Disney+’s The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has tried to explore a lot of things: The fallout from Thanos removing half of all life from the universe, as well as the economic and social impact of bringing everyone back five years later; the U.S. government’s history with institutionalized racism and how little things have changed over the years; and the smaller-stakes stories of Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson trying to find a new place in the world after temporarily giving their lives to save it. But over the course of season one, the series has primarily focused on a guy who hasn’t physically appeared in the show: Steve Rogers, the real Captain America, whose abilities and achievements are so legendary—to the people in this world and those of us watching on Disney+—that they cast a star-spangled shadow over everyone and everything.
This is a show that seems obsessed with Captain America’s legacy, with unpacking what he means to this world and what his loss means to the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But if that’s the case, why has this season seemed so confused by what Captain America’s legacy even is? Is it the superhero name “Captain America,” which the U.S. government bestowed on some other guy as if it’s a title they can pass around? Is it the vibranium shield, the responsibility of which was so great for Sam Wilson that he chose to put it in a museum rather than risk failing to live up to what it represents? Or is it the Super Soldier Serum, which could create an army of invincible terrorists if put into the wrong hands?
It’s none of those things, exactly, but The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has struggled to land on an answer of its own, even losing sight of the guy who originally held the shield. It’s an unusual problem, since Steve Rogers shouldn’t be a particularly difficult nut to crack, but this isn’t the first time the MCU failed to actually recognize what made him such a Good Person. Joss Whedon is responsible for the other examples, misinterpreting Steve as an unflappably optimistic Boy Scout in his two Avengers movies. Whedon’s read was that Steve’s goodness was just an inherent quality—maybe one based on outdated notions of goodness—but other movies made it clearer that his goodness is a conscious choice.
And Whedon had no excuse for not getting it: The core of what made the MCU version of Steve Rogers such a compelling character, other than Chris Evans’ general handsomeness and charm, was explicitly established in Captain America: The First Avenger. We see it before he gets the Super Soldier Serum during World War II, after he’s just been rejected from enlisting in the military for the fifth time. Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine is curious why a shrimpy little kid is so desperate to join the war effort, and he tests Steve by asking if he’s just really eager to kill Nazis. Steve says no, he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. “I just don’t like bullies,” he says. “I don’t care where they’re from.”
That’s the key. It’s not about fighting anyone, it’s about standing up for what’s right, no matter who you might have to stand up against. John Walker (Wyatt Russell) would fail that test, because he’s eager to fight. He wasn’t a bad Captain America solely because he had an anger problem that stemmed from the crushing pressure of trying to live up to an impossible standard—he was a bad Captain America because he was fighting for what he was told to fight for. If you want to get cute with it, he’s a gun and Steve was a shield. The show’s argument, on the other hand, is that John didn’t really become a bad Captain America until he killed a man with the shield in broad daylight. That does make him a bad Captain America, sure, but it would also make him a bad Iron Man or a bad Thor. Hell, it makes him a pretty bad guy in general, but Captain America is always supposed to be the Best Guy—because he always was.
What The Falcon And The Winter Soldier struggled to articulate is why Steve was the Best Guy and why it mattered. The show has resorted to answering both of those questions by saying he was just a good superhero, with even Zemo (Daniel Brühl) shrugging off the idea that Steve wasn’t corrupted by the Super Soldier Serum because there has simply never been anyone else like him, but that’s too easy. Really reckoning with what made Steve so iconic in the movies would require tackling issues that the show hasn’t had much interest in tackling, like why the U.S. government happily handed the shield over to a white guy rather than the Black man who deserved it, or why Karli (Erin Kellyman) and her Flag-Smashers wanted to tear down post-“Blip” institutions like the Global Repatriation Council.
Sam may have had his eyes opened to the way his government has made a habit of screwing over people like him (Black men in general, but more specifically, Black soldiers and Black superheroes), but so far, by pursuing Karli and the Flag-Smashers, he’s still loyally furthering that same government’s interests. Bucky, meanwhile, started off with a storyline in which his therapist sent cops after him and repeatedly reminded him that he’s not supposed to hurt people, but a few episodes later he’s okay with attacking people because they’re ostensibly bad guys.
In one very good early scene, Bucky tells Sam that he’s frustrated about him giving up the shield because it means that maybe Cap was wrong to give it to him in the first place, and if he was wrong about that, maybe he was also wrong about Bucky still having the potential to move on from his life as the Winter Soldier. It’s a strong scene, played fantastically by Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie, but The Falcon And The Winter Soldier never stopped to consider the possibility that, yeah, maybe Steve was wrong.
Steve wasn’t, which we know because the show is called The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and we’ve all spent the whole series waiting for Sam Wilson to start slinging the shield himself. This vision of the show crystallized, however briefly, in “Truth,” the penultimate episode of the season. That being said, taking more than a moment to ponder whether Bucky really does have the potential to be a better person and whether Sam really does deserve to be the new Captain America would’ve been a good way to engage with Steve’s legacy of actively choosing to do the right thing, rather than just accepting that the good guys are the good guys and the bad guys are the bad guys. That exploration gets lost in all the shootouts with confusingly charitable terrorists and team-ups with inexplicably wealthy super-criminals going on in the show.
There are flashes of that exploration in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, but they don’t go anywhere. The series raises questions about the responsibilities of people with power, whether they’re in the government or a secret terrorist cell or a superhero team, and then answers them all with “just beat up the bad guys.” The Falcon And The Winter Soldier would fail Dr. Erskine’s “go kill Nazis” test, and that’s why it can’t make sense of, let alone carry, Captain America’s legacy.