Two concepts are at the heart of “Falcon and Winter Soldier:” the relationship between the super-soldier serum and the people who take it; and the long shadow cast by Steve Rogers. The former Captain America is a ghost in the new Disney Plus series, but one we can’t but help compare to nearly every other character. He’s not just one of the few characters to avoid corruption as the subject of Dr. Erskine’s superhuman drug cocktail, but also a soldier who kept his moral core.
Up until “The Whole World is Watching” John Walker has been set up as a foil, willing to smilingly carry a shield that neither of our protagonists feels worthy of. The cliffhanger at the end of the fourth episode of the series will leave fans questioning many things, but likely Walker’s worthiness is not one of them.
The Last Shot
The final image of “The World is Watching” will no doubt be a defining moment for the series: John Walker, the US Agent of Marvel comics, stands over a terrorist body in the costume of his predecessor, holding the iconic shield, splattered in blood. It is an image of negative space, the portrait of a ghost. Walker’s revenge on one of the Flag Smashers, whose team member killed his partner Battlestar reads as a failure: the three-time Medal of Honor recipient and now new supersoldier himself has crossed a line Steve Rogers would never have and the world has captured it on their phones.
Since “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the super-soldier serum has been portrayed as a magnifier of nature. “The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse,” Erskine says and from that moment we understand that Steve Rogers is clearly the former. Even as later films addressed Cap’s struggles in the political ambiguities of the modern world and the question of his correctness is arguable, the superhero’s nature seemed unshakable. At the end of “Captain America: Civil War,” when he abandons his shield and jail breaks his compatriots from the government prison known as the Raft, he is still somehow Captain America. Even while Baron Zemo lectures halfway through “The World is Watching,” on all super-soldiers being symptoms of supremacy and drawing a line from Nazis to Avengers, Bucky unambiguously points to Steve Rogers as a counterpoint. “Touché,” the supervillain concedes. “But there has never been another Stever Rogers, has there?”
The simplest version of this story is that Walker is unworthy. While Steve Rogers teased us and then eventually fulfilled the promise of lifting Thor’s hammer Mjollnir in the previous films, we know that Walker never could have. There’s a fundamental lack of character that distinguishes the two Captain Americas, an innate distinction of nature but “Falcon and the Winter-Soldier” is a show about war in the twentieth century, a subject defined by complexity.
What We’ve Learned About John Walker
Walker has by this point moved beyond simply an off-brand Cap. Through the last two episodes, we’ve seen real personality from the character. Actor Wyatt Russell delivers us a would-be hero clenching his teeth, his voice subtly breaking with stress, where Chris Evans’ Captain America was nothing if not stoic. Even in a moment when Walker displays some of the unambiguous, moral clarity of his predecessor, arguing that there’s no reasoning with Karli after her murder of innocents, it is betrayed by his anxiety.
When Falcon, having experience in counseling soldiers, professes his qualifications to negotiate, Walker maintains, “And I know these soldiers which is why I know this is a bad idea.” And he does. Despite Falcon’s experience with soldiers suffering from trauma, Zemo seems to be the only character who can read Walker. “Aggressive,” he grins being handcuffed to a pipe. “But I get it.” When the group is supposed to give Sam ten minutes to negotiate with the terrorist super-soldiers alone, Walker cannot let the time run out, pushing the scene into a confrontation.
The incident seems to clue Bucky in on Walker’s mental landscape. “I know a crazy one when I see one,” he says. “Because I am crazy.” We’ve already seen Bucky’s emotional turmoil and attempts to come to grips with his former actions as an assassin. If we weren’t clear where Walker’s anxiety comes from, we’re treated to a scene between him and Battlestar where the new Captain American refers to the catalyst for his medal of honors as the “worst day of my life.” “The things we had to do in Afghanistan to be rewarded those medals felt a long way from being right,” Walker says.
…A Different War
During the 2006 crossover Marvel comic event, Civil War, penned by Mark Millar, there’s a scene when Steve Rogers in his Captain America costume loses his cool on another fan-favorite of the Marvel Universe. After Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, murders a group of supervillains who had attempted to join Cap’s side, Rogers treats the character to a nearly three-page-long punching match which the vigilante refuses to participate in. When a young Patriot asks why Castle won’t respond, Spider-man replies, “Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam. Same guy, different war.” While Sam and Bucky both in their own way struggle to live in their former friend’s legacy, nobody seems to fall further under that shadow than John Walker, despite demonstrating similarities. Unlike the former sidekicks, Walker takes the serum willingly – just like Cap. To Battlestar, Walker is clearly a war hero and a partner. Of course, Battlestar is wrong when he tells Walker that power only makes a person more of themselves.
While the super-soldier serum may well amplify the nature of its subject, a person’s nature is not wholly inherent. As we’ve seen in Marvel before, the trauma and emotional baggage the characters are carting might mean the difference between a Hulk and Captain America, or, for that matter, a John Walker. In the latter’s case, that trauma is defined by his part in war, as much as the Flag Smashers are. And not just any war – but one that Walker himself seems to believe is morally ambiguous. While the US Agent of the comics was a peacetime Cap, there’s no separating the John Walker of the MCU from his wartime trauma.
Before his death, in a scene at his grandfather’s grave, the Flag Smasher pines for the moral clarity of World War II and the struggle against Nazis. “Back then there was just good and bad,” the former Captain America fan says. “But the world’s more complicated now. People are lost.”