The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Explained is our ongoing series delving into Marvel’s grand new bromance between Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. In this entry, we examine the climactic reveal delivered during The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiere episode and answer the question, who the hell is that guy? Yes, prepare for SPOILERS.
Steve Rogers let go. He saw Tony Stark sacrifice everything for the rest of us, and it compelled him to reclaim the relationship he left behind. Selfish? Hey, we don’t know what went down when he returned all those Infinity Stones to their rightful timelines. We don’t know what he did in the unseen decades between his hopping backward and his taking that seat on the lakeside bench. Don’t judge the man until you’ve seen his Disney+ series.
For the time being, we’re here to worry about his pals, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan). — a.k.a. the titular heroes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Once upon a time, Bucky swore allegiance “til the end of the line.” Well, that train has pulled into the station. Now what?
For most of the premiere episode of the Marvel series, Sam and Bucky stay busy, desperately searching for value outside the Avengers and Steve’s colossal shadow. Sam is back with the Air Force. Bucky is making amends for all the wrongdoing he committed as the Winter Soldier. They’re active and apart but equally full of angst.
Steve gave Sam the shield. Bucky didn’t seem to mind, but he can’t feel great about it either. Especially since Sam immediately trapped the object inside of a museum. Indiana Jones might be happy with such a turn of events, but Steve sure as hell wouldn’t.
When Sam tried on Cap’s shield during the Avengers: Endgame wrap-up, the Falcon told Steve it felt “like it’s someone else’s.” Steve assured him that it is not. The shield belongs to Sam, but Sam cannot imagine himself wielding it with the same authority as his friend. There’s only one Captain America.
Except, he’s wrong. In more ways than one.
As we learn at the end of the first episode, a new Captain has arisen. While Sam couldn’t imagine himself wielding the shield, John Walker (Wyatt Russell) jumped in line and took his place. The American government is thirsty for its own Avenger, ever since they lost Cap to the ice in 1942, and now they have one. Modern-day Steve Rogers wouldn’t play ball (see Thunderbolt Ross’ sour face in Captain America: Civil War), but Walker most certainly will.
The guy is a nasty piece of work. The comic book version of Walker began life as the Captain America villain Super Patriot, created by writer Mark Gruenwald as a dark mirror for Steve Rogers. If Steve’s heart was pure, Walker’s heart was rotten. Steve grew up a poor Brooklyn street kid. Walker grew up a middle-class southerner. They both loved the flag, but Walker loved it with a stranglehold grip. Don’t tread on me, punks.
In the 1980s, Steve became leary of his Captain America mantle. He walked away from the role and dropped the colors from his uniform. The void, however, had to be filled. The powers that be anointed Walker as the new Captain America.
Walker’s time as Captain America was complicated. He was not an out-and-out villain. He took the role seriously, and he wrestled with what it meant to be Captain America. The job cracked his heart. He sought to be a better person and to be worthy of the title. That’s the Walker/Cap era’s appeal: a garbage human chasing enlightenment.
Steve Rogers represents the best of us. He’s a lot like Superman in that sense. We strive to live up to his standards. We might not make it, but in our reach, we find beauty and progress.
Eventually, Steve reclaimed the costume and the name. By that point, Walker was a changed man. He didn’t want to stop the growth that had ignited within. He became the similarly dressed U.S. Agent (trading light blue and red for black and red). Since then, Walker’s morality has fluctuated. He falters but never falls into villainy. His time as Captain America haunts him, but it also keeps him on the straight and narrow.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Walker’s presence will serve as a tremendous kick in the pants for Sam and Bucky. They will not like seeing Russell’s pretty boy grinning behind the mask and acting the fool. With every headline he grabs and every Captain America value he bastardizes, a tiny dagger will twist in their hearts. Sam didn’t feel like he was ready to wield the shield, but John Walker just pushed him to do so.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiere kickstarts Sam and Bucky coming together to honor Steve Rogers’ legacy — their friend’s legacy. They’re going to fight for that shield, and once they get it, they’re going to have to figure out what it means to strap it on their backs. There is a history in those colors, and not all of it is good. There may even be a few more yesteryear Captain Americas that they’ll have to confront.
To dress as Captain America in 2021 requires serious internal evaluation. Questions must be asked and answered. Who does Captain America serve? The people, the government, the dream, or the fantasy? Steve Rogers tried being a propaganda puppet, and it didn’t sit well. When he awoke in an army he didn’t recognize, he took it down.
Steve was the change he wanted to see in the world. Sam and Bucky should offer nothing less. In following Steve’s lead, acting on their conviction and no one else’s, they serve as humanity’s beacon. We can be better. We can always be better.