I just finished the third episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and I’ve had a question bouncing around in my head since the first episode. It never once occurred to me reading about these characters in comic books but it rises when you place them within the nature and structure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The piece will have light plot spoilers for the first three episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Solider so if you’ve not seen any of it and you don’t want anything spoiled, feel free to click away now. I enjoyed your visit! If you don’t mind light spoilers, then by all means read on. You do you :D. With that being said, this piece will consider the question of the emotional and moral weight of trying to carry Captain America’s shield once Steve Rogers himself is gone.
The first generation of the MCU was brought to a close with Avengers: Endgame. By the time the credits rolled, Natasha Romanoff had sacrificed herself to gain the Soul Stone. Tony Stark had sacrificed himself to bring down Thanos and the Black Order. And Steve Rogers had shuffled back in time to give himself the gift of a life well lived with his one true love, Peggy Carter. When Steve returns to Tony’s cabin, moments after the Avengers last saw him but having lived his entire life happily with Peggy, he has a conversation with Sam Wilson. He tells Sam he decided to live his life, as per Tony’s suggestion, and Sam says how happy he is for Steve.
Sam – “The only thing bumming me out is the fact that I have to live in a world without Captain America.”
Steve – “Oh, that reminds me. [brings out the shield] Try it on.”
[Sam looks over at Bucky, who nods, and he picks it up.]
Steve – “How’s it feel?”
Sam – “Like it’s someone else’s.”
Steve – “It isn’t.”
Sam – “[holding back tears] Thank you. I’ll do my best.”
Steve – “That’s why it’s yours.”
Sam Wilson was our new Captain America! When The Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins a few months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, we see Sam running missions with the U.S. Airforce as a bit of a freelance agent. But while Steve gave Sam the shield and the mantle of “Captain America,” Sam has yet to pick either up, still operating as Falcon while the shield sits at home. Ultimately, Sam decides to donate the shield to the Smithsonian. In his speech he explains:
Steve represented the best in all of us – courageous, righteous, hopeful, [glancing at a poster] and he mastered posing stoically. The world has been forever changed. A few months ago, billions of people reappeared after five years away, sending the world into turmoil. We need new heroes, ones suited for the times we’re in. Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning. And this thing [picking up the shield], I don’t know if there’s ever been a greater symbol. But it’s more about the man who propped it up, and he’s gone. So today we honor Steve’s legacy but also, we look to the future. Thank you Captain America. But this belongs to you.
It’s clear the weight of the moment and of the act are not lost on Sam. But there also seems to be a sense of relief, a catharsis in his handing off Captain America’s shield. The decision is not universally embraced, though. Wandering the Smithsonian’s Captain America exhibit after the photo ops are done, Rhodey (the only Avenger in attendance at the ceremony) asks Sam about his choice:
Rhodey – “Crazy to think that no one’s gonna be carrying the shield.”
Sam – “Hey, we went seventy years without anybody carrying it when Steve was on ice so I think we’ll be alright.”
Rhodey – “These are different times, Sam. [pause] So you gonna make me ask? Why didn’t you take up the mantle?”
Sam – “When Steve first told me about the shield the first words I said were, ‘It feels like it belongs to someone else.’”
Rhodey – “Yeah.”
Sam – “That someone else is Steve.”
Rhodey – “The world’s a crazy place right now. People are…well, nobody’s stable. Allies are now enemies. Alliances are torn apart. The world’s broken. Everybody’s just looking for somebody to fix it. It’s a new day, brother. I’ll be in touch.”
But it’s not a decision everyone questions, either. Immediately after the ceremony a government officials tells him, “Thanks again for coming forward with the shield Sam. It was the right decision.” By the end of the first episode the government has done what the government does. They took back control of the symbol – something, arguably, they’d not had since Steve went off the U.S.O. tour in WWII and certainly not since he refused to sign the Sokovia Accords – and called a press conference to name U.S. Army veteran John Walker as the new Captain America.
As reactions to the new Captain America ripple through the MCU, Sam and Bucky reunite in an attempt to track down a team of surprising new super soldiers seemingly roaming the globe. Yet it’s obvious the shield is a significant source of tension between them. On the plane ride from Munich back to the U.S., after their first meeting with John Walker, it’s clear there’s something on Bucky’s mind:
Sam – “You alright?”
Bucky – “Let’s take the shield, Sam. Let’s take the shield and do this ourselves.”
