A more honed focus on the serious matters allows episode four to take a much deeper dive into the motivations driving each of its characters. With John Walker, we see an increasingly aggressive Captain America that strays further and further from the ideals laid down by his predecessor. But while clearly developing into the form of an antagonist, his motivations are broadly understandable; he’s angered not just by what he sees as terrorism from the Flag Smashers, but also his inability to fight them due to his lack of enhancements. But while he has honest belief in what he’s fighting for, his flawed reading of what power grants a person leads him to become the vengeful, hot-headed antithesis of Steve Rogers.
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This is reflected in Karli Morgenthau, who we get to spend much more time with in this episode thanks to her finally getting face-to-face time with Sam. These conversations solidify that Karli’s overall goals are noble and her anger justified. Sam’s desire to understand her approach – despite everyone around him being against this – works to further make the Flag Smashers sympathetic and establish at least the foundations of a united cause between the characters. Yet, like Walker, Karli’s desperation and anger has convinced her to choose violence, and her conviction in these methods only seems to grow stronger and more problematic, particularly with her misguided threats against Sam’s family.
This all further reinforces Morgenthau and Walker’s positions not as the show’s antagonists, but as complicated humans in a complicated world. And in a cinematic universe that usually uses clearly defined good and evil (that’s the comic book way, after all), it’s admirable to see showrunner Malcolm Spellman holding the show true to this vision. This does occasionally make for muddy watching, though; there are frequent moments through this episode where so many characters are in opposition to Karli that it feels as if the show is instructing viewers that she’s a clear cut villain. But, through the use of Sam’s sympathies and the blood-stained shield motif as a closing note, episode four is able to close with its values and messages in clear focus.
That’s not to say there aren’t some factors working against this. Episode four spends a lot of time dealing with the Flag Smasher’s reactions to the GRC, and the more The Falcon and The Winter Soldier focuses on this, the more unfocused and out-of-line with the rest of the MCU it feels. In Spider-Man: Far From Home, the return of half the population was framed as a joyful punch line. WandaVision made the moment more traumatic, but there’s been no sense of just how much of a humanitarian crisis it was prior to The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. While it’s fine for the show to reveal new, more complicated layers to this, there’s rarely any exploration of the hows and whys of the GRC’s actions, and just a focus on Karli’s response. Strengthening audience understanding of exactly how the GRC mishandled the Blip would not just reinforce Karli’s position, but also support the show’s main point about the mishandling of power.
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Similarly, the appearance of Ayo and the Dora Milaje feels somewhat incomplex for such a multi-layered show. It turns out that Ayo is simply in town because Wakanda still harbours an almighty hatred for Zemo (which, fair play, he did murder their king). While a Wakandan presence in the story would ideally serve a more interesting purpose, it does provide the episode’s most notable fight sequence. The spinning attack moves of the Dora Milaje certainly adds a bit of comic book flair to the show’s otherwise grounded battle approach. But it’s the psychological impact this attack has that’s the most important thing; Walker realising that he can be bested by regular, unenhanced foes is the snapping point that leads him to taking the serum himself. Now souped up like Steve was, we’re hopefully in a position to explore exactly what happens when an unworthy man takes on the full mantle of Captain America.
Among all these heavy moments, Baron Zemo’s continued Hannibal Lecter act is a fun change in tone that still remains sinister. His slipperiness allows him to further his own agenda in secret, and as with his appearance in Civil War, he proves a complicated villain with a fair point. But while his personal plot isn’t directly related to fairly American-centric struggles that the other characters are attempting to unpick, his discussion of how super powers lead to dangerous supremacy is yet another example of the show smartly linking its many separate elements to its central theme of abusive power.