The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Explained is our ongoing series delving into Marvel’s grand new bromance between Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. In this entry, we examine the troubling history revealed in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 2 (“The Star Spangled Man”) and wonder if Sam can ever pick up that shield. Yes, prepare for SPOILERS.
Captain America was never the goal. The United States military was not looking for one super-soldier. They wanted an army. Steve Rogers was a test subject, an experiment. Dr. Erskine’s assassination by Hydra ruined everything, creating a one-of-a-kind propaganda tool in Steve, and propelling the Army back to square one.
While Steve saved as many days as he could as Captain America, scores of scientists tormented themselves attempting to replicate Erskine’s formula. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve already met several super-soldier knockoffs. The Red Skull was the first to put himself under the needle, and his red facade was his reward. James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) got a bastardized dose from Armin Zola. Bruce Banner became the Hulk after combining Erskine’s science with Gamma radiation. In The Incredible Hulk, General Thunderbolt Ross permitted the abominable mercenary Emil Blonsky to give an updated serum a shot.
There is more to Steve Rogers’ legacy than a shield and a do-gooder attitude. Many have suffered in the United States’ hunger for the ultimate human weapon. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 2 exposes the horror behind the Avengers’ most noble action hero. Whether he was in the ice waiting to be rediscovered or on the battlefield bringing the hurt to Thanos, Steve Rogers never saw the evil being committed in his name behind the scenes. He was too busy, but he also never looked.
His buddy Bucky, however, knows a thing or two about evil. He was reborn from it, and he never got the popsicle vacation that Steve did. As the Winter Soldier, Bucky spent decades brainwashed, killing the innocent and the not-so-innocent so Hydra could gain a tighter grip on the globe. During his time as an assassin, Bucky encountered other government agents seeking his eradication. One such soldier was Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly).
Halfway through The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 2, Bucky and Sam (Anthony Mackie) have their asses handed to them by the Flag-Smashers. These terrorists seek to reunite the world as it was during The Blip, a.k.a. The Snap, a.k.a. when half the world got dusted. What gives them their edge is a super strength, one seemingly supplied via Erskine’s serum. The revelation rattles Sam, but Bucky less so. He’s not shocked to learn Captain America dupes are running around.
Bucky takes Sam to Baltimore, where they knock on Mr. Bradley’s door. His grandson Eli (Elijah Richardson) answers and denies entry. Then, Bucky says, “Tell him the guy from the bar in Goyang is here.” The old man allows entrance, and the former enemies stare each other down.
Bradley and the Winter Soldier traded blows during the Korean War. They’re not thrilled to see each other. Bradley’s enraged. He has every right to be. Like Steve, he was a US test subject. Unlike Steve, he did not volunteer.
Bucky introduces Bradley to Sam as a hero, but the old man scoffs at the notion. He spits at the two, “You know what they did to me for being a hero? They put my ass in jail for thirty years.” Bradley was an imprisoned guinea pig, poked and prodded and robbed of his blood. Steve got to smile for the camera. Bradley was left to rot.
The first Black Captain America’s hidden history can be further explored in the comic Truth: Red, White, and Black. The story positions the super-soldier program alongside the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, where the US Public Health Service secretly injected three-hundred-and-ninety-nine African-American males with syphilis so they could observe how the bacterial infection would ravage the body untreated. Bradley was the super-soldier study’s sole survivor, and when the government was done with him, they dumped his shattered self back into civilian life.
Bradley’s story rocks Sam to his core. What did Bucky hope to get from the confrontation? Was he trying to encourage Sam to pick up the shield and honor Steve and Bradley’s legacy? Is there honor to be found, or only atrocity? Was Bucky merely showing Sam that the super-soldier program ain’t that special or hard to replicate? Anyone can get juiced.
Bucky tells Sam that he never revealed Bradley’s existence to Steve. That’s convenient. One more horror committed in Captain America’s name that Steve will never have to reconcile. If Bucky was attempting to boost Sam’s desire to wield the shield, he did a piss poor job. The stars on that Star Spangled Man are scabbed in blood.
To further prove this atrocious fact, Sam and Bucky’s argument in the Baltimore streets is immediately busted by the cops. The BCP sees a Black man yelling at a white man. That’s all the information they need to flip the lights and whoop their siren. Only when Bucky illuminates the cops to the Falcon’s identity do they cool their jets.
If The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is going to conclude with Sam Wilson donning the Captain America uniform like so many hope, the show must do more than confront America’s stained history. The series is not about protecting Steve’s legacy. Sure, it’s annoying to see a pretty boy like John Walker (Wyatt Russell) prancing around in that uniform, but maybe that uniform is not as precious as we once thought it to be.
Sam and Bucky have many more wretched stones to unturn. There’s more to Isaiah Bradley. There’s more to his grandson Eli (psst, he’s Young Avenger in-the-making). There’s definitely more to the super-soldier Flag-Smashers.
While we’re waiting for Zemo (Daniel Brühl) to put on his hood and reveal himself as the series’ big bad, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 2 might have actually uncovered the real villain. We learned this week that the Flag-Smashers stole their super-soldier serum from The Power Broker. This mysterious figure has a long history within Marvel Comics. He’s a mafioso type who helps wannabe thugs become all they can be, enhancing their bodies through scientific and technological augmentation.
The Power Broker is not happy with the Flag-Smashers. Besides sending them threatening texts, he’s also unleashed a goon squad to take them down. With this new threat in play, Sam and Bucky are quickly being surrounded by all manner of treachery. Rather than pulling back to think for a bit, the buddies double down and request an audience with their Captain America: Civil War nemesis.
The Flacon and the Winter Soldier Episode 2 ends with a shot featuring Zemo in his cell. He looks harmless enough, but you would never have said that about Hannibal Lecter, and we know we can’t trust this crafty, angry Sokovian killer. He nearly destroyed the Avengers when he peeled back their hypocrisy, and this show has exposed several new tiers of repulsive posturing for him to dissect. He’s a button pusher, and there are a lot of buttons that need pushing.
Bucky is on a mission to make amends for his past misdeeds. It’s a mission America needs to take on. The Winter Soldier and the country can’t heal until all sins are disclosed. The pain isn’t trapped to history; Americans can’t be either. No more excuses. Let’s admit our horror and hold ourselves accountable.