The Falcon and the Winter Soldier 1×02 “The Star-Spangled Man,” is more fast-paced than the premiere episode, but it doesn’t miss out on the important character beats. There’s a lot of development for Bucky and Sam during this episode that illustrates why this show couldn’t be a movie. We have to spend time with these characters in a way that we never have before.
Unfortunately, that means that we have to spend time with John Walker, too, as he dons the Captain America suit with the kind of arrogance that Steve Rogers hated.
“The Star-Spangled Man” explains that Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes aren’t the only people that have been affected by Cap’s complicated history. Through the introduction of John Walker and Isaiah (presumably Bradley, even though the show has yet to use his last name), the questions of what it means to be Captain America and if that legacy is worth protecting (as it is) becomes more apparent than ever.
The beginning of “The Star-Spangled Man” leads us to believe that we can empathize with John Walker. He doesn’t want to let anyone down, and he seems to understand the magnitude of the symbol. That’s quickly met with the truth that we don’t have to feel any allegiance to this man, despite Walker thinking he’s earned it.
The show leans into the harsh reality of seeing John Walker in the suit that we all know wasn’t meant for him. The parade on the football field with a remix of “Star-Spangled Man” draws distinct parallels to Steve’s USO days, but that’s where they end. John Walker couldn’t be more different from his predecessor.
You can see all of that disappointment and immediate disdain wash over Bucky Barnes’ face when he learns the news during Walker’s GMA interview. Sebastian Stan plays this moment expertly, once again reminding us of the incredible work that he has done over the last decade with so little dialogue.
Bucky follows this sentiment up by asking John if he’s ever jumped on a grenade to test Walker’s allegiance to the people that matter. We all remember that powerful moment from Captain America: The First Avenger that shows how Steve will be a good Cap because he’s more than just a soldier; he’s a good man.
We have no reason to believe that Walker is a good man. We only know that he is a decorated soldier with an attitude problem. That’s not someone who should have the influence and power of Captain America. The crowd at the parade cling to Walker’s charisma (if that’s what you can call it) because they aren’t aware of the man behind the suit. They’re only aware of the statistics that evidently make him a good soldier.
What about the man behind the symbol? Well, as it turns out, he’s not that great of a man. Shocker, right?
Walker swoops in to flash his heroics only after Sam and Bucky have done the hard work of finding the Flag Smashers and learning more information. It’s gutwrenching to watch that shield maneuver around Sam and Bucky, for Bucky to touch it for a fleeting second, and then it to go back into John Walker’s hands.
It’s also telling that Walker yells, “You didn’t know the shield was going to end up here,” after Bucky when he gets out of the car upon learning of Hoskins’ alias Battlestar. Yeah, Bucky and Sam didn’t know that the government would hand the shield to this man that reeks with privilege. Did Walker know, though? All signs point to complacency.
Then Walker and Lemar Hoskins only follow Sam and Bucky because Walker wants their assistance. Walker deems them “Steve’s wingmen” and notes how beneficial it would be for him if they were to work together. Walker only sees Bucky and Sam as tools he can use for his gain. Walker illustrates this by bailing Bucky out of jail only to rip him away from the resources he needs to be a better man.
Then, after all of this, Walker dares to threaten Sam and Bucky for making the correct decision not to align themselves with his agenda. Yeah, I’m not on this guy’s side at all.
“Star-Spangled Man” makes my blood boil every time I see John Walker. It also succeeds in making me feel something about the Flag Smashers. The first episode barely scratched the surface of this group, its members, and its mission statement. This episode allows us to learn more about them through various perspectives: John and Lamar, Sam and Bucky, and the Flag Smashers themselves.
John sees them as “violent revolutionaries” that America must handle before they do irreversible damage. Sam sees them as people who may want to help others, while Bucky critiques their methods. We learn that Sam’s perception of the Flag Smashers is the most accurate since the team is stealing medicine to give to displaced groups.
It becomes evident that there’s a more nefarious Big Bad named the Power Broker pulling some strings with undetermined motives. This anonymous character’s introduction contributes to reframing the show’s view and our opinions on the Flag Smashers. That person is trying to stop the Flag Smashers by violently killing them. The Flag Smashers’ use of violence shouldn’t exist without criticism, but that doesn’t justify the Power Broker’s use of deadly force.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier challenges the show’s characters to gain a fuller understanding of preconceived villains. Things are never as simple as they appear, and that’s when villains become more compelling. Take Zemo, for example. There’s only one glimpse of him in this episode, but MCU fans will remember his fascinating arc in Captain America: Civil War.
