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Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 6: One World, One People

Welcome back!  It’s the final entry in our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, spoilers abound, and this article assumes you’ve seen the sixth and final episode of the series.

It strikes me, watching ‘One World, One People,’ how Falcon and the Winter Soldier serves as a microcosmic example of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large.  Everything the MCU does well can be found in this series:  the quality and charisma of its actors; the self-assured polish of its cinematic craft; its notions about heroism and responsibility; and the sheer joy of seeing the characters and concepts of Marvel Comics brought to life.  Alas, the series also offers plenty of what the MCU doesn’t do well:  low stakes and a general lack of any real peril or consequences; the glossy blandness of a well-worn narrative formula; and a Game of Thrones-like disregard for time and distance, and cause and effect.  Like almost everything the MCU has ever offered up, it’s an uneven mix of excitement and disappointment:  thrilling, gratifying, maddening, and frustrating all at the same time.  As much fun as Falcon and the Winter Soldier has been — and it’s been a lot of fun, more often than not — very little of it holds up to even the most casual scrutiny, which pushes my particular needle closer to the maddening / frustrating end of the spectrum.  Not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the series, but enough that I find myself constantly wishing that this or that thing was done just a little differently.

The opening scenes and visual set-up of episode 6 made me realize that I probably haven’t given as much credit as warranted to director Kari Skogland and director of photography P.J. Dillon.  Look at this, from the opening seconds of the episode:

In addition to how good it looks — that lighting and composition! –the sequence lets us know who the players are among the Flag Smashers, and more important, lets us know where they are and what they’re doing, how they fit into this plan that’s still something of a mystery to the viewer, all in just a couple seconds.  We hear Karli’s the movement is ready pronouncement from last episode in voice over, culminating with It’s time and the appearance of the title card.  Nice stuff.

Would that this video extended ten or fifteen seconds in either direction.  We’d see Karli at the beginning, literally coming into focus, and at the other end, we’d see the suggestion of a heavy police presence and a lovely overhead tracking shot of the scene constrained by buildings at the margins of the screen.

Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) unfocused, entering from the right…
..and focused, moving to center.

I say suggestion of a heavy police presence because what we see on the screen suggests more than it actually shows.  A television news voiceover gives us further info:  “We have breaking news.  There’s a complete lockdown at the GRC meeting in lower Manhattan where authorities are saying they’re tracking multiple threats from groups seeking to stop the GRC’s vote on global resettlement.  There is a no-fly zone in effect and the NYPD has the area secured for the moment.  Everyone is urged to stay clear.”

A lot of people dressed as police officers in a limited area, with the red background to orient the eye…
…which gives way to this overhead shot, the distinctive red background now at the top of the screen, and our view constrained at the margins by the buildings on either side.

We’ll see variations on these same tricks applied to the GRC council meeting and its members.  The chamber the GRC members are meeting in is bathed in the same emergency red as the front of the building, as are the adjacent hallways and stairways.  As for the GRC members, both in this episode and the last, virtually all of our attention will be focused on just three members:  our ubiquitous Senator / Government Official from the USA, a representative from India, and a representative from the Philippines.

Falcon and the Winter Soldier is full of stuff like this — all the stills I’ve used here occur in the first two minutes of this episode — and for all my howling about the narrative and logistic lunacy that hangs over the series, it should be acknowledged here that Skogland, Dillon, and the series’ editors[1]Roseanne Tan and Marvel Studios veteran Jeffrey Ford were the editors for ‘One World, One People’ usually do a really good job of disseminating information in a visually clear, concise, and interesting way.  (Speaking of photography and set design, you may be wondering why the GRC meeting is at night.  Could be because there’s a pressing urgency to get the vote done…or it could be because everything looks cooler at night, and it’s easier to control the quality of light.  You be the judge.)

With Sam close, en route by way of a new flight suit we’ve yet to see, Bucky is the first to arrive on the scene  — interesting that he’s known to local law enforcement and given free rein to come and go behind police lines, instead of, you know, being arrested for aiding and abetting the recent prison escape of an infamous terrorist — and he’s joined by the fugitive (?) Sharon Carter, using the same Mission Impossible-like disguise the Black Widow used to infiltrate Alexander Pierce’s inner circle back in Captain America:  The Winter Soldier.[2]A Google search tells me this face and voice disguise is called a Photostatic Veil, also known as a Nano Mask.  Now we know!

Sam says he’s called in some backup, and I assume he means Sharon.  The only other backup he could possibly be talking about is John Walker, and given how things were left last episode, that strikes me as unlikely.  Assuming Sharon is the backup Sam’s referring to, it’s a little odd to see her here, considering that last we checked, she was in Madripoor, halfway around the world.  If Madripoor is where we’re told it is, on the Indonesian archipelago, that’s at least 9500 miles from New York.  So either Sharon was a lot closer than Madripoor when Sam called her — cooling her heels in Newark, say, or on Long Island, which would be curious in and of itself — or else she took the Drogon Express from Dragonstone to Manhattan.

Karli, spotting Sam from the air, orders her people to start the plan in earnest.  Said plan involves the evacuation of GRC representatives by two different modes of transport, truck and helicopter.  The helicopter is being piloted by a Flag Smasher, while there’s a plan afoot to hijack a pair of trucks with the GRC people inside.  The plan is a little fussy and improbable, sure — all of Karli’s schemes are a little fussy and improbable — but not the fussiest or most improbable thing I’ve seen in the MCU, or this series, or even this episode so far, so…sure.  Let’s roll with it.

Sam arrives in dramatic fashion, crashing through the window near the top of the GRC building and taking out a Flag Smashing minion, not as the Falcon…but as the new Captain America, in an updated flight suit done up in red, white, and blue.  Now we know what was in the case from Wakanda that Bucky delivered last episode!

The new Captain America (Anthony Mackie) makes his debut.

When Sam gets reports from Bucky and Sharon that no one is moving toward the building, he puts it together that Karli’s trying to force people out of it…and no sooner has he figured that out but he takes a hard kick in the chest from a Flag Smasher who whips off his mask to reveal his face:  Batroc has arrived.

“You cost me a lot of money,” he tells Sam.  “I wonder how much I can get for your new bird costume?”

“A baguette and a few French fries?”

“The robes don’t make the monk,” Batroc tells him — cool line! — and the fight is on.

While an overmatched Sam struggles with Batroc, Sharon recognizes Lennox, one of the Flag Smasher super-soldiers, dressed as GRC security.  She and Bucky split up, Sharon following Lennox, while Bucky tries to get ahead of the evacuation from another part of the building.  He’s intercepted by an official-looking woman with a call for him on a cell phone.  It’s Karli.

“Aren’t you tired of fighting for the wrong side, Mr. Barnes?” she says.

“I’ve done this before, kid.  I know how it ends.”

Karlie tells him that she’s fighting for something bigger than herself.  Bucky reminds her that she’s hardly the only one who’s ever done so, and that in the end she’s going to remember all the ones she’s killed.  He implores her not to go down that path.

“If that’s how you feel, you should sit this one out,” she tells him.  She thanks him for taking her call, telling him he’s been a big help.  The phone call has managed to delay Bucky from his assigned task of covering his end of the evacuation.

Meanwhile, Sharon has followed Lennox down to the parking garage, where the bulk of the GRC members (including the representative from India and our own extremely hard-working Government Official) are being loaded into the evacuation vehicles.  Lennox shuts each truck’s back door after the people have boarded, then surreptitiously places a high-tech locking mechanism on the back.

The trucks leave, Lennox reporting to Karli that the hostages are en route, ETA six minutes, while Bucky steals a motorcycle from the parking garage to pursue the trucks.  Sharon manages to plant a device on Lennox in a kind of reverse pickpocket move.  It goes off after Lennox gets in his own vehicle, emitting a lethal gas that Sharon calls a mercury vapor (“among other things”) that effectively burns the flesh off the poor fellow.  It’s a cruel way to go.  R.I.P., Lennox.

As Sam continues his fight with Batroc, some members of the GRC council are boarding the helicopter on the roof.  Sharon tells Sam he needs to speed things up, as the helicopter’s about to leave.  Sam appeals to Bucky for help, but Bucky’s engaged in his own high speed pursuit with his stolen motorcycle.  “I don’t fly, man.  That’s your thing.”

The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) in pursuit.

Sam elects to play it smart:  he disengages from Batroc, throws his shield through one of the windows, and uses his wings to catch it and then pursue the helicopter.  Not much point in sticking around to take an ass-whupping from Batroc while the Flag Smashers get away with valuable hostages.  Sam catches up to the helicopter easily enough, but of course the pilot is armed and has several hostages, so stopping the helicopter or taking out the pilot while leaving the passengers unharmed requires some ingenuity.  Sam uses the tech on his suit to determine that one of the passengers — it’s our representative from the Philippines! — has the training necessary to fly a helicopter.

Karli and the Flag Smashers on the ground have gathered at the rendezvous spot.  While they don’t yet know what happened to him, they do know that Lennox isn’t responding.  That throws something of a wrinkle into the plan, but Karli’s not ready to abandon it just yet.  “Worst case scenario,” Karli says, “we kill the hostages.”

This idea is met with doubtful silence and raised eyebrows.  Karli may have readily stepped over the line into murder, but her fellow super-soldiers, it appears, are somewhat less than eager to join her in this regard.

“We’re supposed to use them to negotiate,” one of them says.

“To stop that vote,” says Karli.  “Either way, our message gets out to the world.  It doesn’t even matter if we die.  The movement is strong enough to continue without us.”  It never seems to occur to Karli that her followers might not be quite so eager to kill and die for the cause as she is.

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.  Hold tight, move fast,” Karli says.  “One world.”

The slogan’s call is met with uncomfortable silence.  The lack of response seems to take Karli by surprise, but doesn’t everything?

One world,” she repeats.  This time she gets the grudging one people response she was expecting.  Her fellow Flag Smashers are committed, at least, if not exactly enthusiastic.

As Sam is saving a pair of NYPD officers from a helicopter damaged in pursuit of the GRC helicopter, Karli and her Flag Smashers stop and hijack the trucks with the GRC hostages…just in time for Bucky Barnes to catch up to them and engage.  Karli orders one of the trucks to be lit on fire:  “We need a diversion.  Give him someone to rescue.”  It’s a smart plan, and it does indeed divert Bucky from beating Dovich’s ass.  Bucky breaks off from Dovich and begins attempting to rescue the hostages from the truck, which is no easy feat what with the fire and the locking device Lennox placed on the back door earlier.

Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), Flag Smasher

Score one for Karli, but it’s a momentary victory at best, for John Walker has arrived on the scene, pissed off and looking for blood.  “Morgenthau!  Let’s finish this!”

“I didn’t mean to kill your friend,” Karli says, “I don’t want to hurt people that don’t matter.”

It’s a heartless, tone-deaf statement even by Karli Morgenthau standards, and it takes even the tactless John Walker by surprise.  “You don’t think Lemar’s life mattered?”

“Not to my fight.  I just want the people on that truck.”

If Karli was hoping to somehow calm Walker down with this ill-considered line of reasoning, she fails dismally.  Walker attacks, and finds himself taking on Karli and three other Flag Smashers at once while Bucky frees the hostages from the burning truck.

We’ll circle back around to the question of how on God’s green earth it’s remotely possible that Karli and her Flag Smashing companions could straight-up tussle with the likes of John Walker and Bucky Barnes.  For now, let’s say that Walker and Barnes get the worst of it, with Walker knocked down (but not out, as we’ll see) and Barnes knocked down into a nearby construction site.

Sam contacts the helicopter-qualified representative of the Philippines — he first texts her and then literally calls her — and outlines his plan to have her take over the controls of the helicopter once he removes the current pilot…which he does, using his hurled shield to open the helicopter’s door, and then flying through to take out the pilot, who he drops, still alive, in the Hudson River.  The representative from the Philippines conducts herself admirably, gaining access to the pilot’s seat and getting control of the helicopter in short order.

Meanwhile, in round 2 of Walker vs. Morgenthau and associates, John Walker is beginning to gain the upper hand after a shaky start.  Karli herself isn’t too doing too badly, but as angry as Walker is, she doesn’t seem to be able to manage much more than to slow him down.  She does well enough, however, that she’s able to reach the remaining, unburnt truck still full of GRC hostages.  She drives the truck off the road and through fencing, intending to sent it crashing down into the construction site where Bucky and Dovich are still squaring off, but the truck instead comes to a treacherous resting point on the skeleton framework of an unfinished building.

John Walker tries pulling the truck back to safe ground, but before he can manage it, he’s attacked by Karli and a pair of Flag Smashers, which sends all four of them plummeting down into the construction site below.  The truck begins to fall as well, but before the fatal plunge can take place, its fall is arrested.  Captain America has arrived.  With his flight suit and powered drones, Sam pushes the truck back up to safety.  A drone burns through the locking mechanism Lennox had placed, and the hostages are freed.

A crowd sees Sam do this — all faces of color — and one old fellow, beaming with pride, says, “That’s the Black Falcon there, I tell you!”

A younger man next to him, filming the event on his phone, says, “Nah.  That’s Captain America.”  It’s maybe a little cheesy, but there’s something wonderful about a cheesy moment that works.  I’m a sentimentalist at heart.  For all my criticisms about the frequent squirrelliness surrounding the plot and logistic elements of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the embrace of Sam Wilson as Captain America is something the showrunners have managed with purpose and deliberation to good effect.

Karli attempts to take advantage of the distraction by picking up a spear-like piece of iron and throwing it with deadly intent.  The Winter Soldier plucks it out of the air, similar to the catch Steve Rogers made on Proxima Midnight’s spear in Avengers:  Infinity War.  There’s a pause — I like to think it takes a moment for everyone to fully digest the startling martial mastery they just witnessed — and then Karli starts to charge, but is struck and knocked off her feet by Captain America’s shield.  It caroms off of her to her fellow Flag Smashers in turn, and returns to Captain America’s hand as he lands in the construction site.

Karli, regaining her feet, pulls her mask off.  She looks sad, tired, frustrated, a little beat up.  It’s been a tough day for Karli Morgenthau.  Seeing Sam for the first time up close, in his Captain America costume, she says, “You of all people bought into that bullshit?”

“I’m trying something different,” Sam says.  “Maybe you should do the same.”

Karli looks unconvinced by this appeal to reason, but whatever she was planning to say or do next, it’s interrupted by the appearance of Batroc on the street above, who begins pumping smoke grenades down into the construction site to cover the Flag Smashers’ escape.  Batroc’s not the only late arrival; we see Sharon Carter make her appearance as well.

Batroc jumps down into the smoke, hands Karli a pistol, and the Flag Smashers gather and flee into a “tunnel on Williams, heading south,” according to Bucky’s update to Sharon, where they split up, pursued by Sam, Bucky, and John Walker.  Once again, what would action movies do without empty factories and construction sites?

Sam pursues one set of prints — he can see the prints on the ground with his infrared-capable goggles — while Bucky and Walker pursues the other set.

Before anyone can catch up to anyone else, Karli encounters Sharon Carter.  The two women point their respective pistols at each other.  “I’m disappointed in you,” says Karli.

“That’s what I was going to say,” says Sharon.  Clearly, these two know each other.  They lower, but don’t holster, their pistols.  “You know, when you came to Madripoor, you reminded me of a young me.  I took you in, gave you an opportunity….and you betrayed me.”

“Because you wanted to control a world that hurt you; but I wanted to change it.  I’m not interested in power or an empire.  I have bigger dreams.”

“What?  Like this?  Come back and work for me again.  All of you.  We can make a difference together.”

“You just want me because you need your muscle back.  Without us super-soldiers, how much power does the Power Broker really have?”

