Captain America has always been more than his shield, but let face it — the shield is his iconic thing for a reason. It’s instantly recognizable in the MCU as a symbol that he who bears this vibranium token is worthy to represent all that America can and should be to the world. Steve Rogers upheld his own ideals even when the country he represented branded him a criminal, and his dedication to doing the right thing earned him a place of respect among even his enemies. In his hands, the shield made good things happen.
Which is why it’s particularly difficult to see that shield, the legacy of the first Avenger, used as a weapon in a cold-blooded murder — as John Walker used it in the final shocking moments of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 4, “The Whole World is Watching.” This is not the legacy Steve wanted or deserved. There are two more episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to go, but if we’re being honest, we’re done with this dude. Enough. Return to sender.
Steve himself left the shield to Sam Wilson specifically because he trusted his friend to take over the mantle. Sam would make good things happen too, honoring his friends legacy in ways that we see John Walker is thoroughly ill-equipped.
Let’s comprehensively recap why Sam Wilson would positively whip as Captain America and John Walker can kick rocks in hell.
In the past four episodes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has made the argument Steve Rogers thought went without saying in the final scenes of Endgame: Sam Wilson deserves to be Captain America. There is no other hero in the MCU who not only upholds Steve’s ideals but has the strength of character to evolve the Cap mantle if and when he takes it up. With the final dose of super serum now running in John Walker’s garbage veins, it’s unlikely that Sam will ever have the enhanced powers Steve did, but it is precisely how he behaves without super strength that makes him the true heir to the shield.
Sam’s first appearance in the MCU was one of the funnier introductions for a future Avenger. Steve lapped him dozens of times while they jogged around the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool (“on your left!”) and clearly demonstrated his augmented physicality. But instead of feeling emasculated, Sam cracked a joke and befriended Steve by connecting over their shared experience as veterans. When he became an Avenger, Sam was never intimidated by the gods, geniuses, and superhumans on his team because he knew his contributions had value even if he didn’t have powers.
There is no other hero in the MCU who not only upholds Steve’s ideals but has the strength of character to evolve the Cap mantle.
That faith in his ability to help without being “special” is a key characteristic of Captain America. Steve Rogers committed fraud in his fervor to enlist and fight in World War II, and it was that desire to do his part even though he’d definitely get his ass kicked that made him the perfect candidate for Dr. Erskine’s serum. Steve was clever, empathetic, and self-sacrificing, and the serum only allowed him to act on those inherently good traits with greater efficacy. He didn’t know he was worthy and that made him all the worthier.
Sam also doubts his worthiness in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier; he didn’t trust Steve’s call to name him the new Cap and threw away his chance to continue Steve’s legacy. Of course, Sam’s choice to give up the shield is legitimately influenced by his experience as a Black man and hero in the MCU’s America, but if he thought he deserved to carry on Steve’s name he wouldn’t have given the shield to the Smithsonian. As of episode 4, it’s clear that he’s regretting that decision, considering it led to John “I’m The Worst” Walker becoming Captain America — a “hero” whose lack of humility only highlight’s Sam’s personal strengths.
In episode 4, Sam nearly sways Karli over to his side simply by being kind and understanding of her position. He sees the connections between his situation as a Black man in danger of losing his family home and her righteous fury over being kicked out of the home she made during the Blip. His empathy and actionable commonality with subjugated people are what a modern Captain America needs to have in the post-Blip MCU, which could not be more incompatible with John Walker’s puffed-up American exceptionalist bravado. When Sam’s “wingman” Riley died, Sam left the military and became a counselor for veterans with PTSD; when John’s sidekick died, he bisected a man with Captain America’s shield. Steve might not have predicted that John Walker would stain his name with blood, but he knew nothing like that would be possible if a man like Sam had the shield. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
Whether you’re a Marvel comics reader or not, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was clearly never setting up John Walker to be a worthy Captain America. From the first moment when those ears appeared smugly wielding the shield in episode 1, Sam and the audience knew that whatever this was, it isn’t what Steve wanted. John may be the modern ideal of the American soldier, but his flaws force us to question that ideal and whether it holds up. Even in peak physical condition with three medals of honor, he’s no Steve Rogers — and he knows it.
John took this job in the beefy shadow of the Cap who preceded him, and his insecurity has been apparent throughout. While Sam Wilson gave up the shield when he felt unworthy but continued to uphold Steve’s work and honor, John Walker swings around his vibranium calling card like a schoolyard bully. He lords it over Sam because he thinks it’s the only difference between them, the only thing that matters, because it’s the only concrete evidence he has of any physical superiority.
As anyone who knows anything about Captain America knows — perhaps Karli’s new friend, the lifelong Cap stan? — the shield doth not make the man. Despite John’s snarky suggestion that he could only fight Sam fairly without it, he takes on three Dora Milaje and gets his ass handed to him (not America’s ass). It’s no accident that what drives John over the edge is getting beat by a bunch of girls — a group of skilled Black women with vibranium weapons. He gets knocked down and gives up, when that skinny kid from Brooklyn would’ve stood right back up with a weary “I could do this all day.”
As anyone who knows anything about Captain America knows, the shield doth not make the man.
We’ve known since as far back as Erskine himself that the super-soldier serum amplifies a person’s qualities. “Good becomes great,” he told Steve the night before his procedure in Captain America: The First Avenger. “Bad becomes worse.” As Lemar put it in episode 4, “Power just makes a person more of themselves.” When John takes the serum — as he presumably does, off-screen, between this conversation and the final showdown with the Flag Smashers — his every foible is exacerbated: the self-doubt, the physical violence, the hostility.
Despite his similarities to Steve Rogers on paper, the differences are what comes through when John becomes a super-soldier, and starts punching his way out of a problem in all the wrong ways. After Karli ostensibly kills Lemar in the confrontation, John is out for blood, when Sam told Zemo just that day that “Blood isn’t always the solution.” John brings the shield down over Karli’s Captain America-loving associate, just as Steve once brought it down over Tony Stark — but John aims to kill, and he doesn’t hesitate.
“The Whole World is Watching” also makes a point to position Karli in these conversations about the serum. Her friend tells her she’s more like Captain America than she thinks, and that their work will outlast the legacy of a piece of metal. Even Lemar mentions her in the same breath as Steve Rogers when he’s talking about the serum’s effects. John might have the spangly outfit and the fancy frisbee, but Karli is as much a testament to Erskine’s research and the intricacy of world-changing ideology. We have somehow ended up with a show about four radically divergent Captain Americas, and only one true Cap will emerge. — Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter
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