Sam – “We can’t just run up on the man, beat him up, and take it. Do you remember what happened the last time we stole it?”
Bucky – “Maybe.”
Sam – “I’ll help you in case you forgot. Sharon was branded ‘enemy of the state’ and Steve and I were on the run for two years. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live the rest of my life la vida loca.”
Rhodey feels Sam should’ve taken up the shield and the mantle of Captain America, as Steve envisioned. Bucky is angered by Sam giving the shield away, too. We, as fans, certainly have feelings which account for online reactions like, “The Germans have a word called ‘Backpfeifengesicht’ which translates to ‘a face that needs punching’ – it doesn’t matter whether the person is bad or not, but their face is very punchable. John has that kind of face.” But, honestly, can you blame Sam?? I don’t and I wonder, if I were in his place, what I’d do.
In the comics, many heroes have taken over the mantle of Captain America for a time, including but not limited to William Naslund/the Spirit of ’76, Jeffrey Mace/Patriot, William Burnside, Roscoe Simmons, John Walker/U.S. Agent, Isaiah Bradley, Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier, and – of course – Sam Wilson/Falcon. No matter what happened during their time as Captain America the story always eventually came to a close with the same thing happening – Steve Rogers returns to become Captain America once more. This is standard practice in comic books, where you need to keep story ideas fresh with the same character in monthly serial adventures for decades. A new hero in the role for a time is a great way to shake things up. But the original ALWAYS RETURNS. That’s why, as a kid, I never thought twice about a new hero coming into the costume beyond whether or not I liked them in the role. Even if I didn’t, I knew the original would be back soon enough.
However, the MCU changes things because, naturally, the MCU uses real actors to play these roles. So, while Chris Evans may do a cameo or voice work here or there, Steve Rogers is never returning as Captain America. Just as someone will have to eventually pickup the mantle after the Cap who follows him. To state the most obvious thing ever, human beings age and we do other stuff and that means we won’t see Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans continue in those roles for another ten, twenty, thirty years, no matter how par for the course that is in comics. Steve Rogers is gone – for real. So our new Captain America is our new Captain America.
This changes things. This leads me to think about the “legacy” nature of these mantles in a different way and it certainly makes Sam’s reluctance to pickup the shield far more understandable. Resurrections and returns happen all the time in comics – so often the characters regularly joke about them in-universe. But in the MCU, Sam has no reason to believe Steve will ever return. To pick-up the shield means he is the new Captain America. Can you even begin to imagine the weight of something like that?!?
He’s been a superhero for years, yes. He’s lived life on the lamb. He battled Thanos and his Black Order as they invaded the world hellbent on destroying half of all life in creation. But this is different. This is becoming Captain America. Sam says, “Steve represented the best in all of us…Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning. And this thing, I don’t know if there’s ever been a greater symbol. But it’s more about the man who propped it up, and he’s gone.” Rhodey tells him, “The world’s broken. Everybody’s just looking for somebody to fix it.” Even Bucky!
During a session (mandated as part of his pardon for crimes as the Winter Soldier) with Bucky’s therapist, Dr. Christina Raynor, we see deeper truths come to light:
Dr. Raynor – “Alright, James, why does Sam aggravate you? And don’t say something childish.”
Bucky – “[long pause] Why’d you give up that shield?”
Sam – “Why are you makin’ such a big deal out of something that has nothin’ to do with you?”
Bucky – “Steve believed in you. He trusted you. He gave you that shield for a reason. That shield? That is, that is everything he stood for – that is his legacy. He gave you that shield and you threw it away like it was nothing.”
Sam – “Alright, shut up.”
Bucky – “So maybe he was wrong about you and if he was wrong about you then he was wrong about me.”
Sam – “You finished?”
Bucky – “Yeah.”
Sam – “Alright, good. Now maybe this is something you or Steve will never understand but can you accept that I did what I thought was right?”
The shield is everything he stood for; it’s his legacy. The legacy of Captain America! The living legend of WWII! The leader of the Avengers! The man worthy of lifting Mjölnir who realized he could during the party scene in Age of Ultron but who didn’t even lift it until he had to because he didn’t need to be all showy about it. HOW DO YOU TAKE UP HIS MANTLE? How do you carry the greatest symbol ever to represent the best in all of us while you take up Steve Rogers’ legacy and become the person everybody is looking for to fix a broken world???
