So, we can all agree we hate John Walker as Captain America, right? After the bombshell reveal in last week’s episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, that saw the US Government hand John Walker’s Cap’s shield, “The Star-Spangled Man” finally brings Sam and Bucky back together. Though, it seems like we have a ways to go before the two of them will see eye to eye.
Good Morning, America!
We open “The Star-Spangled Man” with a look at John Walker (I refuse to call him Captain America) in his high school locker room before he’s about to go out on the football field for a Good Morning America segment. His wife and apparent high school sweetheart, Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss), shows up to give him a boost of confidence. I’ll say this, although I think John exudes a kind of smug arrogance that is bound to rear its ugly head, he isn’t completely terrible. It’s not just about the glamour of being Captain America for him.
“Everybody in the world, expects me to be something. And I don’t wanna fail them,” he tells Olivia.
But, he didn’t know Cap. He never met Steve, and as inspired as he could be by Steve, he doesn’t seem like the type to say ‘I could do this all day.’ Although we quickly see a highlight reel of John’s high points, it’s hard to ignore some of the red flags that go up. As his friend and fellow soldier Lemar Hoskins (Cle Bennett) comes into the locker room, he points to the Cap suit. “Listen this suit? It comes with expectations, brother. You can’t just punch your way out of problems anymore, you know?” Okay, so he’s the kind of guy who punches his way out of a problem? Great…
When it comes to being Captain America, it’s not about guts like John so proudly proclaims. It’s not about having the perfect body, speed, endurance, intelligence. It’s about heart. It’s not about being a good soldier, it’s about being a good man. Never forget Abraham Erskine’s iconic words from Captain America: The First Avenger, “The strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion.” Does John Walker seem like the kind of man who knows compassion? Time will tell.
The Big Three
As John smiles and signs autographs and does his GMA interview, we cut to Bucky, sitting on the floor in his empty apartment, looking up at the news in horror. “Even though I never met him, he feels like a brother,” John waxes on, and you can just tell it makes Bucky’s blood boil. And after many ignored messages, Bucky finally goes to see Sam. But it’s not the reunion Dr. Raynor might hope for.
Plastered all around the hangar where Sam and Torres are about to fly out from is propaganda posters with John Walker’s face on it. Emblazoned in red, white, and blue we see the phrase, “Cap is back!”
Sam is focused on the Flag-Smashers. He’s headed to Munich with Torres to track them down, but Bucky comes strolling in. (How did Bucky just walk onto a military base?) Confronting his fellow Avenger about giving away Cap’s shield, it’s obvious that neither of the two men are okay with the new Cap. The two argue. Bucky keeps telling Sam that this isn’t what Steve wanted and he had no right to give that shield up. But Sam hits back that Bucky has no right to come in and tell him what he’s allowed to do. That shield was given to Sam.
This is the primary tension between the two, one that we see culminate in their interrogation room couples therapy session with Dr. Raynor. But more on that later.
Right now, Sam is off to fight what he assumes might be a part of The Big Three — Androids, Aliens, or Wizards. I’m not sure who coined this phrase, but apparently, John and Lemar know it too, so I guess it’s a thing. But, this time it might not be any of those three, this time it’s super soldiers. Anyway, after bickering with one another and Bucky revealing that he was a big old nerd when he was first in line to buy The Hobbit back in 1937. (Was Steve also there? In my headcanon, he was!)
Despite protestation, Bucky joins Sam on the mission. The tension between the two of them is high. Sam doesn’t let Bucky in on his plan and Bucky doesn’t let Sam call him Buck. Sam leaps from the plane, leaving Bucky behind for the return trip. But, Bucky rips off his jacket sleeve and jumps out of the plane after Sam. And, sure, he doesn’t need a chute, but it’s not a pretty fall. Bucky doesn’t land quite as gracefully as Steve might have back in the day.
It’s actually White Wolf
The two continue to bicker as they get to a warehouse where they spot seven super soldiers with a potential eighth person being held hostage. Of course, despite the prickly vibes between the two of them, this is just another scene that shows off how much chemistry Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan have. Sam mocks him as he stealthily approaches the Flag-Smashers.
Sam: “Look at you, all stealthy. A little time in Wakanda and you come out White Panther.”
Bucky: “It’s actually White Wolf.”
And as they spot the Flag-Smashers, it’s Bucky who wants to charge ahead — a true man without a plan. But Sam cautions him to stop and continue surveillance. “I got a vibranium arm. I can take them,” Bucky complains. “And I can fly. Who gives a shit?” You know what, Sam? You’re not wrong at all. In fact, you’re 100% right. Because after about two minutes, the two of them are fighting a whole posse of super soldiers and they are woefully outmatched.
