What ‘The Falcon and The Winter Solider’ Tells us about International Relations
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
This post contains plenty of spoilers for The Falcon and Winter Soldier, a Marvel Studios limited series that is streaming on Disney+/Hotstar. Readers’ discretion is advised.
Image Credits: Marvel
Marvel’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier (FATWS) is its most political project yet. In a three-part series, these articles will look at what this show can tell us about international relations, global politics, race and how it mirrors real-life situations in many ways.
Sovereignty and National Borders
The primary antagonists in this series are the Flag Smashers, a group of super-soldiers led by Karli Morgenthau. The Flag Smashers are a group of anarcho-communists who want a world without borders and are therefore seen as a threat to the world order. However, as much as Marvel tries to convince us that they’re the villains, one can’t help but sympathise with the motives of the group. They believe that nationalism leads to fascism and correctly point out that arbitrary and military-enforced borders lead to state-sanctioned violence in the name of protecting sovereignty and territory. Moreover, in the first couple of episodes, the “crime” they commit is stealing and distributing vaccines, medicines and other essential supplies to refugees and marginalised group as the Global Repatriation Council (GRC) sits on a pile of resources and does nothing with them. As Lieutenant Joaquin Torres explains to Sam, people around the world not only sympathise with their cause but also lend their support to the group.
As the movement grows, Karli becomes increasingly violent by blowing up a GRC office, taking world leaders hostage and killing mercilessly while insisting this is “the only language they (the leaders in charge) can understand”. Essentially, Marvel chooses to turn these radical leftist revolutionaries’ narratives into a terrorist one so that moderate reform is enacted and radicalism condemned. As Gavia Baker-Whitelaw perfectly explains, the “Flag-Smashers are an increasingly familiar type of Hollywood villain: terrorists whose goals seem objectively positive (equality; anti-fascist rebellion), but are demonized by their violent methods. Meanwhile, the heroes stand for a vague and politically neutral brand of “peace” and “justice,” which they support by, uh… violent methods. But it’s fine when they do it, because they’re the good guys.” The Flag Smashers can be thought of as representative of Antifa as America sees it, and are used to essentially peddle the narrative that ‘America is good and refugees are bad’. These radical leftists are given the same treatment that leftists are given in the world: their ideas are painted as extreme, radical and in need of quashing.
We never get a clear explanation about what the Flag Smashers are fighting for, their motives and their history. While their mantra, “one world, one people” is repeatedly echoed, the narrative never explains why this is their rallying cry or what led them to become who they are. There is plenty of speculation that the writers rewrote and omitted a major plotline revolving around an epidemic during post-production, effectively cutting a out a lot of information about the group. Had they gone ahead with this plotline which reportedly could have involved an accidental bioweapon being unleashed onto the world originating from Madripoor, a fictional country in Southeast Asia, Marvel would have undoubtedly received widespread backlash, especially in the light of growing Anti-Asian hate crimes and conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the coronavirus.
Anyway, what the series does allow us to piece together is that after Thanos snapped away half of the universe’s population in Avengers: Infinity War, immigrants and refugees were welcomed in countries that previously kept them out, international borders were more porous than ever and they generally lived a better life. After the Blip in Avengers: Endgame, when the vanished half returned, governments quickly reinstated old immigration laws, tightened borders and prioritised the reintegration of those who returned, causing millions of vulnerable and marginalised people to fall through the cracks. Ultimately, the plight of the Flag Smashers draws parallel to real-life refugee crises caused by cross-border conflicts, calamities etc. and how these groups face the most collateral damage in the event of a global crisis. Karli’s fight is for something bigger than herself, as she says, and its about securing a better future for the vulnerable people who have been abandoned by the GRC.
