Nick Spencer’s Captain America, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the Fetishization of Black Pain

Nick Spencer’s run on Captain America was, to put it mildly, controversial. When Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 was released on May 25, 2016, it did what so much hyped-up pop culture claims to do: it broke the Internet.

The series saw Rogers back in fighting form, restored to his youth after a few years as an elderly curmudgeon. Most of the first issue seemed like standard Captain America fare until the final pages. Revealing himself as a turncoat, Cap pushes fellow superhero Jack Flag out of a jet and then utters “Hail Hydra” to a tied-up Dr. Erik Selvig.

As Abraham Riesman put it in a 2017 retrospective after Spencer’s run had ended:

You could be forgiven for thinking this cliffhanger was a little boilerplate.

Or you could think it was downright offensive. That was the stance taken by legions of Marvelheads in the immediate aftermath of the comic’s release, and the first few weeks of the so-called #HydraCap fight were truly bonkers. The basic critique was that Spencer and Marvel had perverted a beloved character for (in critics’ eyes) the shallow purpose of drumming up shock. There were variants on that critique, such as the accusation that turning a character created by Jews (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) into a member of a fascist group was tantamount to anti-Semitism, or that Marvel was moving away from what some fans perceive as the character’s queer subtext.

Most of the criticism was civil, if heated, but a frightening handful of people went so far as to send death threats to Spencer and those who defended his story decision.

Why bring this up years later? Well, the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is slated to premiere next month (although who knows with filming delayed due to COVID-19). The six-episode series has a rare opportunity to right the wrongs of the comic books. No, I’m not talking about Steve Rogers becoming a Nazi. I’m talking about depicting an authentic experience of “Black Joy” with the character of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who is poised to take over as Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Nick Spencer starting writing the Sam Wilson iteration of Captain America with the October 14, 2015 release of Captain America: Sam Wilson #1. This wasn’t, however, the first appearance of the character in that role. Rogers handed the shield over to Wilson in Captain America #25, written by Rick Remender and released in 2014. Then Wilson soared into his own series, All-New Captain America, also written by Remender.

When Spencer took over as the primary writer of Wilson’s Captain America a year later, he very quickly put his stamp on the character. At that point Wilson had been around for 46 years, having debuted as the Falcon in Captain America #117, written by Stan Lee with art by Gene Colan, in 1969. Many credit the Falcon as being the first mainstream African-American superhero.

What’s strange about the Falcon’s publication history is his story has very rarely been guided by African-American writers. There are a few notable exceptions: He starred in a four-issue miniseries in 1983 written by Jim Owsley, who changed his name to the more recognizable Christopher Priest in 1993, and Rodney Barnes wrote Falcon’s only ongoing series in 2017 after Steve Rogers, restored to his true non-Hydra self, became Captain America again.

Wilson’s tenure as Captain America was (and correct me if I’m wrong on this) exclusively handled by white men. Not only did Nick Spencer write Wilson’s solo title, but Al Ewing wrote the series Captain America & The Mighty Avengers and Mark Waid wrote All-New, All-Different Avengers and The Avengers. And it seems clear that while The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will draw on many popular storylines, it is going to take direct inspiration from Spencer’s run.

Spencer’s take on Sam Wilson’s Captain America was, to say the least, problematic. I enjoy it and commend Spencer’s effort to incorporate modern politics, but it falters in several key areas that can possibly be attributed to a lack of “black authenticity.” I wrote about black authenticity once before with the Rocky film series. That franchise’s take on race gradually evolved over decades, eventually being claimed by African-American creators with Ryan Coogler on Creed (2015) and Steven Caple Jr. on Creed II (2018). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has a similar opportunity to be reclaimed with black authenticity by the inclusion of Malcolm Spellman as showrunner.

But what aspects of Spencer’s run could benefit from a black perspective? Both Captain America: Sam Wilson and Captain America: Steve Rogers culminated in the summer 2017 crossover event Secret Empire. Secret Empire saw the evil Hydra Steve Rogers become the ruler of the United States. Under his reign, mutants are segregated into a section of Western California, Inhumans are rounded up and put in concentration camps (not very subtle, and perhaps even prescient when it came to the camps at the Mexican border), and the rest of the country is ruled with an iron fist. All throughout this story and in the issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers leading up to it, Spencer dropped another Internet-breaking plot point: Red Skull’s use of a Cosmic Cube to make Rogers loyal to Hydra actually restored the “original” timeline. Rogers was always meant to be a Hydra agent, and it was the Allies in World War II who first used a Cosmic Cube to change history.

What was Spencer trying to accomplish here — aside from trolling? He seemed to be making a single point, and making it over and over again: America’s idea of itself, as a beacon of liberty and democracy, was built on a lie, and the structure is crumbling due to a rotten foundation.

Fair point, Spencer. The last few weeks have certainly seen this country attempt to reckon with its history of imperialism, white supremacy and militarization of the police.

The problem is Spencer pulls his punches. He repeatedly emphasizes that Rogers embodies the real, more pure Hydra — described in Secret Empire as believing in “The strong ruling the weak, for the good of all” — that has been around since the dawn of man. They also don’t have an ideology of hate. The modern Hydra is simply a byproduct of Nazi co-opting, with the Red Skull recruiting Neo-Nazis and other hate groups. Rogers’s organization ends up with the trappings of fascism without the belief, not unlike how Lindsay Ellis describes the First Order in the Star Wars sequels:

And Rogers himself is surprisingly reasonable throughout the 19 issues of his own series. He’s not a racist, as he genuinely respects Wilson. His friendship with Bucky Barnes in World War II was real. He fails to follow orders and kill Dr. Abraham Erskine, the creator of the super soldier serum, so Helmut Zemo has to do it. And his aspirations to rule the world stem more from the tried-and-true belief in law and order. It’s almost like Spencer was saying that Rogers’s fascism was…just a difference of opinion?

