The Falcon and the Winter Soldier S1E4: The Whole World Is Watching

Karli looks at Sam skeptically in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier S1E4

What is supremacy? Is it a Nietzschean object of literal physical superiority or an ideology, a state of mind? The Falcon and the Winter Soldier S1E4 suggests both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be part of the same formula.

‘The Whole World Is Watching’ is a title that knows just how provocative it is. Originally used by anti-Vietnam protestors in the late 1960s, it has since over the decades been propagated by the left in demonstrations over the Iraq War, Occupy Wall Street and has certainly floated around on social media in the past year as protests and demonstrations have rocked the Western world in the shadow of increasingly authoritarian nation states. Marvel and Disney might be the kind of sizeable corporate structure that reinforces established power, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is certainly intentionally pressing popular liberal buttons in the story it is choosing to tell.

The series thus far has framed the world of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) around that of challenges to established orthodoxies, built around potent symbols—particularly Captain America’s shield. We have seen what a representation of American righteousness and foreign policy has brokered in John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a man who in this episode proves beyond any doubt what we already knew: Steve Rogers did not embody what Captain America represents, rather Captain America as we knew him encapsulated what Steve personified as a human being. The suit is looking for a person with those qualities rather than the other way around. Walker is not a bad man but he is the wrong man for that role, because he embodies the structural supremacy being expressly confronted in our unstable times.

John 'Captain America' Walker (Wyatt Russell) looks troubled...

‘The Whole World is Watching’ in that sense has a multi-faced meaning. If not the whole world then a sizeable audience are watching Marvel’s populist output on Disney+, with a series such as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier reaching a widespread audience. Such properties have the power to influence those who engage with their texts, and Malcolm Spellman’s series is deliberately putting ideas of supremacy and symbols and the meanings behind them on trial. That happens very clearly in an episode which, to its credit, chooses to pause and explore the bigger ideas inherent in the series’ concept and the broader MCU tapestry more than any before. It attempts to show the challenging complication of precisely who we are meant to consider the villains in a show exploring not just geopolitics but philosophy, in the sense of what Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and her extremists represent.

Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), ever the self-righteous trickster, attempts to draw a line between the Nazi adoration of the Ubermensch directly to the Avengers themselves: “The desire to become a superhuman cannot be separated from supremacist ideals.” Characters question whether they would take a serum that would make them more than just a man. Sam very clearly refuses to countenance it but Walker is troubled, existentially, by his belief that perhaps the ends justify the means. There is a deliberate sense of black awareness across this episode as to the meaning of literal white supremacy—Sam refuses, the Dora Milaje and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) we literally see recondition Bucky back from being the Winter Soldier in Wakanda (turning him into the White Wolf) and seek to bring Zemo to justice, willing to combat Walker and his symbol to do so, and there is a continued sense that the true heroes of this story are interested purely in justice and fairness than either order or chaos.

It has been difficult to consider the Flag Smashers the true enemies of the series until this episode, when we certainly see just how much of an ego-centred fanatic Karli is. If Walker shrouds his own personal interest behind the shield, Karli shrouds hers behind martyrdom. Her murder of GRC agents only serves to push the established power structures into ‘The Patch Act’, designed to “restore traditional border regulations and fast-track the return to normalcy”. Much as authoritarian regimes are cracking down on protest movements based around freedom of speech and challenging white supremacy and historic Empirical abuses, such as in the U.K., following the unrest of Covid-19, the Flag Smashers perceived extremism is only entrenching nation states into returning to the pre-Blip structures Karli is so desperately trying to bring down. The more she tries to destroy the established order Captain America now represents, the more she loses any sense of perspective.

Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) addresses her followers...

As Sam discovers when he actually attempts to investigate and negotiate, to figure out what the Flag Smashers stand for, he sympathises with a cause who do not identify as refugees but rather displaced ‘outsiders’. They are the silent majority, forgotten and cast aside in the GRC’s motto of Reset Restore Rebuild. They are the Blip’s equivalent of the economically left behind drawn, in desperation, to vote for the kind of populists who exploit rather than support them.

Zemo bribes them for access into their inner circle, as you would imagine a rich example of old money, old world privilege would do (he gives a young girl a €500 bill “for your family”, which even Walker finds strange). Sam actually wants to understand where they come from and find common ground, a rare standpoint in an age of determined polarisation. “For five years, people have been welcomed into countries that have kept them out using barbwire. There were houses and jobs. Folks were happy to have people around to help them rebuild. It wasn’t just one community coming together, it was the entire world coming together. And then, boom. Just like that, it goes right back to the way it used to be.”

A world without borders leans toward the kind of utopian one world government structure feared by conspiracy theorists and posited by science-fiction series for decades, a world that appears increasingly beyond reach as nation states entrench, but you can see why a man like Sam—an Avenger who has fought threats beyond borders—would subscribe to the kind of thinking established structures, and men like John Walker, would fight to prevent extremists like Karli fighting for. “She’s different. She’s not motivated by the same things,” Sam suggests when Bucky compares her to other villains they have faced. And Sam is right. But Karli is no different from Thanos or Ultron, in some respects. They all believed they were the heroes of their own story, as many a zealot does. Karli, ultimately, has murdered for her cause. Her ends do not justify her means, no matter how right she might be about the symbols she seeks to tear down. “That shield is a monument to a bygone era. A reminder of all the people history just left out.”

Bucky (Sebastian Stan) & Sam (Anthony Mackie) look back...

‘The Whole World Is Watching’ takes the time to grapple with all of these issues, problems and consequences of a story that still boils down to what the West’s position means in a world filled with inequality and strife—in a world ravaged by existential trauma—and whether symbols should be reinforced or torn down. By the end of this episode, the shield is tainted, perhaps forever, as Walker embodies the very power and supremacy the Flag Smashers are railing against. “Everything I do is to end supremacy. These corporations and the beasts who run them, they’re the supremacists,” Karli declares and Walker proves her point by the end, as much as Karli threatens and blackmails her way through this episode to achieve her ends. She is a corrupted and tainted figure, perhaps beyond redemption and the salvation of her cause, but so now is Walker. They are both flawed human beings embodying symbols and ideologies who need removing from the roles they are in.

If there is an irony about Karli’s statement above, it lies in how The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a series built and designed by one of the very corporations her ideology believes are ruling supreme. Perhaps the supremacy the series is commenting on is so entrenched, they no longer fear the message. Even if the MCU is not beyond saving, perhaps the same cannot be said of the world that created it.

Written by A. J. Black

Author of The Cinematic Connery: The Films of Sir Sean Connery + other books • Writer on film/TV • Podcaster/network chief at We Made This • Occasionally go outside.

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