“The Whole World Is Watching,” the fourth episode of Disney+’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” culminates in some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most arresting imagery ever: John Walker’s (Wyatt Russell) Captain America, vengefully bludgeoning a man to death with a bloodied, stars and stripes-adorned shield. It’s a scene that, for a show that repeatedly purports to be about reevaluating nationalistic symbols, could have kicked off a searing critique along those lines. Witness America’s unstable, entitled mascot, juiced up on contraband super soldier serum, murdering someone on foreign soil.
By the finale, Walker is saving a truck full of civilians and breezily quoting Abraham Lincoln. “Mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice,” he says, letting us know that he’s learned his lesson. The abrupt pivot is not only narratively and thematically dissonant — it’s symptomatic of the series’ craven unwillingness to address the sociopolitical questions it purposely provokes.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” casts Walker as a product of an unethical U.S. system; he was awarded his medals of honor for actions in Afghanistan that, by his own admission, “felt a long way from right,” so why wouldn’t he bristle at the government’s sudden moral compass once one measly killing happens to be caught on camera? “You built me,” he testifies at a Senate hearing, insisting he’s only ever done what he was trained to do. “I am Captain America.”
Considering Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie) central arc throughout the show — reckoning with whether or not he wants to represent a country that has continually marginalized and brutalized Black people — Walker makes for a consummate antagonist. If Sam is what America should be, as the show argues, Walker is what America actually is — white, male and dangerously deluded about its moral superiority. The show’s other villain, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), articulates this, calling Cap’s shield “a reminder of the people history left out.” She’s right, of course. In Sam’s conversations with Black war veteran Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), he learns that Bradley was also injected with the super soldier serum, but unlike celebrated golden boy Steve Rogers, he was forcibly imprisoned and scrubbed from history.
With these moments, the show posits that, as a nationalistic emblem, the Captain America mantle will always carry the stain of that injustice. A few characters question if it should exist at all; Isaiah tells Sam no self-respecting Black man would wield it. Walker, who’s dedicated his life to reinforcing America’s mandates at home and abroad, feels so entitled to this power he would rather beat Sam and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) to a pulp than give it up.
A cohesive ending might have pitted Sam solely against Walker, advancing a complete condemnation of what the latter represents. It might have shown us true retribution for Walker’s actions. We might have witnessed Sam learning from Karli and Isaiah and reworking the Captain America identity, continuing to help people while avoiding symbolic service to a corrupt government (as Steve Rogers did in a 1970s-era comic book arc, adopting the title of “Nomad” and stripping his costume of patriotic imagery).
Instead, in between stock action sequences, the series finale systematically walks back the criticisms lobbied by earlier episodes and reinstates a reductive middle ground. Karli is killed. Sam dons a new Cap costume and enforces her message through a moderate lecture to the politicians she so reviled, who are allowed to remain in power. Most egregiously, after stating his belief that America can “do better,” Sam passes Walker — who, last time they met, ripped the metal wings off of Sam’s suit while growling “I am Captain America” through gritted teeth — and gives him a friendly bro nod.
In one of the show’s many codas, Walker is given a new uniform and moniker — U.S. agent — by Julia Louis Dreyfus’ Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Sure, Dreyfus’ character is plainly sketchy (in the “Secret Warriors” comic book series, she’s revealed to be a Hydra operative), hinting that Walker might be unknowingly rejoining the dark side. But there’s something a little nausea-inducing about the fact that his “punishment” amounts to nothing more than a comic book Easter egg, especially when Karli, who’s witnessed loved ones’ pain as a result of the government’s actions post-“Snap” and is driven to similar violence because of it, pays a much steeper price.
Malcolm Spellman, the show’s head writer and showrunner, spoke about Walker’s redemption in an interview with The Daily Beast. “If we demonize (Walker), then we’re not having a conversation. Then we’re just making a judgment, a political statement, which is not what we wanted to do. At the same time, John Walker is an inherently political character because of that iconography and what he embodies,” Spellman said.
This desire to have it both ways is fundamentally flawed storytelling. There is no way to write an “inherently political character” such as Walker without making a political statement. There is a responsibility, when invoking the consequential issues that Walker represents — white privilege, police brutality, American war crimes — to interrogate those topics beyond lip service. Holding Walker up as a symbol of America’s current sins for five episodes only to turn around and insist on his inherent goodness is an incomprehensible choice that prioritizes passable franchise maintenance above all else.
It turns out the series’ bluster about retooling old symbols was really just an excuse to cloak them in new costumes. To paraphrase Sam Wilson, America should do better than that.