‘Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Showrunner: This Captain America Understands Your Struggle

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The Daily Beast/Getty
The Daily Beast/Getty

Malcolm Spellman was biting into a hot dog at Earle’s Restaurant on Crenshaw Boulevard when the gravity of what he’d helped bring to life in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suddenly hit a little harder. “A young brother came up to me and just said, ‘Hey, man, thank you,’” he remembers over a Zoom chat four days after the Marvel/Disney+ series’ finale. “That meant a lot.”

The head writer and showrunner of the action-packed Marvel series calls it a “big deal” to be invited to help shape the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Especially through the crowning of a new Captain America: Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a military veteran and Black man from Louisiana formerly known as the Falcon, Steve Rogers’ right-hand man. But beyond deepening Sam’s story, Spellman says, “to be able to be honest about it was deeply, deeply gratifying.” The Falcon and the Winter Soldier considers what it means for a Black man to be Captain America at a time of global uprisings against injustice and inequality. It considers the history of racial oppression in the U.S. that has affected Sam’s everyday life, those of his loved ones, and the Black heroes who came before him.

And it ends with Sam making a choice: to pick up the shield and take a leap of faith. He isn’t a “supersoldier” like Steve Rogers or Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan). And he defies the blond-haired, blue-eyed, old-fashioned American ideal that worked to Steve Rogers’ and John Wilson’s (Wyatt Russell) advantage. But he’s a man who understands struggle, as Spellman says. “And if everyone in the world is feeling like they’re struggling, who better to have a shorthand with them than this man as Captain America?”

The Daily Beast spoke with Spellman about what it means for Sam to pick up the shield, the season’s casualties and controversies, why the show asks us to sympathize with its villains, and the potential of a Captain America 4.

In the last episode, there was a turning point for Sam and his decision to take up the mantle of Captain America. What made him feel like he could finally pick up the shield, despite what it’s represented for people like Isaiah Bradley, the first Black supersoldier, and his own complicated feelings about it as a Black man today?

I feel like the sister was the final straw for him. Because remember, she ultimately has similar ambivalence about the shield as Karli. The sister is an activist. She comes from a community that’s dealt with a lot of unnecessary bullshit from the system and she makes jokes like “Uncle Sam” and all that. But when they have that conversation in Episode 5, she’s sort of freeing him in that moment to basically jump into a stew and not know if he’s gonna be burned by it. And at no point do we make Sam sure. At no point did we say Isaiah is wrong. At no point do we say this isn’t going to be tough. We don’t even say this is the right decision. It’s just a move he felt he had to make. And that scene with the sister where she said, “I never thought you were running away,” it was a subtle way of her giving him permission to go be Uncle Sam and not be teasing him or whatever.

There are some interesting ideas about superheroes and exceptionalism the show deals with over the course of the season. Zemo voices one of them when he says, “Anybody with the desire to become superhuman is connected to supremacist ideals.” What is behind that sentiment?

For Zemo, we wanted to dig into the idea of supremacy and people. Supremacy can mean a lot of things. The pursuit of power and the feeling of powerlessness, they’re flip sides of the same coin. I won’t name them but there are individuals in our real lives who have almost as much power as an entire nation, right? And they accumulate that power with us as constituents or consumers or citizens. And so the idea that if you’re pursuing power, that means you believe you know more than people, that’s a supremacist value. Whether it's corporate or government or race or religion, it’s all from that same stew of thinking that power needs to be owned by a few to benefit the many. Which leads to bad shit.

Why did that feel like an idea that was especially ripe to explore through Sam’s story?

Well, we feel like all these characters, Walker, Sam, Isaiah, Bucky, Zemo, and even Sharon, are the living embodiment [of] discussions that are happening today. We wanted to create something that felt really relevant and really like a superhero series facing forward. What we just talked about right now, that’s a discussion most of us, or at least many of us, are having in our homes on a daily basis. And so we put it into a human being, so that their journey sort of embodies something that feels very resonant to people. Hopefully.

How so?

