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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How The Falcon And The Winter Soldier sets the table for Marvel’s next phase

As Wandavision made abundantly clear, the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame will be felt far, wide, and deeply throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Half of all humanity was just gone for five years, for crying out loud. Who kept up their houses? Who paid their mortgages? Who watched their kids?

The Falcon And The Winter Soldier ventures even further into the emotional turmoil, with Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes dealing with both the loss of their friend and mentor Captain America, as well as with their own issues. Sure, Cap gave Sam the shield, but what does it mean for a Black man to take on the Captain America moniker, and is all of America ready for that shift? Poor Bucky is only just emerging from 70-some years of mind control and ruthless killing, and that’s got to mess a dude up.

With the first episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier now streaming on Disney+, we sat down with the series’ head writer, Malcolm Spellman, to talk about all of that emotional fallout and social strife. We also talked buddy cop movies and what it means to be in law enforcement in 2021. You can watch our chat in the video above, or read the full transcript below.

The A.V. Club: Because this is a Marvel project, there’s not a ton of super specific information out there about what’s to come in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. But in part, it deals with what it means for Sam Wilson to be handed the Captain America shield and moniker in a country that’s still fighting racism daily. How does the show deal with the social realities of life in post-blip Marvel America, as well as in real life America?

Malcolm Spellman: The best thing that could have happened to this show was us being shut down, because we knew from the beginning of doing this project that we wanted to make something that felt super, super relevant. We wanted conflicts and characters and stories and sub-stories and themes… all of that to feel very much of today and of now. Even before we got shut down, we knew that post-blip, with half the world’s population suddenly appearing after five years, everything was spun into chaos. And in the Marvel Universe, every single living being is dealing with the same problem.

Then we get shut down by a global pandemic that is forcing every single living being on this planet, rich or poor, to deal with the same problem. And since we’d already invested in our project from the Marvel Universe, it was an opportunity for us to create connectivity and I would say subtly mirror our two realities.

As far as the issues, listen, Sam is a Black man. As we go home with him, you see he’s really from the struggle. And so there’s no way he could just in good faith take on that symbol because it means something very different in his hands than it does in Steve Rogers’.

AVC: Watching the pilot of the show, there are moments where you’re like, “These guys have been through a lot.” How do you vouch for someone who wasn’t working for five years? And that’s not even talking about what Bucky’s been through.

MS: With the Bucky character, it was so obvious what we were going to have to tackle. That was almost a treat because this dude has not been in his right mind for almost 100 years. He’s 106 years old, which means he doesn’t fit into this era and never had even had an opportunity to fit into any other era because he was being manipulated. But obviously, first and foremost, there’s the volume of people he’s killed, including people in Stark’s family.

We have this line in the series where—I can’t remember if it’s in the first episode, but somewhere in the series—someone tries to make an excuse for him, saying, “Well, you were being manipulated. You had no way of knowing.” He says, “No, I remember every one,” which means he believes a part of him was there and present. And if that’s the case, isn’t he the monster that Hydra made him out to be? So, yeah, he’s got a lot to deal with. And as you’ll see, we brought it into his face in a very, very personal and direct way.

AVC: Obviously, it’s hard to draw direct through lines from one show to the end of a Marvel phase, but how do you think The Falcon pushes things forward? Like, “When we left Endgame, we were here. Now, in this show, we’re here.”  

MS: Well, I think the first thing it does is that it directly references the state of being of Endgame not anecdotally, but as the defining thing on the planet. Every single villain in this show is reacting to what happened post blip. And every single hero is dealing with personal stories that were affected by this blip. This is going to be a terrible metaphor, but it’s almost like Thanos left the dinner table a mess and this series is about to clean off the dinner table.

AVC: Beyond just Falcon and Winter Soldier, the show also features some characters from previous Marvel projects, like Sharon Carter and Zemo and a few unnamed others. As a writer, who were you most excited to have come back, and to be able to investigate?

MS: I’ll tell you who surprised me the most, which is Zemo, in how human he became in the series.

The character that turned into the most fun was Sharon Carter, because Emily [VanCamp] has such a baby face. She looks very sweet and innocent, but Sharon Carter is going to emerge as a badass. I’d have to use far more inappropriate language to describe how awesome she is. Let’s just say this: Sharon Carter is all grown up now. I guess what made it so fun was we started getting to know Sharon in Captain America: Civil War, and you just factor in what would have naturally happened between Civil War and now and you get a whole different Sharon Carter showing up.

AVC: In some of the featurettes and interviews, the cast has said the show is a “buddy comedy,” or a “buddy action movie.” Did you guys watch anything specific in reference when you were writing?

MS: 100 percent. So, we knew on the buddy cop spectrum of tone, you have at the most dramatic end Defiant Ones and at the most comedic end Rush Hour and Ride Along. We didn’t want to be in either one of those places. In the middle, you get 48 Hours, and then your Lethal Weapons, and Bad Boys, and that was the area we decided we wanted to play in. Because what those do with that genre is that they’re able to do is take on real issues, but they deliver them in a way that’s muscular and fun. They never get bogged down, but they also don’t have to shy away from the wheel. So I’d say Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys one, with a little bit of 48 Hours, but not quite that dark of an energy.

AVC: In some ways, the Avengers are “law enforcement.” They are, in the purest sense of the word, enforcing laws. That being said, they’re sort of the best version of law enforcement. As we’ve seen in the movies, often when too many hands get involved, the mission gets mucked up, and power corrupts. How do you view where superheroes are in terms of being the protectors of what’s right and what’s wrong?

MS: It’s funny. The Zemo character is going to lend a lot of voice to that. You can see what he thinks of it. Obviously, all of us are channeled through him a little bit in that Zemo sees all of them as supremacists, and he thinks that people who are endowed with abilities that are extraordinary—like law enforcement or in this case, heroes—are inherently going to abuse their power, and he has a damn good reason to think that. They destroyed his country by using his city as a bomb and killed his entire family along with everyone he knew.

So, Zemo sees himself as a hero in this series, and we wanted him to be able to speak to his motivation in a way that even the audience and sometimes the heroes themselves have to nod and go, “He’s right.”

Marah Eakin is the Executive Producer of all A.V. Club Video And Podcasts. She is also a Cleveland native and heiress to the country's largest collection of antique and unique bedpans and urinals.