Fridays, which have been unremarkable for a freelancer like myself in COVID times, have become exciting again–thanks to the Walt Disney Company.
The nine weeks Wandavision ran gave me something to truly look forward to at the end of the week. It reminded me of the weekends of my childhood, eager to wake up early and devour my Cinnamon Toast Crunch and binge One Saturday Morning. Now, after a brief two-week hiatus, I’m back to jumping out of bed on Fridays, rushing to make my coffee and open Disney+, ready for my next adventure into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The newest addition to the MCU, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (TFATWS), has been called Marvel’s most political entry yet. If the premiere episode is any indication of what’s to come, that assessment seems correct. Picking up six months after the events of The Avengers: End Game, TFATWS shows us just how difficult things have been for Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, the titular Falcon and the Winter Soldier, respectfully.
Like previous installments into the MCU, our heroes’ struggles are ones that are woven into the American experience. Sam is back home in Louisiana, and watches as his sister, Sarah, struggles to keep the family business afloat. Sam and Sarah, like many small business owners, have been left behind when a big event has decimated the economy. In real life, there is COVID. In the MCU, there is The Blip. When the siblings go to the bank to request a loan, the agent fawns over the Avenger in his presence. He asks him about the details of being a superhero, takes a selfie, praises Sam for his heroic acts–but declines to authorize a loan that would provide financial stability for his family. When the agent says it’s because things have “tightened up” at the bank, Sarah remarks that it’s “funny how things always tighten around [them].” The banker quickly rebuffs, but the realities of being a Black business owner in America are apparent. The subtext, additionally, is clear: America loves its heroes, but not enough to help them when they return from battle.
The same can be said for Bucky, plagued with PTSD from his years as a brainwashed and scientifically engineered assassin. Bucky’s violent nightmares don’t quite mirror that of the typical American soldier. However, like any member of the armed forces, he was given orders to kill that he had no choice but to follow. Bucky has emerged from his trauma paranoid, friendless, and unwilling to even trust his government-mandated therapist. Both Sam and Bucky’s struggles highlight our nation’s mistreatment of veterans, a problem that has plagued society for generations.
In this premiere episode “New World Order,” TFATWS sets up the series’ big baddies, a group called the Flag Smashers. The Flag Smashers want a world without borders, believing nationalism leads to fascism, and that free movement of people and goods is better for society. Unsurprisingly, for a show built on the back of Captain America, these anarcho-communists are seen as a threat to the world order.
Personally, I think the Flag Smashers are completely correct. They accurately identify that arbitrary, military-enforced borders are a tool for state-sanctioned violence. Even MCU newcomer Lieutenant Joaquin Torres, serving as the explainer of The Flag Smashers (and my new MCU crush), says he understands why people have rallied around the group. In a 2015 article in The Atlantic, Alex Tabarokk argues in favor of abolishing borders, saying, “No defensible moral framework regards foreigners as less deserving of rights than people born in the right place at the right time.” I couldn’t agree more.
In the past three years, I’ve navigated the immigration systems in both the United Kingdom and Portugal. It is expensive, exhausting, and stressful, even for me, a white woman with an American passport and plenty of money. There is absolutely no reason for someone to be denied the ability to live and work somewhere simply because they lack the necessary paperwork. I have hopes that upcoming episodes will show these flag smashin’ baddies as nuanced, if not sympathetic, villains, but I won’t be holding my breath.
TFATWS seems acutely aware of its own political optics. In a pleasant surprise, the diversity in the show seems normal, not tokenistic. Col. James Rhodes and Sam take a walk together in the episode, and it struck me that we were watching two Black men talk earnestly and openly about their feelings, something that feels atypical in most modern action franchises. Bucky goes on a date with an Asian woman, marking the first time in the MCU a lead character gets a non-white love interest. Thus far in the MCU, Black Panther has been the franchise’s shining hallmark of racial progress, but it almost feels more notable to see non-white experiences and faces amplified in what is not being marketed as a “Black story.” With Malcom Spellman as head writer and showrunner (and a more than fifty-percent Black writers room), I feel confident that TFATWS will continue to amplify non-white characters.
As someone who loves little more than media analysis and political theory, I’m happy with this first installment, and excited for what is to come. Superhero stories serve as our modern mythology, and it’s much more interesting to see these heroes wrestle real-life demons, like racism and PTSD, than giant space monsters. Good art provides commentary on the world it inhabits, and allows viewers to examine our own world through the lens of the story. If this episode is any indication, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier will continue to provide viewers with plenty of critiques, complex characters, and,of course, some excellent action sequences.