[It’s been another year, that’s for sure. So for my annual Year in Review series, I wanted to highlight a handful of things that have made me happy this year—and, yes, to complicate and analyze them, because I yam what I yam. I’d love to hear your year highlights and takeaways as well!]
On two strikingly and importantly thoughtful layers to the hit Marvel show.
As part of October’s SitcomStudying series I wrote this post about Wandavision, perhaps the best (in terms of consistent quality from start to finish, anyway) and certainly the most thought-provoking of the three Marvel TV shows to drop in the last year-plus. The boys and I also enjoyed the hell out of Loki as it aired this past summer, and I would gladly ride or die for Alligator Loki. But when it comes to AmericanStudying, there’s no question that the third of those three shows, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, has the most to say about American history and identity. Indeed, for a show created by a company and brand so committed to global relevance (and domination), and of course one now owned by the corporate juggernaut that is Disney to boot, I was really pleasantly surprised by just how deeply Falcon connects to a number of AmericanStudies threads and questions. Here I’ll highlight the pair of such threads that most stood out to this AmericanStudiesViewer.
The more obvious such thread, but still a surprisingly central and nuanced one, were the show’s interconnected themes of race, American history, and heroism. Of course those questions were linked to African American actor Anthony Mackie’s titular Falcon (the superhero alter ego of Sam Wilson), particularly through the lens of the character’s (and actor’s) potential adoption of the Captain America role after the passing of Steve Rogers. But even more complicatedly and crucially connected to those themes was an unexpected character, Isaiah Bradley (played pitch-perfectly by Carl Lumbly), an African American Korean War veteran turned supersoldier who was in line to be the second Captain America until racism not only took away that opportunity but turned him into an imprisoned and abused lab experiment instead. Bradley asked some very tough questions not only of Sam but of the audience as well, forcing us all to take a long look at whether and how our superhero stories (like our narratives of heroism overall) have had and continue to have room for Americans of color—and leading to a very well-earned and moving final scene in the show’s concluding moments.
That was the best stuff from Falcon, and the main reason why I’m writing about it in this week’s series to be sure. But the show featured another contender for the title of Captain America, former Marine turned complex hero John Walker (played with impressive nuance by Wyatt Russell), and that character likewise raised a series of compelling and not-easily-answered questions for the show’s characters and audiences alike. Those questions unquestionably connected to the threads about race, as the white Walker was presented as the U.S. government’s clear preference for the second Cap instead of the Black Sam Wilson (and, through the historical comparison, the black Isaiah Bradley as well). But Walker’s ultimately flawed and failed Captain America also raised questions about one of my favorite current topics, patriotism: what it means to have an individual symbolize a nation, what political as well as cultural work such symbols can and should (and shouldn’t) do, and what happens when the realities fall short of the ideals. Pretty heady stuff for a superhero show, and one more reason why The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is well worth AmericanStudying.
Next review post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? 2021 stories you’d highlight?