That is a lot to shoulder.
All this is to say, Sam’s reluctance makes sense. I’d argue anyone without some form of narcissistic personality disorder would pause before taking up the shield, the mantle, and everything that comes with it. We see even Bucky’s sense of self – the belief that he isn’t really, in his heart, the monstrous Winter Soldier – is tied up in the shield and the mantle of Captain America. That is a lot for any one person to carry. And, as Sam makes very clear to Bucky and Dr. Raynor, he did what he thought was right. Yet he’s met with nothing but resistance in his choice.
I can’t say I blame him. I certainly don’t fault him. If I was in his spot I…well, I know what I’d do. I’d pick-up way more than I can carry without attending to my own needs and ultimately be consumed by that. Or at least that’s what I would have done in the past! That was part of what led me to therapy two years ago. But now I’m getting better! So maybe I wouldn’t make such an unhealthy choice. Maybe I could walk away from the burden and the responsibility. Or maybe, if I chose to take it up, I could do so in a healthier way where I wasn’t shouldering it all on my own and giving myself permission to be this symbol in my own way, with my natural supports there to help carry the load. I don’t know. And thankfully, I don’t have to figure this out in my own life!
But Sam does. Bucky does. Steve is gone and John Walker is the new Captain America and, whether they like it or not, they have to deal with the fallout. They are the defacto guardians of this symbol. The mounting pressure of which is evident in their conversation on the plane ride back from Madripoor:
Bucky – “You ok?”
Sam – “Yeah, just thinkin’ about all the shit Sharon had to go through. And Nagle referring to, ‘the American test subject’ like, like Isaiah wasn’t even a real person. It just makes me wonder how many people have to get steamrolled to make way for this hunk of metal.”
Bucky – “Well, it depends on who you ask. That hunk of metal saved a lot of lives.”
Sam – “Yeah, I get that, alright? But maybe I made a mistake.”
Bucky – “You did.”
Sam – “Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t’ve put it in a museum. Maybe I shoulda destroyed it.”
Bucky – “Look, that shield represents a lot of things to a lot of people including me. The world is…upside down and we need a new Cap and it ain’t gonna be Walker so before you go and destroy it I’m gonna take it from him myself.”
The shield. The symbol. The Dream. How best do you steward all that represents when the original Captain America is gone? There’s no Skrull double dying in his stead here, no magical resurrections or clone body replacements or LMD replicas or alternate universe shifting. Steve Rogers is gone and because this is the MCU and not the comics, that is a very real loss that won’t be retconned later. Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning. For better or worse, Sam and Bucky are tied to the meaning-making around this symbol, around the next life of the shield and of “Captain America.” I’m so happy I’m not in their shoes but I am captivated by the journey lying ahead as they sort how to be mindful stewards of the symbols and meaning Steve Rogers left behind.
 Jonah Schuhart and AJ Caufield, “The New Captain America Finally Responds To All The Fan Hate,” Looper, Published April 2, 2021. Accessed April 3, 2021. https://www.looper.com/372493/the-new-captain-america-finally-responds-to-all-the-fan-hate/
 Max Nason, “Marvel: Every Character Who’s Been Captain America (In Chronological Order),” CBR, Published January 7, 2021. Accessed April 3, 2021. https://www.cbr.com/marvel-every-captain-america-chronologically/
18 thoughts on “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the Weight of the Shield”
Really interesting article. Gave me a lot to think about.
I would also admit I didn’t think Zemo or Sharon were at all wrong when they talked about the larger problem with those kind of symbols hiding the greater flaws behind them until it’s too late to stop the catastrophe. It will be interesting to see how Sam reconciles the true history of the shield and the program now that he realizes it wasn’t limited to just Steve.
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I absolutely agree! I was so drawn into what was happening with Zemo and Sharon in E3 I was surprised and frustrated when the episode was over XD. This show is doing SO MUCH and I love it. There are so many layers to the story and there are so many layers to the commentary within. For example, I think the fact that Sharon wasn’t pardoned when Bucky was is a great way to illustrate the imbalance in justice created by the patriarchal structures in our society (as he’s a man and she’s a woman) and our cult of celebrity (as he’s an Avenger and she’s not). Those forces, his gender and Avenger status, give Bucky a protective bubble Sharon doesn’t have.
Honestly, I’d love for Sharon to get her own show! I’d like to see how she goes forward after this as well as flashing back to her time in Madripoor. Am I being a little greedy? Maybe :). But I still want to see it!