Thankfully, Bucky and Sam quickly reunite during “The Star-Spangled Man.” Their reunion is as I expected it to be, fast-paced bickering and all. This interaction also signifies that these men aren’t friends. They don’t see eye to eye on a lot. However, there is mutual respect and understanding there that comes from their commonality: Steve Rogers.
All of this comes to a head during Dr. Raynor’s forced couples therapy session (!!!) when Bucky voices a heartbreaking revelation.
“That shield was everything, and Steve trusted you with it. And if you just gave it away, then maybe he was wrong about you. And if he was wrong about you, then maybe he was wrong about me.”
I could write a million words about Steve and Bucky’s enduring friendship. To save that for another time: Steve always knew who Bucky was even when Bucky didn’t know himself. What happens if all of that falls away?
Sam has a life that exists outside of Steve’s perception of him. Bucky hasn’t had that chance yet, which is part of what makes this show so exciting. Bucky’s been a man out of time with only Steve as a familiar touchstone. That’s gone now. Bucky and Steve made an allegiance to be with each other until the end of the line, and we see Bucky grapple with that finality.
Sam’s decision is his own, and Bucky needs to come to terms with that. This admission gives way to the layers surrounding this shield and its meaning to each of these men. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier allows Marvel to explore those layers with the time and nuance they deserve.
Not to mention, this scene allows Bucky to show a level of vulnerability that the MCU doesn’t often grant its characters — let alone the male ones. That’s what makes it so disheartening to see Sam brush off what Bucky is trying to share with him. Though two things are true about this moment: Bucky’s feelings don’t need to be validated by Sam to be accurate and Bucky is projecting too much onto Sam.
It burns even more that we won’t have more moments like this to look forward to in the upcoming episodes. John Walker took that away from Bucky (and us) like he has the right.
Carl Lumbly had one scene and stole the entire show. His appearance as Isaiah Bradley was highly-anticipated upon his casting in a mystery role. It was no secret that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would tackle the complicated history of Captain America along with highly relevant topics, like racism and mental health. They go hand-in-hand in the purposefully forgotten story of Isaiah Bradley, which is why fans (myself included) were hopeful that Lumbly would fill the role.
Two powerful scenes bookend Isaiah’s introduction with an outstanding performance by Mackie in each. There’s the moment that the little boy outside of Isaiah’s house recognizes Sam as “Black Falcon” because that’s what his dad calls Falcon. This scene feels like the exact opposite of the bank teller from the prior episode. That white man didn’t recognize or care about Sam outside of the Falcon suit. This little Black boy leaps at the chance to talk to a hero he immediately recognizes without the wings on Sam’s back.
After Sam learns the devastating truth about Isaiah, racist cops target him, weaponize his anger, and only back down when someone tells them that Sam is an Avenger. To make matters worse, they delicately arrest Bucky, a man credited with over two dozen killings. The overt systematic racism is impossible to avoid in this scene unless you’re trying to ignore it, and then, well, maybe you’re a part of the problem.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, once again, stresses the importance of seeing the people behind the symbols. That reminder contributes to the outright disservice and frustration of not knowing about Isaiah Bradley (in the context of the MCU) until now.
The government tasked a Black man to cross lines they deemed dangerous for their other (likely white) soldiers to take on the Winter Soldier. They sent Isaiah for dead and then experimented on him as a consequence of not finishing the job. Isaiah’s story is a forgotten past because the government doesn’t broadcast its misuse of the super-soldier serum and its willingness to discount and discard Bradley.
As Bucky said, HYDRA was aware of Bradley as a hero in the same realm as Steve Rogers, yet no one is aware of his heroism. There’s no way to move forward into the future with Captain America’s mantle without recognizing its problematic and racist past. It’s unlikely that this is the last time we will see Lumbly on the show (or the MCU) as Isaiah Bradley, and that’s a good thing. It’s well past time we know about Isaiah Bradley and learn his story.
It’s also relevant to mention that Isaiah’s grandson Elijah Bradley is a Young Avenger named Patriot in the comics. If you’re keeping track of all the Disney+ shows, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t a Young Avengers series or movie coming.
Other Damn Good Moments:
- That “the big three” joke never gets old.
- Bucky mentioned his White Wolf nickname!
- Bucky did the fast-run.
- The mention of Sharon feels very convenient.
- The couples therapy scene has enough in it for me to only watch that forever.
- Sam’s getting another Redwing, right? I need him to get another Redwing.
What did you think of this episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? Let us know in the comments below!
New episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier drop weekly on Disney+!