Sharon considers Karli’s point.  “More than you,” she says.  She’s a cynical beast, this Sharon Carter.  She’s also, as predicted, the Power Broker, and I don’t want to say I told you so, gentle reader, but I think we can we at least agree that Sharon’s revelation shouldn’t be a surprise for you.

Batroc appears.  “So you’re the Power Broker.”

“You hired Batroc to spy on me,” says an indignant Karli.

“Karli, you know I’m always prepared,” says Sharon.

Karli tells Sharon to get out of her way, but Batroc’s had enough of everyone.  He points his gun at Karli, tells them both he’s done with games, and that he wants Sharon to pay him four times what she said she would, or he’ll tell the whole world who she is.

“I don’t do blackmail,” says Sharon, and promptly shoots Batroc[3]Apparently killing him, according to CBR..  Sharon in turn is shot by Karli, taking one of those action movie gunshot wounds that’s more minor inconvenience than actual medical problem.  The sound of the gunshots brings Sam to the scene.  Still aiming at Sharon, Karli tells Sam to stay back.

“So what’s next, huh?” Sam says.  “You kill ten this time, then, what, a hundred?  Where does it end?  Please.  Let me help you.”  As back in episode 4, while I don’t doubt Sam’s good intentions, I’m wondering what possible ‘help’ he could render, or thinks he could render, so far as Karli’s concerned.

Karli tells Sam not to try and manipulate her — Karli has a sensitivity to being manipulated, possibly because she knows deep down that she’s easy to manipulate — and moves to shoot Sharon.  Sam attacks to stop her, and a fight begins, with Karli motivated by anger (and perhaps shame), and Sam by a reluctance to fight with Karli.

While this fight is going on, Bucky and John Walker have arranged for the other Flag Smashers to be taken into custody by a clever use of the Flag Smasher app, leading Dovich and company straight to a small army of well-armed NYPD.  Live by social media apps, get corralled and arrested by social media apps.

Sam’s tactic of limiting himself to mostly defensive action in his fight with Karli leads to his defeat and separation from his shield, and looks like it’s about to cost him his life when Karli retrieves her pistol and points it at him.

Luckily for Sam, Sharon shoots first, mortally wounding Karli.  Sam rushes to her; Karli has enough life left in her to whisper, “I’m sorry,” before dying.

Sam gathers Karli in his arms, takes her out of the tunnel and flies up to the street, gently alighting like an angel on the street where the GRC representatives and sundry emergency personnel have gathered.  (You’ll note that Sam’s landing is shot slightly slower than normal, giving it a heightened importance.)  He gives Karli’s body to the paramedics, and ignores questions from the press (“What happened to the Flag Smashers?”  “When did the government make you Captain America?”  “Is it still Falcon, or is it Captain Falcon?”) as he walks towards the hostages he helped save.

“Sam, thank you so much, from all of us,” says Ayla, the representative from the Philippines.

“Sincerely,” says the Senator / Government Official.  “You did your part in dealing with these terrorists, now we’ll do ours.”

“Are you still going forward with resettling the borders?” Sam asks.

The representative from India affirms it’s so, that GRC peacekeeping troops will begin relocating people soon.  “The terrorists only set us back a bit.”

“You gotta stop calling them terrorists,” says Sam, the press capturing his words and broadcasting them live.  Sam points out that ‘peacekeeping’ troops carrying weapons are forcing millions of people around the world into resettlement camps.  “What do you think those people are going to call you?”

India asks Sam if he thinks it’s fair for governments to have to support people who were resettled five years ago, at the start of the Blip.

“Yes,” says Sam.

“And the people who reappeared,” says the Senator, “only to find someone else living in their family home, they just end up homeless?  Look, I get it, but you have no idea how complicated this situation is.”

Sam allows that the Senator has a point — Sam doesn’t know how complicated it is — but that everyone finally has a common struggle now.  “For once, all the people who’ve been begging, and I mean literally begging for you to feel how hard any given day is…now you know.  How did it feel to be helpless?  Now if you could remember what it was like to be helpless and face a force so powerful it could erase half the planet, you would know that you’re about to have the exact same impact.  This isn’t about easy decisions, Senator.”

“You just don’t understand.”

“I’m a black man carrying the stars and stripes.  What don’t I understand?  Every time I pick this thing up [meaning the shield], I know there are millions of people out there who are gonna hate me for it.  Even now, here, I feel it.  The stares, the judgment.  And there’s nothing I can do to change it.”

“Yet I’m still here,” says Sam.  “No super serum.  No blonde hair, or blue eyes.  The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.”  Out in Baltimore, Isaiah Bradley and his grandson Eli are watching Sam on television, disbelief giving way to deep pride and approval.

Sam reminds the GRC people that they control the banks; that they can move borders, or feed a million people with a phone call; but who’s in the room when they make those decisions?  The people who will be impacted?  Or just more people like themselves?[4]I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Room Where It Happens’ from Hamilton when Sam said this.  Sam reminds the GRC that Karli died in an effort to stop them, and none of them have even asked why.  They need to step up, or the next Karli will…and that’s not something anyone wants to see.

“You people have just as much power as an insane god…or a misguided teen-ager.  The question you have to ask yourself is, how are you going to use it?”

Sam joins Bucky at the periphery of the gaggle of press and emergency personnel.  He passes John Walker on the way, and the two give each other a respectful nod of recognition.  “Nice job, Cap,” Bucky tells Sam.  They find Sharon Carter nearby, leaning against a car; she’s busy tending to her gunshot wound and refusing to go to a hospital.

“I’m sorry for how things ended,” Sharon says.  Clearly, neither Sam nor Bucky realize that she was the Power Broker all along.  “For what it’s worth, suit looks good on you.”

Sam tells her he didn’t forget his promise concerning her pardon, and turns his attention to a city official as Bucky leads Sharon off, presumably in the direction of proper medical care.  The official tells Sam that they have eyes on the last Flag Smasher that fell into the Hudson; he’s hurt but not down.  “Can you help?”

“Always,” says Captain America, and takes majestically to the air.

The remaining captured Flag Smashers are being loaded onto a truck, destined for imprisonment at the Raft — the very same prison housing Zemo.  The soldier who shuts the door on the Flag Smashers goes all Hail Hydra with it:  “One world, one people,” he tells Dovich, who gives him a confident and conspiratorial nod in return.  An escape from captivity looks like it may be a real possibility…

…right up until the truck explodes in a lethal fireball, killing everyone in it.  In a nearby vehicle, we see Zemo’s man-servant, Oeznik, putting away his detonator.  Oh, that tricky Baron Zemo!  We see Zemo himself at the Raft some unspecified time later, getting news of the Flag Smashers’ demise on his transistor radio and looking mighty satisfied with himself.

Later, in Washington D.C., the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is also getting the news.  “Hey Walker, check your phone!” she says.  She shows Oliva, Walker’s wife, the report on her cell phone.  The two are waiting for John to emerge from where he’s changing.  “Looks like our friend Zemo kinda got the last laugh, right?  Wow.  Couldn’t have worked better if I planned it myself.  Oh, well…maybe I did.  No, I’m kidding.  I didn’t.  Or did I?  Anyway, it’s going to save people a lot of paperwork and a lot of redacting and a lot of shredding.”

Walker emerges in a black, red, and white version of his Captain America uniform.  “Now this is more like it,” says Val.  “Things are about to get weird.  So, when they do, we’re not gonna need a Captain America.  We’re gonna need a U.S.Agent.”  She tells Walker to keep his phone on.

John Walker, U.S.Agent (Wyatt Russell) and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Juia Louis-Dreyfus).

In New York, Bucky takes Sam’s advice and comes all the way clean to his friend Yori Nakajima about his part in the death of Yori’s son.  It’s intensely painful and unpleasant — is there any real way to make amends for something like this? — but perhaps both men are better, more at peace, for the admission.

Sam visits the Bradleys in Baltimore, the ever-surly (and always funny) Eli answering the door:  “What you want, Black Falcon?”  He ain’t a Falcon no more, Isaiah says, but he’s still black.

“I saw what you did out there,” says Isaiah.  “And so, it seems, did everyone else.  I heard the GRC was standing down on those plans of theirs, so you must have done something right.”  Isaiah tells Sam that he’s special — not Malcolm, Martin, or Mandela special — but special.  “So…a black Captain America, huh?”

“Damn right,” says Sam Wilson.

Isaiah tells Sam that the fight he’s taking on isn’t going to be easy.  Sam allows that he might fail, might even die.  “But we built this country.  Bled for it.  And I’m not gonna let anyone tell me I can’t fight for it.  Not after what everybody before me went through.  Including you.”

“Shit,” says Isaiah, sounding cynical but looking proud and emotional.  “I almost bought that.”

Sam tells Isaiah and Eli he has something to show them.  He takes them to the Smithsonian,[5]About 40 miles or so down I-495 from Baltimore, according to Google. where a new section has been added to the Captain America exhibit.  This new section tells the story of Isaiah Bradley and his until-now forgotten and ignored brothers in the super-soldier program.

According to Redditor blue10075 and Games Radar, this is what the plaque beneath the new bronze statue of Isaiah Bradley says:

Isaiah Bradley is an American hero whose name went unknown for too long.

Isaiah was one of a dozen African-American soldiers who were recruited against their will and without their consent for participation in human testing in pursuit of the Super Soldier Serum. Most did not survive. The few who lived through testing were sent on secret missions during the Korean War. During the conflict, against all odds, Isaiah Bradley rescued his fellow soldiers and 25 other POWs from behind enemy lines.

However, fearful of the ramifications of a black super soldier, some individuals within the government tried to erase Isaiah’s story from history. His family was issued a falsified death certificate. And for decades, the truth of his unflinching bravery was buried.

How cool is that?  (Answer:  it’s pretty goddamn cool.)

“Now they’ll never forget what you did for this country,” Sam tells Isaiah.  “Never.”  A visibly moved Isaiah Bradley shakes the younger man’s hand and then embraces him, tears in his eyes.

The Isaiah Bradley Exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Back in Louisiana, we’re seeing what one world, one people might look like, with what looks like a grand (re)opening for Wilson Family Seafood.  Lots of people, lots of food, lots of dancing, and even a Bucky Barnes appearance.  Sam takes pictures with the flirty locals, while Bucky plays around with A.J. and Cass, and chats up Sam’s sister, Sarah, all to the tune of Curtis Harding’s retro-sounding, horn-driven ‘On and On.'[6]You can find out more about Curtis Harding at his website, curtisharding.com.  His music is available on iTunes; the song ‘On and On’ is from his 2017 album, Face Your Fear.  Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes take stock of themselves and each other, the sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico.

Cue closing title card — Captain America and the Winter Soldier — and end credits.  It’s an ending that sticks its landing for me.  However shaky the plot and narrative elements of the series may have been — and they were often plenty shaky — when the show worked, it worked because of the warmth and humanity of its characters.

A black Captain America?  Damn right.  Especially when it’s this Captain America.  I love that Sam Wilson is portrayed as consistently, unambiguously heroic throughout this entire series.  Kind, brave, responsible, and capable.  There’s never a moment where you doubt Sam’s good intentions or the kindness of his heart.

Can you help?

Always.

Sam’s not just worthy of being Captain America.  He’s perfect for it.  You may remember, way back in episode 1, the first words we hear in this series are the ones that were shared between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson at the conclusion of Avengers:  Endgame.

How does it feel?

Like it’s someone else’s.

It isn’t.

What that opening left out was what came immediately after:

Thank you.  I’ll do my best.

That’s why it’s yours.

Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Captain America (Anthony Mackie).

____

This, that, and the other…

  • Sam Wilson’s first appearance as Captain America was in Captain America #25 (Dec 2014), by Rick Remender and Carlos Pacheco.  Near as I can determine, Sam’s Captain America suit was designed by Pacheco.  The show’s suit, which hews pretty closely to Pacheco’s design, was put together by the series’ costume designer, Michael Crow; you can read about Crowe’s work on the suit and other costumes on the show here.
  • Captain America: Sam Wilson #1, Dec 2015, by Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna.

    As in the show, the comics too grappled with the notion of a black man wearing the mantle of Captain America, primarily in Captain America:  Sam Wilson #1 – 24 (Dec 2015 – Sep 2017) by writer Nick Spencer and various artists.  Spencer’s comic was more confrontational than the show, with most of the book’s villains espousing an unmistakably conservative / Trumpist philosophy, and the often-polarizing Spencer didn’t bother tip-toeing around anyone’s white male victimhood.  Plenty of characters — mostly white, mostly male — in the comics found plenty of reason to object to Sam Wilson, and plenty of people — mostly white, mostly male — outside the comics, in real life, found plenty of reason to object to Nick Spencer.  What Nick Spencer thought about it all, I couldn’t say, but my guess is that his reaction more or less mirrored our own collective national dismay at the rise — or exposure — of Trumpism:  you knew this sort of brain-dead, malevolent racist bullshit existed, but the sheer scale of it, the numbers of your fellow Americans who gleefully subscribed to it, was shocking.