I appreciate, too, how Zemo working with them forces both Sam and Bucky to try and reconcile all you mention above. They can’t ignore all that, even if they want to, as his very presence and commentary forces them to confront and contemplate it.
While it’s a completely different show – narratively, tonally, thematically – than ‘WandaVision,’ I think ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ has just as much psychological depth – especially in what it’s doing with symbols and their meaning.
I thought Sharon’s character was really interesting. I guess it seems a bit…appalling? that she’s now apparently selling art on the black market, when we are used to her being a hero. I hope she gets to become a hero once again, but it looks like she was treated pretty poorly and she was certainly hurt. Even Sam admits he didn’t think to inquire after her. She put her job on the line for Captain America and not even Cap’s friends cared. I agree, however, that this is pretty realistic. She’s not an Avenger and she doesn’t have the celebrity status to be forgiven for breaking the law.
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Oooo, “appalling” is such a great word! That resonates. I get that. And I think, at least given what we’ve seen, the (potential) story of Sharon’s journey back to being a hero may be one of the most powerful, interesting, and important stories in this next phase of the MCU. I don’t know how/how much they plan to use her, but I think her character certainly deserves the attention and I think it can make for an incredible story. I can’t believe everyone just forgot about her after ‘Civil War’! I mean we even SEE Cap break his team out of jail at the end of CA:CW but I guess even he forgets about Sharon?!? I need to know more here.
I’ve been wondering all this time where Sharon was and I started to wonder if Marvel had forgotten about her along with Steve, now that she wasn’t useful as his potential love interest. So I was pleased to see her return! And it looks like she’ll be back, so that ought to interesting.
Also, yes, wow Cap forgot about Sharon. I doubt he would have forgotten Peggy, so, um, I guess we know how she rates in his eyes. Ouch
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This series has more depth than I expected. After my love-fest with WandaVision, I didn’t think I would bother with this, but I am pleasantly surprised.
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Me, too! I think it was SO smart of them to offer this depth but to go in such a different direction – thematically and tonally – after WandaVision. If they tried to follow or copy that, it would’ve been a mess. Leaving The Falcon and the Winter Solider to be something completely different cuts out the easy comparison (which anything would lose next to WandaVision) and lets it be brilliant in its own way.
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I don’t know why I am surprised at this point, but again, phenomenal post! While I struggled to get into Wandavision until the very end, this series has had me invested from the first moment, which surprised me! I didn’t think I would like it as much as I do.
Regardless. I think the conversations surrounding this show are absolutely enthralling and you did an excellent job talking about them! I agree with you about Sam. He was placed in an impossible situation. I don’t know that my decision would have been much different to be honest – though, I do believe I would have just given it to the Avengers before the government. Yes, if Sam had taken up the name following everything, the government really would not have had the ability to reclaim, but I think that when Steve Rogers doesn’t show up after the final battle, I think the government was already planning who they would name as their next puppet. Because let’s face it, Captain America was their war propaganda before he was an Avenger, and in such uncertain times, it makes sense to attempt to reuse that strategy.
That all being said, I would be remiss if I did not touch on Sharon, someone I am deeply distraught didn’t get a better outcome. I think you and Krista hit it on the head though. She was not an official Avenger, and while her actions were for the good of the fight, she’s a lot easier to fault being that she doesn’t have the “hero” status to fall back on. She got screwed. MANY people did, as has been made apparent in other episodes of this show. But it’s those details that ground this in reality. It makes it feel more authentic because, the world doesn’t just tie up nicely at the end of conflict. Not everybody gets to live happily ever after. I think that’s what I’ve loved most about this universe. They have worked so very hard and paid extra attention to the details, so that it feels as real as it can be. This is real people conflict and feelings we are dealing with, super hero or not.
I am DEVESTATED that this is just a limited series. I don’t know what I am truly going to do when it is over.
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I wondered why Sam didn’t give the shield to the Avengers, too! Maybe it was because he wanted it in the Smithsonian as part of their Captain America exhibit? But you’re right – I’m sure the government was looking to take back control of their symbol as soon as they saw Steve wasn’t around after Thanos. The Avengers most likely started rebuilding the compound after the fight, right? And Tony had the shield for the two years from ‘Civil War’ to ‘Endgame’ anyway. They could’ve held onto it.
