Back in 2011, there was doubt surrounding the notion of a Captain America film. The star-spangled super soldier sounded like an out-dated and dusty model best left to cliffhanger serials and Saturday morning cartoons. World War II black and white morality seem quaint to an audience that expects and accepts routine lies from their politicians. We understand the compromised courage of Iron Man and Batman. There are no easy fixes. You gotta get dirty to clean the city.
What we couldn’t expect was how warm idealism could feel in our heroes. We’re jealous of Steve Rogers’ conviction. Watching him ripped from his era of moral integrity and dumped into our grotesquely gray modernity is inherently compelling. Cap keeps us honest, and we appreciate his judgment of the little evils we accommodate so we can sleep easy in our soft beds.
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And now he’s gone. Or at least, Steve Rogers’ man out of time has returned to the life he left. Finding permission in the sacrifices of Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff, Rogers returned the Infinity Stones to their proper moments in time and then finally cashed that slow dance raincheck with Peggy Carter. After decades of service, Captain America found purpose beyond the shield and the serenity of the scene doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
The mantle now passes to Sam Wilson, a fellow veteran who originally connected to Steve Rogers through the ageless commonality of service. Cap’s offering of the Vibranium symbol is an honor, but it is a terrifying responsibility as well. The emotional turmoil resulting from this superhero relay will play out in the Falcon and Winter Soldier limited series premiering November 12th on Disney+. I wouldn’t expect Anthony Mackie in the suit on the first episode, but it’s a safe bet that he’ll report for duty whenever the next Avengers film rolls into production.
Where Steve Rogers found narrative complexities in butting his staunch values against contemporary ambiguity, Sam Wilson’s story will revolve around living up to his hero worship of the very mantle he now adorns. That’s a punishing burden to take on, and one he’ll never deem complete even when others champion his bravery or cheer on the name that once belonged to another. The task of the MCU will be maintaining that internal struggle while also pitting him against appropriate enemies of the dream.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw Steve Rogers challenging the depths we’ll stoop to sustain security. Captain America: Civil War responded by questioning how far Rogers will bend to protect the one over the many. Whatever journey Sam Wilson goes on as Captain America it must be one that probes the righteousness that placed a young kid from Brooklyn under the needle of Dr. Erskine. What does it mean to devote yourself to an idea? How does one measure success in such an arena? Why should we trust a person who drapes himself in the flag of one nation?
Marvel Studios adapted two of its most popular storylines for the Captain America sequels. While neither strictly adhere to the narratives of their source material, both strike to the very heart of the emotion presented within. It’s a golden formula of cherrypicking the best bits only to modernize them for the context established by the first Iron Man. While Sam Wilson: Captain America is a relatively new concept to the comic book scene and presents fewer storylines to ransack, there are still dozens of Steve Rogers tales that could easily be reworked for The Falcon.
Continuing to confront the merit of a patriotic Avenger is essential, and as far as I’m concerned, there is only one comic book storyline that would appropriately establish Sam Wilson as the new Sentinel of Liberty. Truth: Red, White, and Black was a seven-issue series published between January and July of 2003. Written by Robert Morales and illustrated by Kyle Baker, the story traveled back in time to the days immediately following the assassination of Dr. Erskine and the loss of his super soldier formula. Drawing parallels to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted between 1932 and 1972, 300 African-American men were gathered to partake in scientific tests designed to replicate the superhuman physique of Steve Rogers. While he was attempting to win the war in Europe single-handed, hundreds of men were dying in his name under the order of the American Government.
Of the 300 individuals that went under the needle, only a half dozen survived. The experiments mostly resulted in horrific mutations and death. Those that did not immediately perish were executed for the sake of secrecy with letters sent to their families stating that the brave soldiers had died in combat. Three of the six men who survived were killed almost immediately upon deployment in Europe, with two of the remaining three murdered during an argument with the racist officer charged with the platoon. The remaining super soldier was Isiah Bradley, who stole a replica of Captain America’s uniform and stormed the German encampment in Schwarzebitte where the Axis were attempting their own super soldier monstrosities.
When Bradley returned victorious from his assault on Schwarzebitte, he was court-martialed for going AWOL and the theft of the costume. While Steve Rogers was resting frozen in a block of ice somewhere in the arctic ocean, Bradley was jailed in solitary confinement at Fort Leavenworth. His wife never gave up on him, and after a decade of protest, President Eisenhower pardoned Isaiah in 1961. Due to a mixture of the isolation experienced while in prison and the deteriorating effects of a bastardized super soldier serum, Bradley’s brain experienced rapid dementia. The man who walked out Fort Leavenworth carried the mental faculties of a child; a hero tossed away.
There is vicious darkness to American tranquility. Most of us acknowledge it in our history but are just as happy to ignore it while contemplating the calorie difference between a grande and venti white chocolate mocha. Part of Sam Wilson’s mission when wearing the colors of Captain America is to respect the atrocities committed under its banner and fight the fearful emotions that birthed them so such crimes can never occur again.
Truth: Red, White, and Black does not present an obvious villain to smash, but neither did The Winter Soldier or Civil War. You can easily find an Alexander Pierce or Helmut Zemo to insert, and I would suggest looking to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ handling of the psychotic Nuke in the current Captain America comics as a possible 2D bad guy to battle, but the main objective of these particular MCU entries should always be to explore the larger idea of America and American Justice. We are a nation built on blood and bones. Our comfort is culpable. Captain America’s job is to hold us accountable.