I recently purchased a Marvel Legends Captain America Shield. That’s not a brag, although I suppose it kind of is because the shield is awesome, but it helps give context for the rest of this piece. You probably have figured it out by now, if you’ve been reading this site for the past five years or so, but I love collecting things. Always have. When I was younger it was Star Wars figures or Pez dispensers. As I’ve gotten older it’s still Star Wars figures, to a degree, but mostly Funko pops as they cover so many different fandoms and are just so damn fantastic. But like any good collector, I don’t want to limit myself to one brand of awesome items. The Mrs. purchased me a life-size Grogu that is everything I’ve ever wanted, I’ve got the “Proof That Tony Stark Has A Heart” core reactor, and a number of other really fun items to one day populate a future room in our home. Included in all these collectibles is my newly purchased Marvel Legends Captain America Shield.
We, the Mrs. and I, currently don’t have a lot of space in our apartment so I can’t display the shield the way I want to. This means at this moment it’s sitting on our love seat propped up like the best throw pillow imaginable. Personally, I think it adds a nice astatic to the living room but ideally, I’d like the shield to be mounted on the wall once we have a bigger place. Man, I dream about that future office where the shield is hung in a specific location where I can grab it if called into action. What?! You never know.
Since episode four of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, “The Whole World Is Watching”, I’ve been looking at my Captain America Shield “throw pillow” a bit differently. This thing is life-size so it’s not like you can miss it when you take a seat in the living room. It’s there and it wants you to know it’s there. Hell, I want you to know it’s there. The shield went from being something I’ve always wanted to sitting in my living room with Hudson the Cat sleeping beside it. I love this thing and if you check my Instagram feed (@iamgeek32) then you can see the abundance of pictures I’ve taken with it. Lately though, when I glance over to my love seat, I can’t shake the image of John Walker standing in the street with the shield covered in blood. It’s harrowing. It’s chilling. It speaks volumes about what Falcon and the Winter Soldier is trying to say.
Watching/reading superhero stories we’ve become conditioned to see things a little more black and white. Not saying that these stories can’t be complex but there is a formula. We have a hero, we have a villain, a lot of stuff happens in between that defines our characters, and then someone gets punched in the face. The “stuff that happens in between” is what makes us relate to these characters. It’s the reason why I love Spider-Man or Steve Rogers. Sure, the money is in the big action set pieces and the explosions but the soul is with the characters. Just look what happened with Thanos when Infinity War released. How many memes or think pieces did you see saying that maybe Thanos was right? There were tons and that doesn’t happen because he threw a moon at Tony Stark. No, those memes and think pieces come from the conversations he has with Doctor Strange or Gamora… the stuff in between.
With only two episodes left, I would argue that Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t have a clear-cut villain. Yes, the Flag Smashers count. Yes, the Power Broker counts. Yes, even John Walker and his blood-soaked shield count. But they all seem more like adversaries. None of them have a big bad feel to them. I’m willing to bet there will be a final showdown between Sam, Bucky, and John Walker and that’ll probably play as our Boss Battle but does that make John Walker the show’s true villain? I’m going to go with no because I don’t think the villain of the show is really tangible.
What if the true villain of Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the shield itself and its symbolism. John Walker using it as a murder weapon makes him a villain but there’s more of an overt symbolism to the blood-soaked shield. For ten years of the MCU, that shield has represented Steve Rogers. It has represented courage, strength, character, perseverance, and doing what is right even if it’s not the easy choice. Falcon and the Winter Soldier has taken those attributes and shown us that the shield has a more complex history than we might have known. That the blood we see at the end of “The Whole World Is Watching” has been there all along.
Think back to the first episode of the series. Sam lays the groundwork for this idea when he gives the shield over to the museum.
“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.”
And he’s right. Personally, I know that I will always associate the shield with Steve Rogers. Thirty-nine years of comic book reading and movie watching has it burned into my brain. That’s not saying I’m not willing to accept a new Captain America, quite the contrary, but to some degree, I will always associate that shield with Steve Rogers. Here’s the thing though, Sam is telling us, quite frankly, that that’s the problem. While we can’t separate Rogers and the shield there are a number of people who see the shield as something that doesn’t represent them. At the forefront of that is Sam Wilson. The shield, when separated from Steve Rogers, is a symbol for a different kind of America that is amplified by John Walker taking over Steve’s mantle.
