Falcon and the Winter Soldier tackles the problem of turning superheroes into symbols

John Walker (Wyatt Russell) in Marvel Studios’ THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER. Photo by Julie Vrabelova. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
John Walker (Wyatt Russell) in Marvel Studios’ THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER. Photo by Julie Vrabelova. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. /

During its month or so on Disney+The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has tried to address a number of relevant issues, from institutionalized racism to PTSD. However, it’s not just real-world problems the series is diving into over the course of its six-episode run. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is also tackling a problem exclusive to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and similar superhero franchises: placing heroes on a pedestal.

It’s no secret that the MCU has overlooked its fair share of atrocities caused by the Avengers, chalking them up to something akin to “the means are worth the ends,” or dismissing them as mistakes (often with no real consequences, mind you).

At the end of the day, many who support the Avengers are willing to overlook their flaws and mistakes in favor of what they represent. This attitude extends to those watching their stories as much as those present within them. But as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier progresses, it’s becoming obvious that there’s a flaw in this way of thinking — especially when the same people viewed as heroes by one group can easily be construed as villains by another.

The most unlikely of voices — Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo — has been the one to vocally drive this message home throughout Marvel’s newest series, suggesting the world may not benefit from the existence of superheroes any longer. During this week’s episode, Zemo even goes so far as to destroy the remainder of the Super Soldier Serum, though unfortunately, he misses a vial, which is later found by John Walker.

And John Walker is the other character continuously underscoring the problem of turning superheroes into symbols. Throughout the series, he’s played the role of Captain America despite not having the right qualities to fill those shoes. That became clearer than ever during “The Whole World Is Watching,” prompting those onscreen and off to ask difficult questions about what it means to be a symbol.

How John Walker’s Captain America highlights the problem

Although the issue of putting the Avengers on a pedestal has come up before, the introduction of John Walker as “the new Captain America” has put this problem front and center over the course of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. While most fans — and characters — can agree that there will never be another Steve Rogers, the U.S. government and Captain America’s fans seem determined to put someone else in the suit, even if that person doesn’t belong there.

That’s because, for these individuals, it’s not about Steve and his personal brand of being a hero. For them, it’s about whatever hope or security the shield represents in their eyes. Putting it in someone else’s hands, even if that person isn’t ready for that kind of power, makes Walker’s supporters feel like they’re holding onto something positive; sadly, it’s a hollow sentiment that proves how fallible such figures can be.

And in chasing the symbol of Captain America, the U.S. government’s choices led to the final scene of this week’s episode, which saw Walker using Captain America’s shield — an object viewers have come to see as a symbol of hope as much as anyone else — as a fatal weapon, killing one of the Flag Smashers with it as revenge for Lamar Hoskins’ death. It’s one of the first — if not the very first — time fans see the shield covered in blood, highlighting how tainted it has become in Walker’s hands.

This shot could be easily be seen as an allegory for how all the good superheroes are supposed to represent can be tarnished under the right circumstances, especially when those superheroes are human beings. This message rings especially true after WandaVision, which proved that even those with the best intentions can do terrible things when consumed by an emotion like grief.

Of course, the fact that Walker’s desire to become a symbol of hope is wrapped up in self-interest certainly doesn’t help the situation. And in that way, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ties his storyline into the real world, where people also blindly follow figures and symbols who may not abide by the values they claim to.

Through characters like John Walker, the MCU is challenging fans to look critically at who and what they place on a pedestal, reminding them that anything can be corrupted.

That’s not to say the Avengers don’t represent hope at all; if anything, Sam Wilson’s actions in this episode prove he’s worthy of Captain America’s legacy and would treat it with care, shield, or no. However, Phase 4 does seem determined to humanize both the franchise’s heroes and villains — and that kind of complexity is something the MCU could benefit from.

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What did you think of John Walker’s turn during this week’s episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? How do you feel about the show’s commentary on superheroes?