Though it mostly focuses on the contest between two candidates for that mantle — Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), the superhero known as the Falcon, and John Walker (Russell Wyatt), a three-time Medal of Honor winner tapped for the role when Wilson initially declines it — “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” almost inadvertently asks us to consider something that hasn’t come up very much in the course of these films. What, exactly, does America mean in a world where “superpowers” refer not to nation-states such as the United States, Russia or China competing for hearts and minds, but to the ability of individuals to do extraordinary things.
Walker’s authority derives from the United States: He is its chosen symbol, and he is imbued with all the power and responsibilities that entails. But the nod from this system gives him little in the way of actual physical power. Rogers may have been a Boy Scout, but he was one who could tear logs in half with his bare hands. Wilson has the benefit of jet-powered wings, while Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is, like Rogers, a super-soldier.
Walker, on the other hand, is just a guy.
As such, he can’t handle the Flag Smashers — a terrorist group committed to squatters rights — because they’ve taken the super-soldier serum. And he can’t handle Wakanda’s Dora Milaje warriors, who aren’t superpowered but have trained like Amazons and are armed with the best of their country’s technology.
It’s not until Walker takes the super-soldier formula himself that he is able to go toe-to-toe with his enemies or perform the feats of fantastic strength needed to save civilians under threat from the Flag Smashers. Simply being granted authority by America is not enough to give him actual power: He needs to transcend his mere humanity and become something great himself. Walker’s biggest misstep is using Cap’s shield to kill a Flag Smasher, and even then it’s really only one of PR: We’ve seen his predecessor kill terrorists and his successor kill terrorists. The only issue here is that Walker’s killing was captured on cellphone video, creating a headache for the United States.
All this raises the question: What does America even mean in the MCU? What does Cap’s shield symbolize? American authority is exceedingly minimal in these films; S.H.I.E.L.D., which previously directed superhero missions, was nominally an American organization, but it was an extragovernmental one. And even that organization was revealed to be a corrupt nest of Nazi descendants.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) bragged about privatizing world peace before rightly recognizing that there had to be some higher authority than a bunch of superpowered maniacs running around blowing each other up. Yet, when it came time to pass the Sokovia Accords, he left that to the United Nations.
Part of this is because the MCU has, by design, been stripped of American exceptionalism so it can appeal to the rest of the world. Marvel wants to sell individual Americans — not the American Idea — to nationalistic Chinese and Russian audiences.
But another implicit angle here is that American exceptionalism can’t really exist in a world in which America cannot be counted upon to project power exceptionally. In a world where individuals or small teams of individuals are more powerful than armies — where a giant purple jerk can show up and destroy half of all life in the universe with the snap of his finger — what does America realistically have to offer? That question becomes especially pertinent since “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” suggests, at length, that America’s only real legacy is racial injustice.
This question of power’s true source has an added resonance at this moment in world history, when there’s a transnational and transactional flavor to so much of our life. Governments matter less to us than massive corporations — be they immersive social media companies such as Facebook or enormous retailers such as Amazon — and the billionaires who run them. That clash and that question become more apparent every day, illustrated best by the fact that the real-world figure most often associated with the MCU isn’t a politician or a government agency.
It’s Elon Musk, the car manufacturer and bitcoin enthusiast whom Robert Downey Jr. consulted to better understand the character of Tony Stark.
In the end, power in the MCU will always reside with the extraordinary individual; these stories wouldn’t work any other way. These are tales of Übermenschen, after all, and those who live with them must settle upon living with the imposition of their morality, their values. But it will be interesting to see if those telling the tales can find some way to make Captain America — and America itself — relevant to the MCU as a symbol for something great again.