Thursday, April 29, 2021

Marvel isn't doing anyone any favors by dancing around the ugliness of America

A Black Captain America shouldn't have needed an entire season of justification

By the end of Avengers: Endgame, Sam Wilson has Captain America's shield and blessing, and there's no question that he's the right choice.

By the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson has Captain America's shield and blessing, and there's no question that he's the right choice.

Why did we need six episodes to get to a plot development we'd seen already?

Sometimes the inner journey is the one that counts, but even that kind of story needs a good justification to end exactly where it started. The Falcon Captain America and the Winter Soldier does not deliver. It presents immensely relevant questions it can't admit it's terrified to answer. It opens the door to letting superheroes deal with refugee camps, American hypermilitarism, historic and present racism, xenophobia, rogue states, and the rebuilding of society after mass catastrophe. As a superhero story, it was an ideal setting for a serious treatment of the abuses of power, yet this show managed to artfully waste the impressive hand it was dealt, because God forbid the children watching hear one bad word about the US military. Instead, it paints activism in the most unfavorable light possible, it refuses to seriously question America's right to patrol the world, and it tries to fix racism with a museum display and toxic nationalism with a speech.

Let's start with the designated bad guys. In the comics, the original Flag Smasher was the type of joke villain that often arose from a simplistic reversal of the hero's ideology. Doing away with national borders and creating a single human community is actually a worthy goal, and it can only conceivably define a supervillain if your hero is the most annoying tool of patriotic propaganda—which is why the Flag Smasher was designed as an enemy of Captain America and not of, say, the Hulk. In the process of adapting the Flag Smasher to the MCU as a loose organization of clueless anarchist teenagers, the same ideological confusion was kept. The slogan "One World, One People" is the farthest thing from a sinister evil master plan, so the writers had to make Karli Morgenthau randomly bomb relief workers, because otherwise our heroes wouldn't have a compelling reason to fight her. What she's trying to do is fix what politicians are admittedly incapable of fixing: after the Reverse Snap, it turns out the world's resources can't cope with that many people, which is... exactly what Thanos was trying to prove. The one thing you should never do in the MCU is accidentally concede a point to Thanos.

The true villain of the show is negligence and status-quo bias, not activism. If the writers had given the Flag Smashers more than the briefest thought, we wouldn't have ended up with a stereotypical terrorist group that also had the moral high ground. Karli is right to be shocked that Sam has adopted the title of Captain America, because right now the country he represents in a comically bulky suit has no business posing as one of the good guys.

If the character of Captain America functions as an incarnation of the country's values and choices, one could expand that exercise and read every major character in the show as one possible way for America to be. Sam is, of course, the part of America that feels disappointed and frustrated, that is only now unearthing the ugly truth about cases like Isaiah's, and that nonetheless wants to bring to reality the principles that the country claims to live by. Maybe it's not entirely unintentional that the costume doesn't quite fit.

John Walker is a more honest representation of who America is these days: at the same time insecure and entitled, traumatized by his own choices but criminally lacking in self-awareness, drunk with power, and somehow immune to consequences. As the public face of the country, John Walker is quintessentially Captain America. This is most noticeable during his disciplinary hearing: the proverbial slap on the wrist he gets for the brutal murder of a surrendered enemy brings to mind the many times the US has shrugged off international condemnation for, oh, let me count the ways: Canicatti, Biscari, No Gun Ri, My Lai, Son Thang, Dasht-i-Leili, Operation Condor, Grdelica, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Amiriyah, Guantánamo, Haditha, Damadola, Haska Meyna, Wech Baghtu, Azizabad, Granai, Uruzgan, Tarok Kolache, Khosrow Sofla, Mahmudiyah, Panjwai, Khataba, Tokhar, Sangin... we could be here all day. John Walker is just one soldier, guilty of (as far as we're shown on screen) just one victim, but his character encapsulates the true face of America as seen from the outside. This character did not deserve a redemption scene in the final episode, but it's perversely fitting that he gets one.

Through the same lens, Bucky represents what America could be if it were more honest with itself: he can't deny his bloody past, he can't simply choose to live like it didn't happen, but he's making an effort to be good now. He's just going about it in a less than productive way. He's more interested in calming his own feelings, and he doesn't realize the inefficacy of his approach until the part of America that has endured lifelong trauma patiently explains to him that what he needs to do is be fully open and vulnerable. Repairing the harm he's caused is not about him.