Bucky meets Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), who is revealed to be the “hostage” in the truck. Did they know they were being followed? The fight ensues — sadly with Redwing as a major casualty (RIP!) — and of course, John Walker and Lemar Hoskins show up. Notably, wielding a gun and shooting one of the soldiers. Again… not what you’d expect from Captain America. Bucky gets a single second holding the shield before getting nearly knocked off of the truck.
Sam rescues Bucky and the two go tumbling away into a field like sweethearts as the super soldiers kick both John and Lemar off of their truck and make their escape. While walking on the road, John and Lemar roll up to pick Sam and Bucky up. Again, tensions are high. “Just ’cause you carry that shield, it doesn’t mean you’re Captain America,” Bucky shoots at him. Before asking him if he’s jumped on grenades, and of course, John Walker has.
As the four of them discuss the Flag-Smashers, Sam points out that perhaps the Flag-Smashers are just trying to help. And he might have a point. We find out that those who have returned and been displaced are now marked as refugees? The GRC (Global Repatriation Council) is managing things post-Blip. They reactivate citizenship, social security, healthcare. But we all know how bureaucracy is, and people aren’t satisfied. Lemar states that he and John are meant to “keep things stable.”
“Yeah, violent revolutionaries aren’t usually good for anyone’s cause,” John says. To which Sam retorts, “Usually said by the people with the resources.”
Sam and Bucky are right to be cautious of these two. And as Lemar reveals that his codename is Battlestar, Bucky is eager to leave the jeep. John pleads with them one more time, but he gets it so, so wrong. “I’m not trying to be Steve. I’m not trying to replace Steve. I’m just trying to be the best Captain America I can be. That’s it. It’d be a whole lot easier if I had Cap’s wingmen at my side.” To John, Sam and Bucky are assets. They add to his validity as the new Captain America. It’s not about their abilities, it’s about being status symbols.
One World, One People
Karli and her Flag-Smashers make it to a safe house. There she is greeted by an eager civilian who is all too happy to offer them a place to stay. He calls her Robin Hood, telling her, “Every day more people love you. You’ll find refuge wherever you go.” So it sounds like maybe the Flag-Smashers aren’t just the terrorists we thought they were.
Here, we get a more nuanced look at the group. The Blip means that people who were in power also disappeared. Now that they are back, the GRC seems to care more about those who returned than those who never left. “We got a glimpse of how things could be,” she says. We see her delivering vaccines and supplies to the people, is any of this actually morally wrong?
We also learn that John and Lemar have been tracking them by targeting civilians who are helping them move from place to place. So, are we to surmise that they are attacking displaced civilians who need medical supplies and interrogating them for information about the Flag-Smashers? Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a good look.
But Karli has more on her plate than just Interpol, a discount Captain America, and Sam and Bucky. She’s got the Power Broker. As they escape on a small plane in Bratislava, the mysterious Power Broker’s men show up and one of her Flag-Smashers sacrifices himself so that they can escape.
Black Captain America
Meanwhile, Bucky takes Sam to Baltimore. After Sam rejects the plan to simply just take the shield back from John Walker, Bucky has an idea.
They arrive at the door of one Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). They’re stopped at the door by Isaiah’s grandson Elijah (Elijah Richardson) (a future Avenger himself, aka Patriot), but eventually, they’re let in. Bucky introduces Isaiah as a hero, someone Hydra feared, and “like Steve.” It becomes clear that Isaiah is a super soldier, but he is not interested in fighting anyone’s war. He’s definitely not interested in seeing Bucky.
The last time they saw each other, Bucky was still firmly under the grasp of Hydra and the Winter Soldier. “I’m not a killer anymore,” Bucky proclaims shakily.
“You think you can wake up one day and decide what you want to be? It doesn’t work like that. Well, maybe it does for folks like you,” Isaiah replies. He then tells Bucky and Sam that for being a hero, he was put in jail for 30 years. He was experimented on by Hydra. This echoes Isaiah’s own comic book story as one of the Black soldiers who were forcibly recruited and tested on with a Super Soldier Serum. After multiple heroic acts including stopping the creation of a German Super Soldier serum and destroying a Nazi death camp, he took the Cap costume and shield. As a result, he was sent to prison.
Isaiah’s story is also based on the real-life morally reprehensible Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, where 600 Black men were told they were receiving free healthcare when really the experiment was to observe untreated syphilis.
