The Falcon and the Winter Soldier offers its heroes a fresh start – Sam Wilson now has Captain America's shield, while Bucky Barnes is no longer under the Winter Soldier programming, and both are without Steve Rogers. Moving forward, we will see what kind of heroes they can be, with the duo grappling with real-world problems including racism and PTSD. As a result, the new Disney Plus show could potentially be Marvel's most grounded superhero series yet.
The MCU has looked at the trauma that comes with being a hero before – in fact, WandaVision's central theme is how Wanda deals with the pain of her tragic past. Likewise, Thor suffered depression and survivor's guilt in Avengers: Endgame, and Iron Man had severe PTSD in Iron Man 3. However, these heroes dealt with their pain in ways that don't really map onto the real world. Thor regains his self-worth after a trip back in time, while Wanda uses her awe-inspiring powers to cope, and Iron Man temporarily retires.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will shake up that pattern. Bucky has suffered a considerable amount throughout the MCU, and the series will see him tackle this head-on and in a way that viewers will identify with: he will attend therapy. For Bucky, there won't be a neat resolution, or a quick fix, to his myriad issues, and we will see a realistic deep-dive into this complex struggle as he seeks help.
Sam will also deal with a serious issue. Black Panther tackled issues of colonialism, race, and identity, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will continue the conversation. It's impossible to look at what's at stake in the series – a Black Captain America – and not draw comparisons to the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests that shook the world last year.
This is something showrunner Malcolm Spellman is very much aware of. "It's funny, because if someone asked me, 'In a million years, could you have ever predicted what was going on?' I'm like, 'Yeah, I’m Black,'" he told our sister publication SFX Magazine. "We are uniquely qualified to diagnose this country and have a sense of where it's going."
The series is clearly not going to sidestep the profound implications of a Black man becoming a symbol of America – and even in teasers, we have seen that Sam's path to being the next Cap is not clear-cut. Race will factor into Sam's journey as a hero: something you don't have to be an Avenger to understand.
Another real-world issue that has become incredibly timely is, against all the odds, the Blip, which saw 50 per cent of the universe vanish at a snap of Thanos' fingers during Avengers: Infinity War. We have been living through our own worldwide catastrophe this past year – the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas the MCU has so far decided against analyzing the effects of the Blip too deeply, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier won’t skim over the implications of a global disaster.
"There's no hiding from the fact that four billion people in the MCU disappeared for five years, and then came back. And our show picks up from there and directly talks about what the world feels like to be in flux and dealing with one global issue," Spellman told SFX. "When the pandemic hits, and the entire planet has to come together and deal with it, the synergy there is perfect."
In other superhero media, characters prove their worth by coming back from a punishing defeat – but Sam and Bucky didn't face that kind of personal challenge when Thanos wiped them from existence. Their real make-or-break experience comes now, in the aftermath, and neither of them have Earth-shaking powers to help them cope. Just like us, the titular characters will have to deal with a global upheaval and its aftermath with nothing but themselves to rely on.
Sam and Bucky will therefore be navigating a world we recognize, and coming into their own while dealing with problems any of us could experience. No cosmic battles in space – but struggles with mental health, racism, and a global tragedy that rendered them powerless. These are the kinds of things people deal with every day, and set The Falcon and the Winter Soldier apart from all other MCU properties so far.