Heroes are often defined by their actions. In the immortal words of Uncle Ben: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” We’ve had that saying hammered into our minds to the point of exhaustion, but there is a reason why it’s such an iconic saying. Whenever it comes time for our favorite comic book characters to don the mask and tights, an important decision is always made. More important than what name they choose or which color palette they go with. Once they introduce themselves to the world as a protector, they have to decide what their legacy will be.
Every moment in a hero’s life helps shape their legacy. Every decision defines who they are and how their story will be told. But a hero’s legacy isn’t entirely decided by them alone. Rather, their impact is often decided by the public, the onlookers who witness their heroic acts. There’s no greater example of this than Steve Rogers. Known to the world as Captain America, Rogers’ decision to wear the stars and stripes was just the first of many key moments that would solidify his role as Marvel’s “First Avenger” and greatest hero. Since his comic debut in 1941, Cap’s historic achievements — from punching Hitler in the face to helping save the universe — earned him a legacy that could never be forgotten. It’s this legacy that serves as the primary focus of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” a new Disney+ limited series that aims not only to discuss Cap’s long and patriotic history, but also put it into question.
When it comes to Captain America stories, the most recent ones always tend to deal with the shady, secretive corners of the Marvel Universe, and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is no different. Diving headfirst into a story featuring Super Soldiers, unlikely alliances, and governmental operations that will no doubt become major scandals, TFATWS might be preparing to flip the world of the MCU on its head, similar to the previous Captain America movies.
Between the high-octane action and super sleuthing is a story about not one, but two legacies. While Cap’s history is at the forefront of the show, it isn’t the only one being discussed. For our two titular characters, the idea of a hero’s legacy applies to them as well. For Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), it’s an obvious struggle. Barnes, who for the longest time was known to the world as the notorious Winter Soldier, is attempting to repent. In an effort to right his wrongs, he’s attending court mandated therapy sessions and tracking down people he’d either helped or hurt during his stint with HYDRA, perhaps trying to convince them, and himself, that he’s changed. His legacy is one that he didn’t choose, but one that he’s hoping to take control of.
For Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), it’s a little different. When we first met Sam in The Winter Soldier, he was retired from his role as a pararescue airman for the Air Force. Upon befriending Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Sam’s life was forever changed as he took on a new title and role as The Falcon, an aviary superhero with a resourceful knack for tech and advanced weaponry. Now, six months after the events of Endgame, he’s struggling with the idea of taking up a new title: Captain America.
Before retiring and disappearing off the face of the earth, Steve entrusted Sam with his shield, an item ingrained with the legacy of Captain America in every vibranium piece. With such a heavy weight behind it, it’s understandable why Sam might have felt intimidated by the offer, as he ultimately gives the shield to the US government under the false promise that it would stay behind museum exhibit glass for the rest of history. But perhaps it’s more than just intimidation that’s keeping Sam from taking up the shield, if a scene in the second episode, “The Star-Spangled Man,” is any indication.
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR “THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER” EPISODES 1 AND 2 FROM HERE ON!
It’s a scene that’s pretty hard to miss and even harder to watch. Following the shocking revelation that Isiah Bradley (the first black Captain America in the comics) has existed in the MCU for quite some time, Sam learns that Steve may not have been the only Super Soldier employed by the US back in the day. On their way out of Bradley’s abode, the two are momentarily halted by the arrival of local law enforcement. The police, somehow unable to recognize two faces that have been on camera a countless amount of times, stop them. In an unfortunately unsurprising moment, they turn their weapons to Sam, asking Bucky if the winged Avenger is “bothering him.”
It’s a pretty frustrating moment, especially when you consider that of the two, Bucky is probably the more dangerous individual. But due to the fact that neither Avenger was immediately recognized, the assumption is that Sam is somehow endangering Bucky in this situation. I’ve got to be completely honest, in a show already tackling superpowered freedom fighters and a pseudo-Captain America, I wasn’t expecting a lot of room for deep racial discourse. But it’s an important discussion, and one that ties directly into Sam’s legacy both in the MCU and in the comics.
This certainly isn’t the first time Sam has been tied to the role of Captain America. Back in 2015, Sam was actually Marvel Comic’s “All-New Captain America” following a massive paradigm shift that saw many roles and titles changed within the Marvel Universe. As you can probably imagine, the decision to boot Steve Rogers from the Cap mantle and replace him with Sam wasn’t met with unanimous praise. In fact, for one reason I’m sure you can assume, Sam’s new role came with a ton of internet backlash and debate. It’s this reason that makes it much easier to understand why MCU Sam is hesitant to pick up the red, white, and blue shield.
When it comes to our favorite superheroes, we might expect that wherever they go, they’d be met with praise and admiration for their willingness to put everything on the line for the powerless public. But the MCU has made it a point to debunk this idea, and it’s not as apparent anywhere else than it is with Sam. In the first episode, “New World Order,” Sam tries to apply for a loan to save his family boat. Though he tries to use his Avenger status as leverage, his loan is ultimately denied. What’s worse is that the bank teller doesn’t even recognize him at first, in a similar way to the police in the second episode. To this teller and those police officers, they don’t see Sam and immediately think of a superhero. They don’t hold him in the same regard as, say, Bruce Banner or Steve Rogers.
Sure, people know who he is, and even in his hometown he’s a local hero. But to most of the world, the best he probably gets in terms of recognition is as “Cap’s black friend.” A title that only undermines his own achievements and character, unfairly placing him a different category from many of his peers.
In other words, he’s only known as “Black Falcon” (as a character in the show so overtly put it), and this might be what’s holding Sam back from picking up Cap’s shield. Sam has the utmost respect for Steve, but he understands that they are two radically different people. They’ve each had their own experiences living in the same country; Steve was seen as the “face of America,” a national hero in every regard. While he certainly earned that title, it isn’t hard to understand why he may have had an easier time doing so than other candidates. The show makes reference to this with the introduction of Isaiah Bradley, a Super Soldier who was not only kept secret from the public, but severely punished for apparently doing the same thing Steve Rogers did during his time in WWII. It’s a prejudice-fueled parallel that isn’t surprising, but nonetheless tragic. A history lesson that Sam already knows he needs to learn from.
Sam picking up the shield would be met with a different public reaction than John Walker got in the beginning of episode 2. There’s no doubt about that. Ultimately, his legacy wouldn’t be made better by becoming a part of someone else’s, even if that someone else is Captain America himself. Sam still has to shape his own path, his own legacy that must be separate from Steve’s. This isn’t to say he doesn’t deserve the shield. Steve was right in saying that Sam is the rightful owner, seeing as how it was his wish to give it to Sam in the first place. I have no doubt we’ll see Sam take up the mantle in a similar way to how he did in the comics, but for now, TFATWS would be wise to focus on Sam’s story before tying him directly to Steve’s. That way, when he does eventually become the new Captain America, he’s seen as his own hero with his own legacy waiting to be decided.