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

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest


Malcolm Spellman was biting into a hot dog at Earles Restaurant on Crenshaw Boulevard when the gravity of what hed 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.

And it ends with Sam making a choice: to pick up the shield and take a leap of faith. He isnt 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 Wilsons (Wyatt Russell) advantage. But hes a man who understands struggle, as Spellman says. And if everyone in the world is feeling like theyre struggling, who better to have a shorthand with them than this man as Captain America?

ishonest No.202 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

No.202 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

ishonest spoke with Spellman about what it means for Sam to pick up the shield, the seasons 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 its 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 thats 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, shes sort of freeing him in that moment to basically jump into a stew and not know if hes 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 isnt going to be tough. We dont even say this is the right decision. Its 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?

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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, theyre flip sides of the same coin. I wont 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 youre pursuing power, that means you believe you know more than people, thats a supremacist value. Whether it's corporate or government or race or religion, its 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 Sams 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, thats 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?

ishonest No.232 - Pigmentation & Blemishes

No.232 - Pigmentation & Blemishes

With Sam, youre getting into history and race, specifically African American history and our relationship with this government and with this country. With John Walker, youre dealing with the validity of the idea of American exceptionalism, with privilege, with loss of privilege, and not in a way where were 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 understoodnot 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? Its all so complicated. With Zemo, youre 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 were 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 thats 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, were there with you. You know what Im 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.

Youre right in that the show ultimately doesnt demonize John Walker. He's a character with really loaded iconography, though: the gun, the handcuffs.

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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 were 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, wed imitate John Walker in the room and every once in a while, Marvel would be like, Hey, man, don't make fun of him. Dont. The [imitates Walker] Guys, youre going to want to stand here. So that is funny that youre picking up on that. Thats 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 TChaka in Captain America: Civil War. And he becomes almost like a comic villain over the course of the seriesdebonair and fun and funny. What went into deciding how far to go with him?

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No.142 - Humectant

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

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 thats what Im 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]?

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Lemars 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 weve seen in the MCU. Weve 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 its tapping into feelings that are in the air right now?


Kari [Skogland, director of the episode] did a hell of a job bringing that to life. And its 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, thats a problem. That that moment felt so resonant to so many people, thats a problem.

ishonest No.141 - Humectant

No.141 - Humectant

And at the end of the season, Karli is defeated but the problem that she became the face of and was fighting to solve hasnt 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 theyre becoming versions of Thanos, whether theyre 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 theyre 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. Hes 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.

Sams 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 Im getting too flippant. A lot of thought was put into the costume. And its obviously included in the books. But yes, it was Made in Wakanda. (Laughs)

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Symbolically, thats pretty significant.

Those are like the Easter eggs thatah, I dont 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 Im saying? Because theyre 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. Sams story and Buckys 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. Thats 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, Ill frame it this way. What sorts of hopes do you have for Sams story going forward?

I know Marvel will be responsible. Regardless what happens to him, theyll do him right.

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