“Who do you think you are?” is an oft-issued query to others and to ourselves in a world that’s constantly evolving. The myriad of changes weighs heavy on us mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically as we attempt to make sense of what is happening and anticipate what is coming next. In an effort to compensate for our confusion, we often use cultural artifacts as a means of shielding ourselves from the challenges of this life, or solidifying an identity or persona that makes life more meaningful and manageable. Popular entertainment can be a means of escape from these pressing realities, but if we pay attention to the details, these sources of entertainment may sometimes also serve as an escape to wisdom.
For example, issues of identity are central to Marvel’s latest iteration streaming on Disney + in the form of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Sam Wilson as The Falcon struggles with feeling inadequate to carry on the legacy of Captain America, while James “Bucky” Barnes attempts to make amends for his past sins as an assassin and John Walker vacillates between personal failures to be who everyone wants him to be as the new Captain America, and coming to the realization that the best he can be is a US Agent. Sprinkled throughout the story arcs of these central characters are others who also seek a better understanding of who they are and their purpose after returning to the world after the five-year blip in their existence at the hands of the mad Titan Thanos.
Front and center, this series examines the cultural tensions surrounding racial inequalities in our society. Specifically, the irony of a Black man wearing the symbols of the very nation that oppressed those that look like him, and continues that oppression through institutionalized racism. With Sam’s introduction to Isaiah Bradley, we learn that Isaiah was the recipient of a form of the super soldier serum in the 1950’s. Sam learns that he isn’t the first Black man to be burdened with the task of perpetuating the legacy of Captain America, and that Isaiah– the only member of the test group to benefit from the serum without deadly side effects–was subsequently imprisoned by the government for fear of what he might reveal about the failed experimentation. The resulting exchanges between Sam and Isaiah underscore that not only are individualistic identities shaped by the thoughts and opinions of others, but also collectively we face residual impacts of wholesale historic oppression that no amount of social progress can easily repair. The series addresses these concerns in a powerful way that is instructive and helpful in cultivating our nation’s important conversations about race and equality, while avoiding easy answers that would gloss over the injustices of the past or systemic issues of the present.
The series resonates on multiple levels, because at its heart, the choices faced by the characters in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier aren’t all that different than the challenges all of us face daily. Granted, the decisions we make won’t necessarily save the world or destroy it, but the choices we make with regard to the evolution of our central identities do have very real consequences. Who we think we are, who we aspire to be, and who others see us as, are all contributing ingredients to our emerging identities that shape the world and our collective communities. We all seek redemption, validation, and definition of our place and purpose in this world.
This truth is communicated powerfully in a scene that forces Sam and Bucky to confront the fears that fuel their disagreement over Sam’s initial refusal to pick up Captain America’s shield. In a meeting with Bucky’s government-assigned therapist, she initiates an exercise where Sam and Bucky have to turn and face each other and stare into one another’s eyes. Sam challenges Bucky, “Why are you making such a big deal out of something that has nothing to do with you?” Without missing a beat, Bucky responds,
“Steve believed in you, trusted in you. That shield represents everything he believed in, everything he stood for, it was his legacy. He gave you that shield, and you threw it away like it was nothing. So maybe he was wrong about you, and if he was wrong about you, he was wrong about me!”
This emotional exchange between Sam and Bucky reveals how much our identity is impacted by the investments others have made in our lives, and how those contributions go on to shape our own self-identity. Bucky, in his attempts to earn his place in a new world after all the evil that he had committed in his former life, depended a great deal on the love and friendship that Steve Rogers extended to him. It was Rogers’ affirmation, in Bucky’s mind, that validated his new identity, confirming that he was no longer a mindless killer, but was now among Earth’s mightiest heroes. But it was this same type of affirmation given by the departed Rogers that Sam found simply hard to believe when it came to his own worthiness of the title and legacy of Captain America.
Then there’s John Walker, who is handpicked by the government to take up the mantle made famous by Steve Rogers. Walker is introduced as a near perfect choice to wield the shield. But like so many of us, he has doubts about his ability to rise to the expectations placed upon him, and as far as standards go, Steve Rogers as Captain America is the perfect standard. To compensate for his weaknesses, Walker succumbs to a moment of temptation and injects himself with a strain of the super soldier serum. John Walker then fails at a critical moment when a superior adversary arouses his emotions of self-doubt and grief resulting in an act of violent revenge that the whole world witnesses. Walker is then judged by the very authorities that selected him in the first place to be unworthy of the righteousness the shield represents, revealing the systemic hypocrisy that Rogers himself was confronted with years earlier.
Unlike Walker, Sam refuses to take any serum to augment his strength and his abilities. Sam Wilson, despite his initial doubts, ends up validating Steve Roger’s belief that he was worthy to take up the mantle and the shield of Captain America. Sam is worthy precisely because of what he is willing to do, or in this case not do. Sam Wilson refuses to submit to the expectations of the prevailing wisdom of the world, and instead follows the north star of his own character forged by experience and tempered by battle. Sam Wilson embraces his identity as Captain America when he reveals to the world, “The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.”
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier contain lessons that we as Christians would do well to learn, specifically that our redemption, validation, and identity can’t be found in the expectations or empowerments of this passing world. But rather, it is tethered to another world that centers us in Christ. We can do better, not because of who we are, but ultimately because of who Christ is and what He is producing in us. In the words of 2 Corinthians 3:18 “But we all, with uncovered face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” It is this Holy Spirit that forges in us a new identity of righteous character. Dismissing the notion that any artificial super serums, popularly labeled as money, sex, power or status, provide for us the bona fides to change the world.
Christ alone transforms our identity and saves the world, and in the words of Psalm 33:20, He is the only shield we need: “Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield.”