With Sam, you’re getting into history and race, specifically African American history and our relationship with this government and with this country. With John Walker, you’re dealing with the validity of the idea of American exceptionalism, with privilege, with loss of privilege, and not in a way where we’re demonizing John at all. We wanted people to feel what he felt so that maybe those people who are going through similar journeys maybe would be better understood—not excused, but better understood. With Walker and Bucky, our soldiers and our veterans give up a ton for this country, right? Is the country capable of taking care of them in the right way? It’s all so complicated. With Zemo, you’re dealing with someone who feels a fundamental urge to create a level playing field and go after those who are superpowered, those who are [part of that] supremacy. Bucky is dealing with trauma. This is all the shit we’re talking about right now. So many people were hoping we weren't going to kill Karli because they identified with her movement. And I think that’s because her movement is born from a sentiment that people are feeling today, which is powerlessness.

Was it difficult to decide whether Karli would live or die?

Yeah, it was because we worked very hard to keep her human. We wanted her connection to Sam and Sarah, particularly Sam, to be rooted in enough validity in what she feels that they could, as African Americans, be like, “Fuck, you know, if you talk my struggle, we’re there with you.” You know what I’m saying? And at the same time, Zemo called it: You could start off things for the right reason. But if your motives become about power and the abuse of power to achieve them, maybe they aren't the right things anymore.

You’re right in that the show ultimately doesn’t demonize John Walker. He's a character with really loaded iconography, though: the gun, the handcuffs.

The image, the personality, the psychology, he is the embodiment of all that, right? And I don't know how the fuck Wyatt did it but he brought all of that to life, too. And he made sure that he always pulled John back from the edge. Even when John went over the edge, he would check in on his humanity. And yeah, John Walker is that conversation. He is a very complicated character and in his DNA is a lot of what we see happening in the streets of our country today. And if we demonize him, then we're not having a conversation. Then we’re just making a judgment, a political statement, which is not what we wanted to do. At the same time, John Walker is an inherently political character because of that iconography and what he embodies.

He often sounded like a police officer to me. Was it a deliberate decision to have him speak that way?

Ha! Wyatt built that shit. Like, we’d imitate John Walker in the room and every once in a while, Marvel would be like, “Hey, man, don't make fun of him. Don’t.” The [imitates Walker] “Guys, you’re going to want to stand here.” So that is funny that you’re picking up on that. That’s definitely part of his DNA. And Wyatt took it, played with it when it needed to be kind of funny and bro-ish. And then would make it utterly human within the same scene.

Zemo has another really interesting arc throughout the series. This is a character who did the unforgivable in murdering King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War. And he becomes almost like a comic villain over the course of the series—debonair and fun and funny. What went into deciding how far to go with him?

So the way we looked at it was the humor came from intellect, right? And we said, these characters, particularly Bucky, were in Zemo’s eyes broken toys. Everything after that is Daniel Bruhl, man. Like, the way he played with scenes and the little micro-reactions he was having and all that. He took the spirit of that wide description and just turned it into a layered, ongoing, charming-ass run throughout the series. And he deserved full credit for that. He went beyond what we ever could have hoped for with giving Zemo personality. And yeah, no one will ever forgive him for what he’s done. And he knows that. He knows he can’t be redeemed from that. And I don’t think he’s pursuing redemption like many of the characters are. He was never pursuing redemption. He owns what happened, he has a valid opinion on why he’s doing what he’s doing. And then the rest of it is Daniel Bruhl, adding sauce to it.

On another note, early on in the season there was a strain of criticism online about the premiere episode’s opening sequence. Falcon and Air Force Lieutenant Joaquin Torres fly into Tunisia and beat up some baddies. Some critics thought this felt like a glorification of the military, something of a piece with Captain Marvel’s embrace of the Air Force. The rest of the season does complicate that notion: Sam explicitly lays blame on the world’s governments for the dislocation and neglect of people like Karli and the Flag Smashers. But I wondered if that was something you and the writers thought of while writing the season.

