The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cast, makers on how the Marvel show is representative of what it's like to be an American today

Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, and the makers of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier claim their show asks the same questions on patriotism and representation that Americans have been asking themselves in recent turbulent months.

The New York Times March 20, 2021 14:34:42 IST
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cast, makers on how the Marvel show is representative of what it's like to be an American today

Anthony Mackie in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

When Anthony Mackie got the call that the executives at Marvel Studios wanted to meet with him shortly after the release of the 2019 superhero blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, he figured he was either getting a new gig or getting fired.

But after several years and multiple Marvel films in which he had played Sam Wilson, that airborne ally of Captain America who is also known as the Falcon, Mackie was feeling optimistic. “I’m walking in with the assumption that the next Captain America movie is going to be me,” he said.

So Mackie traveled to the Marvel offices in Burbank, California. “I put on a suit,” he said. “I sit there like they’re about to tell me the best news I could ever get.” His ebullient voice receded ever-so-slightly as he continued: “Then they’re like, ‘We’re going to do a TV show,’” he said.

Beyond the fleeting dismay that he was not being offered another film, Mackie said he was fearful that he would not be able to translate the Marvel brand to TV. “I was taken aback,” he said, “mostly because I didn’t want to tarnish the Marvel moniker.”

This was how Mackie first learned of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the new Disney+ series that made its debut Friday, and continues the adventures of those two reluctant allies, played by him and Sebastian Stan.

Arriving two weeks after the finale of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is Marvel’s second show that seeks to extend the characters and momentum of its cinematic universe into streaming television. Its narrative mission is straightforward: to tell the next chapter in the story of its title characters, last seen in Avengers: Endgame, after an aged Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has retired as Captain America, and given his shield to Wilson.

In both its story and its subtext, this show asks, how can the Marvel franchise continue without one of its most prominent figures?

As Sebastian Stan explained: “We’re going to explore where these two guys left off, with one big character missing — the prominent figure that brought them into each other’s lives. Where are they, and how are they coping with the world?”

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, consisting of six 45-to-55-minute episodes to be rolled out weekly, offers timely explorations into the nature of patriotism and extremism and the values of inclusivity, diversity, and representation, set in a world striving for stability after a global catastrophe.

It is also a series freighted with implications for the Wilson character and for Mackie the actor, who, in a universe with precious few Black heroes, now have the chance to become full-fledged lead characters after long careers as sidekicks. “I’ve gotten used to being the guy overlooked,” Mackie said. “It’s become part of my brand.”

The stage was set for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier about two years ago, when Disney introduced its Disney+ streaming service, and turned to its subsidiary studios for original content.

At the same time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was arriving at a narrative turning point with Avengers: Endgame, which said farewell to beloved characters like Rogers while creating opportunities for new champions to rise.

Kevin Feige, the Marvel Studios president, said that from the outset, his company wanted its Disney+ programs to feel as significant as its movies in terms of their production values and of the characters and stories they included.

“As far as Marvel Studios is concerned, the MCU now lives in features and in shows,” Feige said. “We really wanted people to get used to the idea that it was going to be a back-and-forth. The story will be consistent across it, and just as important in both places.”

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cast makers on how the Marvel show is representative of what its like to be an American today

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan in a still from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. YouTube

Marvel started developing shows like WandaVision and Loki, about the Asgardian trickster played by Tom Hiddleston. The studio also saw potential in the Falcon and the Winter Soldier, two unlikely allies with deep comic-book back stories that the movies had not fully explored.

Stan has rolled with Marvel’s twists and turns for a decade. He joined the movie franchise as Rogers’ loyal pal Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and his character was upgraded to become a fearsome assassin in the sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).

When Marvel initially told him about its idea for a TV series, Stan said, “It was straightforward and sort of ambiguous at the same time.”

There was an inherent logic in pairing him with Mackie, and letting them play off each other, Stan said: “I was like, yeah, that sounds awesome — that also sounds like it could be a million different things.”

A few months later, Stan said, the studio came back with a more detailed plan for a six-hour storyline that would offer “enough time to build scenes and go into their personal lives — a day in the life of Bucky Barnes, a day in the life of Sam Wilson — as you haven’t seen it before.”

The TV project was also carefully weighed by Mackie, who said he has begrudgingly embraced a kind of team-player status he has gained from his roles in films like The Hurt Locker and Half Nelson. “I always joke with everybody, if you’re a white actor, and you want to be nominated for an Oscar, you need to get me to star opposite you,” he said.

