MCU Primer: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes exchanged glances
Photo courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

Originally intended for release back in August of 2020 (shortly after what would have been Black Widow’s big-screen premiere in May of 2020), The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is finally entering the fold this Friday, March 19th on Disney+ as the second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s much-anticipated Phase 4, which began with WandaVision.

While WandaVision dealt with personal grief with a quieter meditation on existence, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks to be switching things up a bit by being an action-first thriller. As expected from any Marvel project, we really don’t know all the details except for the natural character progression we can expect based on prior events and limited nuggets of knowledge dropped by the producers.

One thing is guaranteed: the series will play into star Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan’s great on-screen chemistry and likely provide a lot of laughs. But like WandaVision, real issues will be explored and with greater detail than you can get in a two/three-hour movie. Not only will the iconography of Captain America be challenged in the series but issues such as political division and race will play key factors in the narrative.

As is becoming a tradition with Marvel Studios, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s behind-the-scenes crew is a wonderful mix of inclusion. All six episodes of the series will be directed by Kari Skogland, the Emmy nominated director known for her episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, while the writing department is led by black writer/producer Malcolm Spellman.

Let’s dive into the fictional aspects of the new show by figuring out where we left off, who our characters are, and if the comics will play a part in the series evolution.

Where We Left Off

Cap hands Sam Wilson his Shield
Photo courtesy Marvel Studios

Steve: How’s it feel?

Sam: Like it’s someone else’s.

When Thanos collected all six Infinity Stones and snapped his fingers, an event dubbed “The Blip” occurred in which 50% of all living creatures were erased from existence. It wasn’t until five long years later that the surviving Avengers were able to defeat Thanos by acquiring the Infinity Stones themselves through time travel and using the Stones to bring back those that disappeared and finish off Thanos for good.

Both Sam Wilson (The Falcon) and Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier) were “dusted” in the blip. They returned when the Hulk “snapped” everyone back into existence with a Tony Stark constructed Infinity Gauntlet and helped defeat Thanos in an epic final battle on Earth. Once the Avenger’s mission succeeded, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) went back in time to replace the Infinity Stones in their proper time and place. However, instead of returning to his present, Steve decided to go back to the 1940s and live a full life with his true love Peggy Carter.

A very old Cap visited Sam and Bucky seemingly moments after he left on his time mission and gave his shield to Sam to continue the Captain America tradition, something Sam hesitantly accepted with Bucky’s apparent approval. Taking place six months after this event, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks to examine Sam and Bucky’s acceptance of losing five years of their lives and Sam’s reluctance to become the new Captain America.

Who is Who?

Bucky looks at something off screen while Sam stands behind him
Photo courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

The legacy of that shield is complicated.

  • Sam Wilson (aka “The Falcon”; played by Anthony Mackie)
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier character poster
Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

Before his chance introduction to Steve Rogers as a jogging partner (“on your left”), Sam was a retired pararescue in the Air Force who ran PTSD support groups for recently returned soldiers of military campaigns at the VA. It was Sam’s good nature and willingness to spread positivity that led Steve to trust Sam when he was on the run, along with Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), from a Hydra-infested S.H.I.E.L.D. Together, Cap, Steve, and Natasha uncovered the identity of the Winter Soldier and flushed Hydra out of hiding (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). With S.H.I.E.L.D. abolished at the end of the Hydra debacle, Sam joined the Avengers and worked with Steve on various missions, including a battle against Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

Sam fought alongside Cap, Natasha, and Wanda Maximoff in Lagos against Brock Lumlow (aka Crossbones) when the former Hydra spy tried to kill Steve in a suicide bombing while his henchmen attempted to deploy a biological weapon. The biological weapon was stopped and Lumlow’s bomb was moved into the air by Wanda but not before killing a number of innocent Wakandans in a nearby office building. This led to the formation of the Sokovian Accords which would essentially “register” the Avengers as an official government agency. Along with Cap, Sam rejected the Sokovian accords and helped Steve clear The Winter Soldier’s name when he was accused of bombing a UN meeting in Vienna.

