The Hero’s Journey: Trauma and Catharsis in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Marvel Studios is known for their action-packed blockbuster films starring classic heroes like Iron Man and Captain America. But they’ve taken a more nuanced approach to their first Disney+ shows. In the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier explores PTSD and trauma recovery, in a world eerily parallel to ours.

*Note: I am not the first to describe these connections, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the plethora of online discourse around this show. There will be spoilers along with the general theme discussions.

As the titular Falcon, Sam Wilson endeavors to expand a longstanding legacy and restore justice to a neglected community. After being given Steve’s shield in Endgame, the Falcon promptly turns it over to the Smithsonian. This allows the government to promptly undermine his decision by enlisting John Walker as “the new Captain America”. Much of the first three episodes centers on Sam and Bucky’s disagreement over Sam’s choice Sam’s other key plotline is learning Isaiah Bradley’s story and letting it reshape his perspective.

While Sam attempts to show others the errors of their ways, Bucky Barnes’s central question is “how can I forgive myself for the wrongs I* have committed?” He is a sweet and sensitive soul, smothered in trauma, and glazed with sarcasm as a coping mechanism. In episode one, we see him befriending the elderly Yori, but the friendship is more of an obligation for Bucky. His character arc starts when he reunites with Sam, mainly to yell at him for giving up the Shield. Bucky makes amends with Zemo and pays his respect to the Dora Milaje, who freed him from HYDRA in Wakanda. (“The World is Watching “)

*While Bucky was the one physically committing the murders, he had no conscious choice in the matter, as he admits to Yori in the final episode (“One World, One People”). Throughout the show, Bucky wrestles with his past and tries repeatedly to make amends. But as Sam points out (“Truth”), he can go about it a different way.

This image encapsulates how the events of the show have given Bucky catharsis and peace.

John Walker serves as a foil to the heroes’ exploration of self acceptance. His assigned role as the new Captain America is less out of passion and more out of duty. His sidekick Lemar Hoskins provides a solid voice of reason, but when Lemar is indisposed, John loses his mind. He has centered his identity in his new job in order to repress his war traumas; when he is stripped of his titles (part 1 and part 2) (“Truth”) , he becomes a dangerous man.

Isaiah Bradley epitomizes the answer to Langston Hughes’s iconic question “What happens to a dream deferred?” As the first Black super-soldier, he is punished for carrying out the same escapades as Steve. His justice comes at the very end of episode 6, seeing a monument to his story in the Smithsonian.

Kari Morgenthau serves as one of two main “villains” of the show.. After the events of Endgame leave her in a refuge camp (because Marvel politics don’t make sense), she fights to restore the world to its state under Thanos’s reign. While misguided, her efforts resonate with Sam, and their conversation (“Truth”) shows that they have the same goals; to represent those without a voice and hold those in power accountable. Karli loses her fight, but Sam takes up her mantle (“One World, One People”) and uses his platform to carry on her voice.

Karli has the most character parallels of the cast. She, Isaiah, and Sam all know what it is to be under-represented and fight to make a change. In the most obvious parallel, Karli asks “How many times do we have to pay with our lives just to be citizens of this goddamn planet!” (“Truth”, 17:08). This is the same question Isaiah and Sam ask each other, and they come up with very different answers. One could also argue that John and Karli parallel each other in their neglected state

John Walker isn’t meant to be a likable character, but he’s a sharp parallel to Isaiah. Both are pawns of the US government, both are abused and forgotten by the said government, but John’s methods align with Karli’s destructive tendencies. John is allowed to brutally desecrate the legacy of the shield because he is a white man, while Isaiah is imprisoned and tortured for attempting to honor that same legacy.

This says it all. Double standards ruin lives.

I noticed that the scene of Isaiah’s grandson playing basketball is a callback to the opening of Black Panther. In Black Panther, we see Kilmonger plays basketball as his dad dies, and then he gets neglected and goes on a revenge quest. Eli on the other hand gets to witness his grandfather’s justice in a way Kilmonger never could.

While not directly dealing with trauma, Sharon Carter’s arc in this show is worth discussing. It’s fascinating, but it’s missing a LOT of contexts. When we meet Sharon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she’s a SHIELD agent planted in Steve’s apartment. She gets more screen time in Captain America: Civil War, and a beautiful eulogy to her aunt Peggy, but this earnest patriotism makes her reveal as the Power Broker all the more confusing. It’s an insane ideological leap, and I have so many questions. How long has she been a double agent? What motivated her to betray her aunt’s legacy? Is Sharon past the point of redemption? She has the potential to be an amazing long-term villain, but we need more answers first.

This also represents confused audience members.

Helmut Zemo serves a strange purpose in this story. He acts as a “Loki figure” – a redeemed villain begrudgingly helping Sam and Bucky. His own trauma, shown in Age of Ultron and explored in Captain America: Civil War, leads him to the same destructive tendencies as John Walker, but less overtly. His conversation with Bucky (“Truth”) is a beautiful moment, but his final scene (“One World, One People”) shows that he can’t yet truly release his grudge. Zemo helping Sam and Bucky parallels Bucky’s friendship with Yori, but all the cards are on the table upfront in this case.

These parallels and dualities show the effects of processing trauma in healthy or unhealthy ways. The show manages to pack some intense character arcs and transformations into only six hours. I recommend this show to anyone who appreciates complex characters and has a general understanding of the MCU.

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