*Spoilers for Falcon and the Winter Soldier," on Disney+. You've been warned.*
You have to hand it to Marvel: A cocky PTSD-ridden soldier who murders foreign nationals while bathed in white privilege is an unorthodox choice for a major character in a Disney series.
Wyatt Russell's John Walker was a huge presence in "Falcon and the Winter Soldier" from the moment he sauntered in at the last scene of the first episode as the new government-sanctioned Captain America. But just as the largely strong series attempts to interrogate America's treatment of people of color, veterans, people who have been displaced and others and the insidious nature of privilege while combining that with rip-roaring action and setting up new characters and inevitable new projects were sometimes wobbly, Walker's arc and characterization was similarly all over the map. Although this bargain bin Captain America made an impact, the trajectory of his story throughout the series reflects the show's larger flaws.
First, though, it's worth going over the positives on how Walker's story was told.
No conversation on this character is complete without talking about Russell's performance. He has the chiseled jaw and movie star charisma the government would want out of a white soldier instead of the obvious (and correct) choice in Sam, who gave up the shield because he didn't feel worthy of it. Russell adds small subtleties to a character who easily could have been a paper-thin, cartoonishly evil figure, but he also never lets Walker off the hook.
Russell seems aware of Walker's privilege, with the government clearly wanting some random (though highly decorated) soldier to operate in a world of superpowered nonsense over a Black man far more suited for the job, even if Walker isn't always aware of that privilege. I love Russell's smug tenor whenever Walker says, "Hi, John Walker. Captain America," as if he didn't know full well that there was a massive media blitz ensuring everyone on the planet knew his name.
Although Walker is clearly an arrogant jerk, he wasn't portrayed in his first speaking scene as a diet Homelander from "The Boys" — a openly racist, misogynistic, 'roided out garbage can — like I thought he would be. Instead, he has actually some anxiety about taking on the shield. While his wife Olivia and best friend Lamar are convinced he's the right guy for the job, he expresses concern about wanting to do it correctly. He's far more vulnerable here than when he was first introduced in the comics as Steve Rogers' replacement, where Walker was a gung-ho representation of the jingoistic Regan era.
Although Walker was clearly established to be an opposing force for our heroes the moment he popped up with the shield we know is rightfully Sam's (even if Sam didn't necessarily believe that at the time), that first speaking scene with Walker established that he had depth. I was ready to immediately hate him, and yet there he was, being worried and earnest! He frets about doing the job well, and he wants to do the right thing. He definitely doesn't do the right thing later, of course. But moments like that and his later conversation with Lamar about the ethics of taking the Super soldier serum stop him from being an blatantly mindless, puppy-kicking star-spangled human trash can.
The show overall effectively demonstrates that Walker is not a good person. He's self-involved, arrogant and completely blind to his privilege. But Executive Producer Malcolm Spellman was smart to reveal shades of humanity to Walker. That scene does later create some problems with the character's portrayal later, however, which we'll get to in a second. Again, Walker is an interesting character who had some strong scenes.
Overall, though, the biggest problem with both Walker's portrayal and the show both come down to attempting too much at the same time. Introducing him at the tail end of the first episode as a giant slap in the face to Sam courtesy of the U.S. Government and then making him seem halfway decent in his first speaking scene was a decent subversion of my expectations. Then they forgo all of that and make him act like a dickhead once he interacts with Sam and Bucky.
He says that they look like they could use help in their scuffle with the Flag-Smashers, and then Walker gets his discount America's Ass handed to him by the group's leader, Karli. In the same episode, he tries to force Bucky to work with him and then screams at a random guy in the third episode. Although it wasn't surprising to see Walker be so brutish and fly off the handle — every episode shows why he is not suited for the Captain role and why Sam is — it flies in the face of that first scene where Walker talks about doing the job correctly.
Walker is cordial enough at first to our heroes but it doesn't take him long to resort to bullying tactics. Keep in mind, his attempt to strongarm Bucky is in the same episode as his earlier "Oh gosh, I hope I can do this" speech with his wife and buddy. He wasn't around news cameras or anything at that point. Having him say all that to characters we assume he cares about in the first scene where he actually speaks, you would think that he means what he is saying here. Why have him be that earnest if his actions are going to betray that almost immediately? Sure, people act with the best intentions in real life and then screw up, but having him do this in what is basically his introductory episode feels rushed. You could argue this is his true colors coming out, but it comes off more as inconsistent than a natural progression for the character.