Nah, we wrote a character story into it. I hadn’t seen them criticisms, so I’m not, you know—but thank you for hurting my feelings with that. Nah, I’m joking. (Laughs.) Listen, we approach everything trying to be responsible while trying to be honest, you know what I’m saying? And whether people felt like we had shortcomings on some of that, you know, the effort is put in to be responsible.

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Is No ‘WandaVision’—But Offers Plenty of Thrills

I also wanted to talk about Lemar. He and John Walker made such a striking image together, like a distorted reflection of Steve Rogers and Sam. Can you talk about how that pairing played into the themes of the season?

It was all right there for the taking. And that’s what I’m saying is I do think the people who did the show loved that so many conversations are being embodied by the characters instead of them getting up and standing on a pulpit and talking about an issue or a trope or whatever. It is dramatized and brought to life through action and character interaction. So yeah, none of that was lost on us. And I feel like, in general, people are getting it and feeling it. Of course not everybody, but when has that ever happened anyway? When has everybody ever [agreed]?

Lemar’s death pushes John Walker past his breaking point. The way he bludgeons the Flag Smasher to death with the shield is, I think, among the most frightening deaths we’ve seen in the MCU. We’ve seen decapitations and strangulations and whatnot, but this one felt different, realer, and more violent somehow.

But is that why it felt different? Or did it feel different because somehow it’s tapping into feelings that are in the air right now?

Exactly.

Kari [Skogland, director of the episode] did a hell of a job bringing that to life. And it’s not like you show up with any kind of political agenda. But at the same time, you talk about the iconography and the history of that character from the books. And that he is relevant, that’s a problem. That that moment felt so resonant to so many people, that’s a problem.

And at the end of the season, Karli is defeated but the problem that she became the face of and was fighting to solve hasn’t gone away. What do you see as a superhero's responsibility in that kind of situation?

I think Karli is taking on a general feeling of powerlessness that many people now have, and many people always had. But even people who come from rich countries like ours are starting to really feel that the powerful are consolidating their power and becoming basically untouchable. And that they’re becoming versions of Thanos, whether they’re corporate, government, whatever. For Sam, what we wanted in that final moment was to show his superpower. Meaning he is a Black man from the South. His existence and identity is rooted in struggle. And if everyone in the world is feeling like they’re struggling, who better to have a shorthand with them than this man as Captain America? Because he feels them. What does he say? His only superpower is that he “believes that we can do better.” He’s not sure it will happen. But he believes that and I think that people will be inspired by him because they know he struggled just like they have.

Sam’s new costume is also a thing of beauty. The idea, obviously, is that it was constructed at least in part with Wakandan technology, right?

Yes, yes. And 4090 billion hours in a room watching Kevin [Feige] and all those guys go through every detail. Maybe I’m getting too flippant. A lot of thought was put into the costume. And it’s obviously included in the books. But yes, it was “Made in Wakanda.” (Laughs)

Symbolically, that’s pretty significant.

Those are like the Easter eggs that—ah, I don’t want to say the wrong thing. Certain people appreciate certain Easter eggs more, right? And the little moments and nods. Like Sam and Rhodey talking. People felt that, you know what I’m saying? Because they’re like, oh, shit, this is two Black dudes in the MCU having a moment together. Oh, these are conversations that probably have to happen in the MCU. After shit goes down, people got to debrief with each other, especially if they have certain points of view. So we were really, really psyched about just the connection between Wakanda and Sam. Sam’s story and Bucky’s also allowing us to have that marriage with Wakanda, that was a Black nerd moment, for sure.

I also hear you're being tapped to work on the fourth Captain America movie.

Or is that a rumor? Only Kevin [Feige] knows. That’s a Kevin conversation. I mean, you know, I have a good relationship with Marvel. And if they have that conversation, hopefully I'll be part of it, if it ever happens.

OK, I’ll frame it this way. What sorts of hopes do you have for Sam’s story going forward?

I know Marvel will be responsible. Regardless what happens to him, they’ll do him right.

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