  • As of this writing in the comics, Steve Rogers is Captain America and Sam Wilson is the Falcon.  Joaquin Torres is also the Falcon, and yes, I know it’s weird.
  • My Problem with MCU Fights, Part I:  Practically without exception and across the board, the inhabitants of the MCU are less capable than their comic book counterparts.  Not just in a physical way as it applies to doing super-hero or super-villain shit, but in every way.  The movie versions of Marvel characters aren’t as smart, aren’t as polished, aren’t as powerful, aren’t as formidable, functional, or dangerous as their comic versions.  My guess is that Kevin Feige, the guy ultimately responsible for Marvel Studios product, puts a premium on clear cause and effect:  whenever and wherever possible, x should lead to y in a direct and obvious way, and if that means leaving some nuance and complexity on the table, well, that’s the trade-off.  It’s a storytelling policy that largely limits the Marvel movies to working in and with one dimension at a time.  With rare exceptions, what you see is exactly what you get…even in cases where what you see ought to be something other than what you get (cf., Carter, Sharon).
  • My Problem with MCU Fights, Part II:  Along with this diminishment of functionality is a maddening ‘equalization’ of combatants, where almost everyone is roughly as capable as almost everyone else.  It’s like a video game where everything levels up at the same rate, resulting in an equality between foes that shouldn’t be happening.  Sam’s no chump, but he spends most of his time flying around on mechanical wings, whereas Batroc’s specialty is kicking people in the face.  Not a fight Sam should want to be in, especially indoors, where he can’t really use those wings to good effect.  Any Flag Smasher vs. the Winter Soldier?  (Maybe all the Flag Smashers vs. the Winter Soldier.)  That shouldn’t even be a fight.  Even if he’s not trying to seriously hurt or kill his opponent, Bucky Barnes has forgotten more about fighting than most of the Flag Smasher have been alive long enough to learn.  Karli vs. John Walker?  Marvel.com lists John Walker at 6′ 4, 270 pounds.  Big guy.  Wyatt Russell, the actor who plays John Walker, is 6′ 2, and nowhere near as bulky as the comic character; based on his body type, let’s put him somewhere in the 210 – 220 pound range.  Erin Kellyman, the actress who plays Karli Morgenthau, is 5′ 6.  She looks plenty strong and athletic to me.  Sam refers to her as a teen-ager, so after shaving a few pounds off for youth, Karli probably weighs in somewhere between 120 and 130 pounds.  Assuming all other things are equal — they’re not, or shouldn’t be, but let’s say for the sake of argument they are — Karli’s giving up nearly 100 pounds to Walker.  Just saying, 5′ 6 person who knows how to fight vs. 6′ 2 person who knows how to fight, the 6′ 2 person is likely to win that tussle.  And that’s fine.  It’s perfectly reasonable to have unequal combatants, and I’d argue it’d be more exciting to see characters coming up with ways to deal with opponents that are unlikely to be defeated in a fair fight.  Some things, you can’t just punch your way through it.
  • My Problem with MCU Fights, Part III:  People rarely get hurt in these fights, or show any ill effects whatsoever from being punched, kicked, pummeled, and straight up thrown through walls and the like.  They don’t even get tired.  Now, I’m not saying that I expect or even want the MCU to be ‘realistic’ when it comes to the effects of violence — super people are gonna be super people, after all, and these are PG-13 productions — but there should be some consequences.  A super-soldier with a metal arm punches you in the face, that should hurt.  There should be an immediate reaction to that, and the reaction in most cases should be crumpling to the ground devoid of consciousness.  Somebody call an ambulance.  The problem with the lack of consequences is that it diminishes the threat, and thus the suspense, of these confrontations.  It’s hard to care about what happens in a fight if there’s no risk of anyone getting hurt.  Most MCU fights, people barely get inconvenienced…and seeing as how all of these movies and shows devote a high percentage of their running time to climactic fights, the glaring absence of consequences winds up being a big deal.
  • Karli and her fellow Flag Smashers don’t seem to be immune or even resistant to small arms fire.  Why nobody thought to just bring a submachine gun or a pistol to deal with them, I couldn’t say.
  • Erin Kellyman, in these fight scenes revolving around the hostages, plays Karli as sad, tired, caught up in something that’s gotten out of her hands.  I’d love to know if that was the actress herself deciding to play it that way, or if it was a directorial decision.
  • I was this week years old when I realized that Wyatt Russell, the actor who plays John Walker, is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
  • As of this writing, the Georges Batroc of the comics is alive and well.
  • The scene featuring Sam’s conversation with the GRC, from angelic touchdown to his walking away, lasts over four minutes.  I’m not positive, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s the single longest scene in the entire series.
  • It’s probably just a coincidence, but Baron Zemo and Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine favor the same color scheme, black and maroon.
  • John Walker’s first appearance as the U.S.Agent was Captain America #354 (Jun 1989), by Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer, and Al Milgrom.  The show leaves the runner on base with regard to Walker’s mental health, avoiding the subject altogether.
  • Neither here nor there, but in the course of asking Google some questions to bolster my nearly non-existent knowledge of basic New York City geography, I ran across this insanely cool site, Geek Trippers, which lists nearly every shooting location Falcon and the Winter Soldier has to offer, along with notes and pictures.  If you’re a fan of the show, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not going to look at it.
  • A post-credits scene shows Sharon Carter receiving the pardon Sam Wilson promised her, as well as an apology from the US government as represented by our very industrious but oddly nameless Senator / Government Official.
  • Sharon Carter as the Power Broker.  I’ve got questions.  So many questions.  If Sharon only became the Power Broker after the events of Captain America:  Civil War, then how does Zemo know anything whatsoever about her, even by reputation?  He’s been sitting in prison the entire time Sharon’s been in Madripoor.  If Sharon’s the Power Broker, why lead Sam, Bucky, and Zemo, as well as a small army of bounty hunters in pursuit of a bounty she herself appears to have placed, straight to her serum maker Nagel?  I don’t see any angle from which that makes a lick of sense.  If Sharon was working on her own in Madripoor, without CIA backing, wouldn’t the agency have some questions about her time there and her connection with this Power Broker business?  I’m not saying the CIA would know everything about the shenanigans Sharon has been getting up to, but you’d think they’d know something…and that something, added to her off-the-books theft of Steve Rogers’s shield and Sam Wilson’s flight suit back in Civil War, seems like it would be more than enough to keep them from just giving Sharon her old job back, no questions asked.  And whether she was or wasn’t backed by the CIA, either way, wouldn’t she provide more value just staying in Madripoor?  It tracks that the CIA would want or need its own player on the ground there.  Sharon has the cover story and plausible deniability already in place, and knows the local game and all its players.  Why not just keep Sharon in Madripoor in her rogue agent role?

Longest.

Post.

Ever.

Thank you reading.  Please hit me up if you’ve got questions or comments or yearn to argue to the death over fictional characters and the universe they inhabit, because your humble correspondent lives for that shizz.

Next up:  Loki!

References

References
1 Roseanne Tan and Marvel Studios veteran Jeffrey Ford were the editors for ‘One World, One People’
2 A Google search tells me this face and voice disguise is called a Photostatic Veil, also known as a Nano Mask.  Now we know!
3 Apparently killing him, according to CBR.
4 I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Room Where It Happens’ from Hamilton when Sam said this.
5 About 40 miles or so down I-495 from Baltimore, according to Google.
6 You can find out more about Curtis Harding at his website, curtisharding.com.  His music is available on iTunes; the song ‘On and On’ is from his 2017 album, Face Your Fear.
Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 5: Truth

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, there are spoilers ahead, and this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fifth episode.

A climactic fight at the top of the hour notwithstanding, most of the penultimate episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels like a deep breath before the final leg of a marathon.  It’s a time for the show to take stock of its human element and present its central thesis in a clear, unambiguous way.  With a notable exception or two, most of the episode’s running time is devoted to people at long last saying what they really mean…or perhaps finally realizing what it is they mean to say.

At the conclusion of last week’s episode, in retaliation for the death of his partner Lemar Hoskins, John Walker killed a member of the Flag Smashers in a manner that was very deliberate, very brutal, and most of all, very public.  At the start of this episode, we see him fleeing on foot directly following last week’s events, arriving at an empty factory in an industrial park.  The camera work here is out of focus, unsteady, never still, suggesting Walker’s tumultuous frame of mind.  Just about the time Walker calms down long enough to muster at least the pretense of having his shit together, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier arrive.

Bucky and Sam attempt to reason with Walker, but when Sam tells Walker it’s time to give up the shield, Walker predictably takes all their talk as a ploy to separate him from the Captain America identity.  “You don’t want to do this,” Walker warns the pair.

Bucky, who’d probably had enough of Walker’s shit before even meeting him, says, “Yeah, we do.”

And it’s on.

(L-R): John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in Marvel Studios’ THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

It’s a rough, brutal fight, the sort of fight no one sane would want to have with John Walker.  Armed with the shield and his new-found super-strength, Walker proves a formidable challenge, but Sam and Bucky eke out a narrow victory, stripping the shield from Walker, breaking his arm in the process, and beating him into unconsciousness.  A battered Bucky Barnes retrieves the shield and drops it on the ground near an equally battered Sam Wilson, who’s had the wings torn off his flight suit, and departs without saying a word.

In the aftermath of the fight, we learn the authorities have landed hard on a number of GRC resettlement camps, but none of the raids have turned up Karli or her inner circle.  According to Lieutenant Torres, last seen in episode 2, the killing of a foreign national by Captain America has caused an international incident, and “folks higher up on the payroll are all over it now.”  I would’ve thought Karli’s intentional bombing of a GRC building with GRC people still in it might’ve stirred folks higher up on the payroll to be all over it, but apparently not.  With Karli’s trail gone cold, and Bucky in pursuit of Zemo, Sam elects to return to the States.  Torres asks about Sam’s broken wings, salvaged from the fight with Walker.

“Keep ’em,” says Sam.

Back in Washington D.C., the public removal of John Walker as Captain America is taking place:  “John F. Walker, it is the order of this council that you are no longer to act in any capacity as a representative of the United States government or its military.  You are hereby stripped of your title and authority as Captain America, effective immediately.”

John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and his wife Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss).

When Walker requests permission to submit mitigating evidence to the Senatorial committee sitting in judgment of him, the chairman tells him in no uncertain terms that what’s going on here isn’t a negotiation, it’s a mandate, and that Walker’s past service to the nation is the only thing keeping him from court-martial and a prison term.

“I lived my life by your mandates!” an angry Walker tells the committee.  “I dedicated my life to your mandates!  I only ever did what you asked of me.  What you told me to be, and trained me to be, and I did it.  And I did it well.”

The committee chairman remains unmoved.  “You will be given an other than honorable discharge, retroactive to the beginning of the month.  You will hold no rank in retirement, and receive no benefits.”

“You built me,” says John Walker.  “Senator, I am Captain America.”

“Not anymore.  And if you continue to demean and denigrate the priorities and dignity of this council, you will spend the rest of your life in the US Disciplinary Barracks.”  The chairman says this last bit to Walker’s back, as Walker has sensibly elected to dismiss himself from these proceedings.  “Consider yourself extremely fortunate, Mr. Walker, and return the shield to us with expedience.”  That the committee doesn’t seem to realize that Walker no longer has the shield perhaps tells us something about their diligence and commitment to fact-finding.

Out in the hall, Walker’s wife Olivia is trying to talk him down from the ledge, proposing that he focus and take things one step at a time, beginning with visiting Lemar’s family.  In the midst of this talk, an unexpected visitor intrudes:  the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (a swaggering Julia Louis-Dreyfuss).

After introducing herself, she sits down between Walker and Olivia and points out the obvious:  “Look, I would’ve killed the bastard too.  Nobody in there is mad at you about that.  I mean, you would’ve been doing them a favor by taking out the whole lot.”  She tells Walker that the committee’s members have interests to protect, and that he did the right thing in taking the serum, that doing so has made him very, very valuable to certain people.  It’s the second-best decision he’s ever made in his life, she says; the first, tied with marrying Olivia, will be taking Val’s calls in the future.  “Oh, by the way:  don’t worry about the shield.  I know you don’t have it.  Here’s a little dirty state secret:  it doesn’t really belong to the government.  It’s kind of a legal grey area.”  She tells him she’ll be in touch.

The cynic in me wonders why the committee didn’t simply pony up the old ‘the video doesn’t show the whole encounter’ defense, along with the tried and true ‘the victim failed to comply’ on Walker’s behalf.  Val’s not wrong:  no one cares about Walker killing some asshole terrorist, and the same committee that hung him out to dry would have been pleased as punch if he’d gone ahead and scratched Karli and her entire team off the board, so long as he did it with a modicum of discretion.  It’s not the deed, it’s the optics; or to put it another way, Walker’s not being removed as Captain America for committing murder, but rather for his spectacularly poor judgment.  The committee’s problem is that Walker did what he did in public, in front of dozens of cell phone cameras recording the event for social media posterity…and even so, given the post-Trump, post-insurrection circus of malleable fact-fuckery we’re all currently living in, I’m not sure it would matter.  In real life, it’s not a stretch to imagine the MAGA crowd reconfiguring the cold-blooded daytime murder of a helpless combatant into a righteous show of American dominance vs. terrorism….and it’s the MAGA element that would’ve given John Walker the shield and mantle of Captain America in the first place.  They’d keep John Walker under wraps for a month or two, while Lindsey Graham and the My Pillow guy appeared on Fox News to proclaim the murder wasn’t as bad as it looked, and anyway it wasn’t murder, and when all is said and done, isn’t John Walker a hero for doing what’s necessary?

Back in Riga, Karli and her inner circle visit their old camp to find it empty of inhabitants, only a few belongings left behind.  According to the notices posted, the camp was suspected of harboring and abetting international fugitives, and shut down after a raid.  It’s yet another example of an outcome that’s precisely the opposite of what Karli had hoped to achieve…though, as one might guess based on her previous reactions, that’s not her takeaway from recent events.  Instead, she prepares for further escalation.

The Winter Soldier finds Baron Zemo at the monument for Sokovia.  Zemo’s not hiding, not running, doesn’t seem to have any master plan, unless getting caught or killed by Bucky Barnes is the plan.  He warns that Karli has been radicalized beyond salvation and urges Bucky again to do what Sam won’t.  When it looks like Bucky is about to shoot him, Zemo appears calmer than Bucky does.  He looks Bucky in the eye and nods, as if giving his blessing.  Bucky points a pistol at Zemo’s face and pulls the trigger…but the hammer falls on an empty chamber.  Click.  Instead of a shooting, the Dora Milaje arrive on the scene to take custody of Zemo.  This outcome doesn’t seem to disturb or disconcert Zemo any more than the prospect of being shot in the face did.  As for Bucky’s dramatic pretense of shooting Zemo, your guess is as good as mine as to what that was all about, or what it was meant to achieve.

Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) being taken into custody by the Wakandans.

“Ladies,” Zemo says to the Wakandans, then to Bucky:  “I took the liberty of crossing off my name in your book.  I hold no grudges for what you thought you had to do.  Good-bye, James.”  It’s news to me that Zemo’s name was in Bucky’s book, but okay.

As the Dora Milaje escort Zemo to a waiting airship, Ayo says they intend to take Zemo to the Raft, an underwater prison meant for super-human detainees, last seen in Captain America:  Civil War (2018), where he will live out his days.  Why wouldn’t they just take Zemo back to Wakanda?  Who knows?  She tells Bucky it might be prudent for him to avoid Wakanda for the foreseeable future, but they part on more or less friendly terms, with Bucky asking for one last favor.

Sam’s first stop back in the States is to visit Isaiah Bradley in Baltimore.  He brings the shield with him in a sort of portfolio case, but Isaiah tells him to leave it covered.  “Those stars and stripes don’t mean nothin’ good to me.”

Sam says he’s looking to understand…but understand what?  What happened to Isaiah?  How Isaiah feels about it?  He doesn’t specify, but Isaiah says, “You understand.  Every black man does.  Whether you want to deny it or not.”

“Don’t do that bitter old man thing with me.”

“If you ain’t bitter?” Isaiah says.  “You’re blind.”

Isaiah tells Sam he used to be like him, until he opened his eyes, saw men who’d served in World War II, who fought for their country only to come home to find crosses burned on their lawns.

“I’m from the South,” says Sam.  “I get that.  But you were a super-soldier, like Steve.  You could’ve been the next –”

“The next…what?  Huh?  Blonde hair, blue eyes, stars and stripes…the entire world’s been chasing that Great White Hope since he first got dosed with that serum.”

“Steve did not put you in jail.”

Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)

Isaiah shows Sam pictures of his long-gone wife, the letters she wrote that he didn’t get to read while he was in prison; relics of the life Isaiah Bradley was owed and never received.  Isaiah recounts how he and a handful of his fellow soldiers — black soldiers — were experimented on with different versions of the serum without their consent or knowledge, given shots without knowing what was in them or why they were being given.  These prospective super-soldiers were then sent on missions, even though many of them weren’t stable, and over time they began to die off.  When Isaiah’s surviving companions were captured, Isaiah overheard his commanding officers debating whether or not to bomb the entire P.O.W. camp to destroy all evidence.  “But those were my men,” says Isaiah.  “My brothers.  Not evidence.  So I bust out of the facility one night…and I brought them boys back.”

Not that it made a damn bit of difference, says Isaiah.  It wasn’t long before he was the only one of his group left.  For his rescue efforts, he was given 30 years in prison and experimented on painfully, relentlessly, his captors trying to figure out why the serum worked with him and not with the others.  According to Isaiah, a kind nurse took pity on him and had him declared dead, effectively removing him from the system.

It’s to Sam Wilson’s credit and his kind-hearted, optimistic nature that he yearns to put this situation with Isaiah Bradley right, or at least as right as it can be after all these years and all this injustice.  Sam wants to do something, tell somebody.  The world is different now, Sam knows people.

“Man, that’s why you’re here?” says Isaiah.  “You think things are different?  You think times are different?  You think I wouldn’t be dead in a day if you brought me out?  You want to believe jail was my fault, because you got that white man’s shield.  They were worried my story might get out, so they erased me.  My history.  But they’ve been doing that for five hundred years.  Pledge allegiance to that, my brother.”

