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The director and lead writer pull back the masks of the show's new vigilantes.

By Nick Romano
March 19, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Warning: Spoilers from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 1 are discussed in this article.

The masked militia group bringing glorious chaos to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has a name, and it's one fans of the comics already guessed leading up to the premiere of Marvel Studios' next live-action Disney+ series.

They are called the Flag-Smashers and are a very different interpretation of the villain who goes by that name in Marvel comics. Malcolm Spellman, the show's head writer, tells EW "people think they know" what's going on with these vigilantes "and they don't."

On the page, Karl Morgenthau, the son of a diplomat, lost his father and became a freedom-fighting terrorist known as Flag-Smasher with the goal of liberating earth from the concept of nationalism. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, actress Erin Kellyman is billed in the credits of the premiere episode as Karli Morgenthau, a gender-swapped version of the character. She and her group, the Flag-Smashers, believe everyone was better off during the Blip and want a world that's unified without borders. They spread their ethos through online message boards and leave clues in the real world through augmented reality software spotted via smartphone cameras. Certain members also seem to have enhanced strength, as evidenced by how easily one was able to subdue a police officer.

"The comics are a great source, but our stories are unique," director Kari Skogland prefaces. "They might draw from the comics, but they aren't actually in the comics so our characters can be unique and evolved and not be tied. We're not duplicating a story and we're not duplicating a character. That means if we come up with a group and we need a name for them, then, yes, we might go deep and find something that's relevant."

As a fun callout to Marvel lore, the Flag-Smashers' first stunt in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is robbing a Swiss bank. In the comics, Karl's father used to be a wealthy Swiss banker before he was a diplomat. It was his dad's wealth that funded his terrorist dealings.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Credit: Marvel Studios

"All the villains in this series believe they are heroes," Spellman explains. That also includes the one from actor Daniel Brühl, who's returning as Helmut Zemo later on this season. "They can eloquate what they're fighting for in a way that even the heroes are like, 'Damn! That is a really, really good point,' because they all exist in a world that's very similar to the world we exist in today. Thanos has been dispatched and half the population has disappeared and come back. That's created a global crisis, just like the global crisis today. And from that global crisis are these various antagonists born, but they're responding to something the heroes also agree with and the citizens of the world are like, 'Hey, man, this is a tough situation. Maybe they're not wrong.' That conflict leads to some pretty amazing scenes because, what do you do when the heroes identify with the villains?"

On the Flag-Smashers' tail is Joaquin Torres, played by actor Danny Ramirez. That's another figure from the comics, in which the character goes by the name Falcon after he was turned into a human-falcon hybrid with feathery wings protruding from his arms. The show introduces Joaquin as First Lieutenant Torres, an intel officer who's Sam's contact on the ground while on a rescue mission to retrieve Colonel Vassant from Batroc (Georges St-Pierres) and his LAF criminal crew.

"We definitely get the sense that [Joaquin is] a bit of a puppy dog, and he certainly is fanning out [over Sam]," Skogland prefaces. "We definitely have the feeling that this guy has been a Falcon fan for a while, and he's quite impressed with the fact that he gets to work with him."

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
| Credit: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

The director notes how the show goes "on a journey of what it is to be a villain" and "what it is to be a hero," and how that relates to the Flag-Smashers, as well as Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky's (Sebastian Stan) personal struggles.

"Sam, of course, is grappling with how to deal with the shield. Does he pick it up? What does that look like for a Black man? Does he want it? Is the shield good or bad?" Skogland says. "At the end of the day, the shield has some bad history alongside the good history, and it means something else to Bucky than it does to Sam 'cause they have different histories with it. We're gonna go on [a journey of] what that is. Alongside that, no villain is all bad and no hero is all good. Nothing is black and white."

Complicating that is the reveal at the end of the first episode. In light of the movements of the LAF, who are taking advantage of the chaos caused by the Blip, and the Flag-Smashers, the U.S. government announced someone will be taking the place of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as Captain America. That would be John Walker (Wyatt Russell).

According to Spellman, the introduction of John plays into Sam's "deepest doubts" about "whether this country would ever accept someone like him [as a hero] and whether someone like him should ever even try to be accepted by that thing."

"Black soldiers have dealt with so many betrayals even returning home from fighting for this country. All that is right there when he does what he does and the way this country responds," he notes.

Spellman loves the character of John, particularly Russell's interpretation, because he's "someone who had done everything he's supposed to do." There is a certain kind of privilege that comes with the expectation that one's life should proceed accordingly as a reward for being the best at all times. John, as a soldier who "has done everything his country has ever asked," is now "bumping into a reality where the country and life [in general] is going to challenge you in a way that upsets and obliterates your privilege," Spellman says. "The truth is, life isn't fair and just being the best and doing what's right does not mean that your journey is going to go accordingly. So, John Walker is in for some rough times up ahead as a human being."

New episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier stream Fridays on Disney+.

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

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