Steve became an enemy of the state, along with Natasha, Wanda, Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye), Scott Lang (aka Ant-Man), and Bucky, and was forced to fight Tony Stark (Iron Man)’s team who supported the Accords. Sam was captured and imprisoned in The Raft (an underwater prison) briefly before being broken out by Steve. Sam then went on the run with Steve and Natasha, providing help where they could without government interference (Captain America: Civil War).

Sam returned alongside Cap when the alien Thanos threatened Earth and was aiming to retrieve the Mind Stone from Vision. Sam fought in Wakanda against Thanos’ forces but when Thanos retrieved the Mind Stone, he committed the “blip” and Sam was erased from existence (Avengers: Infinity War). He was resurrected five years later and participated in the final fight to defeat Thanos. After the battle, when Steve Rogers went back in time and aged naturally, Steve gave Sam Captain America’s shield and asked him to continue on with the name (Avengers: Endgame).

  • Bucky Barnes (aka “The Winter Soldier”; played by Sebastian Stan)
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier character poster
Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes was a life-long friend of Steve Rogers in the New York Burrough of Brooklyn. Barnes had an athletic build and was a perfect fit for the military whereas Steve was not. Bucky went off to fight in World War II but was captured by Hydra in Italy. Steve, who had since been given the super-soldier serum that made him Captain America, rescued Bucky as well as several other soldiers from a Hydra prison camp. It was discovered that Bucky had been experimented on by Dr. Arnim Zola but the results or effects were never discovered.

Bucky would join Captain America’s Howling Commandos and go on hit-and-run missions specifically to up-end Hydra. Bucky’s last mission was a train infiltration and an attempt to capture Zola. Bucky fell to his death during the missions, or so it appeared (Captain America: The First Avenger).

Bucky, unknown to Cap or the military, was actually clinging to life when he was discovered, with a severed arm, by the Russians. He was given a metallic arm, super strength, and clandestine missions to assassinate enemies of Hydra. When he wasn’t being used he was deep-frozen, much like Cap had been, so he could remain young. Dubbed The Winter Soldier, Bucky attempted to assassinate Nick Fury, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. which led Captain America to pursue and identify who Bucky was. When Cap discovered that the Winter Soldier was Bucky, he tried to appeal to their former friendship but Bucky had issues with his memory. During a climactic battle on a Hydra hellicarrier, Bucky eventually came to the realization of who he was and rescued Cap from drowning. From there, he escaped into the shadows with Cap and Sam Wilson attempting to track him down (Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

Cap’s pursuit of Bucky was sped up due to an explosion at the UN in Vienna that killed many important leaders, including the King of Wakanda. Cap discovered Bucky was framed for the terrorist attack and tried to protect him, not only from multiple government agencies but the Sokovian Accord-abiding Avengers, led by Tony Stark, and T’Challa (aka Black Panther) who sought revenge. Cap was eventually able to convince everyone of Bucky’s innocence but not before Bucky’s 1991 mission to assassinate Tony Stark’s parents was revealed to Stark himself in which Stark tried to kill Bucky. Stark succeeded in ripping off Bucky’s metal arm but Cap helped Bucky escape. Cap took Bucky to Wakanda where T’Challa put Bucky on deep-freeze until his Russian programming could be removed successfully (Captain America: Civil War).

Bucky was eventually cured and lived in a Wakandan hut (Black Panther) before receiving a new vibranium arm. He then joined the fight against Thanos’ forces before being eradicated by “the blip” (Avengers: Infinity War). Bucky was resurrected five years later and engaged in the final fight to defeat Thanos on Earth. He was there to say goodbye to Steve before he went back in time and nodded support for Sam when Sam was given the shield by an older Steve (Avengers: Endgame).