(I just want to point out how good Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley is here.  He knocks it out the park with tremendous dignity and emotion.)

What Isaiah says next gets to the thematic heart of what Falcon and the Winter Soldier is all about:  “They will never let a black man be Captain America.  And even if they did, no self-respecting black man would ever want to be.”

Goddamn.  No beating around the fucking bush for Isaiah Bradley, no sir.

I’ve criticized the MCU loudly and often in the past for being bland, formulaic, and thematically one dimensional.  I’ve a life-long love of super-heroes, Marvel super-heroes in particular…but let’s face it, most of the movies that make up the body of the MCU aren’t really about anything other than people in colorful outfits trading punches and snappy one-liners in a bouncy CGI fun house of low stakes and shameless fan service.  It’s a formula that’s worked like gangbusters — financially, at least, if not artistically — so it’s hard to blame Marvel Studios for rinsing and repeating their way through most of 23 movies over ten-plus years.

But this…

It’s to Marvel Studios’ enormous credit that not only did they not shy away from the black Captain America aspect of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, they made it the central point of the series.  They didn’t have to.  Plenty of fans would no doubt have been just fine with an unambitious six-course meal of super-hero fights, special effects, and deep cut cameos.  In fact, going off the often ugly backlash received by the comics that served as the source material for this series — which we’ll address in more depth next week — there’s a vocal minority of fandom out there who are outraged over having to suffer what they see as the imposition of Marvel’s ‘liberal agenda.’

Racist and misogynist ass clowns notwithstanding, that Marvel Studios did their level best to make this series about something — race, representation, justice, responsibility, and competing ideas about what it means to be an American — gives me some small hope for the future quality of the MCU.

Shaken by Isaiah’s revelations, Sam returns home to his family in Louisiana.  The family’s boat sale has fallen through, but Sam vows to find a way to fix the boat.  When he discovers that his sister Sarah is still feeding poor neighborhood kids, Sam asks how many people in the community still owe their parents something.  “All of them,” she says.  “All that’s left, for sure.”

Sam decides to call in his family’s favors, asking his neighbors and life-long friends for help…and such is the Wilsons’ reputation for good will and high character that those friends do turn out to help, lending their time and their expertise when they have no other resources to give.  Another unexpected friend also shows up to lend a hand:  Bucky Barnes.

Ostensibly he’s there to drop off a large case — the favor he requested from Ayo and the Wakandans — but one gets the sense that maybe Bucky simply has no better place to be and nothing better to do.  One small repair job leads to another — the Wilson family’s busted down boat has no shortage of maintenance tasks awaiting — and it seems natural that Bucky would stick around to help.  A bit of mutual interest between Bucky and Sam’s sister Sarah probably doesn’t hurt either; the brief overtures of tentative flirtation between the two have a lot of warmth and charm.

Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sarah Wilson (Adepero Oduye).

As the day’s work winds down, Bucky asks Sam if he thinks Karli’s going to throw in the towel.

“I think she’s gonna double down,” says Sam.

“Any idea how to stop her?”

“I got Joaquin working on something.”

“Well, Zemo says there’s only one way.”

Meanwhile, Walker is visiting with Lemar’s family, his parents and his sister.  Curiously, Walker repeats his story that what it was Nico Kovacszik, the man Walker killed, who was responsible for Lemar’s death, and not Karli Morgenthau.  It’s unclear to me whether Walker genuinely believes this fiction, or to what extent his belief might be willful or the result of some mental instability.  Lemar’s parents seem to buy Walker’s story readily enough, and appear comforted by it.  Lemar’s sister, not so much.

Out in Madripoor, Sharon Carter is getting up to some tricks, calling up our old friend Georges Batroc, last seen leaping from an exploding helicopter in episode 1, to offer him a job.  He doesn’t sound all that happy to be hearing from her, judging by her end of the conversation.  She tells him that if it weren’t for her, he’d still be rotting away in that Algerian prison.  When he’s finished with his outburst, she tells him she can offer him double this time, implying that she’s hired him in the past.  Again, I’m not saying Sharon’s definitely a CIA agent running this Power Broker operation and using her clout from halfway around the world to spring mercenary terrorists from prison, but I’ve yet to see or hear anything that argues against it.

In Louisiana, Sam and Bucky, having been shooed away from work on the boat by Sarah, set up some shield practice for Sam in the yard.

“Feels weird,” says Sam, “picking it up again.  The legacy of that shield is…complicated, to say the least.”

“When Steve told me what he was planning,” says Bucky.  “I don’t think either of us really understood what it felt like for a black man to be handed the shield.  How could we?  I owe you an apology.  I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.”

Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) with the shield of Captain America.

“Whatever happened with Walker, that wasn’t your fault.  I get it.  It’s just that shield’s the closest thing I’ve got left to a family; so when you retired it, it made me feel like I had nothing left.  It made me question everything.  You.  Steve.  Me.  You know, I’ve got his book, and I just figured if it worked for him, then it’d work for me.”

“I understand, man,” says Sam, “but Steve is gone.  And this might be a surprise, but it doesn’t matter what Steve thought.  You gotta stop looking to other people to tell you who are.”

Sam tells Bucky that to get well, he needs to put in the work.  That what he’s done so far in his book hasn’t been amending but avenging.  Bucky’s been doing what’s good for him, instead of going to the people in his book and doing what’s good for them.  It’s good advice.  Sam and Bucky part ways in a good place, Bucky telling Sam that when he has a lead on Karli, drop him a line and he’ll be there.

After all the work they put in, Sam’s sister decides against selling the boat, and after talking with her, Sam takes what may be the first real steps in becoming his own version of Captain America.  Sam acknowledges the injustices done to Isaiah Bradley, “But what would be the point of all the pain and the sacrifice if I wasn’t willing to stand up and keep fighting?”

Sam begins training with the shield in earnest, in a sort of Rocky-like montage, with the encouragement of his excited nephews, A.J. and Cass.  The way the sequence ends, with Sam looking at his nephews with love and pride, you get the sense that there’s an extra weight — I wouldn’t call it a burden, given the unpleasant connotations of that word, but there’s an extra something there — to being a black Captain America.  Sam Wilson as Captain America carries that weight for the A.J.’s and the Casses and the Eli and Isaiah Bradleys of the world in a way that Steve Rogers never had to, or would have been able to, for all that man’s considerable greatness.  Like the shield, like the Wilson’s family fishing boat, Sam Wilson as Captain America represents a set of values, a shared communal history, that goes beyond his own personal experience.

In New York’s Bryant Park, Karli Morgenthau and her companion Dovich are meeting up with none other than Georges Batroc.  Karli tells Dovich she hired Batroc to even the odds.  Karli explains that Sam recently cost Batroc a small fortune not long ago, and he’s been looking for revenge ever since.  Karli doesn’t seem to be aware of the Sharon Carter angle.

“So we’re working with criminals now?” says Dovich.

“Haven’t you heard?” says Karli.  “We are criminals.  Georges gets his payback and we get a killer.  It’s a bargain on both sides.”

Batroc asks if he was invited for a picnic.  “A test, of sorts,” Karli tells him.  “We’re everywhere and nowhere.  That’s why we’ll win.”  She activates her social media alert, the same sort we saw just before the Swiss bank robbery back in episode 1.  “We’re going to make sure the GRC vote never happens.”

“Hey,” says Batroc, “I’m not here to be part of your movement.  I’m only here to kill the Falcon.”

“You’ll get your chance,” Karli promises.

George Batroc (Georges St. Pierre) and Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman): “I’m only here to kill the Falcon.”

That evening, Sam is contacted by Lieutenant Torres.  He’s noticed a pattern of social media pings in Europe just before the Flag Smashers would hit a given target.  The latest such ping, he tells Sam, was detected in New York.  Sam, watching the news about the GRC vote on television, puts two and two together.  “Great work, Joaquin.  I’ll take it from here.”

In New York, the GRC is meeting in their UN-like chambers, discussing the coming vote — interesting that the same Senator[1]Played by Alphie Hyorth, he’s referred to only as Government Official in the IMDB credits. who presided over the John Walker debacle seems to be the unofficial chairman of the GRC assembly — when the lights go dark and the communications are scrambled.  Back in Louisiana, Sam Wilson at last opens the case given to him by Bucky Barnes, courtesy of Wakanda.  What he finds therein is a mystery for next episode.

Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) opens the case from Wakanda.

A post-credits scene — the first for Falcon and the Winter Soldier — shows John Walker in the apparent process of making a new shield for himself.  Not sure how that would work; so far as I know, John Walker doesn’t know shit about metallurgy, and even the poorest working duplicate of Captain America’s shield would require rare materials that’d be prohibitively expensive and nearly impossible to obtain.  Think a normal person trying to obtain a specific type of uranium.  It’s not really a DIY kind of project.

____

Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes:

  • What would action movies do without abandoned factories?
  • You do remember that in the comics Joaquin Torres becomes another Falcon, yes?  Of course you do.  In much the same way that there are currently two characters running around in the Marvel Universe calling themselves Spider-Man, Peter Parker and Miles Morales, so too are there two Falcons.  I know.  It’s weird.  Even more weird, while Sam Wilson’s wings in the comics and in the movies are artificial, Joaquin’s wings in the comics are part of him, the result of experiments conducted on him by none other than Karl Malus, the Power Broker…the very same Power Broker that gave John Walker and Lemar Hoskins their powers.  Created by Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna, Joaquin Torres first took on the Falcon role in Captain America:  Sam Wilson #6 (Feb 2016).
  • Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, Strange Tales #168, May 1968, by Jim Steranko.
    (In)Famous page featuring Val and Nick Fury from Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #2, Jul 1968, by Jim Steranko.  Note the holstered pistol!

    While I doubt any appearance by any character could possibly surprise me as much Isaiah Bradley’s appearance surprised me, an appearance by the extremely obscure Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (played by the wonderful Julia Louis-Dreyfus, no less!) comes awful close.  Created by the stylish, influential, and boundary-pushing Jim Steranko, the Italian super-spy and SHIELD agent first appeared in Strange Tales #159 (Aug 1967).  I can’t speak to all mainstream comics, but certainly so far as Marvel was concerned, Val was the first of her type.  Practically all the female characters who’d appeared in Marvel comics up to that point were either earnest, somewhat innocent teenagers, or else were earnest, somewhat innocent matrons.  The Black Widow was still a few years away from sporting her slinky black leather outfit (a version of which we still see in the movies today), and Quicksilver was still defending his sister Wanda’s honor from lecherous pigs like Clint Barton when Val came along.  Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson were appearing in Amazing Spider-Man, and Susan Richards, the Invisible Girl, was in Fantastic Four, but the nameless floozies hanging out with Tony Stark aside, you never really got the sense that any of the girls or women in Marvel comics were getting up to anything more risque than riding around on the back of Peter Parker’s motorcycle without a helmet, say.  They certainly weren’t running around half-dressed and getting up to skanky Italian shenanigans in Nick Fury’s apartment without a chaperone.  Not until Steranko created Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, at any rate.

  • The Raft of the Marvel Universe is in New York, connected to Ryker’s Island.  It otherwise functions in the comics much the same as it does in the movies.  The Raft first appeared in Alias #26 (Nov 2003), and was created by Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Mark Bagley, and Art Thibert.
  • Truth: Red, White, & Black #7, Jul 2003, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker.

    It wasn’t a rescue op that sent Isaiah Bradley to prison in the comics, but his theft of a Captain America costume.  The details of the costume’s theft and the mission Isaiah took it on can be found in Truth:  Red, White, & Black #4 – 7 (Apr – Jul 2003) by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker.

  • As of this writing, Lemar Hoskins, a.k.a. Battlestar, is still alive and well in the comics.

That’s it for us this week.  The final episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier beckons!  As always, if you have any questions or comments on anything you’ve seen here — or if you have Marvel Comics questions in general — please let me know!

References

References
1 Played by Alphie Hyorth, he’s referred to only as Government Official in the IMDB credits.
Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 4: The Whole World is Watching

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, there are spoilers ahead, and this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fourth episode.  I’ll beg the reader’s patience in advance; I quote dialogue fairly extensively from this episode, as much of what people say here reveals character and provides depth to the series’ ongoing themes:  power, powerlessness, race, class, and communal responsibility.

Hope and cynicism, death and zealotry.  No doubt it sounds strange coming from someone who’s devoted as much of their life to cataloging and absorbing these stories as I have, but I believe the only really inherently compelling thing about the characters populating super-hero universes is the extremity — the purity, the certainty — of their belief systems.  There’s an entire constellation of overlapping (and often conflicting) motives, methods, and philosophies at work in this episode, but one thing practically everyone here has in common is a devout belief in the essential rightness of their cause, or at least that their actions, however questionable, will be justified by the end result.  And as we’ll see, competing ideas about Captain America — both the person and the legacy — will once again come into play, and then some.

Our story opens around a campfire in Wakanda a half dozen years past, Bucky Barnes staring pensively into the fire, Ayo of the Dora Milaje standing nearby.  “It is time,” says Ayo.

“Are you sure about this?” he asks her.

“I won’t let you hurt anyone,” she says.  It’s not a threat but reassurance.  She begins repeating the Russian code words that have in the past activated the kill on demand Winter Soldier…but this time, though the words bring up a host of incredibly unpleasant and haunting memories and associations, Bucky Barnes remains Bucky Barnes.  Sebastian Stan has been good in all his appearances as the Winter Soldier, but he gets to stretch his talents here in a way that he’s rarely tasked to do.  His eyes fill and overflow with tears.  It’s a lifetime’s worth of guilt over having been made an instrument of murder, and relief that he can no longer be used as such.

“You are free,” says Ayo, and if that seems wildly optimistic — can or even should anyone be free of something like this? — her point is taken, and well-meant.

Back to the present in Latvia, and Ayo’s got some hard questions for her old friend Bucky Barnes.  Namely, she’s awfully curious as to how, after all that Wakanda has done for him, Bucky could conspire to free Zemo, the man who killed Wakanda’s king, T’Chaka.[1]It happened in Captain America:  Civil War (2016).  Bucky’s swiftly diminishing cache with the Wakandans buys him a little time.  “Eight hours, White Wolf,” Ayo tells him, “Then we come for him.”

A nice bit of composition, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) on the left and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) on the right.

Bucky returns to Zemo’s safe house and tells his companions the Wakandans are in Riga, after Zemo.

“It was sweet of you to defend me, at least,” says Zemo.

“Hey, you shut it,” says Sam.  “No one’s defending you.  You killed Nagel.”  That’d be Dr. Wilfred Nagel, the designer of the current super-soldier serum, last episode in Madripoor.

Zemo gets off what may be the funniest, most deadpan line in MCU history:  “Do we really have to litigate what may or may not have happened?”  Like everyone in the room wasn’t standing right there, two feet away from him when he shot a creepy scientist guy in cold blood.

While Sam is reasonably insisting there’s nothing to litigate — “You straight shot the man!” — Bucky reads the news that Karli Morgenthau and her Flag Smashers have bombed a GRC supply depot, killing three and injuring another eleven, and have issued demands promising more attacks if their demands aren’t met.

“She’s getting worse,” Zemo says, and strongly suggests that there’s really only one way to complete this particular mission.  He questions whether Sam and Bucky have the will to go that far.  Sam tells him Karli’s just a kid.

“You’re seeing something in her that isn’t there,” says Zemo.  “You’re clouded by it.  She’s a supremacist.  The very concept of a super-soldier will always trouble people.  It’s that warped aspiration that led to Nazis, to Ultron, to the Avengers.”

