Plot summary: Sam & Bucky form a prickly partnership as they pick up the trail of the Flag-Smashers, finding themselves uneasy allies of the new Captain America, John Walker.
Episode Title: ‘The Star-Spangled Man’
Air Date: March 26th 2021
Directed: Kari Skogland (2)
Written: Michael Kastelein (1)
Isaiah Bradley debuted in Truth: Red, White & Black, as one of several black solders experimented on to try and replicate Steve Rogers’ super-soldier serum in a reference to the Tuskegee Study.
Speaking of Bradley, he is the grandfather of Young Avengers leader Elijah Bradley aka Patriot, who answers the door to Sam and Bucky. This could point to Marvel building the eventual YA roster one project at a time, as members have included Billy & Tommy Maximoff (WandaVision), a child version of Loki (Loki), Kate Bishop (Hawkeye), Kamala Khan (Ms Marvel) and America Chavez (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness).
In the comics Battlestar originally went by Bucky to make the Captain America rip-off even more overt, until the racist connotations of the name were pointed out to Marvel by fans, quickly moving him on the alias used here.
John Walker appears on Good Morning America on a stage in the middle of the football field of his old high school, with the marching band playing a rendition of Star-Spangled Man, the song used to promote Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger.
We learn that Walker is the only three-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, and medical study of his body has found him to basically be the closest one can get to Steve without chemical enhancement. Walker expresses his admiration for his predecessor, naturally.
The interview does not sit well with Bucky, who accosts Sam in the middle of his preparation for a mission to Munich to find the Flag-Smashers. Sam insists the group are of greater concern than Walker, so Bucky forces his way onto the operation.
The pair bicker over the best way to confront their targets, who are loading stolen medicine onto trucks. Bucky boards one of them and finds what he believes to be a hostage, but is in fact the group’s baby-faced leader, Karli Morgenthau, who promptly starts kicking his ass.
A skirmish erupts atop the two trucks, with the new Captain America and his sidekick, Lemar ‘Battlestar’ Hoskins, joining the fray to even the odds, but the Flag-Smashers’ superhuman strength proves too much and they escape.
Walker and Hoskins pick Sam & Bucky up and the two groups swap notes on the Flag-Smashers, who are stealing from the Global Repatriation Council. The government representatives end up irritating Sam and Bucky, so they go their own way.
Seeking a lead on how the villains acquired their superhuman abilities, Bucky takes Sam to meet Isaiah Bradley, a retired black super-soldier who Bucky clashed with during his Winter Soldier days before he was abandoned by the government, imprisoned, and experimented on for 30 years.
Sam is furious with Bucky for not telling him earlier, with police nearly arresting him for no reason until they realise he’s an Avenger. Ironically, it’s Bucky that ends up in handcuffs, as he missed his mandated therapy.
Elsewhere, the Flag-Smashers accept shelter from a sympathiser, filling us in on their motivations, feeling that the recently-returned receive preferential treatment at the expense of those who survived The Blip.
Apparently they broke an alliance with an individual called ‘The Power Broker’, who sends agents to kill them, but they escape again thanks to one member staying behind to sacrifice himself.
John Walker gets Bucky released and permanently excused from his therapy, but Dr. Raynor insists on one final session, essentially putting he and Sam through couple’s counselling. They trade childish barbs, argue about Steve, and agree to complete the mission and go their separate ways.
Afterwards, Walker makes another attempt at an alliance but again rubs the duo the wrong way, so Sam rejects the offer. Walker warns them to stay out of his way. Bucky realises one of Isaiah’s comments was about Hydra, so he and Sam end the episode agreeing to interrogate Zemo, still in a Berlin prison after the events of Civil War.
I said last week that this episode needed to bring it, and while I think it was better, the series still feels like something that failed to get green-lit as a movie, so it was instead chopped up and padded out to become an intensely mediocre TV show.
Much of the improvement comes from getting the two heroes together so they can bounce off each other, and while they do have chemistry, some of the writing of their banter could have been punched up a bit.
I enjoyed the 2021 update of the government’s propaganda machine to mirror Captain America: The First Avenger, with Walker already having his own logo and action figure and making a big appearance on Good Morning America. Walker in general was the best part of the episode.
The truck-top fight scene would have suited as an end of first act set-piece in a movie if a little more money were spent on it, with Sam zipping between cars and he and Walker making dramatic saves of their respective partners. It was a little too brief, but a definite improvement on the so-so aerial mission last week.
Their awkward attempts to address racism went from half-hearted to too on the nose, with Sam only avoiding a wrongful arrest because of his celebrity status. They lack the vocabulary to handle the Isaiah story properly, but I do think it adds something to Sam’s ongoing struggles with legacy.
Most Marvellous Player
While he looks intensely strange to me with short hair and no beard, Wyatt Russell was shockingly good in his first proper outing as John Walker. While he and Sam are heading towards an inevitable fight over the shield, the way he plays him in the opening has me hoping Walker will ultimately have his “are we the baddies?” moment.
He nails the quiet anxiousness to just forgo the pomp and circumstance and get on with doing good (or good as he understands it at least), with nice touches like him peeling back a name on a locker to see his own underneath, practicing his lines for GMA, and the earnestness of his pep talks from his wife and Hoskins. He demonstrates the ability to switch between a humble small-town boy and incredibly punchable, with his attitude becoming increasingly cocky, struggling to engage in banter without coming off as a prick.
Sebastian Stan continues to be the better of the two leads in my opinion, with Anthony Mackie mostly getting by on charisma. Both characters have issues they’re refusing to properly confront, but Sam’s total evasion of the topic of his self-esteem and feelings of betrayal by the government don’t leave Mackie with as much to work with compared to Bucky, who is openly struggling to leave his violent life behind and bumping up closer to admitting Sam and Steve’s friendship made him feel jealous, resentful and riddled with self-doubt. This does create an awkward situation where they’re actively engaging in the very thing they’re pointing in the vague direction of.
Two episodes in and we already have too many antagonistic elements in play. From the Flag-Smashers to US Agent & Battlestar, to ‘The Power Broker’ and now the return of Zemo there’s a lot to address moving forward. Presumably some of them will eventually be revealed to be one and the same, but still.
John Walker is the highpoint, with his use of a gun while wearing the iconic costume providing a jarring reminder that he is NOT Steve Rogers. That being said, I appreciated the degrees they went to establish he’s the closest thing to him, with his decorated military career and having hurled himself on four grenades to Steve’s one. It would be a far less interesting story if he were just some dude, in my opinion. Starting out saying all the right things, he starts throwing his weight around, and annoys Sam by labelling him a sidekick, firmly establishing them as enemies by the episode’s end.
The Flag-Smashers got a leader in Karli Morenthau who… just spouts some generic rhetoric. I like Erin Kellyman, but there’s just so little to actually work with so far. They think Thanos Was Right, essentially. More specifically that too many people are fighting over too few resources, with Karli and her team apparently feeling the erosion of certain power structures led to a more unified world. Could that be interesting? Absolutely. Will it be? Probably not.
Evan Narcisse wrote an excellent piece called ‘The Blackest Superhero Story That Marvel Comics Ever Published‘, which delves into elements of Isaiah Bradley and is well worth a read.
Check out The Matt Signal, in which I recap episodes of Batman the Animated Series every weekend. This week Catwoman struggles to resist slipping into old habits, and Bane comes to town.