Warning: Major spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
He didn’t have to do anything for us to hate him. All John Walker (Wyatt Russell) had to do to earn our ill will was not be Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Falcon relinquished the shield Steve Rogers gave to him out of an abiding respect for his friend, a sense that what the original Captain America accomplished was unique and personal. Handing that symbol of Steve’s accomplishments over to the Smithsonian was a sign that Sam intended to honor his friend’s legacy without taking on his mantle. So, when some random new guy assumes that mantle, replete with the shield Falcon relinquished under false pretenses, he is, naturally, a magnet for the audience’s disdain.
Our first glimpse of John Walker cuts a visceral contrast between the African American Avenger chosen to be Steve’s successor by the man himself, with a lily white usurper chosen by the government. The new Cap carries that once-hallowed, now-purloined artifact, and the optics alone make him a walking symbol of long-standing injustices. With one little smirk at the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s series premiere, John Walker instantly became audience enemy No. 1.
And yet, the smartest thing the show does with Walker is to humanize the guy the very next time we see him. The show’s second episode opens with a series of endearing (or at least exculpatory) details about Walker and his life. However much this fake Cap may represent the specter of racism, the show presents him as someone who isn’t personally racist. We meet his best friend and brother-in-arms, Lemar “Battlestar” Hoskins (Clé Bennett), and his wife, Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss), both people of color. More to the point, those two confidantes instantly read as kind, warm individuals who have lived-in relationships with John and care about him. Watching the way other people care about someone can make that person feel more real and make it easier for viewers to warm to them.
It’s also easier to read Walker as something other than a usurper when we learn that he didn’t ask for this role. He was, unbeknownst to him, chosen for it, in view of his impeccable record as a soldier. Nevertheless, we see how seriously he takes this unexpected responsibility. John calls it the greatest honor of his life. He talks to his wife about knowing this is something different from his previous assignments, something special, while also struggling with the expectations that come with it. He’s not interested in the glad-handing or the glory; just in “doing the job.”
In that way, despite the presentation of him as a paragon of perfection, he’s made fallible. Lemar asks if he’s puked yet, an apparent nervous ritual. John practices his “Good Morning, America” greeting to no one in particular, beating himself up when it doesn’t quite measure up. He’s afraid to fail at this monumental task, insecure in private despite needing to beam confidence in public. And, most of all, he has to be reassured by the people who love him, something that brings him down to earth and makes him seem more relatable and human.
Maybe this guy isn’t so bad. He wouldn’t be the first person in the MCU — let alone the real world — to strive to be a decent guy and just do his job, while unwittingly being a tool of malevolent forces. (See, uh, most of S.H.I.E.L.D.) There are hints at a few red flags in the early going, but for the most part, when Falcon and the Winter Soldier firmly introduces this new Captain America, it frames him as a good guy who didn’t ask for this, striving to live up to an impossible legacy, who’s undeserving of our reflexive scorn, if not yet worthy of our admiration.
But then we see him actually being Captain America, and slowly come to revile him all over again, only this time for reasons more complex and profound. When in-role, there’s a sense of entitlement to Walker. And despite those hints at self-doubt, he quickly brushes off any dismay or dissent and assumes things he has not yet earned
John tells a reporter that, even though he never met his predecessor, Steve “feels like a brother” to him, something that’s anathema to Bucky (Sebastian Stan), the closest thing the real Cap had to an actual brother. When Bucky challenges Walker on whether he’s truly earned the right to become Captain America, the new guy declares, “I’ve done the work,” using the old canard of concerted effort as a fig leaf to excuse disparities in opportunity. He laughs off the way Sam blanches at an invasion of his privacy by pointing to government property rights and claiming the aegis governmental authority, with all the presumed right that comes with it.
Worst of all, at the end of the day, Walker wants to commandeer Falcon and The Winter Soldier not as partners, but as his “wingmen.” He thinks he’s doing them a favor — when he leaps in for the fight with the Flag Smashers or springs Bucky from prison — not simply helping because help is what’s needed. Walker takes on an air of familiarity he isn’t entitled to, insisting that the duo should follow his lead, expecting that they owe him and will act accordingly, and when they refuse, practically ordering them to stay out of his way.
Walker may lack any explicit prejudice, but exudes the softer bigotry of privilege. He views himself as the center of this, instantly assuming leadership and expecting deference from Cap’s allies, the Dora Milaje, and anyone else he runs into. It not only makes Sam and Bucky bristle, but demonstrates how this new Captain America lacks the grace and collegial spirit that Steve Rogers embodied from beginning to end.
That’s what’s so troubling about the latest chapter in Walker’s story, where after being embarrassed in combat by the Dora Milaje, he decides to take the super soldier serum. His best friend tells him that the serum doesn’t change you; it just makes you more of what you already are. If so, the John Walker we’ve seen in the first half of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t just presumptuous; he’s dangerous.
As his mission continues, Walker’s practiced gentility soon curdles into angry bitterness. When people don’t buy his routine, his temper emerges and his principles falter. He’s willing to take liberties to “get the job done,” rather than striving to do things the right way, knowing that good results will keep anyone important from questioning his methods. Even Battlestar acknowledges that John’s default method is to “punch [his] way out of problems.”
To the point, in the series’ third episode, he grows violent with a suspect at the first sign of disrespect and shouts those six damning words: “Do you know who I am?” In the next, he’s impatient to the point of fuming when Falcon wants to try a non-violent, empathetic approach to Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and eventually comes in swinging. In a private moment, he seems earnest in his desire to finally do something that feels right. But it’s scary to think about what that might look like when a man with his demons has them magnified to larger-than-life extremes and becomes hellbent on gaining vengeance for his fallen friend. It’s telling that Sam’s the kind of person who’ll sympathize with his foes and aim to talk them down, while his counterpart is the kind who ends up with a shield covered in blood.
At the end of the day, though, John Walker doesn’t just represent the opposite of Sam Wilson; he represents the opposite of Steve Rogers. John treats the role itself as the thing that makes him deserving of deference and authority, whereas for Steve, it was the man who elevated the role and earned that level of respect. John was chosen for his acumen as a soldier and his physical gifts, while Steve, who wasn’t exactly an accomplished warrior, was chosen for his heart and his soul. John was a high school sports hero; Steve was a scrawny pipsqueak. John fell on grenades knowing his reinforced helmet would protect him; Steve did to save lives no matter the cost to himself. John is American power personified, while Steve stood for our nation’s greater ideals.
When Steve passed the shield onto Sam, it was because he saw a kindred spirit, capable of carrying those ideals into a new age. Sam’s hesitance to assume Steve’s role, his reluctance to carry that shield after he learns of the atrocities committed in the name of what it represents, ironically show why he’s the worthiest hero to wield it.
John Walker is neither worthy of that honor nor built to handle this challenge. When we first meet him, we resent him for his mere existence, without a single word, because of what he represents. The next time we see him, it’s easier to warm to him, to understand him as a human being caught up in all of this, and not just as a walking affront to our heroes. But from that understanding emerges newer, deeper reasons to disdain him, not just for the subtler but no less pernicious forms of prejudice he embodies, but for the person he is, and isn’t.