The idea of sovereignty and integrity of national borders is a recurrent one in the FATWS. The show begins with Sam (as Falcon) flying into Tunisia, home to one of USA’s secret drone bases, to take down a rogue group of criminals before they can fly into Libya, because Sam (and the US?) aren’t authorised to enter its border. Aside from the blatant military propaganda and the heroization of an American operative taking down missionaries outside of its airspace, the sanctity of national borders seems very arbitrary throughout the show, echoing how the US in real life respects some national borders and disregards others. The hypocrisy is as blatant as it can be: Sam and Bucky, American operatives, are somehow tasked to stop the Flag Smashers who seem to largely be based out of East Europe. The antagonists are explicitly anti-patriotic and anti-border and the show badly wants us to believe that borders are integral to the world order and that it is Sam’s job to defend them. In the process, however, they repeatedly move from country to country, cause havoc in civilian neighbourhoods, destroy property and maybe even kill or harm citizens in the process. All of this is justified in the name of stopping a radicalised group of people who rightly identify the problems of, ironically, drawing national borders.
John Walker is presented as a parallel to Sam Wilson. After the US government convinces Sam to turn in the shield given to him by Steve Rogers, it appoints John Walker as the new Captain America because of his excellent track record in the military. Captain America has always symbolised American exceptionalism and idealism but over the course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), he comes to epitomise nobility beyond borders as the stakes grow from saving the country to saving the world to saving the universe. John Walker, however, is tasked to protect and advance American values and given his positionality as a war veteran, he is the perfect government-approved propaganda tool used to defend the nation from internal and external threats. In many ways this echoes the political climate in the US now, where nationalism is on the rise.
Accountability and Interventionism
John and his sidekick, Lemar Hoskins aka Battlestar, are appointed to do the dirty work of the US government particularly through interventionist foreign policy. In their mission to stop the Flag Smashers, they too keep bumping in to Sam and Bucky although the latter’s mission is somehow painted in a more acceptable light even though both duos want the same thing. After Lemar is accidentally killed during a fight, John goes into a fit of rage and ends up murdering Nico, one of the Flag Smashers but not the one who killed Lemar, using the shield and in public view, with bystanders capturing the murder on video. This chilling scene really exemplified the commonplace and normalised practice of American troops killing ‘foreign terrorists’ on foreign soil and the bloody shield ends up personifying modern US foreign policy. John is dishonourably discharged without so much as a slap on the wrist and these optics played out only because of plenty of video footage and public outrage. In real life, there is almost zero accountability for actions like this let alone a chance for court martialling. Although America doesn’t work like this in reality, the show wants you to believe that it does.
By the end of the show, FATWS makes it clear which radical character is presented as more redeemable. If Sam is a centrist, Karli is on his left and John is on his right. Even though both are guilty of killing innocent people, Karli is killed by Sharon Carter but John is given a redemption arc as he tries to save a bunch of hostages from dying and is recruited by Contessa Valentina to become US Agent. It is implied that he will work for a shadowy government agency that does not operate based on regular government regulations and accountability measures. Ultimately, even if the means to the end of Karli’s goal were problematic, she is irredeemable, and it is the white man who used problematic means for problematic end goals, who is validated. The ones who fight against the system are killed while the man who perpetuates the system is rewarded and further entrenched to ensure its continuity.
Even if Sam and Bucky have been portrayed as anti-establishment figures in the past, they are essentially returned to their military roots in this series and presented as ‘good’ people, acting with similar interests to the US government even though they do not technically come under it. They’re presented as the good apples whose hearts and moral compasses are in the right place, in contrast to the bad apples of John, and to a lesser extent Lemar. As Karli describes Sam, he’s “a tool in the regimes” she’s looking to destroy. In the one instance that the show decides to remember Sam’s past as a trauma counsellor and demonstrate his empathy, Sam essentially engages in morally policing Karli, saying that “its not a better place if you’re killing people”, a line that is difficult to take seriously given Sam’s own past in the military. As Gavia explains “Sam and Bucky are classic, individualistic American heroes: a pair of self-motivated men who confront specific enemies in battle. Meanwhile the Flag-Smashers are attempting to tackle a complicated social problem as a community, to enact widespread political change.” The show tries hard to convince us that despite them breaking out Baron Zemo from a high-security prison to help them in their mission, despite their fight to maintain a status quo which is so blatantly shown to be harming millions of people and despite their hypocritical morals and principles, theirs is the good fight. In the end, it’s not very convincing at all.