Of course, the characters-as-sides-of-America metaphor is not completely applicable to Bucky. He spent years as a brainwashed killer zombie; he is a victim too. But this angle lets us speak of the damage that military training inflicts on its own members. Every country that keeps and trains a standing army is guilty of a serious moral crime against its own young people, but the case of America is off-the-charts worrying. As a society, it is alarmingly comfortable with the use of violence. This puts the character of Bucky in an interesting parallel with that of John Walker: both have committed atrocities, but Walker refuses to admit he acted purposefully wrong, and the plot rewards him for it, while Bucky is taking responsibility for things he was forced to do, and therefore has to go down a harder road. America (and every country with an army) has an ancient debt with itself regarding the lasting damage that military training inherently causes. For the purposes of this point, it doesn't matter one bit that Bucky's years as a mindless assassin were in the service of an anti-US organization; see above about Marvel's reluctance to criticize the US military. On any side of any conflict, to learn to kill is a dehumanizing experience.

(The response to this point is so predictable that it can be replied to in advance: if it doesn't bother you that your government teaches immature young adults with an incompletely developed psyche the art of killing, the corruption of militarism has gotten to you too.)

Sharon is the America with a pretty public face and a shady list of contacts, the America that poses for inspiring photos while signing deals with human rights abusers, the America that cries on camera but doesn't believe in its own ideals anymore. Sharon was obviously inserted here to pave the way for future installments; the plot of the show could have flowed better without the whole Madripoor detour, but since it's there, let's address it. In the comics, Madripoor was created as a pirate kingdom that somehow survived outside of international law until the present day. Its adaptation into a show that aims for realism brings another ideological mismatch, because its defining features are no longer shocking. If you search for a prime example of a country that refuses to follow international law, funds mercenary armies, and has an obvious demarcation between the very rich and the very poor, it's America itself. Madripoor is the America that has renounced the dream, where it's impossible for people to trust each other, where a bullet is the only language that gets things done. When Sam receives a call from his sister in a country that shouldn't even give his phone a signal, it feels like he never really left home.

Finally, Isaiah is the America that is just tired of trying. He literally gave his life for an institution that saw Black people as tools. He wasn't given power with the expectation that he would use it, but only to learn how to give power to the blond poster boy. This is a character that should have had a larger impact on the plot, but he's here just to talk to Sam and tell him not to do what we all know he will do. With such a fascinating character on its hands, the show chose to keep him inconsequential. No, the scene at the museum doesn't repair anything. Oppressed minorities shouldn't be treated as relics; they're a living part of the world that should be acknowledged and integrated, not placed on a shelf for visitors to gape at. We can understand Isaiah's choice to remain officially dead as a strategy of self-preservation, but then we have to fault Sam for doing nothing to correct the institutional forces that keep pushing Isaiah to stay hidden in the first place.

"Sam does nothing" is, in fact, the core problem with Captain Black Falcon America and the Winter Soldier. His painfully cheesy speech in the final episode is supposed to be the solution to the world's problems, but instead it puts blinking neon lights on the show's unwillingness to explore sincerely the Reverse Snap's consequences or to say anything about its plot's parallels with real life. We're not here to follow our convoluted metaphors to their logical implications; we're here to advertise a new action figure.

As said before, Sam begins the story with the shield and ends it with the shield; that he would continue the legacy of Captain America was always a given. To justify six whole episodes of roundabout angst, the show tried to convince us that the shield acquired an uncomfortable meaning on the arm of a Black man, but Sam's choice to donate the shield is made before he learns of Isaiah, so it couldn't have been about the army's mistreatment of Black soldiers. If anything, Sam is a spectacularly successful Black soldier.

Do you want to know what would have been a truly radical statement about the place Black heroes deserve? To have treated a Black Captain America as the most normal thing in the world. To have showed Sam carry that shield without reservations since the instant he was handed it. In Avengers: Endgame, his reluctance is normal, because he's sad to see a friend go, but that argument doesn't work in the show. His misgivings about being Captain America come off as contrived, and undermine the message that he deserved the shield. He should've had no doubts. And then we could have learned of Isaiah's story, and Sam could have used his position to do something about it. What we got amounts to much drama with no tangible effect.

And that means that this is a show that didn't need to exist. Fans have already seen Sam be Captain America in the comics, and Marvel shouldn't have felt the need to spend an entire season arguing the merits of the case for the viewers who objected. Marvel's fear of upsetting people has prevented it from telling a good story.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +3 for Carl Lumbly's acting skills, +1 for Wyatt Russell's casting as the perfect punchable face, +2 for turning Sam Wilson into an interesting character for the first time in the MCU, +1 for giving Bucky's character enough time to explore the aftermath of his trauma, +0.001 for paying the slightest amount of lip service to acknowledging the worldwide consequences of US military policy, which is light-years beyond what the MCU had been willing to risk pointing at in all its previous productions.

Penalties: −0.001 for pretending that the Power Broker's identity was ever a mystery, −3 for not addressing its topics in any meaningful way, −2 for the bad design of the new Captain America suit, −3 for a horrendously unprofessional portrayal of mental healthcare, −1 for an unnecessarily meandering plot, −1 for going out of its way to scream "no homo!" every time Sam and Bucky have a moment of closeness.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.