The following story contains spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and Disney+’s series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier promised us a new Captain America, and we got one. When the Russo brothers decided to devote some of the final moments of Avengers: Endgame to establishing a clear line of succession for who would hold the red, white, and blue Vibranium shield next, the choice felt crystal clear. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks a different question: what if it isn’t?
In the first episode of what was planned as Disney+’s first Marvel Cinematic Universe series, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) turns Captain America’s shield in to the government. In the closing moments of that episode, we find out that the push for Sam to turn in the shield wasn’t, in fact, to “do the right thing,” as the random government guy tells him, but rather to give the iconic weapon to someone they can more easily control. Someone who, among other things, didn’t side with the aforementioned Captain America in going against the government (as we saw in Captain America: Civil War). Someone who isn’t an Avenger. And that’s why we meet three time medal of honor winner John Walker, played to absolute perfection by the excellent and certainly no-longer-under the radar Wyatt Russell.
And we’re just going to say it straight: Walker is the best thing about the show.
In Walker, the government sees someone with the outward qualities of the Steve Rogers they knew. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s ostensibly brave. But what they don’t see is what most of us would leave unseen: nerves. While we first see Walker as the “new Captain America,” winking at the close of episode 1, the second episode opens with an unmasking. Walker knows the enormous task he’s been given, and it takes his loyal military buddy Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett) to calm his anxieties. This is a twisted form of the Steve Rogers and Bucky dynamic MCU fans are used to; Walker isn’t all heart and no brawn, but rather all the brawn anyone could ever want, but without the confidence to ever feel like he’s worthy of what he has or what he’s done.
Now, let’s level things out for just a moment: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has had its ups and downs. While I’ve appreciated the fact that it’s cut from the same cloth as the MCU’s resident spy/political thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier (still the franchise’s best film, in my opinion), it’d be lying to say that the show has been hitting on all fronts. The entire Flag-Smasher storyline has been confusing and difficult to follow, and while their leader, Karli Morgenthau, may be right, it’s been a hard motivation to track and an even trickier one to get viewers to care about. And her seemingly unnamed cohorts getting a whole bunch of random dialogue doesn’t help that cause. And while Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and Sam are charismatic as ever, it’s weird to even think back about some of the threads already lost from early episodes. Bucky on a date with a waitress? Sam making Gumbo? Was this the same show?
Thankfully, the show brought Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the conniving villain from Civil War, back into the mix, and he’s brought an influx of energy to the show. From his energy, to line deliveries, to his sheer look, everything about him has worked. But still, top to bottom, the show hasn’t felt like the well-oiled machine that the entirety of the MCU’s Captain America trilogy did.
But from start to, well, almost finish—we’ll see how things turn out in the final two episodes—The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has absolutely smashed its John Walker arc out of the park. And that’s thanks in a big way to the performance of Russell, who in each episode has been able to so perfectly capture the physically strong but otherwise insecure man tasked with living up to a legacy he never had a chance to match. The few short scenes of his insecurity make his mask of bravery an easy one to see through.
And it’s been a joy to see the wall between faux honor and insecurity crumble little by little. When Walker saw what he was up against—Karli and her gang—and saw the man who defeated the Avengers stomping all over the serum vials, he knew this was his chance. And after, again, a consultation with his brain trust in Lemar, he knew what he’d be doing. He had the Power Broker’s serum, and it wouldn’t be going to waste.
Lemar says that with the serum, you gain power. And that “power makes you more of yourself.” That was the whole reason Steve Rogers was such a perfect candidate for the serum: he was the guy who would jump on the grenade; the guy who’d tag along with his friend on a lame double date. He was everything on the inside that he wasn’t on the outside—the serum just helped that match.
And when Walker decides to take the serum, Lemar’s words prove true. Everything Walker was on the inside—empty, unsure, and nervous—starts to match the outside. He’s reckless with his powers, and especially so when he sees Lemar’s neck snap amidst a fight with Karli. This is Russell’s finest moment; we see him lose his rock in Lemar, and it’s clear that things will never be the same. Where Steve Rogers simply wept over his perceived loss of Bucky in Captain America: The First Avenger, Walker proves himself a different breed, angrily hunting down an unarmed Flag-Smasher and basically decapitating him in a public place, crowd watching.
The episode closes with one of the most stunning shots in the MCU’s history—Captain America’s shield, only ever used for necessary protection and action, covered with the blood of an unarmed man. This is almost a delayed payoff for Steve Rogers’ story. We’d seen his mirror image with the Red Skull, but now we get to see what happens with the super soldier serum when it ends up in the hands of someone who’s not even necessarily bad—just not absolutely perfect. It’s why Dr. Erskine (played by Stanley Tucci) needed to be so selective and careful, and why Steve Rogers was always such a rare breed. And why a person like Sam—who doesn’t hesitate to say he’d never even consider taking the serum—is more worthy than a Walker, who constantly feels less than without it.
Walker’s fall into morbidity and brutality in a way makes Sam’s road to becoming Captain America—because, let’s be real, we all know it’s still coming—an easier one. Rather than needing to follow up someone who was stuck in the ice for 70 years and saved the world time over time and had super soldier serum, he’ll just need to follow up someone who went power crazy to the point of certain viral disgrace.
Walker’s heel turn has arrived, and his subsequent downward spiral is upon us. But it’s the humanity that Russell is bringing to the character that makes him such an electric and exciting watch; he plays Walker like the best kind of villains, or, possibly in this case, anti-heroes. He truly, sincerely, believes he’s doing the right thing. He’s operating out of good intentions. It’s not his fault the government picked him, and it’s not his fault that Sam and Bucky refused to work with him. This man just took an opportunity, and tried to do his best with it.
Now, reacting in the way he did is obviously barely forgivable, and we’ll certainly see that play out in the show’s final act. But if the show doesn’t make Walker go full Homelander, here’s one simple request for Marvel head Kevin Feige: keep Russell and Walker around. There’s comic canon to allow it—after Walker’s time as Captain America, he becomes U.S. Agent, a more brutal sort of vigilante for justice, who at times even serves as a spy within the Avengers for the government (I mean, yikes, man.)
A brute vigilante isn’t really a character we’ve seen a ton of in the MCU. And it makes for a character who would be fun to pop up here and there. Because if The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is teaching us anything, it’s that keeping a good chess piece on the table can come in handy. It’s why we’re seeing this fun fleshing out of Zemo. It’s why Loki has been such a consistent fan favorite, and why Thanos felt like such a worthy villain for the final culmination of 11 years of films. It’s why we can’t wait to see Michael Keaton return as Vulture, whenever that might be.
And it’s why Wyatt Russell’s John Walker will be the character we remember most from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier when it’s all said and done.
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