In the middle of all of these conflicting takes on accountability, interventionism and sovereignty, Wakanda’s elite female warriors, the Dora Milaje, make a brief appearance with one specific goal in mind: to seek justice for the murdering king T’Chaka by capturing Zemo and bring him to the international legal authorities to hold him accountable. Even though they are arguably operating out of their jurisdiction, Ayo shuts up John’s accusations (and hypocrisy) by saying “the Dora Milaje have jurisdiction wherever the Dora Milaje find themselves to be”. Indeed, they come and go discreetly without messing with any local property or people and deliver Zemo to the Raft to be imprisoned for his crimes.
The Global Repatriation Council is the most prominent international organisation featured in FATWS and was established after the Blip and the events of Avengers: Endgame. It is vaguely implied that the GRC was in charge of managing the refugee camps that appeared all over the world due to the displacement of millions of people who lost their jobs or were evicted from their homes. The overcrowding of camps, poor management, lack of access to medicine and food led to distrust and resentment towards the GSP and also bred the formation of the Flag Smashers. While it is not clearly explained in the series, the GRC was set to vote in favour of a global policy that deports all the refugees and displaced people to their place of origin. In many ways, the GRC parallels the United Nations and its top-down models of policy making. While those at the top engage in diplomacy with high-ranking officials, the people whose lives are actually at stake are not even part of the conversations.
Sam’s speech in the final episode to the leaders of the GRC essentially convinces them to backtrack on the Patch Act (to reset the borders and using peacekeeping troops to relocate refugees). While Sam’s monologue rightly pointed out the immense power and influence held by each of these leaders, the complexity of the situation and the impacts their policies could have on multiple stakeholders and the dangers of labelling the Flag Smashers as terrorists, in the end it descends into extremely ambiguous terrain with heavy generalisations. Sam also rightly questions the leaders if the people being impacted are in the room when decisions concerning their lives are being made. However, his speech ends up as an oversimplification as he says, “the only power I have is that I believe we can do better” and urges the leaders to do the same. The next thing we know, the GRC announces changes to in their overall policies of resettlement and repatriation. This whole ordeal almost exactly mirrors what we see play out in politics today. Leaders making promises using vague, general and tokenistic statements. The dismissal or targeting of anyone who questions the system and demands a change in status quo systems. The prioritisation of moderate reform over radical overhaul. After all, the GRC’s slogan is “Reset. Restore. Rebuild.” Indeed, FATWS makes Sam influence policy like its nothing and portrays the problem to be out of touch leaders that need reminding that their decisions impact people instead of pointing the structural and systemic problems caused by, for example, the inherent inequality necessary for capitalism to function or the militarisation of borders. Once again, the show very much like real life leaders, insists that the problem is a few bad apples and not the institutions and systems at play.
Power and Inequality
Last but not the least, FATWS also presents an interesting take on power and inequality. When questioned if he would take the super soldier serum if he had the chance, Lemar tells John that “power makes a person more of themselves”, echoing the scientist Abraham Erskine’s definition back in the first Captain America movie. Baron Zemo’s take on power and supremacy is diametrically the opposite: he believes that the pursuit of power even with good intentions leads to supremacy, as evidenced by the sheer power amassed by the Nazis or even the Avengers. According to him, the “desire to become a superhuman cannot be separated from supremacist ideals”, therefore, the super soldiers or even super heroes will always end up troubling humanity because power corrupts. The best example of this dynamic playing out is in Madripoor, which is described as a lawless island nation that once used to be a pirate sanctuary. The country is split into Low Town and High Town, dividing and separating the rich and the poor and the Power Broker essentially rules High Town. As the name suggests, the Power Broker sells power to their clientele – whether that is manpower, government secrets, super soldier serum, weapons or even famous artworks. Madripoor and the Power Broker are, in many ways, testament to the corruption that is a consequence of the concentration power.