With the recent news of Sony’s reclaiming Spider-Man I feel like anything I write on the subject of the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now will feel increasingly post-mortem, but there’s nothing wrong with the odd retrospective.
I don’t know why I found myself dwelling on the character of Sam Wilson, but his introduction in The Winter Soldier I found to be one of the most important moments in the MCU. The ninth film, six years after the advent of the series, and up until that moment we were missing several profound elements that Falcon brings to the table especially in his introductory scene.
Cap Is Superhuman
Sam’s a soldier, trained and disciplined, somewhere near the peak of physical human fitness, few of the people reading this could keep up with him on a morning run, and the writer couldn’t keep up with most of the readership. That’s important to remember when we see Captain America lap him repeatedly without losing breath. Now, that’s not a surprise to anyone, we watched Steve Rogers finding his feet by leaping fences twice his height in pursuit of a car that should have outpaced him massively, wrenching a car door free for use as a shield, and swimming after a submarine.
But all of this is in the midst of high action. It serves as a demonstration piece for his new abilities, but it lacks a point of contrast. In the trenches we see him toppling hordes of laser-nazi’s almost single handedly, but all of the activity on screen almost downplays the sheer difference in Roger’s power post-serum. In the first minute of Winter Soldier, before the boat raid, we have this moment of absolute tranquillity as the sun rises, watching as Cap runs circles around Wilson.
It would have been easy for Russo’s to get us straight into the action. “Was he wearing a ‘chute?”, stealth assault on a boat full of criminals, then explain why they were there afterwards, but the scene before not only gives us an introduction to a character with increasing importance, but contextualises every movement Cap’s incredible speed and combat prowess as he decimates Batroc’s crew while deflecting Natasha’s attempts to find him a date.
Falcon is a Hero
Consider how irritated Sam is at Steve’s repeated overtaking, the kind of friendly competitive irritation that often forms the basis of a casual friendship, but he fully recognises the kind of man he’s up against and knows all of the things that he was made to deal with, and it’s a great deal more than a typical soldier.
Really consider that. Really take into account what Captain America has to deal with when he’s called in to act, and everyone in the world knows it after the battle of New York. And while Sam happily greets him as a fellow soldier, he still recognises the company he’s keeping, and he still steps up to the plate to help Cap when asked, he volunteers before he’s even been asked. And while Sam is in possession of gear that makes him different, and better in the field than the typical soldier, he’s a lot more human than the company he keeps.
It takes a whole different type of pig-headed confidence to step into superheroics without appreciable alterations, like augmented muscularity, an armoured battlesuit, or godlike power. When your skin isn’t bulletproof, and your best weapon is a carbon fibre backpack and a weaponised drone, it takes something wholly special to leap into combat against the likes of Ultron drones, alien armies, and yes, the Winter Soldier. And Sam doesn’t bat an eyelid.
I’d even say that the On Your Left intro scene serves a better job at highlighting the differences between heroes and humans than Hawkeye’s rant about the flying city.
Steve Rogers Is Human
This one’s an easy spot for anyone who’s a fan of the series. Captain has lost a lot of his humanity to his near century-long ice bath, his friends and the love of his life are long gone (not dead per se, but certainly gone), the world he’s awoken in is alien to him, and his friends are superhumans and secret agents, none of them seem able to fully empathise with the life of an infantryman, and certainly none knew life on the front lines in World War 2.
Here’s Sam Wilson, a fighter pilot with experience of war, and helping others bear that burden in a support group. Ok, his experiences aren’t directly relatable, but they are similar enough, and Sam’s used to empathising. When Cap wakes up in the hospital it serves as a pretty weak callback but for as part of a pleasant interpersonal moment, short, simple, and Anthony Mackie’s acting in that moment shines brightest.
There’s a reason why the shield goes to Falcon over Bucky, and it’s humanity, cliché as that may sound. Bucky lost a lot of that over his years as the Winter Soldier, where Sam has spent most of his time outside of combat helping people to restore their lives, and that’s a trait we see him express from his second minute on screen.