I think I’m finally over superheroes.
I don’t mean that I’ll completely stop consuming Marvel and DC properties (cause I’m a sucker for escapism and nostalgia) or that they weren’t important to my upbringing as a geek and nerd, but I think I’ve finally moved past the idea of it being a transformative genre or at least one that should be.
This became finally apparent to me after watching Disney+’s latest MCU vehicle “The Falcon & The Winter Solider.”
The show, generally speaking, is solid enough. If you liked “The Winter Soldier” or “Civil War,” which I did, it pressed all the same buttons that made those movies good between the spy movie action, international espionage, and a good balance of serious tone with less but still humorous quipping in between that the MCU is known for. The lead characters of Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes played by Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan respectively do a pretty great job in their roles and play off each other well. The action is solid, it’s well-produced, and at the very least fast-paced.
It’s a show I would have loved the hell out of…a couple years ago.
2019 was the last time I saw an MCU film in theaters. I preordered tickets months in advance with my friends to catch the climactic final chapter of The Avengers in “Endgame” and a couple months later happily went back to watch “Spider-man: Far From Home.” I enjoyed the hell out of both, and though I had some criticisms politically back then, especially of “Far From Home,” I largely saw them as both positive pieces of pop culture media that I would likely watch again. This was the last year I felt this way about the franchise.
I thought my politics were pretty radicalized before 2020. I didn’t vote for Obama in 2012 because of what I learned about the drone program. Held critical opinions about the state of capitalism in this country and was feeling “The Bern” in the early 2020 primaries. But the year proved to be more transformative for myself than I anticipated.
It began with the pandemic and the spread of COVID. The whole world grinded to a halt as medical disaster loomed everywhere and many places were hit hard but none more embarrassing than the US itself where our already broken healthcare system was put to task combined with a government that largely either did not believe it to be serious or just didn’t care at all. While other countries guaranteed their citizens medical and financial safety (to a certain extent at least) ours largely left us in the dust by either paying lip service to our needs or flat out telling us to “open up” and suck it up.
So many of us suffered needlessly during this period in a disaster that many developed countries for the most part avoided. It was eye opening watching both parties sit on their hands and do nothing as people died or burned their savings trying to survive financially all because helping us out in a real way may have been seen as “cOmMuNiSm” to some.
In the end all we got was a $1,200 band-aid for our troubles followed by some chump change forwarded to us later on in the year. It was insulting.
But my real awakening came several months later, in late May, when George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police. Black men and women getting killed by police wasn’t anything new to me before of course or to anyone really at the time. I remember Ferguson and the many other horrifying instances of police overreach but for the most part I still justified the existence of our system and law enforcement every time at the end. This time it was different though, with the way things were already in bad shape before in the year this one truly changed the way I felt about not just policing in this country but of the entire US military-industrial complex and American exceptionalism.
I watched countless videos of the protests that turned bloody and violent by riot cops who clearly weren’t looking to calm tempers and ease tensions in their community. They were out for blood and got it in multiple cities across the country. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every protester acted like angels in the streets out there but its hard for me to imagine that every situation caught on video was “out of context” as many law enforcement supporters would tell you. And trust me there is A LOT of videos that would be hard for even the most staunch of Blue Lives Matter supporters to dismiss.
The scene that took place in back of The White House last year was the final straw. It revealed to me that law enforcement isn’t here to uphold justice. They are not here to protect us, the people. They are here to defend largely corrupt laws by the politicians who write them and protect property and their own autonomy granted to them by the state to carry out their brand of justice in any way they see fit. They are defenders of the status quo and if 2020 has taught me anything the status quo is not fucking working anymore.
So, what does this have to do with superheroes you might ask? Well, superheroes are, since their inception, defenders of the status quo, whether fans want to admit it or not. They are cops in capes essentially as their enemies are always people who exist outside law and order. Whether it’s The Joker or even fucking Killmonger, the bad guy is still the same regardless of motive; they want to upend society and order.