Sam admits that Karli’s radicalized, but insists there must be a peaceful way to stop her.  Zemo disagrees:  “The desire to become a super- human cannot be separated from supremacist ideals.  Anyone with that serum is inherently on that path.  She will not stop.  She will escalate until you kill her.  Or she kills you.”  The camera pushes in close on Zemo when he’s saying this, suggesting both that he believes what he’s saying, and that it’s important to him.  Zemo’s notions concerning supremacy and the desire to be powerful is something that he and other characters will kick around for the rest of this episode.

Bucky thinks maybe Zemo is wrong.  He reminds Zemo that the serum never corrupted Steve Rogers, the original Captain America.

Zemo concedes the point, but, “There has never been another Steve Rogers, has there?”

Reasoning that the recently deceased Donya Madani was something of a community leader, Sam wonders if the refugee community suspected of harboring Karli might have a sort of service or ceremony for Madani.  It’s as good a lead as any.

Meanwhile, Karli and her fellow super-soldier Flag Smashers are seen absorbing media accounts of their supply depot operation.  One of the dead workers was a father of two who’d only been on the job for a week.  If any of the Flag Smashers have regrets about being made de facto accomplices to murder, they don’t say so.  In response to the violence, we’re told the GRC has begun formally drafting legislation, the Patch Act, which would restore traditional border regulations…precisely the opposite effect that Karli had intended.

Arriving at the GRC Resettlement Camp building in Riga — a place Zemo remembers hosting ‘fabulous dinners and parties’ in his youth — Sam, Bucky, and Zemo try questioning the residents about Donya Madani.  They’re met for the most part with sullen stares and closing doors.  It struck me as curious that there didn’t appear to be any security or GRC personnel whatsoever present.  No guards, no administrators, no liaisons, no one to take note of the comings and goings of anyone in the camp, and nothing to stop outsiders from strolling in at any time to stir up trouble or take advantage of some very vulnerable people.  Also, it’s not as if Karli Morgenthau is some unknown person working under cover of anonymity.  She’s all over the news, she’s highly distinctive physically — no one’s going to mistake Karli Morgenthau for anyone but Karli Morgenthau — and plenty of people know that she has ties to the refugees in these various GRC camps, if not ties to this specific camp.  I’m just saying, it’s a little surprising that Zemo, Sam, and Bucky are apparently the first and only hounds to bark up this particular tree.

Sam does at least manage to find a teacher willing to speak to him, if only to tell him that, despite knowing who he is and perhaps even believing that he has the best intentions, outsiders to the camp aren’t to be trusted.  Zemo, smarter and more pragmatic, has better luck, appealing to the camp’s children with a bag of candy.  From them, he learns when and where Donya Madani’s funeral will be.

Candy from strangers. Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) and the fine art of bribery.

Throughout this series and through this episode in particular, it’s Sam Wilson who, over and over, evinces Captain America qualities:  not just bravery and capability, but also kindness, compassion, and empathy.  It’s Sam who advocates for approaching Karli peacefully, and it’s Sam who’s able to articulate the Flag Smashers’ position, the reason for their bitterness and resentment, to Zemo and Bucky:  “Karli is the only one fighting for them, and she’s not wrong.  For five years, people have been welcomed into countries that have kept them out using barbed wire.  There were houses and jobs.  Folks were happy to have people around to help them rebuild.  It wasn’t just one community coming together, it was the entire world coming together.  And then, boom, just like that, it goes right back to the way it used to be.  To them, at least Karli’s doing something.”

What Karli’s doing practically as they speak is retrieving the remaining vials of the super-soldier serum from their hiding place in a cemetery, at the grave of her companion’s grandfather.  According to the IMDB credits, this companion’s name is Nico, played by Noah Mills, and I assume he shares a last name, Kovaczsik, with his grandfather.  Karli wonders whether she’s doing the right thing, using the serum to make more enhanced humans sympathetic to their cause.  Nico tells her that his grandfather, a resistance fighter who fought Nazis, used to say that if you were doing something and it made you scared, it was probably because it was the right thing.  Nico admits to being a fan of Captain America as a kid, and that he didn’t think there could be another Captain America until he met Karli.  Nico says that people need a leader that looks like them, that understands their pain.  “Someone who understands that today’s heroes don’t have the luxury of keeping their hands clean.  What we’re doing will outlive the legacy of that shield.”

“That shield is a monument to a bygone era,” says Karli.  “A reminder of all the people history just left out.  If anything, that shield should be destroyed.”

It’s interesting that each Flag Smasher in this scene unwittingly echoes the thoughts and guiding principles of some of their opponents.  Nico’s belief that the ends justify the means, that a harsher new era might need harsher new heroes to respond to it, is very similar to statements we hear from John Walker and Lemar Hoskins.  And Karli herself, with her myopic absolutism, finds her ideological counterpart in Baron Zemo.  Things are this way, this way and no other, however one might wish it otherwise.  In many ways, Karli and Nico either are, or are well on their way to becoming, the very thing they’re opposing.  You become what you fight.

Nico Kovaczsik (Noah Mills) and Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), Flag Smashers.

Sam contacts Sharon Carter back in Madripoor, looking to get an extra set of eyes on the camp.  Sharon allows that she might still have access to a satellite or two (no surprise, if she’s still the CIA agent I think she is).  (It makes me wonder why Walker and Hoskins, a pair of operatives openly, actively employed by some branch of the government or other, don’t seem to be utilizing their own available assets in this manner, but why nitpick?)  Sharon tells Sam that the killing of Nagel has angered the Power Broker and stirred up a whole mess of trouble in Madripoor, and like everything Sharon says, it might be true, or it might be complete bullshit, or some unholy marriage of the two.

No sooner do Sam, Bucky, and Zemo set foot out their door on the way to Donya Madani’s funeral but they come face to face with John Walker and Lemar Hoskins.

“How’d you find us now?” asks an exasperated Bucky.

“Come on,” says Lemar, “you really think two Avengers can walk around Latvia without drawing attention?”  He’s got a point.  Bucky hasn’t exactly been operating in stealth mode; instead, he’s been walking around by the cold light of day with a world famous super-hero and an equally infamous terrorist in a Superfly coat.

Walker advocates for hitting the funeral hard and fast, but Sam argues for talking to Karli alone, and he’s backed up by Lemar, who reasons that if there’s a possibility for ending the matter peacefully, why not take the chance?  Walker grudgingly acquiesces, but I’m not sure he should.

One, Walker’s not wrong when he suggests that the time for reason is past; Karli did blow up a building with people still in it, purposefully and with murderous intent, and no one’s going to be forgiving or forgetting that any time soon.  Two, at last count, Karli had at least a half dozen enhanced super-humans with her, and for all Sam Wilson or John Walker knows, could now have a dozen more (she doesn’t, but none of the people pursuing her know that).  Three, however well-intentioned he may be, Sam Wilson is just speaking for himself.  He’s not in a position to offer deals, immunity, reduced sentencing, increased supplies to the camps, or any other thing that Karli doesn’t already have.  What is Sam really offering?  A life sentence in prison next to Zemo?  There’s zero motivation for Karli to surrender; doing so won’t make life any better for her or for the people she’s attempting to represent.

Walker handcuffs Zemo to a furnace in the basement of the building where the funeral is being held and tells Sam he’s got ten minutes, then “we’re doing things my way.”

There are maybe a hundred or so refugees or mourners at the service.  Karli delivers a speech that’s one part eulogy, one part revolutionary oration.  She notices Sam on the floor above, watching and listening as the service concludes.

When the people have gone, Sam approaches Karli, telling her he came alone.  “I just want to talk,” he says.

“Bold of you,” says Karli.

Sam tells her that he’s sorry for her loss, that he understands Karli’s frustration and helplessness, but that this doesn’t need to be a war.  Karli says the war was started when people were kicked out of their new homes and on to the street.  “People around the world need me. Millions of them.”  It’s a weird mix of youth, rage, idealism, and megalomania that Karli has going on.

“You want me to stop because people are getting hurt,” she says, “but Sam…what if I’m making the world a better place?”

“It’s not a better place if you’re killing people.  It’s just different.”

That makes Karli laugh.  “You’re either brilliant, or just hopelessly optimistic.”

“Can’t I be a little bit of both?”

“No.”

Meanwhile, an increasingly shaky John Walker — observe the unstable handheld camera work in his shots — is close to jumping the gun on his own ten minute mark.  When Bucky stops him from going in, Walker brings up the super-soldier serum running in Bucky’s veins, speculating on how all this is really easy for him.  It’s an odd note of insecurity from a guy who’s holding Captain America’s shield and has three Congressional Medals of Honor sitting on his trophy shelf at home.

Sam Wilson floats Zemo’s supremacist idea to Karli.  No surprise, Karli doesn’t see herself in those terms at all.  “That’s ridiculous.  Everything I’m doing is to end supremacy.  These corporations and the beasts that run them, they’re the supremacists.”

“You’re killing innocent people.”

“They’re not innocent.  They’re roadblocks in my journey and I’d kill them again if I had to.”  You can hear how young she is here, in her projection of certainty.

“Wow.”

“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that.  You tricked me into sounding like…”

“Like what?”  Like a supremacist, I’d imagine, though Sam doesn’t say so.  “I’m not your enemy.  I agree with your fight.  I just can’t get with the way you’re fighting it.  And I’m sure she [Donya Madani] wouldn’t either.”

Whatever Karli might’ve said or however she would’ve responded is lost as John Walker makes an unwelcome appearance, announcing that Karli is under arrest.  Karli punches Walker and flees, with Bucky in pursuit.  She loses him but comes to face to face with Zemo, who’s escaped his cuffs — people like him always find a way — and promptly shoots Karli with a pistol he’s procured from God knows where.  As she scrambles for cover, the pack she has with the remaining vials of super-soldier serum come loose, spilling out on to the floor.

“Is this what I think it is?” says Zemo.  He begins smashing the vials, while Nico hustles in and helps move Karli to safety.  Before Zemo can smash all the vials, Captain America’s shield hits him in the head, knocking him out cold.  John Walker notices one last vial that’d rolled away, and puts it in his pocket just before Sam, Bucky, and Lemar arrive on the scene.

John Walker (Wyatt Russell) ponders the possibilities of a future with the super-soldier serum.

Nico reports to Karli afterward that all the vials of the serum have been destroyed.  While Karli and her fellow remaining super-soldiers come up with a plan for separating the Sam Wilson / John Walker contingents, and then killing Captain America, Sam is back at Zemo’s safe house, contacting Sharon and asking her to keep her satellite coverage on Walker.

Baron Zemo is recovering with a stiff drink and a cool compress on a nearby couch, and why Walker didn’t just take custody of him while he was unconscious, I couldn’t say.  Zemo asks Sam if he was ever offered the super-soldier serum.

Sam seems to find the question amusing.  “No.”

“If you had been, hypothetically, would you have taken it?”

“No.”

“No hesitation.  That’s impressive.  Sam, you can’t hold out hope for Karli, no matter what you saw in her.  She’s gone.  And we cannot allow that she and her acolytes become yet another faction of gods amongst real people.  Super-soldiers cannot be allowed to exist.”

“Isn’t that how gods talk?  And if that’s how you feel, what about Bucky?  Blood isn’t always the solution.”

Bucky returns — “Something’s not right about Walker,” he says — and hard on the heels of that, Walker himself shows up, kicking open the door and strolling on in.  “All right, that’s it, let’s go.  I’m now ordering you to turn him over,” meaning Zemo.

“Hey, slow your roll,” Sam tells him.  “Let’s be clear, shield or no shield, the only thing you’re running in here is your mouth.  Now I had Karli, and you overstepped.  He’s actually proven himself useful today, and we’re gonna need all hands on deck for whatever’s coming next.”

Walker bristles up.  “How do you want the rest of this conversation to go, Sam?  Yeah.  Should I put down the shield?  Make it fair?”  He puts down the shield, while his partner Lemar Hoskins looks at him like he’s maybe lost his goddamn mind, and then…

Three members of the Dora Milaje of Wakanda enter, who announce their presence with a spear thrown across the room and embedded in a wall between Sam and Walker.

Ayo, speaking Wakandan, tells Bucky, “Even if he [Zemo] is a means to your end, time’s up.”  In English:  “Release him to us.  Now.”

Walker attempts to introduce himself to Ayo.  “Hi.  John Walker, Captain America.”  She just looks at him, a withering glare that says I’ve met Captain America, and you, sir, are no Captain America.  Getting no response from Ayo, Walker says, “Well, let’s, uh, put down the pointy sticks and we can talk this through, huh?”

Ayo (Florence Kasumba) stares down John Walker (Wyatt Russell).

“Hey, John,” says Sam.  “Take it easy.  You might want to fight Bucky before you tangle with the Dora Milaje.”

“The Dora Milaje don’t have jurisdiction here,” says Walker.

“The Dora Milaje have jurisdiction wherever the Dora Milaje find themselves to be,” says Ayo.

Walker tells her he thinks they just got off on the wrong foot, and claps a hand on her shoulder.  Ayo rolls for initiative, and an ass-whupping commences, courtesy of the king of Wakanda’s ceremonial wives.  Walker and Hoskins get a beat-down while Sam, Zemo, and Bucky (“Looking strong, John!”) watch.  Sam and Bucky finally intervene when it looks like Walker and Hoskins are about to be fatally dispatched by the Milaje, while Zemo takes the opportunity to finish his drink and make himself scarce.  He escapes into the bathroom and locks the doors behind him.

Sam and Bucky don’t fare much better than Walker and Hoskins, though in their case, both they and the Milaje are probably reluctant to really let loose against people they consider friends.  Ayo ends her fight with Bucky by disconnecting his cybernetic arm from his body, something Bucky didn’t know she could do.[2]This arm was designed by the Wakandans and given to Bucky in Avengers:  Infinity War (2018).  She opens the doors behind which Zemo disappeared, to find a hidden tunnel he’s used to escape, while Walker’s Milaje opponent — according to IMDB, her name is Yama, while the third Milaje is named Nombie — has taken Captain America’s shield from him.  With Zemo gone, Ayo tells Yama to leave the shield; she gently hands the shield back to a thoroughly defeated Walker, and the Milaje depart.  “They weren’t even super-soldiers,” a dazed and dispirited Walker tells Lemar.

Later, recovering over coffee (and signing autographs, of all things!), Walker asks Lemar if he had the chance to take the super-soldier serum, would he do it.  Lemar says he would, without hesitation, thinking about all the lives that could be saved.  “You wouldn’t worry about how it might change you?” Walker asks.  Power just makes a person more themselves, reasons Lemar, offering Karli Morgenthau and Steve Rogers as examples.  If you found yourself thinking at this juncture that the sensible and steady Sergeant Major Hoskins would’ve been a far better choice for Captain America than the impulsive, insecurity-driven John Walker, well…you’re not alone.

Back in Louisiana, Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) takes a call from none other than Karli Morgenthau, and like nearly everything Karli does, it’s perhaps the right motive married to the wrong method.  The shots of Karli and Sarah in this scene share a sort of compositional harmony, each of them mirroring the other.  Karli and Sarah often share the same side of the screen, and share the same type of close ups with out-of-focus backgrounds.  The camera wavers slightly forward and back on some of Karli’s shots, perhaps suggesting some uncertainty on her part with regard to her tactics.  When the two women disagree, they tend to switch sides of the screen.

Parallel shots, with Karli (Erin Kellyman)…
…and with Sarah Wilson (Adepero Oduye).

“I’ve seen you on the news,” says Sarah.  “You’re the leader of the Flag Smashers, those terrorists, right?”

“Revolutionaries, depending on whose side you’re on.”

“Is there a reason you’re calling me?”

