Written by David Holland
I have been thinking a lot about symbols.
Many superheroes have them. Superman has his iconic “S”, Iron Man has the Arc Reactor, Batman has… you know… bats. The symbol is a shorthand for the hero themselves. In “Batman Begins”, Ra’s Al Ghul elaborates on the importance of the symbol: “If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, then you become something else entirely.” That’s the idea of the symbol – it is bigger than the person wearing it or wielding it. Emotions are attached to a symbol.
In the MCU no one understand symbols better than Steve Rogers. His costume always harkens back to the original getup that he used to hock war bonds. His shield always bears a star emblazoned on fields of red, white, and blue. In “The Avengers” he asks Coulson if the stars and stripes are too old-fashioned, only to be reassured that people need old-fashioned. Once the Avengers became a real team, Rogers continued to use symbols skillfully. He avoided lifting Mjolnir in “Age of Ultron”, despite the later reveal that he could have lifted it – Mjolnir is Thor’s symbol, after all, and Rogers isn’t about to take it from him. Only when Earth is threatened with literal extinction does Rogers combine the stars and stripes with the thunder of Asgard in a desperate attempt to overwhelm Thanos. When all seems lost and he stands alone in front of Thanos’ army, Cap straps his broken shield back on his arm. And when Earth his safe again, Cap gives the restored shield to Sam Wilson.
No one understands a symbol better than Captain America.
This is the world into which we are diving with Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in the MCU’s “Falcon and the Winter Soldier”. Partly because of COVID shutting down theaters across the country, Phase 4 is launching on Disney+ instead of on the big screen. WandaVision gave us our official introduction into this next phase with a mindblowing nine-episode series featuring androids, magic, and sitcom motifs. In a classic move, the MCU is shifting genres from the fantastical WandaVision to the spycraft world of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
In some ways, I expect “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (hereafter referred to as FAWS because of laziness) to be more straightforward than WandaVision. When I say straightforward, what I mean is that I don’t think that at the end of the first episode we will wonder what is the nature of the reality in which the show takes place. But I expect that there will still be mysteries. After all, we know that Zemo has a role in this show, and no one understood the power of attacking the Avengers’ symbolism quite like him. From what I can glean from trailers, it looks like FAWS will include another Captain America style figure, possibly someone chosen by the military to take on the shield regardless of Rogers’ wishes. I expect this to play out like US Agent in the comics, someone in a similar mold as Captain America, but with closer ties to the military. Given his history, it wouldn’t surprise me for Zemo to use his masked gang in an effort to undermine this pretender to the shield. We know that Zemo has a grudge against all of the Avengers, and a particular history with The Winter Soldier. I expect that throughout the series, he will use his gift for psychological warfare against the heroes and against anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way. We don’t know his goal for certain, but I expect that will be part of the plot. One thing is for sure, we are told in the trailer by
Enfys Nest Flag Smasher that she believes war is already underway. Regardless, with US Agent, Zemo, and Flag Smasher all in the mix, the legacy of Steve Rogers and everything he stood for is on the line.
My MCU rewatch last summer led me to dive deeper into reading the comics lore on which the movies are based. I dipped my toes into some more current Captain America issues, including Ta Nehasi Coates’ run at the title. Coates’ work with the character picks up after a Hydra-created version of Captain America destroyed Rogers’ integrity and reputation with the public. A refrain in the series is “captain of nothing” – no legacy, no reputation, no Avengers, no public trust, no support from the government. Coates explores what it looks like for someone with Rogers’ innate sense of justice to continue fighting the good fight even when he has been stripped of everything else. Obviously FAWS will be different – for one thing, the focus is not on Steve Rogers. But Captain America will overshadow this entire series. His legacy is the question that the show will seek to answer. I have a feeling that Sam and Bucky will have to find out what it means to continue Rogers’ work in their own way.