The making of a hero: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier team deconstruct Marvel's new Captain America
Warning: Spoilers from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are discussed in this article.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios' second live-action event series for Disney+ after WandaVision, revealed itself to be an origin story for Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) picking up the star-spangled mantle after Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). The finale episode capped off the season by seeing the man previously known as Falcon suiting up in a new vibranium-clad uniform, courtesy of Wakanda, and declaring, "I'm Captain America."
"We unintentionally came full circle which is pretty sweet," says Marvel executive producer Nate Moore as he reflects on the journey that started with Endgame, which saw Steve first gift the shield to Sam.
But there was so much more to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier beyond this formative moment. The series expanded the MCU even wider with the introduction of John Walker (Wyatt Russell) first as the government's Captain America pick and then as U.S. Agent, Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) as the shady Power Broker of the criminal underworld in Madripoor, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as comic book character Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (a.k.a. Madame Hydra), and Carl Lumbly as super-soldier-in-hiding Isaiah Bradley.
EW sat down (virtually) with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier's director Kari Skogland, lead writer Malcolm Spellman, and executive producing duo Moore and Zoie Nagelhout to unpack the series.
A Marvel star is born
From the very beginning, even before Moore and Nagelhout spearheaded a search to find a writer and director to lead the show that would become The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel wanted to tell a story about Sam Wilson becoming Captain America.
Moore looks back on Avengers: Endgame when Steve hands the shield to Sam and his comrade in arms says it feels like it belongs to someone else. "That moment is so big," he says. "But even I, as a fan, went like, 'Wait, how is Falcon going to be Cap all of a sudden?' You realize there was so much territory. You could talk about what it meant to be Cap. As a Black man, myself, what [does] it mean to wear the stars and stripes. That was always going to be the focal point of the series from the very get go."
Spellman pressed so hard to get the job because of this main premise. "It was hugely important to me, and I feel lucky to have gotten the chance to do that, to make a Black man Captain America," he says.
Through the pitching process, Moore found Spellman was the "perfect cross section of having a reverence for the character but also being able to anchor that reverence in a real-world context." "Frankly, I think just the life experience that Malcolm had made him the right guy," he adds.
Nagelhout also praises Spellman's humor. "We knew that this story should feel like it's in the Cap world and that political-thriller kind of energy, but we wanted to make sure that Sam and Bucky brought their own tone. That always naturally felt like a buddy-cop dynamic."
Moore believes Marvel's audience would've embraced the idea of a Black Captain America if the show began right off the bat with Sam carrying the shield. "I don't know that it would have been as resonant," he adds, "because it might've just felt a little bit like a decision Marvel made without a ton of emotional backing."
He felt it was important for viewers to "understand why Sam was the right guy."
"I don't think Sam had to earn it in the audience's mind in the way that Steve had to," he explains. "A big question of the series was, can we make it feel like this [the shield] is Sam's? Not that it was given to Sam, but this is Sam's. In my mind, the notion that Sam would, if we're ever so lucky, be the head of the Avengers one day... if we hadn't had the series, I don't know that I would buy it. You think about all the Avengers from Thor to Captain Marvel. Why are they going to follow this guy? He has to earn the right to carry the shield, and part of that is really interrogating why he's the right guy."
Steve's legacy as Captain America loomed larger over the show, though Marvel fans also experienced what kind of Cap John became when he held the shield. For Nagelhout, Sam's Cap becomes more distinct from his predecessors through his unique ability as a non-enhanced hero to "see through the moral complexities of the world and ask us all to do better."
"It was a great line from Lemar [played by Clé Bennett] in show when he says power makes a person more of themself," she says. "I think that applies to any kind of position, or mentally taking on any amount of power, whether it's physical or emotional. What we've learned about Sam is that one of his super powers is his ability to connect to and relate to people. It's why he was a counselor for veterans after the war. It's why he's able to relate to Karli [Erin Kellyman] in the way that he did. We thought it was really special that we had a villain who had an understandable point of view. She had a cause. She was going about it the wrong way, but Sam could see through to the good in her."
As the credits begin to roll on the finale episode, the show's logo and title treatment emerges on the screen. Then it starts to change. The word "Falcon" transforms into "Captain America," offering a new title to reflect the main character's evolution.
Spellman didn't know it was coming, but when he saw it in a cut of the episode, he almost started crying. "It was so perfect," he remarks.
"It's powerful to see that Captain America and the Winter Soldier [title]. We've reinvented what Captain America is, not only by his ethnicity and skin color but by what a hero represents," Skogland says. "Sam represents a new hero."
Moore sees it as "a punctuation to the end of this season, more than anything forward facing." He doesn't definitively say one way or the other whether a second season is in the works.
