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‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Recap: American Skin

A review of “Truth,” this week’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, coming up just as soon as I’m right-handed…

“Truth” opens with a fight scene that has felt inevitable since the end of the first episode, as our title characters go after the off-brand Captain America to reclaim the shield he just used to very publicly commit murder. Choreography-wise, it’s much less fancy than Sam’s aerial battle with Batroc in the premiere, much less the similar three-way brawl in the climax of Captain America: Civil War. But it hits harder than any action scene this show has done so far because there are real emotional stakes to it. John Walker has snapped, and both Sam and Bucky want no part of him holding onto the weapon that belonged to, and still represents, Steve Rogers. The two of them are just barely able to take him down, with Sam leaving his ruined wings behind with Torres but bringing the shield with him back to America.

That fight is the only significant set piece of “Truth,” and the episode is also lighter on plot than previous installments. Walker is stripped of both his military rank and his identity as Cap, but is so far gone that a mid-credits scene shows him building his own shield in a metal shop. Karli and the Flag Smashers team up with Batroc and prepare to attack the GRC to prevent a vote to forcibly move refugees back to their home nations. Mostly, though, “Truth” is about Sam Wilson coming to grips with the identity he refused at the start of this series, and accepting that his pal Steve was right to give him the shield.

But where prior introspection-heavy episodes, like the series premiere, have dragged, “Truth” was easily the best Falcon and the Winter Soldier installment to date. Sam’s brooding felt more purposeful and focused this time, and Dalan Musson’s script was smarter and more potent in addressing the two central questions of the series: 1) Would America accept a black man as Captain America? 2) Should a black man even consider taking on that role?

In an absolutely fantastic sequence in and around Isaiah Bradley’s house, the answer to both seems to be “no.” Isaiah is scarred, physically and emotionally, by his time as a supersoldier. He explains that he and his comrades didn’t even know what they were being given, in a development evoking the infamous Tuskegee Institute experiments, where unwitting black men’s syphillis was left untreated as part of a public health study. Isaiah seems to have been the only one to get the full Steve Rogers effect from it — just minus the blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin that would have made him an acceptable replacement for the original.

Isaiah describes a story from Korea that sounds hauntingly similar to some of the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. His fellow test subjects were captured by the enemy, and when Isaiah learned his superiors wanted to bomb the POW camp to prevent anyone from finding out about the new supersoldier experiment, he snuck off on his own and freed them. But where Steve Rogers was cheered as a hero (a cheer led by Bucky, in fact), a similar stunt ended Isaiah Bradley’s life as he knew it. He was thrown in prison for 30 years, experimented on by scientists who wanted to recreate what was in his blood, and denied letters from his wife, who was cruelly told that he had died. Eventually, a nurse helped him fake his death for real so he could come home to what was left of his family. But while he’s still physically strong, he’s otherwise a shell of the man who once held his own against the Winter Soldier in combat, and understandably bitter about the country that did all these monstrous things to him.

“So they erased me,” he says, concluding his tale to a horrified Sam. “My history. But they’ve been doing that for 500 years. Pledge allegiance to that, my brother. They will never let a black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting black man would ever want to be.”

Carl Lumbly holds nothing back in those scenes. And Isaiah’s feelings about America ring extra loud coming only a day after the public release of video of Chicago police gunning down 13-year-old Adam Toledo while he had his hands raised in surrender. Most of us don’t need fictional stories of abused supersoldiers to understand the racism encoded into the DNA of so many American institutions, but the timing has the byproduct of underlining every point Isaiah makes to Sam.

Because Isaiah doesn’t want the shield — doesn’t even want to look at it, with all it represents about his own life and America itself — Sam takes it with him to Delacroix. He’s lying low because more powerful figures in the military want to deal with both Karli and Walker, and he takes the opportunity to help Sarah get their parents’ boat fixed by calling in favors from the many people in the community who’ve been helped by the Wilsons over the years. It’s the kind of passage that a feature-length version of this story wouldn’t have room for, but it feels more lived-in and entertaining than comparable sequences in the premiere, helped by both the presence of Bucky and the fact that Sarah isn’t scolding Sam the whole time. (And the one instance where she does, about the water pump, is played for comedy.)

The relative peace of being around family and friends — even if Sam and Bucky are still reluctant to call each other that, or anything other than two guys who had a friend in common — allows Sam to finally get his head right(*) and accept that Steve was correct to give him the shield in the first place. Bucky even admits that neither he nor Steve gave adequate thought to the import — and burden — of a black man carrying that shield. And in a later scene, Sarah helps Sam work through his feelings about Isaiah’s story, as Sam suggests that the pain and sacrifice endured by Isaiah and others only means that Sam should stand up and keep fighting.

(*) It also allows him to help Bucky get his own head right, as he suggests the best thing Bucky can do to make amends is to help the family of one of his victims find closure. It’s a more effective example of Sam in counselor mode than his conversations with Karli last week, in part because his connection to Bucky makes sense in a way that the show has failed to establish between him and Karli. 