  • Helmut Zemo (played by Daniel Brühl)
Helmut Zemo wears a mask and gloves in a The Falcon and the Winter Soldier character poster
Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

A former Sokovian Armed Forces colonel, Zemo watched as The Avengers, during their battle with Ultron, leveled the city of Sokovia despite the Avenger’s best attempts to limit casualties with large evacuations. Zemo lost his wife and son due to the battle and only had a saved voicemail recording of them to occasionally listen to when he became lonely. Working entirely alone, Zemo interrogated/killed former Hydra agents and learned the secret code phrases that “activated” the Winter Soldier.

After framing Bucky for the UN bombing in Vienna, Zemo snuck into the Avengers base in Berlin and “activated” Bucky into Winter Soldier mode. Bucky escaped the facility but was knocked out by Cap in a helicopter crash. Cap kept Bucky hidden while Iron Man’s Avengers, Black Panther, and multiple government agencies searched for him. It was during this hiding that Cap discovered Zemo was trying to locate additional, more powerful Winter Soldiers that were created after Bucky in Siberia.

Zemo’s ultimate goal however was not to activate the Winter Soldiers but to kill them. But by having the Avengers think he was going to activate them, it forced the divided team to come together in Siberia to “stop” him. There, the rising tensions, including the revelation that Bucky killed Tony Stark’s parents, led Stark, Cap, and Bucky to engage in a fight to the death. With the death of the Winter Soldiers and the irreparable tear in the Avengers, Zemo’s plan at eradicating all known superheroes basically succeeded. Even though Cap chose not to kill Tony Stark, the Avengers were indeed broken up. Cap rescued the jailed members of his “team” and went on the run, wanted by the world’s governments.

Zemo was arrested by Black Panther and placed in a containment cell by the US government (Captain America: Civil War). It is unknown if he was erased in “the Blip” and his whereabouts at the start of the new television series are unknown.

  • Sharon Carter (aka “Agent 13”; played by Emily VanCamp)
Sharon Carter looks to the side in a The Falcon and the Winter Soldier character poster
Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

Sharon Carter was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent code-named Agent 13, and was assigned the task of “babysitting” Steve Rogers in his apartment complex after he returned from “the ice”. Posing as a nurse/neighbor, Sharon interacted with Steve enough that Steve even asked Sharon out for a cup of coffee. However, shortly after he asked, she was revealed as Agent 13 to him when Nick Fury was nearly assassinated by the Winter Soldier in Cap’s apartment. Sharon, a faithful S.H.I.E.L.D. agent faced off against Hydra spies placed within S.H.I.E.L.D. and chose to fight with Captain America when Hydra attempted to launch three satellite-connected hellicarriers which would eradicate millions of Hydra’s “threats” from the air.

Once Cap defeated Hydra, S.H.I.E.L.D. was disbanded and Sharon went to work for the CIA (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). When S.H.I.E.L.D. founder and former love interest for Steve Peggy Carter died, Steve and Sam attended the funeral in London where Sharon gave a speech and revealed she was Peggy’s great-niece and that she was inspired by “Aunt” Peggy to pursue her work in S.H.I.E.L.D. Sharon, with CIA contacts, helped feed Steve information on the whereabouts of the Winter Soldier. She also smuggled Steve and Sam’s armor and equipment from custody to them, wishing them luck. She shared a kiss with Steve and departed (Captain America: Civil War).

It is unknown if Sharon was erased in “the Blip” and her whereabouts and job status are unknown at the start of the new television series.

  • John Walker (aka “USAgent”; played by Wyatt Russell)
US Agent high fives someone on a football field
Screenshot courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

Not a lot is known about John Walker except for brief clips we see in the trailer and in behind-the-scenes photos. It can be assumed that Walker is the government’s “official” new Captain America and acts as a more acceptable replacement/mascot than Sam or Bucky. In the comics, USAgent first appeared in the late ’80s and originally was a villain before later becoming both Captain America and an Avenger. Will this character be an antagonist for our heroes? We shall see.

