The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may be the most grounded narrative in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.
This article contains spoilers. Please don’t read it if you haven’t seen it.
The first episode of this superhero drama streaming on Disney+ begins with housework. Sam, the titular “Falcon,” irons a shirt he wears to donate Captain America’s shield to The Smithsonian.
Captain America’s legacy haunts Falcon. Even when Captain America bequeaths Falcon his shield, Falcon replies, “It feels like it belongs to someone else.” The series picks up six months later and begins with the question, “what happens when our superheroes leave or die?”
For Sam and Bucky, the titular “Winter Soldier” means picking up the pieces. Sam lends his considerable skill and tech to the U.S. military in aerial combat. Bucky attempts to come to terms with his murderous past and adopts a 12-step recovery framework to atone for his sins.
One of the reasons superhero movies have emerged as a genre behemoth in global sales and reach is because of high audience identification. Whether we are watching the film in Memphis or Mumbai, each of us can picture ourselves as the superhero. We are Tony Stark’s “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” and Black Panther’s noble king.
But no one pictures themselves as the sidekick. We don’t wonder what Hawkeye’s life on the farm (pre-blip) was like because it seems much like our own. We don’t ponder how Rhodey managed a complete recovery from the paralysis he sustained when Vision blasted him out of the sky in an accident during Captain America: Civil War.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks the audience to empathize not with the guy memorialized by his nation even if he went rogue – but with the people he left behind. This idea is captured most poignantly in the scene where Rhodey and Falcon stroll around the Smithsonian amidst Captain America memorabilia, talking about the burdens of upholding superhero legacies.
That burden is financial, as well as psychological. Falcon is hailed as a hero who has saved the earth many times over, but he can’t get a bank loan to save his family fishing boat because…reasons. How do superheroes who aren’t billionaire playboys or American symbols beloved by the government and its people pay their light bill?
They find work by helping the family business or working ad hoc with the U.S. military or any patchwork jobs they can pull together, just like the rest of us trying to survive what we hope is the tail end of the global pandemic.
Bucky’s search for identity in the post-Cap world is existential. As one scene shows, how do you date like a regular person when you’re 106-years-old, and you have a higher body count than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined? Though, it’s nice to know that superhuman killers hate online dating as much as I do.
Furthermore, how will Bucky explain to his elderly Japanese friend that he was the cause of his sorrow when he killed his friend’s son while being mind-controlled by a shadowy government cult? That’s an awkward conversation.
Yet, in imagining these conversations and situations, we take the superhero genre out of fantasy and root it in the reality we’re living. While we’re not recovering from a five-year “blip” that resulted in the disappearance of half the planet’s population, we are forever changed by last year’s events which seeped into 2021.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier challenges us to identify, not with spectacular, superhuman victories, but with the heroic humanity of everyday life.