Their stories often justify extreme violence and extrajudicial authority because the bad guys are upsetting that order. The earliest comic books, for most part, told this in pretty black and white terms and even many of today’s comics still see superheroes as defenders of society versus those who would disrupt it.
But what if society is dead wrong? What if society has been wrong for a very long time?
“The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” in some ways tries to address the cultural shift that occurred in 2020. Sam is very aware of the fact that he is a black man in white America. A huge part of the plot is him wrestling with the idea of being unable to move from Captain America’s shadow because of this identity, because of the racism that exists in America. All this takes place as a group of radicals tries to move the world to a borderless society that existed following Thanos snapping half of humanity out of existence.
It’s a decent enough plotline, one that puts a timely subject in the middle of this superhero story but the problem for me is…why the fuck should Sam want to be Captain America, given everything that he has seen and likely knows about this country as a black man?
Yes, he, of course, had a close friendship with Steve Rogers in the series, and comic books, that plays into this story and certainly from that angle of inheriting his best bud’s favorite frisbee I get that but again why does he want to be the face of this country?
If America has proven anything in recent years it’s that the idea behind it and especially that of its philosophy of truth, justice, and exceptionalism is fraught at best and downright a nefarious lie at worst. In fact, Sam learns quite clearly at one point in the season how much of a lie it is when he meets Isaiah Bradley, a black man who was given the super-soldier serum by the US government. Isaiah tells his story in painful fashion, how he was experimented on and discarded by the country he fought so hard for in WWII, which narratively references the very real-life experiments done on the Tuskegee soldiers of that period.
It’s heartbreaking, as it should be, but how is this storyline resolved in the show? Sam gets him an exhibit at The Smithsonian next to Cap as if reparations was only about being seen in the American history books. This is not justice for what Isaiah went through, even though the show plays it as such, it’s actually insulting in my opinion as it insidiously describes real life struggles for justice by the African American diaspora as just a simple desire to be acknowledged rather than receive well overdue reparations for what they have been through. “Justice” in the eyes of the writers is about wanting to be seen as American and no one stops to ask why one would want that after what America does to many of these marginalized groups.
This desire to want to be the face of a country that has done this to one of its own becomes even sillier when confronted with the villains of this season in The Flag Smashers. I’ll be honest and say I’m still not 100 percent sure what exactly their demands were in the narrative of the story but they quite clearly serve a purpose narraively representing radical revolutionaries who tip-toe the line of good and evil in the eyes of the audience.
Whether fans want to admit it or not they are meant to be reflections of other radicalized groups taking on the status quo such as Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA. They’re not meant to be 100 percent accurate depictions, can’t be too on the nose of course, but make no mistake that’s who they are supposed to be to the audience.
The Flag Smashers are pissed about things returning to “normal” and those in power ignoring people who have been left behind by their governments and country following “The Blip” as described in the story. They don’t want normal because normal wasn’t working before and why would it work now? They’re a problem for our heroes in the story because Sam and Bucky are here to protect normal folk in society and The Flag Smashers’ actions are often violent and disruptive to those people and the agents of the good ol’ US of A can’t have that.
Sam recognizes though that their leader has a point, because again he’s a black man in America, he understands that shit is broken. But instead of helping the revolutionaries get the justice they are seeking he instead spends much of the series brow-beating about them being “too extreme” and “killing indiscriminately” until the show’s finale. “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” literally opens with Sam circumventing international law to stop some mercenaries by killing them extrajudicially over foreign airspace. Why are his actions framed as heroic for doing this on behalf of the state but the revolutionaries are framed as radical for having their own agency in determining what they should do? Who gets to be violent and disruptive in this world?
This is all purposeful or at least purposeful in that the directors and writers were all raised in a country that values this very contradictory viewpoint of what is right. Justice can only be achieved through means that are considered correct by the state or by the agents employed by the state to do as they see fit.