Most of all, Mackie, who has spoken openly about his desire to see more representation in Marvel projects, said he hoped for a narrative that embraced the complexity of his final scene in Avengers: Endgame.

In that sequence, when Rogers asks his character how it feels to hold the Captain America shield, Wilson replies, “Like it’s someone else’s.” From Wilson’s perspective, Mackie said that moment “wasn’t an opportunity — it was a major burden.” “It wasn’t a thing of him sitting back and waiting for the shield,” he continued. “He wasn’t looking for a promotion at work.”

Malcolm Spellman, who created The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for television and is its head writer, said that while Marvel’s concept for the series had always been “a buddy two-hander,” he had specifically wanted to model the show on genre films that dealt with issues of race, like The Defiant Ones, 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon, and Rush Hour.

Spellman, a writer and producer on shows like Empire, said that “what survived from the first day I walked in through the million different iterations of this project was the spirit and conflict of the two central characters.”

Barnes, a brainwashed combat veteran who has spent periods of his life in suspended animation, is “someone who is 100 years old, and has done nothing but fight,” Spellman said, whereas Wilson has spent his career struggling with “the whole Black excellence thing — the concept of working twice as hard to get half as far.” “If you want any honesty to them, you cannot avoid all the trauma that Bucky’s been through, and you cannot avoid the fact that Sam is Black,” said Spellman.

For the Marvel faithful, the series revisits characters from the Captain America movies like the intelligence agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and the villainous Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). It also introduces a new potential antagonist, John Walker (played by Wyatt Russell), who in the comics was an adventurer and potential successor to Captain America. He believes he is a better embodiment of American values than Rogers.

As it has with other projects, Marvel is being coy about plot specifics.

But the makers of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier said the series would confront the same questions that the country has been asking itself in recent, turbulent months: Who is an American, and who gets to decide what principles the country stands for? What compels people to take extreme actions in the name of what they believe is patriotism?

Kari Skogland, who directed all six episodes, said that the series continued to embrace the same contentious themes — “not just topical issues but hard-to-talk about issues” — that Captain America pioneered as a comic-book character. On his first cover, in 1941, the hero was depicted punching Hitler in the face, and he evolved over decades to reflect Americans’ ambivalence about their leadership and the actions taken in the name of their nation.

The comics that Marvel published in its formative era “were born of a time where the world was healing from a very particular series of events,” said Skogland, who has also directed shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Americans, and The Walking Dead. “They came from a postwar, anti-fascist space, and were talking about the morals and ethics that were prevalent at the time,” she said. “They’ve never shied away from that.”

Stan said it was inevitable that viewers would see parallels to recent crises like the 6 January Capitol attack in the series — not because its creators specifically anticipated or copied these events, but because they sought to tell a story about a country at a perilous crossroads with itself. “Watching the things that were happening to the Capitol were incredibly disturbing,” he said, “and they were also particularly disturbing for us because in some way they mirrored things that are happening in the show. You can’t do a show like this and not talk about those things.”

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cast makers on how the Marvel show is representative of what its like to be an American today

Still from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

If the series were ultimately to bestow Wilson the status and title of Captain America — a question that it appears poised to address over its run, though the outcome is not guaranteed — this would carry considerable symbolic weight, Mackie acknowledged.

But for now, the actor preferred to talk more broadly about Captain America as a character who represents a responsibility that all Americans have to preserving the fabric of the nation. “The idea of Captain America is, I am my brother’s keeper,” Mackie said. “Somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten that. America is the land of opportunity, of freedom, choice, and power, and Captain America represents all of that — he represents it for everybody.”

It would of course be extremely powerful for Black children to be able to see Captain America portrayed by a Black actor, Mackie said. But “it’s just as important for a Latino kid or a white kid or an Asian kid to see a Black Captain America.”

Pointing to the increasingly diverse array of superheroes that comics publishers and entertainment studios have amplified in recent years, Mackie said: “It was very important when Miles Morales became Spider-Man. We need Wonder Woman, and we need Captain Marvel so that girls can look and say, I can be that. That’s just as important as having a Black Captain America.”

Whatever the outcome of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier holds for him and his character, Mackie, now 42, said he hoped to stay in the superhero game longer and regretted not having jumped into it sooner. “I wish I could have been doing this in my 20s,” he said. “It takes a lot of Advil to do a Marvel show.”

Dave Itzkoff c.2021 The New York Times Company

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.

(Also read: After WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finds two more superheroes in dire need of counselling)


All images from YouTube.

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