In the fourth episode, Walker gets access to some Super Soldier Serum, and without telling Lamar that he has it, he asks his friend if he would take it if he could. Lamar says yes, and says that it basically just makes someone more of who they already are. He praises Walker for making all the right decisions in the heat of battle and mentions his three Medals of Honor. Walker responds that they both know what he had to do to earn those medals, hinting at some shady stuff overseas, if not outright war crimes, and some underlying trauma.
Then when — of course — Lamar is accidently killed by Karli a couple scenes later, Walker goes berserk on one of the other Flag Smashers in full daylight and the middle of a busy area in Latvia, with people recording every second on their phones. It's one of the most harrowing scenes Marvel Studios has produced thus far. By the fifth episode, Sam and Bucky try to get Walker to stand down, but he immediately assumes Sam just wants the shield. Bucky stops Walker from killing Sam, and he's brought back to the U.S. and stripped of his Captain America title and all of his honors.
By the sixth episode, John is operating on his own. Judging by Russell's twitching and some visual other shorthand, Walker is clearly suffering from PTSD. He's laser focused on Karli, and ignores saving bystanders at first in order to fight her. For all of his eye-building and screaming, Walker doesn't actually contribute much from this point on. He attempts to save a different van full of people and ignores his DYI shield with his medals attached, which the music tells us is supposed to sort of be his redemptive moment. But he fails to actually stop the van from falling, and Sam has to save swoop in with his Vibranium Captain America suit from Wakanda to save the day (The fact that the new Captain America's suit was outsourced entirely from another nation is what makes it truly American).
Later, after Sam addresses the Senators the Flag Smashers were trying to stop, he sees John in a crowd and nods, as if the guy didn't nearly decapitate him with an unbreakable shield a couple days earlier. Throughout all of these scenes with Walker in New York, though, he is clearly unstable at this point. He went from vaguely "Aww, shucks" to a total dickhead to a PTSD Captain America, all within a fairly amount of time. Russell plays all of these pieces of Walker extremely well, but not enough connective tissue was laid out to authentically flow all of those progressions into each other.
While Walker gets a generous amount of screen time, he features along with a ton of themes and other characters, so his arc doesn't feel entirely earned because it wasn't given more time to develop, though I will admit PTSD can be brought to the surface through unexpected triggers. In Walker's last scene, the mysterious Val (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, because sure, why not?) gives him a new uniform and dubs him U.S. Agent. And then...that's it.
It's just left open for the upcoming fourth Captain America film or a second season — unless, like many people online have theorized, Walker shows up in a new show or movie about The Thunderbolts. In many recent iterations of the team, it's basically Marvel's Suicide Squad: Super villains' doing Blacks Ops work for secretive government types. If that is what ends up happening, it means that a lot of Walker's development was hurried through simply to establish another show or movie, without doing enough work to make the most out of his time on these six episodes. With so much other stuff crammed into these installments, there simply wasn't enough time to make Walker's journey to genuinely wanting to do the Captain America mantle justice to bungling it all up to becoming a more frenzied, trauma-ridden reflection of the Captain as satisfying as it could have been.
The frenzy to hit all of these different points with Walker extends to the rest of the show as well. There are admirable attempts to juggle a legion of themes and characters. You have multiple scenes reflecting struggles people of color go through, such as the banker refusing Sam and his sister Sarah a loan in the first episode and Isiah Bradley's backstory, as his history evokes the infamous Tuskegee experiment. Bucky contends with his actions as The Winter Solider. Plus you have Sam and Bucky's dynamic and Bucky's resentment for Sam refusing to take up the shield at first.
Walker and Zemo come into play, so some time has be devoted to them. Sharon Carter pops up too, and so does the (clearly telegraphed) revelation that she was the mysterious Power Broker behind the scenes. And the overarching plot with the Flag-Smashers, in addition Karli's backstory and the show's attempts to create parallels between Karli and Sam as they take different routes to try to help people underserved or ignored by the system. And beyond all that, we get glimpses of how a world functions - and doesn't function - when half of Earth's populace that was wiped out for five years suddenly returns.