Even “Not Captain America” John Walker gets to kill one of the radicals in vicious cold blood and is chummy with our protagonists at the end of the season. When do his actions become too radical? When is justice truly served to agents of the state who commit violence on its behalf? He serves no jail time and gets a slap on the wrist for his actions.
Again, why is Sam defending the honor of this system? Why is he not really questioning it too?
The climatic final battle ends with Sam giving a speech to some UN diplomats about the nature of extremism. That if you push people around enough they turn to radical ways of fixing the world and that is correct. As Martin Luther King once said “A riot is the language of the unheard.” It very much echoes this idea, that people when pushed to their limit and given no way to be heard or seen will react often violently to make change occur. The problem with this speech by Sam though it still very much is critical of radical revolutionary action. That change still has to occur “the right way” that “we have to be better.” The problem with such a line is that it’s as empty as House Democrats dressing up in kente clothing and kneeling in Congress for Black Lives Matter. It’s the cinematic equivalent of “We see you, we hear you, we feel you.” It’s a big load of nothing that actually makes zero real demands.
Even though The Flag Smashers are seen sympathetically by the script, much like how Liberals see BLM, they aren’t actually treated sympathetically, In fact the script washes their hands of them in the final episode. The point isn’t to seek justice for them but to placate them as far as the state will allow.
You might say that the series quite clearly shows that the UN does do something from this in proceeding scene but what materially is going to change? Despite the MCU’s 20-plus movie and TV show connected storyline, the real world doesn’t experience a ton of change outside what Thanos did despite the heroes’ mighty powers and influence. Even “Black Panther,” by far the series’ most radical and I guess “wokest” film, doesn’t actually change the world much in the films and series that follow. That movie ends with Wakanda opening up its borders and technology to the rest of the world but is any of it actually seen from there? King T’Challa opens up an outreach center in Oakland but did he materially change the world that African Americans live in? Did he actually address the problems that created Killmonger by being a philanthropist on par with Bill fucking Gates?
At the end of the day Superhero stories can still be fun and teach plenty of meaningful lessons to young readers and audiences alike regarding truth and justice but it’s that third part “The American Way” that gets insidious. Even when our heroes correctly identify a real problem in the world what do they actually change by the story’s end typically?
Propaganda isn’t just as simple as saying “America good” and “foreign adversary bad,” it’s much more subtle and frankly more insidious than that often. “Captain Marvel” might be a story about literal “girl power” and I guess gaslighting but it’s also a glorified Air Force commercial funded by the Pentagon during a period where female cadets are very likely to be sexually harassed by their fellow male officers. “Iron Man” says some right things about the sales of military hardware overseas but does so without bringing up the “C word” and justifies it so long as a wealthy billionaire gets to call all the shots with it. Hell, in DC’s case “The Dark Knight” has some interesting things to say about fear and chaos but it also justifies our surveillance state in the war against terrorism which I have already discussed at length in another write-up.
America is not great. We have a long history of doing the wrong thing and we have been fed a narrative of exceptionalism since birth from our history books that get further justified by big budget Hollywood action flicks in the superhero genre.
2020 showed me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the status quo of this country has failed us. Whether it is our crumbling healthcare system, our apathetic government who leaves us to die, or the agents they employ to keep us in line, I’m done with being told America is the best at anything besides its own failure to help its people.
Superheroes even at their most critical still at the end of the day justify the existence of the societies we live in and never ask for real substantive changes to it. This genre is not nearly as radical as liberals think it is or “wOkE pC cULtuRe” as the conservative reactionaries will tell you otherwise. That may seem obvious to many but it really needs to be said again. They are defenders of the status quo and after the year we just all had I am over anyone that still believes in this, fictional or otherwise.
To end this write-up, I’ll leave you with this exerpt by arguably the greatest comic-book writer of all-time, Alan Moore the creator of “Watchmen.” Read the whole passage then ask yourselves if superheroes really have anything meaningful left to say in the world we live in today…