And “DEVESTATED” is the perfect way to describe my feelings on this being a miniseries, too! I want more. I need more! I’m ecstatic that Marvel’s announced a ‘Captain America 4’ starring Anthony Mackie! But I ALSO want another series with Sam and Bucky! Basically the more I have of these characters the better :).
So, since I didn’t reply to this until after the finale…what do you think of how Sharon’s story ended? I don’t know if I should save this for a discussion on a post about the finale episode, which I am thinking about writing…but who knows if I ever will XD. So I’m asking now.
I love what you said about how they work hard to make these stories feel as real as possible. That’s it. I think that’s one of the best frames/descriptions of the MCU I’ve heard. And I think that’s exactly why, over ten years in, we can be so invested and so eager for more as new people are finding themselves pulled into the narrative every day. “This is real people conflict and feelings we are dealing with, super hero or not” – BOOM. Amen! At it’s heart, that’s why I love the MCU so much.
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Here’s my observations about the MCU. I think that they are a more modern, more “appealing” soap opera! You don’t have to watch every single movie or show to get the gist of what’s happening and yeah, it’s mostly about fighting bad guys, but under all that is really a series of relationships. These characters are fully rounded out because they spend as much time on the relationships as they do on the action. Relationships between each other, and themselves! THAT is why the MCU is so good at what it does because they are able to do that over shows AND movies where DC really only knows how to develop character across a tv show. These characters feel real because they are. They have feelings, and pasts, and often have “other” things going on outside the whole crime fighting thing. The fighting isn’t their whole lives, and we get to see that time and time again and I think that’s what makes them so special (and addicting).
As for Sharon, I’m so SAD to see her heel turn, though I completely understand it. I really do. It’s just so disappointing because she was such a great little character. I actually love that the MCU is acknowledging that they threw her character away and playing off that to kind of build her up into something bigger. It’s quite honestly genius! But idk I was always a Steve and Sharon shipper over Peggy, maybe it’s because I’m still bitter he left everyone he’s fought for/with for the last decade to be with her, never to be seen again… either way though, I’m sad for the character but kinda glad they found a way to fold her back into the universe after really leaving her out to dry like that.
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First I love your soap opera analogy and I completely agree. That’s spot on. It *also* seems to me you’ve written the foundation of a guest post in this comment soooooooo should you ever want to do a post for me about this very thing you’re more than welcome! No pressure of course, but the invitation’s always open :D.
I completely agree with your assessment of Sharon, too. I so wish her character ended up on another path but how they are handling it is genius! And I loved Steve and Sharon, too! One of many reasons I love ‘Captain America and the Winter Solider’ (the movie ;D) is we get to see those sparks between the two of them. It makes me appreciate more how Steve and Sharon end up together (or at least have been together for awhile) in the comics.
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Ugh, I missed this post. I missed everyone’s posts this month! Now I need to read them all because they all look so interesting!!!
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This comment is my blogging life – as you know from my regular comments on your “Posts You May’ve Missed” pieces XD. Over summer I can be a bit better about staying more caught up but the schoolyear often sees me binge-reading my favorite blogs whenever I have a free afternoon. But look at the fun reading you have ahead of you! That’s how I like to frame it for myself anyway ;D.
The funniest thing about ALL of that season is that I totally forgot that Steve Rogers gave it to Sam at the end of Endgame. LOL. I watched the whole season feeling like I needed to watch Endgame again because I missed something. And the reason why I didn’t pinpoint that scene was because I remembered it! Well, kind of. I remembered Steve coming back old and having lived his life and was happy. I just had no memory of the conversation of the shield. I finally started reading stuff after the last episode and was like…”oops. That would have been helpful and explained…everything.”
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Haha, yep, I can imagine that would have made the season a wee bit disorienting. If only there was SOMEONE you knew you could’ve asked for a quick rundown/framing of any pertinent ‘Endgame’ information needed for ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’…
Well, here’s the thing. I didn’t know I could ask you because I was unsure of what I was missing. It was just like this niggling thought of “why is everyone so upset the Falcon gave the shield to the government? What else was he supposed to do?” So I didn’t know what I didn’t know, if that makes sense.
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Yeah, I completely get what you mean. That makes sense. On the bright side, should you ever decide to rewatch ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ (which I texted about it so much my phone autofills “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” whenever I type “The” and I love it) you have a whole new dimension to look forward to experiencing!