This is why Karli Morgenthau won’t kill Sam after he confronts her for the threatening phone call to Sam’s sister. She won’t kill Sam because it won’t mean anything. Killing John Walker though, he’s a symbol. He represents the untold story of that shield. He is the manifestation of everything that the Flag Smashers are fighting against. Walker doesn’t have the empathy and heart that Rogers had, no, he’s a product of the system always looking for the next fight. Always looking to punch his way out of things. He’s become the one thing Steve Rogers refused to become… a mascot. With Steve Rogers gone the shield transforms into a symbol that clearly doesn’t represent everyone.
Sam’s sister, Sarah while being threatened by Karli drops a very poignant line when discussing the shield. “My world doesn’t matter to America so why should I care about its mascot?” This is a woman raising two children on her own while trying to maintain a family-owned business who can’t get a bank loan to keep things afloat. And she’s not alone. Look at Isaiah Bradley, do you think the shield represents him?! This is a man who took the super-soldier serum, battled the Winter Soldier, fought for his country, and was thanked by being thrown in prison and erased from the history books. The shield has a soiled history and one has to wonder if Steve Rogers knew about it all if he would have continued carrying it?
With Rogers gone the perception of the shield is only getting worse. We just watched it used as a weapon, opposed to something Steve would use to protect, as it becomes a symbol of aggression. A rallying point for enemies to get behind. Captain America just killed a man who surrendered in the street while crowds of people documented the act on their phones. This is the shield that people like Sarah Wilson turn away from. This is all that dark history coming to the forefront for everyone to see. In a post-blip world, with Steve Rogers missing or on the moon, what will people think of when they think of Captain America. A blood-soaked shield wielded by an insecure man who is always looking for the next fight.
But does it always have to be? Can the perception of the shield be changed? I would argue yes it can. It’ll take time but I think in the right hands the shield can represent something else. Something that embraces its past, both glorious and shameful, and moves forward on the promise of building something better. And those hands belong to Sam Wilson.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier has given us a number of things to chew on, Zemo’s dancing being higher on the list than we might want to admit, but one thing it has made clear is that Sam Wilson is fit to be Captain America. Time and time again in this series, Sam has emulated the philosophies of Steve Rogers. It’s not about running toward a fight but trying to diffuse one. What do we know about Sam from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that he helps others deal with trauma that’s why his first instinct when they locate Karli is to talk with her. Not to kick open the door during a funeral and arrest her. Sam understands people. Sam going in by himself with no armor is his grenade moment. He doesn’t know if Karli will accept what he’s saying or if she’ll just kick through his chest but he trusts in that this is the right thing to do. If it’ll stop other people from getting hurt Sam Wilson is willing to put himself on the line.
That’s Captain America.
If given a second chance at the shield, and we have every reason to believe that he’ll be given that opportunity, we know that Sam Wilson will do the right thing. Steve Rogers may not have known some of the darker history associated with the shield but Sam knows it, and he’s not the type of character to back away from it. If Sam Wilson takes the shield at the end of Falcon and the Winter Soldier it’s to strip away the symbolism of the shield. To bring to light Isaiah Bradley and what he did for this country. To vocalize the fact that the shield doesn’t represent everyone but if given the time and given the chance, Sam will do his best to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. That the shield can mean something to all people.
That’s why Steve Rogers chose Sam Wilson to take up the mantle, to take the shield. Not because Sam is the strongest or the bravest. Not because the shield would look dope with the Falcon wings. No, Steve chooses Sam because Sam understands what it means to be human. And while Falcon and the Winter Soldier may end up being Sam’s journey to this realization, we the audience know it’s right. The best heroes are the reluctant ones. The ones who don’t seek glory and parades. The ones who are willing to put their heads down and do something because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the type of Captain America that we deserve. That’s the type of Captain America Sam Wilson can be. Maybe then the shield can become something entirely new.