It is unknown if John Walker was erased in “the Blip” or what his former job position was.

  • Georges Batroc (aka “Batroc the Leaper”; played by Georges St-Pierre)
Batroc sits in a chair on the Lumarian Star
Photo courtesy Marvel Studios

Batroc was a dangerous mercenary who could, for a few moments at least, physically take on Captain America in hand-to-hand combat. Batroc ended up being a puppet of Nick Fury who used Batroc and his gang to “capture” a S.H.I.E.L.D. sea ship called the Lemurian Star so that Cap could “rescue” the hostages and Natasha Romanoff could secretly get information on a hellicarrier program called Project Insight that Fury wasn’t privy to.

Batroc was apprehended by S.H.I.E.L.D. after Steve knocked him out in a fight (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). It is unknown if Batroc was erased in “the Blip” and his current whereabouts are unknown.

  • The Flag-Smashers (group; likely led by Karli Morgenthau, played by Erin Kellyman)
The Flag Smasher stands on a train surrounded by mountains
Photo courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

Like USAgent, not a lot can be gleaned on what function the Flag-Smashers (and/or Flag-Smasher herself) have in the television series except, likely, as antagonists. In the comics, Flag-Smasher was a couple of different people, each of them male, with the first iteration named Karl Morgenthau. The show simply changes the gender and names the leader of the group Flag-Smashers Karli. Hints from interviews show the Flag-Smashers might represent anarchists. In the comics, Morgenthau basically believed in the same thing, preferring to unite all countries under one rule instead of separating them into individual cultures (hence smashing flags).

  • Other Potential Characters (based on casting, rumors, etc)

Actress Adepero Oduye is cast in the new series and is rumored to be playing Sam’s sister, named Sarah.

It comes from Wikipedia so take it with a grain of salt but Don Cheadle’s character of James “Rhodey” Rhodes is set to appear.

Also per the same Wiki, an actor named Danny Ramirez has been cast as Joaquin Torres who, in the comics, would become a new version of The Falcon.

Comic Book Inspiration (?)

Comic Book Cover of Sam Wilson
Image courtesy Marvel Comics. From All-New Captain America #1 (2014/2015). Cover art by Stuart Immonen.

Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) was introduced to the world in comic book form all the way back in 1941, serving as the United States’ mascot in the lead-up to and eventual involvement in World War II. His sidekick, Bucky Barnes, also created by Simon and Kirby, made his appearance at the same time, in a memorable first issue of Captain America Comics No. 1 which showed Cap punching Hitler right in the jaw.

Bucky is quite different in the comics than in his MCU iteration, being just a young teenager whereas Sebastian Stan’s iteration is a life-long childhood friend of Steve’s who is the same age. Comic Bucky permanently died in the comic’s timeline in 1945 in the same event that led to Captain America’s deep freeze. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that Ed Brubaker (writer) and Steve Epting (artist) would retcon Bucky’s death and explain he was captured alive and transformed into The Winter Soldier by the Russians. A more brooding figure with a metallic arm (notable for a large red star on the outer bicep), the MCU copied the look and feel of The Winter Soldier almost exactly.

The character of Sam Wilson/Falcon, created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, would not make his first comic appearance until 1969 and wouldn’t get his own solo series until 1983. To keep a more grounded approach in tradition with the Iron Man films, the MCU introduced Falcon without an actual bird sidekick named Redwing (he would be replaced by a sophisticated drone) and no psychic ability with all bird creatures. The comic book version of Falcon is particularly notable for introducing the Marvel Universe, and all comics, with a black superhero. The MCU honored that tradition by casting black actor Anthony Mackie in the films.

While the origin stories of the characters have already been portrayed in the films, one has to dig into later comics to find what could be an inspiration for the new Disney+ series. Marvel has been particularly good at brushing broad strokes of important character arcs while also serving fans with very explicit minutiae from the books. Since both Falcon and the Winter Soldier would become Captain America in the comics and the new series deals with a world that Steve Rogers is no longer active in, it stands to reason some more recent comic arcs could be in play as inspiration for or a direct adaptation of the new television show.