“I’m trying to figure out if I need to kill your brother.  I thought I could trust him.  I got the impression that he and I had some things in common, but then it turns out he’s working for your new Captain America.”

“I didn’t choose him,” says Sarah.

“Who would you have chosen instead?”

“My world doesn’t matter to America, so why should I care about its mascot?”  The camera is very close in on Sarah here, as with Zemo earlier, suggesting both the truth and the intensity of her statement.

“I like you, Sarah.  You remind me of me.”

“Karli, if you believe one thing, believe this:  my brother is not working for that man.”

“I hope you’re right.  I need to meet with Sam.  Alone.  I’m gonna send you the coordinates to pass along.”

“Why me?”

“Because he needs to know that I’m serious, and I need to know that he won’t betray my trust again.  Otherwise, instead of meeting Sam here, I can always meet with you, and A.J., and little Cass there, maybe out back, by the dock?”

Sarah relays the message — all of it — to Sam, who advises her to take her boys and head somewhere safe.  Karli instructs Sam to come alone, but he brings Bucky along despite the instructions, and suits up as the Falcon.  As might be imagined, Sam is none too pleased about the threat to his sister and his nephews.

Karli tells him she would never hurt his family, nor does she want to hurt Sam; she tells him that he’s just a tool in the regimes she’s looking to destroy, that he’s not hiding behind a shield, and that killing him would be meaningless.  Instead, she asks Sam to join her, or at least ‘do the world a favor’ and let her go.  Before Sam can make any reply, he’s contacted by Sharon Carter, who’s keeping track of John Walker by satellite.  She tells Sam either Walker has found the Flag Smashers or they’ve found him.  I’m not entirely sure how she’s found Walker, but okay.

Sam realizes the trap Walker’s in, and sends Bucky to help after a brief confrontation with Karli.

Walker and Lemar have arrived at an unknown location (we’re not told where this is or how or why Walker and Lemar learned of it).  The two unwisely split up, with Lemar brutally overpowered and tied up.  By the time Sam arrives, Walker is actively fighting with the Flag Smashers…and has clearly taken a dose of the super-soldier serum, evincing super-human strength and durability.  Bucky arrives on the scene shortly thereafter, and this time, it’s the Flag Smashers who are surprised and outmatched.  Super-human strength or no, the Captain America / Winter Soldier contingent have a lot more training and experience than the Flag Smashers do.

Even so, Nico and Karli very nearly manage to get the upper hand on Walker, who’s narrowly saved by the timely intervention of Lemar, who’d managed to free himself from his constraints.  Angry and in the heat of the moment, Karli strikes Lemar with her full force, sending him flying into a stone pillar.  If Lemar’s not dead, he’s at the very least not moving and gravely injured.  All the participants, Flag Smashers and Avengers alike, are stunned by the sudden escalation of violent consequences….yet one more thing that’s gone directly contrary to Karli Morgenthau’s expectations.

In the face of Walker’s mounting, vengeful rage, the remaining Flag Smashers wisely decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and take the opportunity to flee for their lives.  It works for most of them…but not for Nico Kovacszik, grandson of a resistance fighter, who Walker sees after crashing through a window in pursuit.  He chases Nico into a public square, savagely beating him and then plunging the edge of his shield into a helpless Nico’s chest.  Cell phone cameras record it all — this new Captain America committing brutal murder, the iconic shield covered in a young man’s blood — while Karli watches, stunned and horrified, from one vantage point, and Sam and Bucky from another.

The whole world is watching.

John Walker, Captain America (Wyatt Russell).

____

Odds and ends…

  • Black Panther #1 (Nov 1998), 1st appearance of the Dora Milaje, created by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira.

    The Dora Milajae are the king of Wakanda’s all-female cadre of personal bodyguards.  By tradition, they are ceremonial wives, ‘married’ to the king and to the nation, and their ranks include at least one member from each tribe in Wakanda.  The Dora Milaje were created by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira, and made their first appearance in Black Panther #1 (Nov 1998).

  • As stated earlier, the obvious parallel for Karli is Zemo, but the parallel for the displaced GRC community Karli belongs to is the Wilson family (as well as the Bradley family, out in Baltimore):  they’re two sets of people who aren’t really part of a society that surrounds them on all sides.  Sarah’s claim that America doesn’t care about her world, so why should she care about its mascot echoes Colin Kaepernick’s, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”  One of the things Falcon and the Winter Soldier is explicitly about is the prospect of having not just a new Captain America, but a black Captain America…and not a secret black Captain America like Isaiah Bradley, but a public one.  To their credit, Marvel and the showrunners haven’t shied away from this aspect of the show at all.
  • Baron Zemo again is the MVP of the episode.  Without Zemo to drive things forward, where would everyone else be?  Sitting around at home, wondering what to do next.
  • There’s an ongoing motif of masks and dehumanization in this series I find interesting.  Whether its the Flag Smashers, John Walker, or Baron Zemo, the wearing of masks in Falcon and the Winter Soldier signals a setting aside of humane ideals and behavior in favor of open violence and the raw exercise of power and domination.  The masks are used to hide or cover humanity.
  • I rather wish the showrunners had gone some other direction with John Walker, or rather, picked a specific direction for him.  Crazy or not crazy?  Capable or not capable?  The show can’t seem to decide from one moment to the next.  It’s jarring to go from the John Walker who wants to do his best, who believes in the ideals of Captain America and genuinely seems to want to live up to them, to the John Walker who’s a petulant –and maybe completely crazy — bully, threatening to burst into tears because he got beat up by some Wakandan girls.  All of which, I guess, is another way of saying that I wish the show would have just hewed closer to the comics version of John Walker, whose weird mix of positive and negative traits is highly compelling.  That John Walker wouldn’t be caught crying on the floor after getting his ass whupped.  This wouldn’t be the first fight Walker had ever lost, and it’s unlikely it’d be the last.  Everyone in the room — including Sam, Bucky, and Zemo — has lost fights, and plenty of them.  They’re a little like professional athletes in that sense; no one likes to lose, but it’s part of the game.  I think Walker would reason that if he wants to win fights, he needs to fight better, and that’s about as far as his existential introspection on the matter would go.  Walker would likely be of the opinion that his defeat was his own fault; he underestimated a quality opponent, and this was the entirely predictable result.  Better luck next time.  The John Walker of the comics is an asshole, but he’s a capable asshole, and I wish we could see him here.
  • On the subject of Walker, I’m perfectly fine with Wyatt Russell’s portrayal of him, particularly in Walker’s quieter, more human moments.  Russell gives Walker a dimension and a gravity he wouldn’t otherwise have; I just wish the showrunners could have picked a lane for the character he’s playing.

That’s it for this episode!  Questions or comments, please let me know.  See you next time!

Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

References

References
1 It happened in Captain America:  Civil War (2016).
2 This arm was designed by the Wakandans and given to Bucky in Avengers:  Infinity War (2018).
Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 3: Power Broker

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, spoilers abound; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the third episode (and optimally Captain America:  Winter Soldier and Captain America:  Civil War for good measure).

Ostensibly titled for the oft-mentioned but as yet unseen Power Broker (proper noun), episode 3 of Falcon and the Winter Soldier brims with would-be power brokers (common noun) and grasping intermediaries.  There’s hardly a person in this episode who isn’t intent on using someone or something else to get what they really want.  Throw in the strong possibility that a good many of them might well want something other than what they claim they really want, and hijinx ensue.  It’s a lot of fun, but, as we’ll see, labors mightily to hold up to even the most casual scrutiny.

As they stated at the end of last episode, John Walker and his partner Lemar Hoskins are attempting to track down the Flag Smashers by targeting the civilians who’ve been providing them with shelter and assistance.  A weirdly sedate raid on an underground internet operation in Munich yields nothing but defiance and contempt from the operator.  Out of options and out of leads, Walker thinks that maybe he’ll have better luck tracking Sam and Bucky’s trail to his targets.  The camera at one point is briefly out of focus and off-kilter when close in on Walker, suggesting disorientation or a loss of control on his part.

Sam and Bucky visit Zemo in Berlin, where he’s been imprisoned since the conclusion of Captain America:  Civil War (2016).  Bucky reasons that Zemo’s extensive knowledge of Hydra infrastructure can help them track down the super soldier serum.  It’s a little surprising to me that Sam can’t get a bank loan in his own home town, but apparently has little trouble in swinging an impromptu interview with Zemo in some kind of Berlin supermax.  It’s even more surprising, given recent history, that no one seems to have any issues with putting Zemo and the Winter Soldier together in the same room, but what do I know?

Zemo is played to snarky smug perfection by Daniel Bruhl, and comes across as dangerous and funny, all at the same time.  I think people often assume that I take exception to MCU characters’ lack of fidelity to their comic versions, but Zemo is one of those instances where I find the motives and personality of the movie version preferable to what we see in the comics.  He’s the MVP of this episode.  Zemo claims he has some ideas about where to begin searching for whoever’s behind the super-soldier serum but of course he can’t do it from inside a prison cell.

Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl)

And so, the ink on his pardon hardly dry, Bucky Barnes unilaterally determines to engineer a prison break for Zemo, the logic and logistics of which elude me entirely.

For starters, as of this point in the show, what exactly are the Flag Smashers guilty of?  They’re enhanced super-humans, sure, and their lack of being registered as such might be illegal (though merely being super-human isn’t).  They’ve robbed a bank, and stolen a few truckloads of medical supplies, which they intend to distribute for free to desperate refugees.  Definitely illegal, but still…breaking Zemo out of prison — a guy who bombed a UN assembly and killed 12 people, including Wakanda’s King T’Chaka — to help find and apprehend some thieving idealists?  That’s disproportionate crazy sauce, like deciding to treat common cold symptoms with open heart surgery.  And that’s assuming you can trust Zemo, which you can’t.  At all.  He’s as slippery and snake-like as anyone the MCU has on offer.

More, how on earth did Bucky and Zemo coordinate all this?  Surely the goings-on in Zemo’s cell are monitored and recorded.  Did Bucky give Zemo the keycard we see in Zemo’s copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince?  If so, where did Bucky get it, and how’d he get it to Zemo?  If not, where did Zemo get it, and why on earth would he show it to Bucky Barnes, of all people?  The plan seems to hinge on Bucky having the opportunity to drop a message to specific inmates that he doesn’t know and has never seen, and then having those inmates react in a specific way at a specific time.

Just saying, it’s a plan with a lot of moving parts that would seem to require not just an unreasonable amount of luck, but also maybe telepathy, teleportation, and clairvoyance for it to work.

Whatever the case, Zemo manages to free himself from prison, and rendezvous with Sam and Bucky at a garage I presume he owns.  If Sam has any objections to Bucky making him an accomplice to springing the most infamous terrorist on earth from prison, he keeps them to himself.  Zemo collects a snazzy leather coat and his purple mask from the comics, and tells Sam and Bucky that to track the source of the super-soldier serum, they’ll “have to scale a ladder of lowlifes,” with the first stop being a “mid-level fence” named Selby.

Selby runs the Princess Bar in Madripoor, a (fictional) rogue state island nation in the Indonesian archipelago, so it’s fortunate that, in addition to the well-stocked garage full of classic cars and small arms, Zemo also owns a private jet, that comes complete with a white-gloved man-servant, Oeznik.

“So all this time you’ve been rich?” says an incredulous Sam Wilson.

Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie)

“I’m a baron, Sam.  My family was rich until your friends destroyed my country.”

Looks like he’s still rich, and commands the loyalty of some very capable accountants and executors to keep all these cars and jet planes out of asset forfeiture, but I digress.

On the long flight to Madripoor, Zemo strains at the leash, testing the limits of what he can get away with.  He taunts Bucky about the little book with the victims of the Winter Soldier written in it, taunts Sam about Marvin Gaye’s ‘Trouble Man,’ and taunts both heroes about the legacy of Captain America they’re each struggling to live up to or escape out from under.  Really, for a character who doesn’t appear at all in the series, there’s an argument to be made that at its heart, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a story about competing (and conflicting) ideas about Captain America:  Sam’s, Bucky’s, Walker’s, Karli’s, even Zemo’s.

“You must have really looked up to Steve,” Zemo tells Sam.  “But I realized something when I met him.  The danger with people like him, America’s super-soldiers, is that we put them on pedestals.”

“Watch your step, Zemo.”

“They become symbols.  Icons.  And then we start to forget about their flaws.  From there, cities fly, innocent people die.  Movements are formed, wars are fought.”  To Bucky:  “You remember that, right?  As a young soldier sent to Germany to stop a mad icon.  Do we want to live in a world full of people like the Red Skull?”

The conversation goes another direction from that point — the latest in a long and unfortunate MCU tradition of dropping the pursuit of interesting ideas pretty much the moment they’re introduced — though we’re probably safe in assuming that no one sane wants to live in a world full of people like the Red Skull.  I think it likely Sam and Bucky would insist that there’s a world of difference between Steve Rogers and the Skull, while Zemo might point to his vanished country and his long-dead family and say the difference in motive isn’t enough to make up for the similarities in result.  Would that we could’ve heard that conversation instead of spending time on the nonsensical details of an impossible prison escape.

The first act of the episode ends with Karli Morgenthau attending the death of an elder or relative — we learn her name is Donya Madani, ‘Mama Donya’ to Karli — in a crowded infirmary in a Latvian Global Repatriation Council (GRC) camp.

Zemo’s Madripoor plan involves Zemo playing himself, Bucky playing his mind-controlled Winter Soldier role, and Sam masquerading as “a sophisticated, charming African rake named Conrad Mack, a.k.a. the Smiling Tiger.”  When Sam laments that he’s the only one dressed like a pimp, Zemo says that only an American would assume that a fashion-forward black man looks like a pimp.  Zemo warns Sam and Bucky that no matter what happens, they have to stay in character (and never mind that the handsome, very obviously American Sam Wilson doesn’t look, sound, or act continentally African in the least).

Madripoor skyline

The trio crosses an empty bridge into Madripoor, and are met by a car mid-span.  I had questions:  Presumably Madripoor has an airport; they couldn’t have just flown in?  The car couldn’t have met them wherever they landed?  Where or what does this bridge connect to, and why isn’t there any traffic on it?  The bridge does look cool — in real life, it’s the Troja Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, spanning the Vltava River — so there’s that, I guess.  But why not have Sam in his Falcon suit flying around the area, while Zemo and Bucky make it happen on the ground?  And hey, while we’re at it, where does Sam keep his Falcon suit when he’s not using it?

Unanswered questions notwithstanding, the showrunners hit a home run with the look and feel of Madripoor.  From the boats in the harbor to the glass and steel high-rises of High Town to the ubiquitous graffiti covering every available surface in Low Town, it’s a depraved Blade Runner-ish carnival of sleaze, neon, drugs, piles of cash, heavy weapons, and scary-looking people.  It’s better than I imagined it from the comics.

The Princess Bar is crowded, moody and atmospheric, one part night club, one part prison yard.  The presence of the Winter Soldier spreads an uneasy tension through the crowd.  Zemo tells the bartender that they have business with Selby, and at the mention of that name, a nearby stranger pulls their hood more closely over their face and makes an unobtrusive exit.  The bartender asks “Conrad Mack” if he wants his usual, which apparently involves ingredients freshly cut from the innards of a snake, and if you’re wondering, Gentle Reader, how it is that the bartender knows the Smiling Tiger well enough to keep live snakes on hand for his favorite drink but not well enough to realize that Sam Wilson and Conrad Mack are not the same guy, well…join the club.

