Quite a lot has been written about WandaVision over the last two months, and it feels like every critique of it – good or bad – was delivered with the caveat that it was Marvel’s greatest creative risk to date. While I think the ending succumbed to the typical MCU problems of symmetrical battles and false resolutions, the sitcom tropes, slow burn drama, and commitment to new twists and red herrings definitely made it a gamble, even for a company like Disney that already owns the casino. After a week off for a ‘making of’ documentary of WandaVision, the MCU is back in business with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and with it comes the MCU’s tacit acceptance of militarism.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier is not a creative risk in the way that WandaVision was. It will be able to move more slowly than a typical MCU film, and has space for more character development, but it’s back to the regular action-oriented plots where the good guys stop the bad guys by punching them. It has already shown some nuance, but it seems to be sticking much more closely to the MCU formula than WandaVision did. That means big battles, big explosions, and a big dollop of the military-industrial complex.
We get this right from the opening scene. Sam, in his full Falcon gear, is back working with the Air Force. He needs to stop a bunch of bad guys in a helicopter because… who cares? Let’s see some explosions, baby! At one point, Sam is about to go into Libyan air space, and because the US military has the utmost respect for international law he needs to react quickly, leading to some intense flying maneuvers and yet more explosive destruction. There’s also an implication that those unpredictable Libyans could lash out recklessly if Sam so much as breathes in their air space, which is another strand of the MCU’s military propaganda, given that most modern US conflicts have taken place in Arabic locations like Libya.
Following this, Sam is sitting at a cafe when a man comes up to him to thank him for saving his wife. The context of this conversation is around Thanos and the Avengers and the blip, but the subtext is obviously an idealised version of the Iraqi reaction to the American troops.
The “USA! USA! USA!” mentality of the MCU is on very clear display through this opening scene, both in the action itself and the reaction to the townsfolk afterwards. Usually though, the MCU is more coy in its militarism than this, and that’s how I expect Falcon and the Winter Soldier to evolve, too. While this scene is a pretty clear “the army is great!” moment, most of the time the militarism is much more subtle. The army does what it must, the military is a necessity, it makes hard choices not out of wanton desire, but because we’re out of options. You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall! It’s a very post-9/11, post-PATRIOT Act style of militarism. The army is right and just and needed. It’s not always fun and it’s not always easy, but America needs an army, and the world needs America to have one. Superheroes, propped up by military iconography and a “might is right” mentality are stand-ins for the army on our screens – it’s why so many of them work directly with the army. This direct work is not just on-screen either; the US military has been involved in the production of several MCU flicks, because the two entities have a shared ethos.
We’re only an episode in, and Falcon and the Winter Soldier is already displaying more nuance than I may be giving it credit for here. Falcon’s life as a Black man in America, still facing institutional racism from the bank, has been placed under a microscope, and will no doubt continue to be explored. The role that the military has played in global inequality through coups and invasions will likely not be involved in this discussion, though. With the Winter Soldier struggling with PTSD and trauma from his past crimes, it’s not all “woo violence yeah!” either; although all of Bucky’s nightmares stem from working with the commies, not when he served for the US. This nuance all falls a bit flat when the core villains of the series are the Flag Smashers, who have the diabolical goal of creating an equal world without borders. They’re anarchist terrorists, because everyone who supports unchecked immigration simply must be, right?
John Walker also offers up a more interesting way to look at the military-industrial complex. In the comics, our new Captain America – sometimes known as US Agent – is incredibly pro-military, and we know that he served in the forces in the MCU too. How close will we look at the problems with rampant militarism through the lens of John Walker, and how much will be watered down to create a rivalry between himself and Sam? Was the bank scene there to plant the seed of institutional racism so the MCU military not wanting a Black man as the symbol of America can be explored with that in mind? Or was it there to offset the criticism that will come if this angle goes by unexplored? US Agent isn’t a villain, but he is being positioned as a usurper here, and that immediately makes him a negative presence, meaning his militarism could actually be interrogated, but I’m betting the resolution will be that Sam’s style of militarism is better, not that militarism itself is the cause of many global issues.
Maybe Falcon and the Winter Soldier will be different. Maybe it’ll break free from the MCU’s pro-war, pro-military, might-is-right propaganda. Maybe it won’t just be a six week long advert for the Air Force in the way Captain Marvel, for all its heart and character moments, was clearly written to be. But they’ve had 24 chances to do something different, and the closest they’ve gotten is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a ‘70s spy thriller-style movie where a key plot point is that all of the atrocities caused throughout history by the US military were really the work of an insidious Nazi cabal – the quote-unquote real Americans didn’t do anything wrong. If you’re expecting something new, don’t hold your breath.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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