“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is not a perfect show. Its flaws are many, as we’ll mention later in the article, and they keep the show from reaching its full potential. Yet its central theme is worthy of reflection: how do people and societies change?
Captain America and the Capacity for Change
Our protagonist Sam Wilson’s inner struggle throughout the series is whether or not he can accept Steve Rogers’ offer to take over as Captain America. The issue is clearly not whether or not he can “fill his shoes.” The issue is whether or not Sam can bear the colors of a country with as sordid a history in its treatment of the oppressed, both as a bystander and as outright oppressor. Self-styled freedom fighter Karli Morgenthau argues that change comes through acts of violence. Betrayed former soldier Isaiah Bradley argues that change will never come. John Walker, the government’s choice to be Steve’s successor, argues that change is a result of carrying out orders. Helmut Zemo argues that change comes from identifying and eliminating threats. Bucky Barnes wants desperately to believe he can change, but he can’t believe it’s really possible.
In “Captain America: The First Avenger,” when asked if he wants to kill Nazis, Steve Rogers answers, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Steve becomes an enemy of the state after uncovering a plot to murder civilians based on an algorithm that calculated their potential danger to world order. And in “Captain America: Civil War,” Steve becomes a fugitive over the passage of a law that would put him under the control of an international bureaucracy that would direct him like a weapon wherever they chose. For Steve, being Captain America means standing between oppressor and oppressed; it’s the reason his weapon is a shield.
In the midst of all of the competing interests and conflicting advice, all of the calls for violence or despair, Sam Wilson embraces the role of Captain America. He doesn’t quit out of hopelessness. He doesn’t become Captain U.S. Government. He doesn’t become a vigilante or a terrorist. He embraces the American ideal, the dream of what America is supposed to be: a place where “all men are created equal.” Sam picks up the shield, the visual metaphor for the series, and adopts Steve’s ideals, but with a new emphasis: he becomes not only a bulwark for the helpless, but an advocate for positive change. His first acts as Captain America are to save lives in imminent danger. Next, he unsuccessfully attempts to save Karli from her own violent and destructive plans. Finally, he tries to save millions across the globe from being forcefully displaced at gunpoint and herded into camps for resettlement by state actors who have not compassionately approached their authority to govern the people they represent.
In response to the constant attempts by nearly all other characters to dismiss and dehumanize opposition with labels (oppressor, terrorist, supremacist, refugee, enemy), Sam takes the time to at least try to consider the situation thoughtfully, especially on behalf of those with the least power. All of these actions are an honest attempt on Sam’s part for change in which the means and the ends are gracious.
Sam Wilson becomes not only a bulwark for the helpless, but an advocate for positive change.
Gracious and Compassionate
In this way, Sam Wilson’s actions resonate with what God has revealed about Himself in the scriptures. Over and over, we see him as fundamentally gracious and compassionate:
As I live—this is the declaration of the Lord God—I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live. Repent, repent of your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)
To the powerful, God reveals His desire for stewardship through the prophet Daniel’s exhortation to Nebuchadnezzar: “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue” (Daniel 4:27).
To the helpless, God reveals His desire for the flourishing of all – even their enemies:
Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive. (Jeremiah 29:5-6)
In the face of atrocities and abundant sin, Christ reveals the Father’s desire to adopt all nations having paid for the right at the cost of his own blood:
There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)
Sam’s actions — and the show’s aspirations — reflect biblical notions of God’s compassion, care for the oppressed and plans for a countercultural, unified community. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” raises questions for which the Bible provides answers.
Its conclusion is overtly hopeful and uplifting, a unifying call in a cultural climate of despair and unforgiveness.
Flawed Yet Hopeful
To be sure, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has glaring flaws, namely due to the “tell, don’t show” characterization of Sam’s foils. For example, the show encourages us to sympathize with Karli Morgenthau, with an emphasis on her struggles as a displaced person and her relationship with her mentor, Momma Donya, neither of which ever happen on screen. What we actually see is Morgenthau’s willingness to repeatedly commit acts of terrorism and murder to fulfill her goals. When confronted by John Walker in the finale, she apologizes for killing his partner, Lemar Hoskins, because she doesn’t “want to hurt people that don’t matter,” a sentiment as ill-timed as it is unsympathetic.
Isaiah Bradley, the other character weighing most heavily on Sam Wilson’s arc, is given similar treatment. The show wants desperately for the audience to be horrified at the injustices the U.S. government committed against this man. While the concept is entirely believable (the historical basis for Isaiah’s backstory is well documented), we never actually see any of it, robbing Isaiah’s story of its proper emotional impact. Again: Isaiah and Karli are two of the most pivotal characters to the theme of the show, but, in Isaiah’s case, we are only told why to care and, in Karli’s, we are continually given evidence that contradicts what the show intends for us to believe. Unfortunately, failures like these serve to obscure and undercut the show’s themes.
Despite its frequent sloppiness and ham-fisted attempts to make a statement, we can still see resonant undercurrents of grace, forgiveness, strength in weakness, compassion and mercy. Its conclusion is overtly hopeful and uplifting, a unifying call in a cultural climate of despair and unforgiveness. God’s desire is for his church, in Christ, to love one another, promote justice, practice mercy and worship Him above all, culminating in the creation of one new humanity. In “Falcon,” Sam Wilson rises above his fear and doubt, to become “a new hero suited for the time we’re in” wearing a uniform made in Africa displaying the national colors of America. On the behalf of all nations, the new Captain America soars on African wings.