The bad guys win at the end of Marvel’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. They do! Yeah, sure, our “good guys” walk away with grins and catharsis and a veneer of self-actualization, but in the end? The bad guys won.
I’m not talking about the Flag-Smashers, of course. The Flag-Smashers are the ostensible villains, the plot-moving antagonists, fulfilling a similar role to SWORD in WandaVision. The Flag-Smashers became bad enough dudes that the story’s moral imperative became bent inexorably against them. Once you threaten civilians – let alone politicians – in a Disney property, you are fucked. Karli Morgenthau and her fellow antifa supersoldiers get owned at the end of the story, mostly because they have become irritating to the Powers That Be. Karli is merked by Sharon Carter, one of the bleakest villains we’ve seen yet in a Marvel property, and the arrested Flag-Smashers are blown up remotely by Baron Zemo, an übermensch decrying übermenschen from his gilded cage.
Because despite his protestations, his self-identified-everymanitude, Zemo is a superman. He has incredible wealth and resources, after all. Never mind the text-level power of being a Main Character. And so he gets the last laugh over his “supremacist” foes, a nerd exploding some jocks. (Transparently, it’s the writers clearing away any potential supersoldier loose ends). But Zemo has no car bombs waiting for John Walker, despite John Walker being, you know, the exact epitome of everything Zemo claims to fear. A nationalist, a true-blue American supremacist with a chip on his preternaturally-beefy shoulder. (I will admit, one of the scenes I actually enjoyed in this series was the fight scene where John unleashes on Sam and Bucky. The fight choreography communicated very well just how scary someone like John could be, and Wyatt Russell’s unhinged bellows really landed for me.)
And John Walker walks away! In our final scene with him (in which we get the remainder of Julia Louise-Dreyfus’ one day she had available to film), he gets some new duds and a new fake name, and…that’s it! He gets to walk away and be the antihero. He even gets to trade a few barbs with Bucky in the final fight scenes. His extrajudicial killing might as well be an extrajudicial whoopsie. When the shit hits the fan, a line is drawn in the sand. Our titular heroes stand on the same side of the line as John Walker. So, standing beside Captain America and the Winter Soldier, our Main Character Villains (John Walker, Sharon Carter, and Baron Zemo) overcome the radical anarchist multiracial coalition. John Walker gets a job offer. Zemo may be in prison, but he’s alive and laughing. Clearly, like George Bluth Sr. before him, he’s running the family business from behind bars. Sharon slides right back into the good graces of the US government, since I guess they don’t do background checks or any sort of debrief when you’re a Main Character.
(And by the way, while I’m thinking about Sharon – the whole Power Broker/Madripoor thing felt suspiciously close to, say, an actual CIA front. Didn’t Nagle, our short-lived supersoldier serum scientist, tell us the CIA was backing his work at one point? Who’s to say Sharon Carter didn’t become a sort of Epstein-Maxwell nexus in Madripoor on behalf of the CIA? Okay, alright, I’ll back off, but I mean come on: her limitless wealth? Her maneuvering various terrorist groups to the benefit of imperial power? I know they’re just setting up Armor Wars or whatever with Sharon, but my headcanon gives Sharon information that could lead to the arrest of Hillar- you know, that’s a played-out meme.)
Anyway – the bad guys won. Except, of course, for Uncle Sam. Right? He got his bitchin new wings, he got the shield; he’s Cap.
He’s also incoherent.
The power structures of imperialism will simply bend if you harangue them about it for a little bit. Presumably the cool suit and the shield gives him a +5 to CHA or something.
This show flailed at Politics in the same way a toddler might flail at a passing car. Sam says some stuff about things, but ultimately it’s gutless and empty, a Whoopee Cushion of ideas. With his speech, he demonstrates how truly Foolish and Immature Karli was by simply talking the most powerful people in the world into doing the right thing. Why didn’t she try that? If only the writers hadn’t made her blow up civilians or whatever.
Look: I’m not coming to Disney’s Marvel’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier for revolutionary politics. I get it. It’s fine. But most neoliberal fantasies have the decency to put a nice coat of paint on their dribble-drabble. This speech is one of the most embarrassing things I’ve seen in a Marvel property to date. I think it’s possible to go line-by-line through the speech and do a real intense close reading of the First Draft Pablum, but frankly: I cannot be bothered. Two thumbs down.
Sam comes back to visit Isaiah Bradley in the end, and takes Isaiah to – surprise! – a new room at the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian. This room tells Isaiah’s story, the story of the US government experimenting on black men to create a white supersoldier. It features a bronze statue that is, I guess, of Isaiah. Isaiah finally breaks down, his icy sarcasm reduced to manful tears as he embraces Sam.
Kinda left me feeling bad, though. Because here’s the thing. What Isaiah deserves isn’t a surprise party. It’s not his wish to be ogled by the world. That’s kind of the point, right? At least, that’s the point I thought they were making a few episodes ago. Instead, Sam assimilates Isaiah into the Good United States Government. He says “oh, you hate and fear the government because they stole your entire adult life, your body, your love, everything about you? You were grateful to the nurse who faked your death because it meant you could live in peace? Ha ha check this out: I posted that shit online so everyone knows about you now!”
And for Isaiah to just break down and love this assimilation? Man, what the fuck? Sorry, but that’s not the character you showed us in every prior scene. Old wounds aren’t closed by bronze band-aids, and not everyone wants to be assimilated.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from TFATWS, it’s this: you live in the Empire. Get used to it. Find your place in the Empire and grow fat and happy with whatever power you can grab hold of with your own two hands. Walker, Sharon, Zemo, Sam, Bucky, Isaiah – they all live in the American Empire now. I mean that metaphorically, of course – these stories are all American stories, deep down – but even literally: Madripoor, the one place Sharon could go that was free from US interference, is now de facto tied to the American Empire through Sharon herself. There’s superficial irony in titling the final episode “One World, One People” when that’s been the “Hail Hydra” of the series, but I think there’s a deeper truth in that title. It is One World, and One People. That world is America, baby. Land of the free.
The bad guys won. The Empire won.
One final note that I didn’t have the semantic space for above: the storming of the GRC by the Flag-Smashers was the fantasy that the Trump-lovin’ deviants hoped to realize on January 6, 2021. In this fantasy, the populist revolt, organized in encrypted online channels, is able to puncture the defenses of the legislative capitol during a pivotal vote, led by a vanguard of serious operators. Again, in this fantasy version, the Storm is aided by operators on the inside, cops and army dudes sympathetic to the cause. You see it too, right? That this is how the Trump supporters hoped January 6 would go. Of course, in the real world, you’re unlikely to have cops and army dudes sympathetic to actual radical anarchists, because they’re more statistically likely to be sympathetic with right-wing nationalism. Weirdly enough, in TFATWS, the legislators end up capitulating to the basic demands of the terrorists after a cool PMC guy wearing spaceman goggles says “Listen Up, Chucklefucks! THREAD (1/?)” That’s weird, right? That Sam makes a pro-terrorism argument, saying that the feeling of helplessness the legislators felt should inform their choices? I mean, go off, king, but it adds to the general incoherence of an otherwise-aggressively-imperialist ending.