By Geoff Boucher
June 18, 2013 at 01:00 PM EDT
Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Anthony Mackie has covered a lot of ground during a 12-year Hollywood adventure, but now he’s ready for a new type of stardom — one that comes with an aerial view.

“Trust me, it’s a lot of fun to be a superhero,” the New Orleans native said of his ongoing work on Captain America: The Winter Soldier and his role as the high-flying Falcon. “All of it, everything that’s come together, it feels like a special moment.”

Now filming in ClevelandCaptain America: The Winter Soldier will be the ninth Marvel Studios release when it arrives in April 2014. Chris Evans is back in the red, white and blue battle togs of the title hero, the time-tossed patriot, Steve Rogers, who was introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. The cast of this modern-day tale also includes Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, and Mackie as a character who holds a special place in comic book history as the first African-American superhero.

“I’m really proud of that history,” says Mackie, the Juilliard School of Drama graduate who made his screen debut in the 2002 film 8 Mile (he played Eminem’s rap rival, Papa Doc) and has since added two dozen more film credits including The Adjustment Bureau, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and She Hate Me and two Oscar winners for Best Picture: The Hurt Locker, and Million Dollar Baby.

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Mackie had the surreal experience this year of seeing his face “pass by on the side of a bus for the first time” thanks to Paramount’s promotion of Michael Bay’s dark Pain & Gain project and he’s already on the way back to theaters with September’s Runner, Runner, which presents him as the  lawman who sees a callow Princeton grad student (Justin Timberlake) as the inside man who can topple an offshore-gambling kingpin (Ben Affleck).

“Working with Ben Affleck, a guy I admire so much as a director, and going toe-to-toe with him as an actor was an exciting thing,” Mackie said. “I’m always trying to put myself in a position where I can get those great opportunities to showcase my work and work as hard as I can. And this is another one right here [with the Falcon]: The story is great and my character is amazing, too.”

The story is rooted in one of the most acclaimed and satisfying comic book epics in recent decades, the Winter Soldier saga, which refers to the code name of an assassin enhanced by Soviet scientists and used for years as a ruthless and mysterious field operative. Winter Solider was introduced in 2005 by top-tier comic book writer Ed Brubaker and led to shocking revelations for the star-spangled Avenger and re-energized the venerable character’s relevance and readership. No one is more excited to see all that unfold on the big screen than Mackie.

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“It’s a cool story and brings in some amazing characters and the Falcon is one of the things that fans are already excited about,” Mackie said. “It’s a movie that has kind of turned into a bigger-than-life opportunity for me. I’ve had these little milestones along the way and now to play a superhero and to work with people like Robert Redford, Sam Jackson, and Chris? It’s just turned into this amazing moment.”

The Falcon has been a key figure in the mythology of Captain America since the Beatles era and Mackie says that publishing heritage adds a lot of burnish to the role even if it’s lost on some younger fans. “It makes me very proud, definitely, it’s a big deal,” he says.

In the tumult of the late 1960s Marvel Comics introduced the first two black superheroes in history: the Black Panther, a noble warrior king from a wondrous African kingdom, arrived in 1966; and the Falcon, a.k.a. Sam Wilson of Harlem, made his debut in 1969 (in Captain America issue No. 117) whose fictional birth certificate makes him the first African-American superhero. Falcon won’t be making history in the same way in film — Blade, Spawn, Hancock, and War Machine are among the African-American heroes who beat him to the silver screen first — but his future might be especially bright judging by the emphasis on the character in Marvel’s recent television animation.

Over the decades in comics, the backstory of the Falcon has been revised and retooled but in the Marvel Studios universe he is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., making him a professional peer of Black Widow and Hawkeye although his sense of duty makes him less cynical and closer to the salute-the-flag sensibility of Rogers. Mackie said the film version of the Falcon is “a really smart guy who went through major military training and becomes a tactical leader,  he’s not some guy that fell into this.”

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He added: “The most important thing I got from everybody at Marvel about the Falcon was the need to show that he’s a very righteous, man-forward kind of guy. He would do anything to protect the man next to him and to protect his country. That’s the integrity of the character and the integrity of the man and that that’s what I have focused on.”

The Falcon’s prominence in the Marvel universe rose to new heights in February 1971 when the Captain America series got a new cover logo: Captain America and the Falcon. That shared brand would be a fixture for the next seven years. And, in a less obvious but arguably equal platform, the Falcon was the lone black character included in Mego’s World’s Greatest Superheroes line of 8-inch action figures that featured 33 Marvel and DC Comics characters and became a signature success on toy aisles of the 1970s and remains a touchstone for collectors.

Instead of adding pressure Mackie says all the history only revs up the inspiration: “The biggest thing for me, the most exciting thing for me, is to come out on Halloween and see all the little black kids dressed up like the Falcon. There are so many parts of our society that are not catered to or represented fully and this will give a new generation of our society someone to look up to and identify with. That’s why I am so intensely focused on bringing the character to life in a special way.”

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