Comic Book Cover: Captain America #14
Courtesy Marvel Comics. Cover of Captain America #14. Art by Steve Epting.

Veteran writer Ed Brubaker is always a must-read when he takes on a Marvel title and Captain America (Vol. 5) is no different. This particular story arc, which took place over two years of single-issue release, has been covered extensively in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. However, what makes this story worth visiting again is the various flashbacks to Cap and Bucky in World War II. In typical Brubaker fashion, the flashbacks serve as a more detailed look at how ruthlessly efficient and violent Bucky was, a departure from the “aw shucks” teen hero image of the ’40s.

This more three-dimensional insight into Bucky is aided by the tortured lifestyle of the time-spanning assassin The Winter Soldier. Though much of that aspect of the Bucky character has already been examined in prior films, a more extended arc depicting Bucky’s personal struggles as an international assassin could be fodder for a deeper dive into Bucky’s mindset as, in the MCU timeline, he is now without Steve and forced to reflect on his nearly 100 years of mostly blood-soaked history.

Comic Book Cover: All-New Captain America #3
Courtesy of Marvel Comics. Cover of All-New Captain America #3. Art by Steve Immonen.

Due to some comic shenanigans in which Captain America was assassinated and then brought back to life only to age as if he was never frozen, Steve Rogers had to give up the shield and the moniker Captain America. His choice for the shield was his long-time partner Sam Wilson. This mini-series digs into Falcon’s family backstory a bit, something we have seen none of in the MCU. With Falcon’s sister being introduced in the new TV series, this six-issue mini-series may serve as a good foundation for the show’s more intimate material regarding Sam. While the main arc of this short story involves Falcon/Cap stopping a biological attack from Hydra, the main take away is that Sam struggles to be Captain America both physically, as he tries to handle a new suit and using the shield as a weapon, but also emotionally as he realizes the magnitude of taking over for such an iconic figure.

Comic Book Cover: Captain America Sam Wilson #1
Courtesy of Marvel Comics. Cover for Captain America: Sam Wilson #1. Art by Daniel Acuna.

This series was a direct continuation of All-New Captain America and shows Falcon/Cap breaking away from S.H.I.E.L.D. to pursue his own agendas and missions. I only read the initial story-arc “Not My Captain America” (issues #1-6) but that arc would appear, at least based on trailers, to have the biggest influence on the new TV series. For one, you have the loaded phrase “not my Captain America”, which instantly serves as a racial microaggression as well as emphasizing the shoes Sam needs to fill. Notable is how openly satirical this comic arc is, openly attacking Trumpism and the slogans and fear-mongering that came with the then-Presidential candidate. Immigration issues, corporate malfeasance, and brand-apathy, not to mention the racial element inherent in the premise of a black man taking over for a white “savior”, are all present. With villains like the Flag-Smashers entering the TV series, I fully expect things to get political in the new show. Also, this arc introduces the character of Joaquin Torres.

Comic Cover Art: Falcon and Winter Soldier #1
Courtesy Marvel Comics. Cover for Falcon and Winter Soldier #1. Art by Daniel Mora.

Though this isn’t really a great series, it was intended to come out simultaneously with the new TV show. But since the show was delayed, this five-issue miniseries serves as a mood piece for what the series potentially could be. There is the standard “let’s fight Hydra” angle common to comics involving these characters but the emphasis of the arc is bone-crunching action and witty banter between Sam and Bucky. With the new television series being described as part action and part buddy comedy by Mackie himself, this comic series will share physical similarities to the show.

Remember to tune in to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Friday, March 19th, on Disney+ and stay tuned to 25YL for more coverage as the series goes on.

Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little-read books Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film and Obsessive Compulsive: Poetry Formed From Chaos. Will is a film critic at 25YL but also specializes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the occasional horror review. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers and lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA with his two daughters.

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