The Importance of Sam Wilson's Captain America

Sam Wilson is poised to be the new Captain America in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and that would be huge for the MCU. In these films, Anthony Mackie's character has been at Steve Roger's side in the modern period after the Avenger was frozen in ice for decades. That characterization led him to be a little old-timey in some ways that the franchise used for comedic effect. However, the “man out of time” conceit actually shapes how the character’s narrative evolves over the course of the films. Rogers can be the team’s moral compass, but because he’s not of this generation, a lot of the way the Avengers navigate the world falls onto Tony Stark instead. Shifting the moral compass to a person with different experiences carrying that shield will signal some changes in that regard. Sam Wilson is his own man, and that means he will approach issues in a different way than his predecessor did.

In the comics, Sam Wilson was introduced in 1968 when Stan Lee and Gene Colan debuted the character as one of the first African-American superheroes to hit the mainstream. For that strange factoid, Falcon is a trailblazer. But, there are some weird fossils of the era that must be interrogated. There’s a messy bit of wildness from 1975, where Steve Engleheart decided to retcon some of the character’s backstory. The writer decided to have him be a street hustler named "Snap" Wilson whose mind was messed with by the Cosmic Cube. Blacksploitation themes are not hard to come by in comics at any time. So, the inclusion is not surprising, but the burying of those threads is concerning.

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Even more worrisome is the treatment of that strange retcon in All-New Captain America, when the creative team decided to make the Red Skull responsible for all that strangeness. The villain decided to edit Sam Wilson’s experiences with the Cosmic Cube so that he could set in motion a plan to sow doubt within Steve Rogers. Sam was actually Snap all along, and then his memories were rewritten by the Cube. He wasn’t a social worker from New York, but rather in the jungle for drug running. While trying to launder this unfortunate moment, it reduced Falcon to a minor character in a story that’s supposed to be about him.

Rogers was always going to get the Cap mantle and shield back due to the cyclical nature of mainstream hero books. The changing of the guard is always going to be a setup for the inevitable return of the “original” character. However, having Sam become a pawn in Red Skull’s plot to turn Captain America into a Hydra agent is still dubious. There were other methods to facilitate such a change. But, the schism it creates between Rogers and Wilson makes plain the ideological gap between the two. Yes, these friends agree on a lot, including the inherent promise of this nation. But, one has lived its failings, and the former Falcon has to address why people who look like him shouldn’t default to resignation.

The movies have avoided the Snap Wilson storyline so far, but the filmmakers behind The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have made it clear that race will be a factor with this character and story. When the hero receives the shield in the comics, it’s treated as a huge moment for the public at large. People have a lot of opinions about what Captain America should embody and if Wilson is worthy of his new title. This is all despite the character battling alongside Rogers for decades. Sam has certainly paid his dues and is as eligible as anyone else to hold that shield. But, his hyper-visibility stands in the way for a lot of people.

Nick Spencer, Daniel Acuna, and Paul Renaud’s run on Captain America: Sam Wilson doesn’t shy away from these themes. Taking a stand has consequences, and this is doubly true for Wilson. Rogers would take positions that made him unpopular with the public, but the government attempted to diffuse that tension by replacing him with John Walker. It wasn’t so simple with Wilson. There are fundamental differences that are hard to ignore.

What’s impossible to ignore is that the run of Sam as Captain America is now old enough that some fans might remember that as their first exposure to the character. All-New, All-Different Avengers might have had some detractors, but the initiative has spawned some of Marvel’s current heavy-hitters. The new Captain America really helped mold young heroes like Miles Morales and Kamala Khan during their introduction periods. (A very generous reading could see the Champions Outlawed storyline and how the kids took a stand as a direct reflection of their time around Wilson.)

One of the big moments in Wilson's tenure as Captain America deals with excessive use of force. A segment of privatized police called The Americops are established and people in the Marvel Universe are critical of how their actions affect minorities. A hero named Rage gets arrested and Sam discovers he’s been the victim of a wrongful arrest before. The decision to go public with the corruption through video evidence tanks public opinion of the new Captain America.

However, that’s why Rogers gave Sam the shield. He sticks to his ideals in a way that the former Captain America can respect. This is basically true for the MCU version of Falcon as well. But, it’s high time that we actually see it. It’s fine for Sam to want to follow Steve into battle during the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Captain America: Civil War. Viewers should expect some of those convictions to differ for a younger hero who had a very different life experience before even meeting Captain America.

That’s really why Sam Wilson matters in the comics; he’s as selfless as Steve Rogers, but doesn’t have to be in lockstep with the ideals of Captain America. When thinking about the MCU’s version of the character, this is even more important. In a lot of ways, Sam is still an open book in the franchise. He can be whatever the creative team sees fit. Anthony Mackie is very charming and always game for some well-timed comic delivery. But, that can only go so far. America is always changing, that’s a fact. Wilson’s big moment in Avengers: Endgame was a massive moment for a lot of fans out there. Now, it’s time to follow through and give the viewers a vision of what trailblazing looks like with Sam Wilson.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuts on Disney+ beginning Friday, March 19th.

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