This scene in “The Star-Spangled Man” is then followed by another where Sam and Bucky are arguing on the street and cops pull up. Of course, they immediately start aggressively speaking to Sam, demanding identification, asking Bucky if he’s being bothered. Bucky asks if they know who Sam is. And it quickly turns from a potentially violent meeting to the police addressing Sam as “Mr. Wilson.”
This entire series of scenes serve to remind the viewers just what is going on. The world had a Black Super Soldier, a hero, years ago. But they locked him in jail, they experimented on him, they took his blood (and likely created the Flag-Smashers), and forgot him. When a child recognizes Sam on the street, it isn’t just that he’s the Falcon, it’s that he is the Black Falcon. There’s pride in the name, to mark Sam as a hero for the Black community.
Because what does the cop say when he finally realizes who he’s stopped? I didn’t recognize you without your goggles on. To the cop, Sam was just another Black man, one who was potentially harassing a white man on the street. Never mind that they had no reason to stop Sam and Bucky, but the cops didn’t see a hero, they saw someone they needed to arrest. Of course, all of this feeds into the reason why Sam gave up the shield. Bucky explains that he never told anyone about Isaiah because he’d been through enough, but perhaps if people knew that there was more than one Captain America, that there was even a Black Captain America? One who took on the Winter Soldier when dozens of other men couldn’t. Maybe things could have been different.
The impromptu trip to Munich means he missed his court-mandated therapy, and instead of arresting Sam, they haul Bucky away. At the precinct, Dr. Raynor arrives and meets Sam. We also find out that it’s John Walker who sprung Bucky from jail. But it’s not out of the kindness of his heart, it’s because Bucky is an asset to him. “He’s too valuable an asset to have tied up. Just do whatever you got to do with him, then send him off to me,” John tells Raynor, who has been on missions with Walker. Glad to hear he cares about Bucky’s mental health!
Despite John’s orders, Raynor immediately orders Sam and Bucky into an interrogation room where she pushes them into couple’s therapy. She first poses the “miracle question” to them, a question meant to help couples figure out what kind of life they want to build together. “Suppose that while you’re sleeping, a miracle occurs. When you wake up, what is something that you would like to see that would make your life better?”
Maybe we’ll get a real answer from Sam and Bucky by the end of the season because the two don’t take it seriously at that moment. So, it’s time for harsher tactics. It’s time for a soul-gazing exercise! Sam and Bucky cozy up, legs interlocked, and stare into each other’s eyes. (I’m guessing this episode is going to bring about a lot of great fanfiction.) And after a childish staring contest, the truth comes out.
Bucky: “Why did you give up that shield?”
Sam: “Why are you making such a big deal out of something that has nothing to do with you?”
Bucky: “Steve believed in you. He trusted you. He gave you that shield for a reason. That shield, that is everything he stood for. That is his legacy. He gave you that shield, and you threw it away like it was nothing. So maybe he was wrong about you. And if he was wrong about you, then he was wrong about me.”
Well, the truth is out. But nobody feels better. They resolve to go their separate ways after all of this is over. And as Bucky leaves the room, Raynor asks him what is wrong. He asks her to repeat rule two. Don’t hurt anyone. Except Bucky is hurt. He feels awful and so does Sam. Neither likes to be confronted with the situation they’re in, and for Bucky, the constant fear that he might still be some version of the Winter Soldier is real.
As they leave the precinct, John and Lemar are outside. John callously chirps a police siren to catch their attention. He informs them of Karli’s name, which makes me think that ultimately this will all lead back to the US Government. He still wants Sam and Bucky’s help, but neither are interested. At least they can agree on this! “We’re free agents. We’re more flexible. So, it wouldn’t make sense for us to work with you,” Sam tells John.
John replies, telling them to stay out of his way. Excuse me, they’re Avengers. Who are you?
Realizing that Isaiah’s reference to “his people” was a reference to HYDRA, Bucky tells Sam that they need to go talk to Zemo. He knows all of Hydra’s secrets. And then we get a dramatic cut to Daniel Brühl in prison with his chessboard as a requiem plays overhead.
And, wow. What a fantastic episode. Michael Kastelein‘s script was electric and getting to finally see our two heroes on screen together trading barbs and snarky comments was amazing. Of course, we’re still waiting on seeing Sharon Carter, though she did get a mention in the episode.
“The Star-Spangled Man” also introduced characters like Isaiah and Elijah Bradley, along with Lemar Hoskins, and the Power Broker. These are all characters comic book readers might be familiar with and add multiple layers to the dynamics between the characters. I already can’t wait to rewatch this whole season once we get all six episodes. But for now, I’m just going to rewatch what we have and impatiently tap my fingers for the next episode.
Watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Fridays on Disney+.