It’s a big thing the MCU is doing here by giving Sam the shield. He had it briefly in the comics, with much controversy from fans who somehow had less of an issue about an earlier arc where Bucky himself acted as Cap for a while. Then there was a period where Sam and Steve Rogers were both Captain America at the same time, which allowed both fans and some characters in the comics to suggest that only Steve was the “real” Cap. The costume, the shield, and the American flag itself symbolize different things to different people. John Walker was created in large part because Mark Gruenwald wanted to contrast FDR’s vision for what America means with Ronald Reagan’s. Today, as citizens protest the killings of Adam Toledo, Daunte Wright, George Floyd, and so many others, we have some people trying to claim that protest itself is somehow un-American, that being patriotic is wholly a love-it-or-leave-it proposition. And we have lots of people pointing out that the right to protest is so baked into the American experiment that it’s part of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

When John Walker carried the shield for a time on this show, he represented one interpretation of America, but far from the only one. And when Sam carries it — and wears whatever outfit Bucky had the Wakandans make for him — he will represent another. This is more complicated territory than the MCU has generally entered in the past, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier hasn’t always covered it gracefully. But by taking a step back from the story for a week, “Truth” was able to dig in and really wrestle with all the implications of the choice Sam is making.

(L-R): Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in Marvel Studios' THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Florence Kasumba as Ayo and Sebastian Stan as Bucky in ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.’ ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Chuck Zlotnick

Some other thoughts:

* Bucky and Sam’s conversation about Steve’s decision to give Sam the shield raises the question of why we haven’t seen or heard Sam asking his mentor for advice about this. The real answer is that Chris Evans is, at least for now, done being in the MCU. The in-show answer is that Steve is, as Bucky puts it, “gone.” When we saw him in Endgame — set about six months before the events of this show — Steve was a very old man but otherwise seemed fine, and as we’ve seen with Isaiah Bradley, the supersoldier formula works wonders when it comes to aging. If Steve is meant to have died in the interim, that’s a hell of a thing to casually drop into the middle of a scene that’s otherwise not about him. And if “gone” means something else — like more time travel, or Torres’ conspiracy theory that Steve is now up on the moon, watching humanity — well, that also feels like too much to bring up in that manner. I get why Endgame didn’t want to kill off Steve on top of Natasha and Tony, but it now creates a void where a lot of Sam’s inner turmoil would logically lead to him calling up the original Cap for guidance.

* In a world where Robert Redford, Tilda Swinton, and Anthony Hopkins have all played MCU authority figures, there’s no actor I would completely count out of appearing here. Still, it was both startling and delightful to see the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus turn up as the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Created in the Sixties by comics legend Jim Steranko, she was originally a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Nick Fury’s girlfriend — here she is in one of the most Steranko panels ever (and one that had to be censored because the original art was considered too revealing) — but it’s unclear exactly what position she holds in the MCU. Regardless, JLD was so caustic and smooth and funny in the cameo as “Val” talked circles around Mr. and Mrs. Walker, hopefully this wasn’t a one-shot deal. (Also, between JLD, Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson, and Hamish Linklater’s time as a regular on Legion, who would have pegged The New Adventures of Old Christine as a reliable feeder of Marvel actors?)

* On the flip side, Walker’s visit to see Lemar’s family was among the clunkiest moments of the whole series so far, particularly the laid-on-thick moment where Lemar’s grieving mother — having accepted Walker’s lie about the man he murdered — says that they can rest easy knowing that their son’s killer has seen justice. Wyatt Russell has been terrific as this avatar of male insecurity run wildly amok, but the script isn’t always doing him favors.

* When Bucky catches him at the Sokovian memorial, Zemo seems almost eager to be executed and join his wife and kids in whatever comes after this life. Instead, he is turned over to the Wakandans, who in turn are just going to bring him to The Raft, the superprison introduced in Civil War. It’s an odd choice that seems more about keeping Zemo in play for future stories than something Ayo would actually want to do with the man who assassinated her beloved king. (And if he’s in a Wakandan prison, he could play some kind of role in the next Black Panther film, once everyone figures out how to make it without Chadwick Boseman.) Zemo’s presence in this show has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, Daniel Bruhl almost single-handedly carried the season’s middle chapters, and we’ll always have that GIF of Zemo dancing at Sharon’s party. On the other, he seems diminished for playing what seems to be such a minor role in this story.

* And if Zemo isn’t in the finale, then that leaves three options for the Power Broker’s identity, none of them ideal: 1) Sharon Carter, who arranges for Batroc to team up with Karli, but who just doesn’t feel like a plausible master villain; 2) An MCU character who has yet to appear on this show, which would feel like a cheat; or 3) We don’t find out (or it’s no one we know), which would make all the teases about this annoying.

* The montage of Sam training with the shield was fun, while also feeling misplaced, because it followed the earlier scene where he practices while talking with Bucky and seems much more comfortable throwing and/or catching the thing. You could argue that he never does both of those things in one toss while working with Bucky (they take turns doing one or the other), but it would have been better if he’d been even clumsier with the shield during their conversation.

* Finally, presuming there’s a new wingsuit — or even just a new costume — in that case, it’s a nice tip of the hat to the comics, where T’Challa built Sam’s wings on Cap’s request. (For the first several years of his existence, Sam was an unpowered vigilante, swinging around on a rope to help Steve.)

What do you think?

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