The same week President Joe Biden announced he would pull all US forces from Afghanistan, Disney+ turned an Afghan war-veteran character on its hottest new show into an out-and-out villain — as the character himself revealed that his three Medals of Honor had been awarded not for bravery, selflessness and going above and beyond the call of duty but rather for something vaguely evil.
The program is “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” The character is John Walker, chosen to inspire the nation and the world as the new Captain America.
It’s a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most popular franchise in Hollywood history, with a collective box-office gross of $22.5 billion earned for 23 films released since 2008. Its fare is not merely successful but beloved, and you know why? Because the MCU is fun. It’s playful, high-spirited, emotionally resonant entertainment that knows how not to take itself too seriously.
Until now, the emotional resonance has come from the MCU’s exploration of what it means to be a hero. But “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is trying for something darker and deeper — a reckoning with racism and the monstrousness of American society.
So we learn, for example, that the serum used to turn the neurasthenic Steve Rogers into the strapping Captain America was later injected into the bodies of African Americans in a comic-book version of the Tuskegee experiments.
If you think this through for half a second, it’s a Rube Goldberg plot point. If the US military were an arm and enforcer of white supremacy, why would it have been trying to make super-beings out of black men?
One of the things we learned about Captain America is that he could not be controlled or defeated by any other living being. So how was the military able to imprison the black man on whom it had successfully experimented and continue to torture him for 30 years?
But logic be damned when the point you’re trying to make is that America is evil.
“Them stars and stripes don’t mean nothing good to me,” says this victim/superhero.
We also learn that our terrible authorities threw yet another person into jail to keep her silent — Sharon Carter, a government agent and ally of the old Captain America. “The whole hero thing is a joke,” she bitterly informs the title characters when they encounter her.
The didactic anti-Americanism here is a little like getting a lecture on proper nutrition from the guy at a concession stand as he sells you a giant box of diabetes-causing candy.
And what of John Walker, the new Captain America? He confesses to a friend that “the things that we had to do in Afghanistan to be awarded those medals felt a long way from being right.”
He’s calling himself a war criminal rather than a hero — and says that becoming Captain America is important to him because it will allow him to do good at last. Then, 10 minutes later, Walker uses his shield to beat a man to death in a public square.
The symbolic meaning is clear. America is compromised at best and pernicious at worst, and John Walker is a more honest representation of the truth about the United States than Steve Rogers ever was.
Ten years ago, such a depiction of an American veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would not have been possible — certainly not in escapist fare. Everyone knew to say “Thank you for your service” even (or maybe especially) if you hated the wars.
Now the largest and most successful entertainment company on Earth — whose success is based in large measure on its ability to appeal to Americans as various as those who vote for AOC and those who vote for Marjorie Taylor Greene — has made a bad guy out of a character it invented who’s not only a decorated veteran but the most decorated veteran of the past 20 years.
It’s no wonder Biden felt free to make the announcement he did, given that the company bearing Walt Disney’s name has become part of the campaign to tarnish America’s image as a force for good in the world.