A sketchy looking fellow rolls up on Zemo, tells him that word came down from on high:  Zemo and his entourage aren’t welcome here.  Zemo tells the fellow he’s got no business with the Power Broker, which seems to satisfy him, at least momentarily.  “Every kingdom needs its king,” Zemo explains to Bucky.  “In Madripoor, he [the Power Broker] is the judge, jury, and executioner.”

Yet another shady denizen of the Princess Bar approaches Zemo, and this time, Zemo orders Bucky to handle things the Winter Soldier way:  with the judicious application of devasting, bone-crunching violence.  Bucky leans into his work, putting it to half a dozen outmatched opponents, while Sam looks on, shocked and horrified.  “It didn’t take much for him to fall back into form,” remarks a sardonic Zemo.  He’s not wrong, and it’s worth considering that this — the Winter Soldier, and all the violence and carnage that comes with him — is Bucky’s natural state, his default setting.  Viewed from the vantage point of the events in the Princess Bar, the notion that any amount of therapy from a court-ordered psychiatrist could somehow have a positive effect on this lethal instrument of death and mayhem is laughable.

Just before it looks like some shooting is about to start, the bartender tells Zemo that Selby will see them now.  A concerned Sam asks Bucky if he’s good, but what is there to say?  The unbreachable gulf between who James Buchanan Barnes wants to be (or who he says he wants to be) and who the Winter Soldier is just got shamefully exposed in no uncertain terms.  Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s a huge mental health setback for Bucky, or it’s probably the best the Winter Soldier has felt in months or maybe years.  Maybe it’s both.

There’s a stylish slow-motion entrance for our heroes into Selby’s backroom den, set to the tune of Edith Piaf’s ‘Le Petit Homme,’ that’s so much fun I don’t even care that it doesn’t seem to connect to anyone or anything going on here.  It’s possible that the shot of gambling tables on a bank of video monitors and the French-language song hearkens back to the Princess Bar’s thematic ancestor, Rick’s Cafe from Casablanca (1943).  It’s also possible that the showrunners just thought dudes walking in slow-motion while an Edith Piaf tune played would be really cool, and that’s as far as the reasoning went.

The sequence perhaps owes something to this similar slow-motion intro in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ providing the soundtrack:

And it also put me in mind of O-Ren Iishi and associates arriving at the House of Blue Leaves in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003), to the rough-as-fuck sounding ‘Battle Without Honor or Humanity’ by Tomoyasu Hotei:

(Something cool and subtle here:  the first half of this video, O-Ren’s lowest henchmen, members of the Crazy 88’s, are shot at more or less regular speed; O-Ren’s lieutenants, Sophie Fatale and school girl bad-ass Go-Go Yubari, are shot in slow motion; and O-Ren herself shot slowest of all, giving her a floating, regal gravity that the others don’t possess.  She’s also the only one who looks directly into the camera, Hannibal Lector style, and the only one dressed all in Japanese funereal white.)

Selby turns out to be a faux-hawked middle-aged woman played with scene-chewing gusto by Imelda Corcoran.  In exchange for information from Selby about the super-soldier serum, Zemo is offering the Winter Soldier and the code words to control him.  Selby is intrigued — “I’m glad I decided not to kill you immediately.” — and offers a man named Dr. Wilfred Nagel as the culprit behind the serum’s creation, who is or was working for the Power Broker.

Before she and Zemo can get deep into the nuts and bolts of their deal, however, Sam Wilson gets an inopportune call on his cell phone.  Selby insists he answer it, on speaker, no less.  It turns out to be Sam’s sister Sarah, last seen in episode 1, calling to talk about the family’s boat situation.  Sam tries to bluff his way through it, but his sister makes short work of Sam’s cover as a charming, sophisticated African rake.

Selby orders her henchmen to kill her visitors, but before any of that can happen, a shot from outside punches through and takes out Selby.  Sam and Bucky easily overwhelm her remaining henchmen.  Sam worries that Selby’s death will be pinned on them, perhaps not realizing that neither the legal framework nor the moral will exist in Madripoor to pin anything on anyone.  Zemo advises Sam and Bucky to leave their weapons — why?  who knows? — and follow him, but hardly are they out the door before a general message goes out, like a criminal amber alert, that Selby is dead and there’s a thousand bit coin bounty offered for her killers.  According to what I’ve read, that translates to something like $58 million dollars,[1]https://cointelegraph.com/news/latest-episode-of-the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier-involves-massive-bitcoin-bounty which is a preposterous sum in retaliation for the killing of a “mid-level fence.”  If anyone cared $58 million worth about Selby’s well-being, she’d still be alive.  Also, if the MCU’s Madripoor is anything like the comics’ Madripoor, there’s not a soul in this part of town who wouldn’t cheerfully feed our heroes feet first through a wood chipper for the price of a round of drinks and a Groupon for Uber Deluxe.

Sam, Bucky, and Zemo are quickly recognized and marked out on the street, and general gunfire quickly breaks out.  Chased to an alleyway, the three are saved by an unknown sniper who then makes their way down to the street.  It’s the figure in the hood from the Princess Bar, who turns out to be none other than Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp), last seen in Captain America:  Civil War (2016).

Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp). She’s kind of awful now.

According to Sharon, she’s been on the run since the events of Civil War.  Unlike Sam and even Bucky, Sharon says she didn’t have the Avengers to back her up, so here she is, off the grid (sort of) in Madripoor.  (There’s some reason to think that Sharon’s tale is a hot n’ stinky bowl of brazen lies and outright fiction; more on that momentarily.)  Since they seem to have some common interests and shared history, Sharon offers to hide Sam, Bucky, and Zemo at a place she has in High Town.

Sharon has picked up the life and demeanor of a dealer of high-priced stolen art — “At some point I thought if I had to hustle, I might as well enjoy the life of a real hustler.” — with a side-line in deep cynicism.

When Sam attempts to apologize for her current circumstances, Sharon says, “Look, you know the whole hero thing is a joke, right?  I mean, the way you gave up that shield, deep down, you must know it’s all hypocrisy.”

“He knows,” says Zemo, “and not so deep down.”  Say what you will about Baron Zemo, he never misses a chance to stir the turd.

Sharon asks how the new Captain America is, and Bucky tells her not to get him started.  “Please,” she says, “you buy into all that stars and stripes bullshit.  Before you were his [Zemo’s] pet psychopath, you were Mister America.  Cap’s best friend.”

“Wow.  She’s kind of awful now,” Bucky tells Sam.

Sharon has heard of Nagel, and knows he works for the Power Broker.  Sam asks for her help, and says he can get her name cleared.  Myself, considering his role in Zemo’s escape, I rather doubt Sam’s going to manage to get his own name cleared, never mind Sharon’s, but that’s the pitch.

Sharon tracks Nagel to the docks, where Nagel operates out of a secret lab fronted by a shipping container.  She says she’ll watch outside while the three question Nagel.  Nagel, a nervous and furtive sort, says that he was brought into Hydra’s Winter Soldier program after the failure of the Siberian subjects seen in Civil War, and then recruited by the CIA after Hydra fell.  Nagel says the CIA had super-soldier blood samples from an American test subject (Sam will later assume that Nagel is talking about Isaiah Bradley), and after “much labor,” Nagel was able to isolate the compounds.  According to Nagel, not only was he able to recreate the important elements of Professor Erskine’s formula, he was well on his way to improving on it…but before he could complete his work, Nagel became part of the unfortunate half of the universe removed from existence by Thanos in Avengers:  Infinity War (2018).  When he returned, five years later, the program had been abandoned, so he came to Madripoor, where the Power Broker was happy to fund the recreation of his work.

Nagel says he made twenty vials of his super-soldier serum, but they were stolen by Karli Morgenthau.  He says he doesn’t know where Karli is, but that she contacted him recently, asking if he could help someone named Donya Madani, who was dying of tuberculosis (which we know she succumbed to).  Sam asks what happened to Madani, and Nagel shrugs.  “Not my pig.  Not my farm.”  Nice.

While all this interrogating is going on, Sharon is outside, fighting with bounty hunters and mercenaries who have arrived.  Zemo has searched the lab and, unknown to Sam and Bucky, procured a pistol for himself.

Bucky asks if there’s any serum in the lab, and Nagel says there isn’t.  Sharon arrives, telling the group they’re out of time, and then Zemo up and shoots Nagel in cold blood with the pistol he found.  And right after that, some bounty hunting fool with a rocket launcher shoots some heavy duty ordinance at the lab.  The group escapes the now-burning lab, and a firefight ensues.  It’s Zemo who saves the day, exploding a gas line, going all Lethal Weapon on most of the remaining bounty hunters, and then procuring a cool convertible in which to escape.  The group parts ways with Sharon at the docks, with her reminding Sam to get her that pardon he promised her.

Once they’re gone, Sharon meets a woman — fellow agent?  employee? — waiting with a car.  “We’ve got a big problem,” Sharon tells her.  “Actually, a couple of them.  I’ll tell you in the car.  Let’s go.”  Hmm.

The second act ends with Karli again, scouting a GRC supply depot in Vilnius, Lithuania.  Karli and one of her fellow Flag Smashers talk a bit about their time in Madripoor.  Her companion reminds her that the Power Broker is bound to come looking for them again.  Karli tells him it won’t be a problem.  She’s heard Nagel was killed in Madripoor, and they’ve got the last of the serum.  “The Power Broker’s about to come begging.”

Meanwhile, John Walker and Lemar Hoskins have discovered that Sam and Bucky were at Zemo’s prison the day of his escape.  Lemar’s skeptical that springing Zemo is a thing Sam and Bucky would’ve done, but John Walker has no doubts.  He proposes again following Sam and Bucky’s trail, reasoning that if he and Lamar get the job done, no one will much care about how they got it done.

Armed with Donya Madani’s name and circumstances, Sam’s friend Lieutenant Torres is able to track her down to Riga, in Latvia.  Zemo says he has a place they can go, because of course he does.

On the way, in the plane, Sam considers that maybe he was wrong to give up the shield.  Maybe he made a mistake.  “You did,” says Bucky, and says that a new Captain America is needed, and it’s not going to be John Walker.  Bucky says he’ll take the shield from Walker himself if need be.

Back in Latvia, Karli Morgenthau makes the critical jump from thieving idealist to murdering zealot.  After overpowering the guards and stealing supplies from the GRC depot, she detonates an explosive, destroying the building and the half dozen or so guards who were still restrained in it.

“There were still people in there!” her companion says.

“This is the only language these people understand,” says Karli.

In Riga, Zemo tells Sam and Bucky about his now-extinct country of Sokovia, cannibalized by its neighbors and erased from the map.  “I don’t suppose any of you bothered visiting the memorial?  Of course not.  Why would you?”

Arriving at Zemo’s safehouse, a distracted Bucky Barnes tells his companions he’s going on a walk.  After Sam and Zemo enter the safehouse, Bucky reaches down, picks up a small metal ball from the ground.  He finds another one around a corner, and walks down an empty side street.  “You dropped something,” he says, holding up the ball, looking around and finding no one, then:  “I was wondering when you’d show up.”  He turns around…

…and comes face to face with Ayo of the Wakandan Dora Milaje, last seen in Black Panther (2018).  You do remember that King T’Chaka of Wakanda was one of Zemo’s bombing victims, yes?  Ayo does.

“I’m here for Zemo.”

Ayo (Florence Kasumba)

____

I’ve got a raging fever and the only cure is more cowbell.

  •  The principality of Madripoor first appeared in New Mutants #32 (Oct 1985), created by Chris Claremont and Steve Leialoha.  The Princess Bar first appeared in Marvel Comics Presents #1 (Sep 1988), created by Chris Claremont and John Buscema.
  • Madripoor’s skyline here is all CGI, modeled on the likes of Hong Kong and Singapore.  On a semi-related note, it struck me how much the Madripoor section of this episode looks like Ridley Scott set and art design with Tony Scott cinematography — that color-saturated look — with maybe just a hint of Michael Mann thrown in for good measure.  The main movies that spring to mind for the look and feel of Madripoor are Blade Runner (1982, d. R. Scott), Man on Fire (2004, d. T. Scott), and Collateral (2004, d. M. Mann), though I’m sure we could point to others by each of these directors and to the many people they’ve influenced.
  • There is a Conrad Mack in the comics, and he is indeed known as the Smiling Tiger, but he’s neither charming nor sophisticated nor African.  He first appeared in New Warriors #19 (Jan 1992) created by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley.
  • During the fight in the bar, dig the Winter Soldier music / sound effect from Captain America:  Winter Soldier (2016), deployed at roughly the 20:25 and 20:35 – 40 marks!
  • Sharon Carter, a.k.a. Agent 13 of SHIELD, first appeared in Tales of Suspense #75 (Mar 1966), created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers.  The Sharon Carter of the comics shares some of the cynical pragmatism of the Sharon we see here.  A get it done whatever it takes type of person.  As played by Emily Vancamp in the movies, she made her first appearance in Winter Soldier.
  • Ayo of Wakanda is primarily a character in the movies — she first appeared in Captain America:  Civil War — but was backdated to an unnamed character in the comics.  I believe her first real, named appearance was Black Panther #1 (Jun 2016); she was created by Ta-Nahesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze.

Speaking of Sharon Carter, let’s address Sharon and her Madripoor story for a moment, and consider the strong possiblity that the whole thing is complete bullshit.

  • Exhibit A:  Bucky Barnes is going to get a pardon for the events of Civil War and Sharon Carter isn’t?  That sounds weird right off the bat.  I think it’s far more likely that Sharon’s outlaw status and Madripoor’s lack of extradition buys her some cover to work her craft.  She’s smart enough, capable enough, and fierce enough to survive and even thrive in Madripoor…exactly the sort of person any self-respecting spy agency would want to run a plausibly deniable operation on their behalf in a foreign locale.  Independent enough to go deep cover as a way of life, but (probably) dedicated and principled enough not to go completely off the reservation.
  • Exhibit B:  Nagel admits to working with Hydra, and following their dissolution / rebranding, for the CIA.  The CIA operates on foreign soil, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that they’d have some interest in a super-soldier program.  They’d certainly have the clout and the funding to run it.  And who do we see working for the CIA at the end of Captain America:  Winter Soldier?
  • Exhibit C:  Who shot Selby?  At first glance, an agent of the Power Broker seems like the most likely culprit, but if so, why shoot Selby, and not the far more dangerous Zemo or Bucky Barnes?  Take out Zemo or Bucky, that’s the end of the investigation.  Sharon seems surprised by Selby’s death, or at least acts like she’s just learned of it, but if it wasn’t an agent of the Power Broker who shot Selby, Sharon would be the next most likely suspect.  We know she was in the area, we know she can shoot, know she had the weapon on hand to do it with, and would have had good reason to shoot Selby instead of Sam or Bucky, who are friends, after all, or are at least as friendly with Sharon as anyone is likely to get.  But what about Zemo?  Good question.
  • Exhibit D:  It’s Sharon who supplies the location of Nagel’s lab, but it’s Zemo who actually discovers the hidden method to get into it.  It’s Zemo who finds the hidden pistol — almost like he knew just where to look — and it’s Zemo who uses it to shoot Nagel (assuming that is Nagel; it’s not like anyone in the room would know if he wasn’t).  Right after that, a guy with a rocket launcher destroys the lab.  Now, I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy afoot, butif one were trying to throw off interest in one’s secret operation but wanted to keep the assets of the operation relatively intact and were reluctant to simply kill the people investigating the operation, this might be the way to go about it.  Fake the main researcher’s death, destroy a replaceable lab that’s had its genuinely valuable assets moved during the previous night — during a party, say — and there’s a good chance the investigators will simply assume there’s nothing left to investigate and go away.  As for Zemo, it’s worth asking here:  is it super-human operatives that Zemo objects to?  Or is it super-human operatives that don’t work for Zemo that he objects to?  Because ideology aside, in terms of his intelligence, capability, and moral flexibility, if you could find something to offer or motivate him, Zemo might make a pretty good partner for someone in the spy business.  He knows the game, knows the players, and is able to mix with high and low elements of society with equal facility.  All of which is to say, if Sharon is running some sort of operation, Zemo would be an easier and more natural partner for her than the impulsive Winter Soldier or the relatively naive Sam Wilson.[2]Note that all this only applies to the MCU versions of these characters; the comic versions would play out much differently.  For one, the brilliant and grandiose Baron Zemo would be more of a rival … Continue reading

My guess is that Hydra-leaning elements within, or cooperating with, the CIA are running the Power Broker operation, and that Sharon is their primary agent.  The agency has the money, resources, experience, and motivation to back a program like this, and Madripoor has neither extradition nor oversight.  In this scenario, there is no one person acting as the Power Broker; the Power Broker is instead an invisbile, omnipotent figurehead.  Let’s note that at no point does anyone admit to having ever actually met the Power Broker.  A secondary guess is that Sharon herself is the Power Broker, hiding in plain sight.  I don’t see anything that definitely says she is, mind you…but then, I don’t really see anything to say she isn’t.

