price (and with a catch).  This super-soldier stuff would be right up his alley.  Malus was created by Michael Fleisher, Steve Leialoha, and Jim Mooney, and made his first appearance in Spider-Woman #30 (Sep 1980).  Relevant for our purposes:  it was Malus who granted John Walker and Lemar Hoskins their super-human abilities.
  • Baron Helmut Zemo

    The Zemo of the comics is Helmut Zemo, more commonly known as Baron Zemo; he’s the son of Nazi mad scientist Heinrich Zemo, who also went by Baron Zemo.  He was created by Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, and Sal Buscema.  He made his first appearance as Phoenix in Captain America #168 (Dec 1973), and his first appearance as Baron Zemo proper in Captain America #275 (Nov 1982).

Class dismissed!  See you next week!

References

References
1 I’m assuming Isaiah was born sometime between 1926 and 1931, which would have made him 20 – 25 years old in 1951, and puts him just shy of 100 years old in 2023.
2 Gruenwald, a white guy from rural Wisconsin, was apparently unaware that the name ‘Bucky’ could be offensive when applied to a black character.  McDuffie let him know, and the two together developed the character as Battlestar, with the new name supplied by artist Kieron Dwyer.

One reply on “Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 2: The Star-Spangled Man”

As always, I’m enjoying the comic / MCU comparisons and ,more so, the history lesson you are providing. This mythos kicked off over half a century ago, right?

I’m enjoying their pursuit of the multiverse concept and am eagerly awaiting the next Dr. Strange movie with the whole Multiverse of Madness thing.

I don’t have a lot of familiarity with John Walker from the comics, but I find that I enjoyed(?) Wyatt Russell’s portrayal of him. He’s totally the wrong fit for Captain America; not because he didn’t want to be, but because he let the military make him what they wanted. He does get the job done at any cost, but it feels like in this portrayal some of the collateral damage is to himself. “They gave me medals for the three worst days of my life…” or something to that effect.

I’m definitely looking forward to your next installment. There’s a lot of upcoming content that I look forward to reading your take on.

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