Last weekend was the finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which, as a Captain America fanboy, was the MCU show I was most looking forward to. There was a lot that the show wanted to cover, and I want to dive into one specific aspect of the show, the history and image of American culture.
However, I want to first mention that this show will put Captain America: Civil War in a new light, in the same way that WandaVision gave The Avengers: Age of Ultron a new perspective. Not only that, but I’ve criticized the MCU before for not allowing their stories to have consequences, and I wasn’t entirely convinced with WandaVision that they had changed, but with this show, it’s clear that they are finally diving into the If/Then consequential storytelling. If half of everyone on the planet was gone for five years, then homeless people wouldn’t be homeless. If everyone suddenly came back, then people would fight over those homes again. Finally the kind of conflict that I’ve most been looking for in these stories. However, that’s not what this article is about.
What We Want America To Be
Marvel has, from the start, been a version of the world that we want it to be. Many people don’t realize that when the first Captain America comic came out, where Cap is punching Hitler, the US hadn’t actually joined WWII yet. The folks at Marvel (then called Timely Comics) thought that American forces should get involved in the war in Europe, and so they created a mascot for the American military, and showed exactly what they wanted to happen.
When they designed Captain America as the blonde hair/blue eyes Steve Rogers, it actually wasn’t because that is what they thought is the “Perfect American” but in fact what Hitler thought was the “Perfect Aryan.” It was meant to be an insult to white supremacists, showing their poster boy fighting against them, against his own potential for power. We want to take what evil people think is their strength, and use it against them, for good.
Then, as a representation of a more modern America, we have Sam Wilson. A black man who isn’t trying to hide his culture, but embraces it and shows that he is just as American as any white man. He uses his strength, and unique abilities to be his own hero, not a recreation, but one that represents the same values. He comes from a family of small business owners, who are central to their community, respectful, and hard working.
We want America to be a combination of Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson.
What America Was
However, while Steve Rogers was a representation of White America during WWII, as well as the following decades, he wasn’t an accurate representation of Black America at that same time. So we meet Isaiah Bradley. Isaiah’s story in the comics is largely the same, but what hurts is that the comics didn’t come up with the idea entirely. Instead, it was a reference to the Tuskegee Experiment.
In the MCU, after Steve Rogers was successfully turned into Captain America, all the other doses of the Super Soldier Serum were destroyed by Hyrda (in Captain America: The First Avenger). Therefore, in an effort to recreate the serum, to create more Super Soldiers, the military continued trying to recreate Erskine’s serum, and tested their serums on 300 black American soldiers. The only one to survive and successfully be turned Super was Isaiah Bradley. These tests were done unofficially, and when Bradley didn’t follow orders in order to protect his fellow soldiers he was court-martialed and sent to prison for 30 years. This was really done so they could continue experimenting on him to try to understand why he was the only subject who didn’t die from the experiments.
In the real world, in 1932, 600 African-American men were recruited for a study on the effects, treatments, and cures for Syphilis. 2/3 already had syphilis, and the other 1/3 were a control group. The study was supposed to go for six months, and all of the men would have free healthcare during the study, and be potentially cured by the end of it. However, the study was actually regarding the long-term effects of untreated syphilis. So for 40 years these men were never treated for the disease, even though a cure was publicly available 15 years after the study began. 128 men died from the disease. In 1997, 65 years after the study began, President Clinton apologized, and gave free healthcare to the eight surviving participants, and family members of any participant that were also afflicted with syphilis. 65 years later.
“What was done cannot be undone, but we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye, and finally say, on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful and I am sorry.”President Bill Clinton
This is what America was, less than a lifetime ago. When the study started, some of the participants’ peers were former slaves. The last participant died in 2004, at the age of 96. Take a moment to think about just how recent that is.
America was a combination of Steve Rogers, and Isaiah Bradley.
What America Is
Now we live in a time where a black man can have superpowers, and be celebrated. However, that doesn’t mean that we have reached the idealized version of ourselves that we all like to imagine. The show also shows the dangers with modern American culture, with John Walker.
John Walker dedicated his life to his government in a very similar way to Steve Rogers. Joined the Army, put himself into warzones, and accomplished the mission. Not only was he an Army Ranger, which handle special operations, but the famed 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite airborne light infantry unit. Now it’s not officially stated that Steve Rogers was an Army Ranger, but his unit of Howling Commandos were elite, airborne, and infantry. He served for 14 years before being awarded with the title of Captain America.
However, our modern military force isn’t what it used to be (note: my parents have a combined 47 years of military service, most of which as officers. I am who I am because of the US Military). In WWII it was clear that the military were doing what was right, fighting Nazis, protecting freedom. However, every war since, and especially the 20 years we have spent in the Middle East has not been so clearly the right thing to do. Not only that, but we haven’t acted like the heroes that we like to think we are.
“Three badges of excellence to make sure I never forget the worst day of my life. We both know that the things that we had to do in Afghanistan to be awarded those medals felt a long way from being right.”
However, it’s not only his service record that should be examined here, but his belief system as well. Americans as of late have become entitled. I don’t mean this in the way that millennials are often accused of, but as a society. We believe that we should get all the awards, all the praise, and all the best things. “America First” is a common phrase thrown around, often times said sincerely. This entitlement is seen when, after stripped of his title, Walker continues to demand “I am Captain America.” He continues to demand authority. After he has killed someone out of anger and revenge, he lies to those he cares about, in an effort to demand their gratitude. John Walker is the personification of American entitlement, with a combination of Might Makes Right.
Right now we are both Sam Wilson and John Walker.
This show is honest about where we come from, and where we are now. The only question, then, becomes “Who do we want to be?” Do we want to be Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson? If so, then we have some work to do. We need to continue repairing the damage done in our past, and not become so prideful that we cause further damage to ourselves. In the end, Sam Wilson largely agrees with the beliefs of the Flag Smashers, because those that are in need aren’t in that place out of laziness or selfishness, but out of inactivity by those with the power to help, and aren’t. The responsibility of change isn’t on those who need it, by on those who can enact it. Look at what you can do to make the lives of those around you better, and do it.
Grammatical note: Multiple Captains with the name America, is technically Captains America, not Captain Americas.