There are couple problems with my Sharon’s Story is Bullshit theory.

One is that is that it’s difficult for me to untangle here what’s intentional trickery and what’s just narrative laxity, or exercises in style.  The Sharon story I’m proposing only makes sense if most of what we’re seeing is purposeful and deliberate, and I’m not entirely convinced it is.  I’ll be surprised indeed if we get to the end of Falcon and the Winter Soldier and find nothing but purpose and deliberation in our wake.

Another is that I’ve no answer for the speed or staggering amount of the bounty offered for Sam, Bucky, or Zemo.  The bounty is levied quickly enough that I can only assume that the person or agency that shot Selby also put out the bounty.  Who else could have done it?  Aside from Sam, Bucky, Zemo, and the shooter, who else would even know Selby was dead?  People who worked for Selby, yes…but the people who worked for Selby would conceivably have their own immediate problems in this scenario, and if they could afford a $58 million bounty to avenge their boss, they probably wouldn’t be working for Selby or anyone else in the first place.  If we assume the Power Broker put out the bounty, again, why not shoot Bucky or Zemo or Sam instead?  Solves the investigation problem right quick, and you know Selby’s not going anywhere.  You can always get to her later.  And if it was Sharon who did the shooting, why put out the bounty?

The bounty hunters at the dock are similarly problematic.  If they’re Power Broker-affiliated mercenaries, why blow up the lab?  If the bounty hunters are after a bounty Sharon herself created, that seems awfully risky, both for herself and for her allies.  Her fight on the docks with the bounty hunters looks real, and I hardly see the point of staging a fight with knives and live rounds if no one’s around to watch it.

It’s a lot to chew on.  We’ll see next episode whether or not we’re able to start digesting it.

Comments or questions?  Let me know!

References

References
1 https://cointelegraph.com/news/latest-episode-of-the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier-involves-massive-bitcoin-bounty
2 Note that all this only applies to the MCU versions of these characters; the comic versions would play out much differently.  For one, the brilliant and grandiose Baron Zemo would be more of a rival than a partner; he’d be funding his own program.  For another, Bucky and Sharon are likely to just up and shoot Zemo on sight, no questions asked.  I don’t see Sam willing to work with Zemo under any circumstance.
Categories
Television

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.
Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 1: New World Order

Welcome to the first of our episode-by-episode examinations of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  A minefield’s worth of spoilers lie ahead, and Captain America:  The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America:  Civil War (2016), Avengers:  Infinity War (2018), and Avengers:  Endgame (2019) will all prove pertinent to events we’ll see in episode 1 of this series.

“How does it feel?”

“Like it’s someone else’s.”

“It isn’t.”

The it in question is the iconic shield and symbolic mantle of Captain America, passed on at the end of Avengers:  Endgame from Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and the words — literally the first we hear in Falcon and the Winter Soldier — serve as a kind of thesis statement for what this series is all about.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had its fair share of swings and misses — me personally, I find the movie versions of the Guardians of the Galaxy near unendurable, and don’t even get me started on Thor — but one thing the MCU has done almost all the way right is its treatment of Captain America.

In the Marvel Universe of the comics, Steve Rogers, a.k.a Captain America, is the hero.  The hero’s hero.  The gold standard against which all such things are measured.  The bravest and the best.  Like a Lancelot or a Galahad, the superiority of Captain America’s ability is a direct result of his superiority of character.  Consider the comic series Civil War (2006), which largely provided the source material for Captain America:  Civil War.  In both comic and movie, the heroes aligned with Tony Stark are believers in a governing system that may be flawed, but nonetheless provides the only reliable framework for dealing with super-humans and the potentially negative effects of their actions.  The heroes aligned with Captain America, on the other hand, are believers in the cult of Captain America.  Policy has nothing to do with it, isn’t even part of the argument.  If Captain America’s not for it, they’re not either.  Simple as that.  Case closed.

Avengers #4, Mar 1964 – A policeman reacts to Captain America’s return, by Stan lee and Jack Kirby.

In a world where grown-assed men have been known to burst into reverential tears at the mere sight of Captain America, it’s not hard to see how the two people closest to the man and his legacy would feel unworthy of filling his shoes.  For Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, the title characters of this series, their proximity to Steve Rogers has enhanced his legend rather than dimmed it.

Lest anyone labor under the delusion that this series is some kind of introspective meditation on the nature of responsibility, the opening statement and title card are followed by an eight-minute aerial action set piece over Tunisia — featuring cargo planes, helicopters, wing-suited terrorists, machine guns, missiles, canyons, and our old friend Batroc (Georges St. Pierre) from Winter Soldier — that wouldn’t be at all out of place in the beginning of a James Bond movie.  Director Kari Skogland, a veteran of high end TV (she’s directed episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Punisher for Netflix, The Walking Dead, The Americans, and House of Cards, among others), knows her way around an action scene, and uses her big budget to good effect.  The sequence is introduced with the concise immediacy of a video game:  a criminal group called the LAF has targeted a military liaison for a kidnapping, and it’s up to the Falcon, who the US military is using as their own in-house super-hero, to stop them.

Sam has an intel assistant, a young soldier named Lieutenant Torres (Danny Ramirez), who alerts him to a globalist terrorist outfit calling themselves the Flag Smashers, who are dedicated to ‘a world that’s unified without borders.’  Sam tells Torres to keep an eye on them, and call him in if anything gets out of hand.

Back in Washington, Sam is part of a ceremony donating Captain America’s shield to the Smithsonian.  A government official assures Sam that donating the shield is the right decision, but James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a.k.a. War Machine, isn’t so sure, and wonders openly why Sam didn’t take up the mantle.  There’s the merest hint of accusation there in Rhodey’s question:  Steve Rogers gave the shield to you.  He could’ve given the shield to the Smithsonian himself if that was the direction he wanted to go.  He could’ve given the shield to Congress, or to the Stark Foundation, or just kept it in his garage.  He didn’t do any of those things.  He gave it to Sam Wilson, because he felt Sam was worthy of it, and while Rhodey seems to understand it, he can’t quite hide his disappointment that Sam is choosing to pass on the cup put before him.

The other title character of this series, James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes, is busy seeing his court-appointed psychiatrist — it’s a condition of his pardon — and denying the nightmares his past operations as the mind-controlled Winter Soldier have given him.  We see one such operation in flashback, that ends with the murder of a young man who witnessed the Winter Soldier killing his primary target.  Bucky is a haunted, lonely man, his friends and family long dead, his life twisted out of shape by decades of violence and murder.  He’s kept himself occupied since Endgame in making amends to the survivors and victims (and, in one case, beneficiaries) of his time as the Winter Soldier, but amends are far easier in theory than in practice…and there may be some things for which no amends are possible.  It turns out that the young man Bucky killed in the flashback has a father, Yori Nakajima (Ken Takemoto), still grieving over his son’s unsolved and unexplained murder.  Bucky has developed a relationship with the old man, but understandably hasn’t quite worked up the nerve to tell him about his part in his son’s death.

Sam returns to his childhood home in Delacroix, Louisiana, to his family’s fishing boat and his sister who’s decided to sell the business.  Sam attempts to procure a loan to save the boat and the business, but it seems not even an Avenger’s status and good reputation counts as collateral for the post-Blip banks.  (Hard to believe that there wouldn’t be someone in the echelons of power who wouldn’t call up the bank and say, “You’re denying a decorated veteran and active Avenger a fucking small business loan?  Are you high?”  But I digress…)

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Torres, on the trail of the Flag Smashers in Switzerland, gets his ass stomped by a super-human terrorist while trying to foil a bank robbery.  He contacts Sam with the video footage he took with his phone — Sam, perhaps troubled by the super-human angle, tells him for now to keep his Flag Smasher info on the down low — and no sooner has the call with Torres ended than Sam’s sister alerts him to breaking news on TV.

It’s the government official from the Smithsonian, “on behalf of the Commander in Chief and the Department of Defense,” ominously introducing “a real person who embodies America’s greatest values…someone who can be a symbol to all of us.”

Your new Captain America.

Oh, boy.

____

One of the reasons, I think, for the enduring popularity of Marvel’s heroes is that their creators and later caretakers were (and remain) devout, passionate believers in the ideals that made those characters heroes in the first place.  Whatever else you might say about them, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were embarrassingly sincere about their ideas concerning fairness, equality, justice, bravery, and taking responsibility for the welfare of one’s fellow man, and they passed their zeal for these heroic qualities on to their successors.

The first black character in mainstream comics was Gabe Jones, one of Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos, who made his debut in Sgt. Fury #1 (May 1963).  Jones wasn’t a mascot, wasn’t a sidekick, but was a full and equal member in good standing, serving right alongside his fellow Commandos, which included an Irishman, an Italian, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, and a southerner among their ranks.  Stan and Jack were both World War II veterans.  They knew damn good and well that black soldiers didn’t serve in the same units as white soldiers, and they certainly weren’t accepted as commandos.  And more, I doubt the Marvel offices in 1963 were exactly inundated with letters demanding a larger black presence in their war comics.

Stan and Jack put him in anyway, and when the colorist got it wrong, assuming there’d been a mistake and coloring Gabe as a white man…?  Stan and Jack made sure the coloring was corrected for subsequent issues.

Fantastic Four #52, Jul 1966 – First appearance of the Black Panther, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

A few years later, the first black super-hero, the Black Panther, made his debut in Fantastic Four #52 (Jul 1966).  This character was noble, brave, and brilliant, the king of the most technologically advanced nation on earth.  Decades later, I sat in a Cinerama in Seattle watching a movie bearing this character’s title, surrounded by a good many fans of color, some wearing dashikis and no few with tears in their eyes to see, at long last, a hero on the center stage who they could identify as themselves.

And I’m telling you, gentle reader…Jack Kirby, the co-creator of both Captain America and the Black Panther?  He’d have loved it.  He’d have loved it with every fiber of his being that these fans felt included, that the heroism and nobility of the Panther, a character he helped create, would resonate so powerfully with so many people…

…the same way he’d be saddened that the prospect of a black Captain America would still be seen as some kind of negative by so many people, in real life no less than the movies.  A Captain America who’s eminently qualified, by the way:  brave, capable, kind, and inspirational.

Sam being a black man doesn’t affect his status out in the field at all.  Torres and the active military don’t care that Sam’s black; his capability and competence are all that matters when it’s show time.  But back home, it’s a different story.  Back home, though no one ever comes right out and says so, Sam’s blackness is an ever-present factor, the inescapable elephant in a claustrophobically small room.

It’s a factor for James Rhodes, who might be eager to for reasons of his own to see a black man carry the shield and wear the name of Captain America.

It’s a factor for the bank to which Sam and his sister apply for a small business loan.  The bank doesn’t say they’re turning down the Wilsons because they’re black — the bank representative certainly doesn’t seem to see himself as any sort of overt racist — but would this same bank under otherwise equal circumstances really send white Avengers like Clint Barton or Carol Danvers packing?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

And it’s clearly a factor for the otherwise unnamed Commander in Chief and his Department of Defense, for whom a “real person who embodies America’s greatest values” clearly is not and never could be a black man.

____

Ask and ye shall receive:

  • Captain America’s shield in the comics is a unique item, made of an alloy of vibranium and adamantium, two fictional super metals.  The vibranium allows the shield to absorb and dissipate energy, while the adamantium makes it as close to indestructible as a man-made object is likely to get.  Like Captain America himself, no one’s ever managed to duplicate the process that created the shield.  Wakandan vibranium of the type in Captain America’s shield made its first appearance in Fantastic Four #53 (Aug 1966).  Adamantium was first referenced in Avengers #66 (Jul 1969).
  • Captain America #117, Sep 1969 – First appearance of Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, by Stan Lee and Gene Colan.

    The Falcon’s first appearance was Captain America #117 (Sep 1969), created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan.  Sam Wilson has no military background in the comics, nor is he from Louisiana; he’s a social worker, born and raised in Harlem.  Curiously, the Falcon didn’t actually fly until getting a winged flight apparatus courtesy of the Black Panther in Captain America #171 (Mar 1974); before that, he swung around town on a cable and grappling hook sort of number.

  • The Redwing of the comics is an actual bird with whom Sam has an empathic / telepathic link.  If Sam concentrates on it, he can mentally link up with birds other than Redwing.
  • Captain America #11, Nov 2005 – Winter Soldier cover by the great Steve Epting.

    Bucky Barnes first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 (Mar 1941), created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.  The current Winter Soldier version of the character was created by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, and first appeared in Captain America #1 (Jan 2005).

  • Though he shares almost nothing with the character in the show other than the name, the first appearance of Joaquin Torres was in a photograph in Captain America:  Sam Wilson #1 (Oct 2015); he made his first ‘in-person’ appearance in issue #3 of that series (Jan 2016).
  • French mercenary and career criminal Georges Batroc — Batroc the Leaper! — is a classic Captain America villain who first appeared in Tales of Suspense #75 (Mar 1966).  The Batroc of the comics is a little like a costumed French version of Omar Little from The Wire, in that he does what he does because he thinks it’s fun and it’s profitable, but is inclined to exclude innocent people who aren’t in the game.  He’s most definitely a criminal, but doesn’t tend to be a murderous one.
  • The Flag Smasher of the comics is a person, not an organization, created by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary.  He first appeared in Captain America #312 (Dec 1985).  The motivation given the group in the show, however, is roughly the same as the character in the comics.
  • James Rhodes in the comics is a little more blue-collar than the character played by Don Cheadle in the MCU, but the essential traits are the same.  Rhodes made his first appearance in Iron Man #118 (Jan 1979), created by David Michelinie and John Byrne.  Not unlike Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, both of whom have worn the mantle of Captain America in the comics, Rhodes took a turn as Iron Man, beginning in Iron Man #170 (May 1983) and ending in Iron Man #200 (Nov 1985).  He began wearing heavily weaponized Iron Man armor as War Machine in Iron Man #282 (Jul 1992).
  • A title card in the credits confirms the new Captain America is John Walker, created by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary.  Gruenwald described the character as someone “who embodied patriotism in a way that Captain America [Steve Rogers] didn’t.”  We’d think of him now as a MAGA, America First version of a patriotic super-hero, with all that that entails.  He first appeared as the Super-Patriot in Captain America #323 (Nov 1986), and assumed the mantle of Captain America by government mandate in Captain America #333 (Sep 1987).

Questions or comments, please let me know!  Otherwise, I’ll see you all for episode 2!