WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD FOR The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 4, “The World is Watching.”
In the latest episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Captain America beats somebody to death. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but the truth is, if you’ve got a kid under 10, it’s probably something you’d want to know.
Sure, within the narrative, John Walker (Wyatt Russell) isn’t really our Captain America, he’s the new pseudo-fascist version of Cap installed by the government. If you’re under 10, that makes him a “bad guy.” But, for the more sophisticated audience, the whole point of Falcon and Winter Solider — and WandaVision for that matter — is to question our assumption that these Marvel superheroes are actually doing the right thing at all times. At this point in the MCU, there is not a single character who is as good and pure as Steve Rogers, and the symbolic nature of Captain America post-Steve is highly questionable.
It’s powerful stuff, and at times, painful to watch. Like certain scenes in Captain America: Civil War, the tone of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier makes us question why we’re rooting for any of these people in the first place. In episode 4 of FAWS, Bucky even relives some scenes from Civil War, specifically the gruesome way in which he killed Tony Stark’s parents. Again, this gives the show some serious gravitas and, succeeds at making you uncomfortable anytime Bucky punches anyone. Even if he is “the White Wolf,” is he really that good of a guy?
Saying that the MCU has suddenly grown up with WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wouldn’t be true exactly. The entire narrative of WandaVision comes from the fact that Wanda’s backstory involved Tony Stark’s bombs killing her family. On top of that, the corrupt SWORD director Hayward reveals just how cruel some of the supposedly heroic organizations have become. Back in the movie The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers realized that the tentacles of Hydra’s fascism went far deeper than he’d suspected, but what the newer Marvel shows are saying is even more depressing: Literally, every “good” person on this show has killed someone and every “bad” person could be given a pass because they have some useful information, or you know, maybe they’re a goofy dancer.
Just like WandaVision reminded parents to create kid-only profiles on Disney+, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is, so far, a show you could really only watch with a tween. Unlike Civil War, calling the show “fun” would be in poor taste. Nobody calls watching Westworld, fun, right? The line between TV that is “family-friendly” and prestige TV that is supposed to be taken “seriously,” is likely linked to a sliding scale of escapism. Sure, Civil War was hardcore, but it also had a really fun battle between the superheroes, Peter Parker wisecracking, and Paul Rudd turning into a giant Ant-Man. Even though there were elements of realism in Civil War (or Endgame or The Winter Soldier) those films still tended to err on the side of a ratio that favored escapism.
With all respect to the quality of the writing, acting, and production of both WandaVision and Falcon and Winter Soldier, neither of these shows sticks to that ratio. In fact, it’s the other way. Now, emotional realism, and political complexity are favored over escapism. Artistically this isn’t bad. But for the MCU, it is very different. Having elements of uncomfortable ethical dualities in a big superhero epic is one thing; having an entire six-hour series built around those elements is something else.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, at this point, has more in common with Watchmen or a political thriller like Patriot Games than it does with the rest of the MCU. Clearly, episode 4 is meant to illustrate a low point for our feelings about Captain America, and, you know, America in general. The excitement in the final two episodes will likely come from all of us hoping that Sam Wilson can fix all of these, and reclaim the shield of Captain America, while also pointing out that white privilege clearly destroys Black lives.
Again, this is very, very smart stuff. And maybe kids should watch it precisely because it’s giving them a slightly more honest version of the MCU than we’ve ever seen before. But, let’s just not pretend like a 6-year-old can be expected to watch FAWS and not get traumatized.
This is now a very different Marvel Universe than it was just a few years ago. It’s one that more closely resembles our own world, which means what we’re are getting from these narratives, emotionally, might not be the same anymore. In a sense, the Marvel brand is exactly like the super-soldier serum so central to the plot of FAWS. It’s fine if we don’t think about it too much, but once we start to really dig into the implications, there’s no turning back. Marvel isn’t pulling its ethical punches anymore, which, for now, scans as slightly more responsible than what it’s done in the past. But, at the same time, the MCU isn’t where you should turn if you’re looking to be distracted.
This isn’t a window into a fun world anymore. It’s more like a mirror.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has two episodes left on Disney+