The first five episodes of "The Falcon And The Winter Soldier" were compelling, breaking some ground we hadn't seen Marvel TV address for a few years. We saw government conspiracy, international intrigue, underground crime and blurred lines between heroic villains and villainous heroes, with alignments and alliances shifting. Then the ending happened.
BEYOND THIS POINT, WE ARE GETTING INTO VERY HEAVY SPOILERS
The series starts as almost a buddy cop movie, with American-turned-Russian-turned-Wakandan-turned-American cyborg James "Bucky" Buchanan struggling to adjust to a world that passed him by decades ago and contracted superhero Sam Wilson as they search for the Flag Smashers, a group dedicated to the abolition of borders. As they progress, they journey across the world, searching for leads to who the Flag Smashers are and their mysterious leader, Karli Morgenthau. The new Captain America, John Walker, has been given the mantle by the United States government and pursues the Smashers with his partner Lemar Hoskins.
That's a very basic way to start the show, but in the first five episodes, it's very much an international conspiracy with touches of what made "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" the best Marvel movie. Unexpected twists, interesting characters and characterization, a pace similar to that of a Bourne movie, it was genuinely entertaining. They even touched on social issues such as race and mental health for veterans.
A few years ago, Marvel and Netflix paired up to make a few series about the ground-level heroes of New York City. Each of them had a social message that was explored: Daredevil was about disability and the survivors' remorse of family deaths. Luke Cage was about the racial realities of protecting your neighborhood from opportunistic forces both in and out of the community. Jessica Jones was about the manipulation and gaslighting of women, Iron Fist was about the stress of living up to your family name as well as your own ambitions and The Punisher was about the cycle of war and the toll it takes on soldiers' minds. These were mirrors held up to America, unflinching as they asked questions that didn't have easy answers. How do we treat our disabled? Our women? Our minority groups? Our veterans. Everyone loves the rich genius playboy and the aw-shucks idealization of "The Greatest Generation", but what about an ex-con who's fighting to keep his neighborhood from being gentrified? Or the alcoholic woman who hasn't found her way out of her trauma?
"WandaVision" addressed the latter in a way that didn't quite stick the landing but allowed Wanda to let go of her pain and grief (despite not even seeking forgiveness for the lives she destroyed) and gave her character a chance to grow in her new power, even allowing series newcomer Monica Rambeau to do the same. But "TFAWS" didn't do that. It ended the series on a half-hearted cliffhanger and ended on a "unity conquers hate" speech that was designed to give us all warm and fuzzies.
In the episode prior to this, Isaiah Bradley, a black man experimented on with the Super Soldier serum told Sam no black person in his right mind would ever pick up the Stars and Stripes. And in the very last episode, they show him wearing a full American flag costume made by the Wakandans. I know how black people in the service act, considering I'm also a black veteran. They never let him question his surroundings or condemn the country’s actions. He just unblinkingly followed orders, like a good soldier. And his sister, a poor black single mom from the south completely dismisses Isaiah and his service. That’s not how things would go. My mother never disregarded the heroics of any black person, unless they were diametrically opposed to the causes we fought for. So either Sam isn’t in his right mind or he’s trying to transcend his race when that’s not the zeitgeist. Our heroes don’t appear on stamps. Colin Kaepernick proved you can succeed without the machine. But instead, Sam becomes a figurehead for something that actively oppresses his people. The writers did what Stallone did to Apollo Creed. They made a palatable revolutionary rather than actually make a real stand.
So how would I fix this? If you're reading this, I'm assuming you've already finished the show. I won't be explaining the show anymore, I'll be rebooking the show without making changes that are too major. That means no new characters, no cameos.
First off, we're moving the scene with Valentina Allegra de Fontaine and John Walker to the beginning of the episode. Take his girlfriend/wife/whoever out of the scene and make it his choice to act as a rogue agent. This is important since he's going to be wearing that suit when he's on the path of vengeance with Karli. After the opening credits, almost everything goes the same way. But after the botched bombing, the Flag Smashers try to escape and regroup. This means none of the Flag Smashers ever tangle with Falcon or Bucky outside of the helicopter scene and the armored truck. This includes that stupid arrest scene. Sam flys in wearing a black and gold Falcon suit from the Wakandans. Karli keeps getting distracted but with USAgent on the warpath, her team keeps getting hurt more and more. When she drives the truck on the edge of the building, USAgent actively chooses not to save the truck, searching for Karli instead. Karli runs into Sharon and the conversation follows a similar path, with Sharon revealing herself not as Power Broker, but as the mentor of Karli. USAgent catches up to Karli and there's a stand-off between Karli, Walker and Sharon. This is the A-story and we take a quick break from it. The B-story is Bucky. He saves the truck and we see flashbacks of the chaos that he was involved in that resulted in the death of his friend's child. But he 's here to save, not to destroy and he eventually leads everyone to safety before the truck falls.
