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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which stars Anthony Mackie as Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (and later Captain America), has been hailed for its progressive racial politics. In an op-ed for CNN titled “Why a Black Captain America Changes Everything,” scholar Peniel E. Joseph credits Marvel’s new Disney+ series for recognizing “the centrality of the struggle for racial justice to the larger American project.” Salon lauds the show for its portrayal of a “self-respecting Black man” with the “fortitude to pit himself against the supremacist forces aligned against him,” while Polygon praises its “diversity, inclusion, and thoughtfulness.”
While show creator Malcolm Spellman has produced the rare Marvel franchise that acknowledges the real-world issues of race and America’s legacy of racism, that acknowledgement is just about where the “progressivism” ends. As in 2018’s Black Panther, the chief antagonist of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is not a supervillain bent on global domination, but a radical — or, in this case, a group of radicals. Their crime is resisting the forces of imperialism. And like Black Panther, the series at once invalidates revolution while affirming a brutally unequal status quo.
Black superheroes weren’t always so fundamentally powerless on screen. The 1997 film Spawn starred Michael Jai White as Al Simmons, a marine and CIA operative who is murdered by his handler after he grows a conscience. Released four years before the September 11 attacks, Spawn offers a bracing critique of American empire — Simmons is sent to hell for the crimes he’s committed on behalf of the U.S. government. There, he gains the powers to lead the armies of Armageddon. In the new Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), a similar resume would make a person eligible to join the Avengers.
Blade, released one year later, stars Wesley Snipes in the title role as a semi-immortal martial arts expert bent on purging the world of vampires, and the David S. Goyer-scripted film is far more indebted to Shaft than Tim Burton’s Batman. The world of Blade looks a lot like ours, with one key difference: the racist cops, destructive corporations and imperialist governments operate under the control of literal bloodsuckers. Blade spends a significant amount of screen time in shootouts with corrupt New York police. In one scene, he brutally interrogates a police officer, upending conventional power dynamics along with viewers’ expectations.
Why are today’s Marvel movies so much less subversive than superhero films from even two decades ago? And when did Black superheroes stop fighting cops and start becoming them? Ironically, it was a socialist comic book writer who may have inadvertently set the genre on its present course.
Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, released 2002 – 2004, calls supervillains “terrorists” and “persons of mass destruction” to lampoon the global war on terror. In the series, the Avengers work directly for S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), which has been transformed into a high-tech Department of Homeland Security. They sport no-frills paramilitary gear and express no remorse about killing in the name of the U.S. of A. But through the team’s Bush-like malfeasance and incompetence, the capeless crusaders end up costing more lives than they save.
When building the MCU, Marvel borrowed heavily from the The Ultimates’ treatment of their classic characters but discarded the comic book series’ political critique and more absurdist flourishes. The cinematic depictions of the Avengers still look like they’re ready to break up a Black Lives Matter protest, but gone are the send-ups of President George W. Bush and attempts by the Hulk to devour actor Freddie Prinze Jr. Instead, these militarized heroes blast their way through poor countries with high-tech weaponry under the command of the U.S. government.
It’s not just the MCU that has watered down its more radical source material. Widely praised by critics, HBO’s limited series Watchmen (from DC Comics) disregarded the graphic novel’s depiction of superheroes as fundamentally reactionary to tell a jumbled story that simultaneously condemns racism and any kind of revolt against it.
In Alan Moore’s original Watchmen comic, police and military officers-turned-masked-superheroes are drawn to vigilantism by their own psychosexual urges, misogyny and racism. In the HBO series, by contrast, Regina King’s Sister Night character is an American soldier who becomes a police officer, and whose violence is presented as necessary and heroic.
The ultimate villain of the HBO series is Lady Trieu, whose mother is a survivor of a U.S. occupation in Vietnam. Trieu’s villainous plan? Gain the superpowers that countries like the United States have used to subjugate much of the world and use them to better the lives of the dispossessed. Sister Night works with a fellow detective and an FBI agent to kill Trieu before she can realize her “dastardly” plot.
If the Watchmen graphic novel offers a withering indictment of the superhero genre (one that many believe has never been surpassed), then its TV show adaptation serves to reify the counterrevolutionary tropes Moore sought to dismantle.
Which brings us to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Whereas the threat of global fascism is beaten back by Chris Evans starring in the title role of Captain America: The First Avenger, Mackie’s Sam Wilson spends much of the series hunting down a group of super-powered young anarchists known as the Flag Smashers. The evil plot of these self-styled anti-nationalists is ultimately no less defensible than Lady Trieu’s: to redistribute wealth and power to the countries in the Global South that the West has exploited. But because violence is integral to this resistance, Marvel logic dictates it must be destroyed.
Throughout the series, Wilson is asked to look beyond U.S. atrocities as though he were interviewing for the job of Captain America. Can he accept, for example, that the U.S. government conducted brutal Tuskegee-like experiments to produce super-soldiers after WWII? The answer appears to be a resounding yes.
After defeating the Flag Smashers, Wilson addresses the world as Captain America for the first time. These anarchists may have gone too far, he intimates, but they were justified in wanting to change the global structure of power. Wilson urges a group of rescued world leaders to “do better,” never considering that perhaps these are the very figures a Black Captain America should be fighting. In the Marvel universe, the task of fighting for a better world is left to the villains, as the crimes of a mad scientist or alien invader ultimately pale in comparison to those of the United States.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Leslie Lee III is a writer and the host of Struggle Session, a podcast that covers pop culture from a leftist perspective. You can listen to his show at patreon.com/strugglesession.