Between all of that rumination and character work, you can't forget action scenes, because it's a Marvel property, so faces absolutely have to get punched. And most importantly of all, it wouldn't be a Marvel property if it didn't sacrifice precious narrative real estate to set up a thousand other movies or shows, which will inevitably have their own spin-offs.
See what I mean about "Falcon and the Winter Solider" attempting to cover a lot of ground?
Cramming all of that in means that a lot of elements don't get the room to breath that they deserve. For example, a lot of the character development starts and stops to get more screen time to some of the other elements fighting for attention. The first episode is so chocked full of character work that the titular heroes don't even team up until the next installment, and the show is all the better for it.
Sam deals with his own feelings of imposter syndrome as he weighs being a Black man carrying a shield that represents a country that is often hostile towards people of color. You get a strong sense of that in the aforementioned bank scene, where a rep immediately assumes Sam is an athlete, then says Sam is hurt by his lack of assets over the last five years, regardless of the fact that he and half of the people on the planet were dusted during that time. The banker explained that things "tightened up" when everybody came back. Sarah remarks that things often tend to tighten up around them.
When we pick up with Bucky, he's struggling in therapy and is having trouble telling the elderly man he befriend that he killed his son during his Hydra days. These scenes give you a great sense of who these people are, what their current challenges are and tells us some about the world they inhabit. It's not surprising that the world's government reacted to billions of people suddenly returning to Earth by tossing folks in settlements. The revelation that billionaire Tony Stark didn't pay the Avengers was even less surprising. There are only a small handful of action sequences in the entire episode, but all of the world-building and developments it gives these characters might make it my favorite of the season. And then a lot of that character work just halts until episode five.
To be fair, Bucky gets some consistent development throughout the series, as the therapy visit with Sam in the second episode tells us that he believes that since Sam gave up the shield then Steve Rogers was wrong about him, and therefore that means Steve was wrong about Bucky too. We see the powerful flashback of Bucky in Wakanda getting un-programmed from his Hydra brainwashing. But Sam, despite dealing with racism throughout the show and arguably being the main character, really doesn't get as much memorable material in episodes two through four as Bucky. There are exceptions, though, like, his first encounter with Isiah and its aftermath. The shows also attempt to draw parallels between Sam and Karli and they have strong interactions, but when Walker barges in when he's not supposed to and Karli thinks Sam lied, she seems far more betrayed than she should be, considering they hadn't spent enough time together to have built an airtight bond.
It's not until episode five, where the plot stops, everything with the Flag Smashers takes a back seat and the characters just sort of hang around, that Sam gets a lot of strong showcases, like his second meeting with Isiah and when we see Sam's faith in people paying off when people from his old neighborhood help the Wilsons fix their family boat. The exchanges between Sam and Bucky in that episode are admittedly great, as Bucky apologizes for not realizing the complications that would come with a Black man having the shield. Sam, being a former VA counselors, tells Bucky that his previous attempts to make amends with people he wronged was just him "avenging." Sam encourages Bucky to genuinely help these people, instead of just helping himself.
Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan also sell the ever-loving crap out of these scenes and give life to their roles as well as ever...so it would have been nice if they had more scenes where they slowly came to understand each better in the show's middle, instead of really only coming to understand each other in the second episode and then in the final two. Walker and Zemo steal a ton of scenes in episodes three and four, and are fixtured heavily in many of the best scenes of those installments, like when we Zemo's dance moves that set Twitter ablaze, seeing him connect with the people of Latvia in ways Sam and Bucky can't and his monologue on all superhumans inherently being supremist. Plus the trainwreck of consequences Walker sets up in episode four still make for strong moments.
Because those two took up so much time, Bucky and Sam rarely interact in meaningful ways in the story's middle. When they do talk to each other, they mostly just rattle off the same kind of banter they had throughout almost all of their prior interactions. The arguments are a part of the fun of watching them be in the same room, but they largely just lob the same types of barbs at each other until it's time for them to suddenly care about each other again. Plus, despite all the time Zemo and Walker take up in the second act, Zemo is largely off the board for the last two episodes and Walker, as mentioned earlier, doesn't really contribute much to the last episode, so the payoff for spending so much time in the show doesn't arrive this season.
While the way Walker was handled had bright spots and "Falcon and the Winter Solider" had a good season with some great moments, the series' need to keep so many balls in the air ultimately detracted to the character and season.
What did you think? Was I right? Was I wrong? Let me know on Twitter @KellyRocheleau!
Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.