"Obviously there's opportunity to tell more stories with these guys and with John Walker, Sharon Carter, Joaquin Torres [Danny Ramirez], and Isaiah Bradley. They're all characters we have a ton of affection for. But we felt like this was a momentous step for [Sam] and we wanted the title card to reflect that step. It would have felt weird to have seen him transform and take on this mantle and then go to a credit that said Falcon and the Winter Soldier."
Crafting the suit
A new title also means new threads.
In the context of the show's arc, Bucky asks the Dora Milaje's Ayo (Florence Kasumba) if the Wakandans can craft a suit for Sam. That uniform is revealed in the finale, complete with his own unique Captain America design that's reminiscent of Paul Renaud's comic book art work for the Captain America: Sam Wilson series.
Behind the scenes, Mackie says there were about "10 or 12 pieces" just to get the suit on.
Nagelhout credits Marvel's Ryan Meinerding, head of visual development on the show, for finding "the best version of that suit that paid tribute to the comics."
"We also wanted to make sure that it felt grounded because that's the sensibility of our director, Kari Skogland, but also just the sensibility of the show in general — to take superheroes and make them people, make them human, put their feet on the ground."
The biggest debate arose around the cowl. The team worried it wouldn't look right. "It's one of those things that looks great in a comic book drawing, but maybe it doesn't look so great on a human's head," Nagelhout says. "It was something that we went back and forth on quite a bit, but our costume department did an amazing job of building it for us. You can test it out, and Anthony ended up kind of falling in love with it, partly because of how true it was to the comic book iteration."
"It for sure started with the [comic] books and then 15,000 man hours go into deciding every micro detail of it," Spellman says. "They are beyond attentive to every detail, every shade of color. Just meticulous."
Moore recognizes that the character of John Walker can come across as a "caricature" sometimes in Marvel comics. "As we were writing the character and, frankly, as Wyatt was performing the character, you realize there's a soul to him."
If power amplified the heroism and empathy in Sam, the Captain America title, accompanied by a dose of the super-soldier serum, made John more volatile. For killing a member of the Flag-Smashers in broad daylight, he was stripped of his title and rank. Consumed with vengeance against Karli for the death of Lemar, he crafted his own knockoff Captain America shield and hunted down the terrorist group.
Skogland says she toyed with where to place the episode 5 mid-credits scene, showing John build his own shield with his medal of honor melded onto it.
"That medal of honor was a very important moment," she says. "Lemar said something about the medal of honor when they're talking. [John] says it was the worst day of my life, suggesting there's some history there. As a soldier in particular, he nods to the fact that you have to live in the life of the gray, sometimes what feels wrong is right. When he puts it on the back of the fake shield, it's indicative of his dilemma. He's hanging onto a falsehood, which he's living."
Moore says they could've made John more of a villain in the finale, but instead the story sees him throwing away his fake shield and going to save the members of the Global Repatriation Council from the Flag-Smashers.
"It actually would have been selling the character short just to go full heel," he explains. "Frankly, I don't think that he's fully redeemed by the end, by any stretch. I don't even think he thinks he's fully redeemed. There's a moment after Sam's speech where they see each other and it's not like, 'Hey, bro. We're good.' It's, 'We have more to talk about. This is not over. You are not completely on the side of the angels.'"
The ending further revealed that Val has bigger plans for John. She gives him a new uniform and dubs him U.S. Agent. "Things are about to get weird," she tells him. "So, when they do, we're not gonna need a Captain America. We're gonna need a U.S. Agent."
Moore doesn't believe John is a villain by the end of all this. "That character starts as somebody who the institutions would tell you is the best of the best. And having him come to an actual moral dark night of the soul and come out the other side a different person is actually really interesting," he says.
One of the biggest theories among fans over the course of the series involved the Thunderbolts, a super-group from Marvel comics formed by Helmut Zemo and consisting entirely of reformed criminals. The theory picked up steam as the stories of John, Val, and Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) unfurled. Might Zemo form his own super-group? Or maybe Val, who was described by Moore previously as a "darker Nick Fury," is recruiting her own enhanced individuals as an anti-Avengers team?
The Thunderbolts ultimately did not have a presence on the show. Moore says "the honest truth is, no," they were not even considered for the season 1 story.
"Not because we don't think they're cool because they are, but because we already felt like there was so much on the table in this series that we didn't also then want to introduce a group of characters, or reintroduce people that we've seen in the past, and cloud the story," he says.
"The more characters you produce, then you have to service them," he adds. "And then we wouldn't have had time to maybe go home with Sam and Bucky to Louisiana, or do some of those things. That, on a character level, got us interested in doing this [show] in the first place."
Now, that doesn't mean the Thunderbolts aren't coming up in the MCU down the line. Spellman, who's become more tight-lipped these days after joining the Marvel machine, says, "I don't know. I just know there seems to be a lot of chatter around that. I don't know if fans are crazy or not."