Now comes the first of a three-part story for Sam. His character is that of a veteran Pararescueman, someone who was literally jumping at the chance to save others. And he uses Redwing to find the three as tensions rise. Sharon tells USAgent he's too valuable and the boss wants him alive, with Karli starts to realize she was used. Sam steps between the three and de-escalates the situation, with Sharon and Karli lowering their weapons. The remaining Flag Smashers whistle their signal and USAgent rushes to Karli, who shoots him in the shoulder, Sam treats his wounds as Karli and the Smashers escape. USAgent isn't dying, but he's in pain and to distract him, Sam asks him why he joined. USAgent is at a loss for words and once the wound is treated, Contessa exfiltrates him. Sharon flees as police approach the scene. Batroc doesn't die, he simply disappears into the night.
The "They're Not Terrorists" speech stays the same, but is only about half as long. Rather than listening to the whole speech, the senator says he has to report to the GRC for a hearing. Bucky decides to tell the truth about his past and Sam visits Isaiah in Baltimore. Sam asks Isaiah why he joined the army and Isaiah replies "I didn't. I was drafted in. I was playing football at Morgan State when they told me I was supposed to be in Korea. They never gave me a choice. This country never asked for anything. They took, took, took and when they took everything, they threw me away." On the day of the hearing, Sam stands alone before the GRC, and the senator offers him the mantle of Captain America. Sam says "I appreciate the offer, senator, but I know I wasn't your first choice. And I never will be. So I have to decline." Embarassed, the senator asks him where the terrorists are. Sam replies "They're not terrorists. And if they are, so are you." This is broadcast on worldwide TV, with cuts to Sam's sister, Bucky, the Flag Smashers and Ayo (sidebar: Zemo isn't in The Raft, he's a prisoner in Wakanda). When asked to explain himself, he says most of the speech as he did on the show. When he's told to turn in the Falcon wings, he puts down the duffle bag of broken wing parts. When confronted, he says "Your Captain America destroyed them. These new wings were given to me by my people." The senator skeptically asks "Your people? If you have any government equipment, it must be turned in." Sam finally replies "We don't need your equipment. We built our own. The same way we built this nation. I asked John Walker why he joined the army and he couldn't answer me. But I joined to change the world. I joined to because I thought I could make a difference. But if protecting the Constitution means forcing people out of their homes, if it's forcing Isaiah Bradley to be experimented on, if it's leaving James Buchanan to die, if it's ostracizing Sharon Carter, I want no part of that. That's not the America I want to protect. Because at the end of the day it doesn't matter what the press says. It doesn't matter what the politicians say. It doesn't matter what the press says. It doesn't matter what the politicians or the mobs say. It doesn't matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — 'No, you move.'"
The room is quiet and Sam turns around and walks out. We can keep the scene where Isaiah Bradley is enshrined in the Smithsonian, but now it has added context. His character is in an interesting place, seeing as his contractor status allows him to walk away from the situation. The next movie can explore him as a similar character to Nomad like Captain America, there can even be a bit of a Battle For The Cowl situation as far as a potential USAgent vs. Falcon rivalry. Joaquin Torres can be set up as the new Falcon, Elijah Bradley can be shown as being inspired and wanting to carry on as a Young Avenger. We're left with a world that isn't sure what will happen next, which helps this genre of political thriller. The villains don't die, meaning they can evolve their characters and Contessa and USAgent can set their plans into motion (hopefully it's the Thunderbolts).
NO MORE SPOILERS
The problem with being a nerd is the anticipation and expectations due to decades of story-telling being on the table. Marvel has never shied away from social issues and have a pedigree of Stan Lee, Ta-Nehesi Coates and Chris Claremont writing stories that tell full, well-rounded stories that carry a message. Disney has never really taken a stand the way Marvel did, even with movies like The Princess And The Frog, Remember The Titans and Glory Road. It's typically a very Racism 101, all-you-need-is-love way to address a very nuanced issue. We saw a start of this with Black Panther (which is their most successful single hero film to date), but Disney hasn't really touched these sorts of topics since that movie. Each hero should represent a real life struggle and relate to different types of people, giving them hope through fiction. I can only hope someone at Marvel agrees.