The Captain America: Sam Wilson series had a bit more nuance and felt more bold in its provocations. When the series starts Wilson is on the outs with a (not-yet-Hydra) Rogers for supporting an Edward Snowden/WikiLeaks-esque hacker called The Whisperer who has been revealing unethical practices by S.H.I.E.L.D., and for holding a press conference in which he “took a side” on several hot-button issues (that are never revealed). The very first arc has Wilson fighting a white supremacist group called Serpent Solutions (derived from old Captain America opponents, the Sons of the Serpent) who are attacking illegal immigrants at the border. This storyline leads to a later issue that sees Wilson reluctantly protecting an Ann Coulter analog, Ariella Conner, from liberal activists called the Bombshells.

What’s startling is Spencer’s characterization of the Bombshells as naive conflations of every Boomer’s idea of Gen Z. As Matt Kim of Inverse explains:

Then Spencer also goes ahead and includes a group of villains who try to assassinate Conner with a grenade, all-the-while yelling, “Consider this your trigger warning.”

It’s not so much his decision to lampoon the Tumblr-contingent that’s upsetting. But the characterization of these criminals as would-be murderers who also espouse a pretty basic level of social consciousness is incredibly cringe-worthy, and reads like an ill-thought out cheap shot that’s punching down on certain readers.

Really, it’s kind of just embarrassing.

Who was Spencer’s target audience here? Was he trying to appeal to the ComicsGate crowd, who staunchly resist diversity for diversity’s sake? Did he have Wilson reject Social Justice Warriors in order to be considered “one of the good ones,” a Ben Carson or Milo Yiannopoulos or Candace Owens who turns against allies to be accepted and avoid making too many waves?

And who even is Sam Wilson? In the comics his past is a bit convoluted. He’s introduced as a former social worker but is later revealed to have been a criminal whose memories were altered by another tricky Cosmic Cube. Writers over the years have volleyed back and forth on which background to lean in to, but Spencer retains the social worker angle. He also emphasizes Wilson’s Christian faith and his relationship with his preacher brother, Gideon. In Generations, an immediate follow-up to Secret Empire that ties up some plot and character threads, Spencer actually has Wilson thrown back in time to World War II, showing him living an entire lifetime that culminates in also becoming a preacher.

By contrast, Mackie’s Wilson in the movies seems more likely to fit into the role of Captain America. He served in the Air Force and in Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) he’s a counselor at a VA in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been given a lot to do in the six movies he’s appeared in. One of his biggest character moments is a low-key rivalry with fellow African-American superhero War Machine (Don Cheadle), which seems like the kind of thing to spring from the minds of white filmmakers. But at the very least this Wilson doesn’t kowtow to authority. In Captain America: Civil War (2016) he rejects the Sokovia Accords and in the most racially-charged scene of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (until Black Panther [2018]) Wilson, behind bars, tells Tony Stark, “You’re the good cop now? Well you better go get a bad cop, ’cause you’re gonna have to go Mark Fuhrman on my ass to get information out of me.”

By contrast, the Wilson of Spencer’s run is a status quo defender. His refusal to radically react to a broken system is, in fact, the character’s fatal flaw over the first 21 issues of his series, most evident when fighting the Americops. Introduced in Captain America: Sam Wilson #9, the Americops are a privately-funded police force created by businessman Paul Keane. They receive vehement support from Texas Senator Tom Herald and Rush Limbaugh stand-in Harry Hauser. But even after it’s undeniable that the Americops are targeting minority communities with brutal methods, Wilson refuses to take swift action. Instead, he opts to monitor the Americops until he can find some hard evidence, believing the corrupt and racist organization can be brought down in the courts.

Spencer’s intention with having Wilson fail to act is evident in the contrast with the character Rage. A former Avenger and New Warrior, Rage is basically defined by his super strength and that he’s an angry young black man. He continuously defends impoverished New York neighborhoods from the Americops, who are ultimately revealed to be part of an initiative to buy up property and gentrify the area. Because of course.

When Rage is framed by the Americops for robbing a pawnshop, he decides to use the opportunity to show the world how the American Justice System chews up and spits out black men. He’s railroaded, even after Wilson provides footage of Rage actually defending the pawnshop from the real robbers. Rage is nearly beaten to death and put in a coma while in prison, and Spencer’s true motives are revealed.

Like most sympathetic white writers, Spencer can’t help but fetishize black pain. As Hadiya Roderique says in “The Case for Black Joy”:

Black joy is also rare because the mainstream media would rather focus on Black pain. Think about the roles that Black people occupy in movies and literature and media narratives. Turn on your TV, or log into Twitter. You will see Black pain and Black struggle exploited, from images and footage of police shootings playing on a loop, to Luke Willis Thompson’s Autoportrait to Django Unchained. You will see stereotypes, and not the broad spectrum of our realities. And that has real-life consequences. Delia Douglas, a scholar and sociologist who studies the impact of slavery, imperialism and colonialism on social relationships, points out that “the hypervisibility of Black pain and anti-Black terror … undermines our existence, because it contains us. It becomes the only way we can be seen.”

Sajae Elder, a writer, editor, podcast host and producer who edited the Joy Issue of The Ethnic Aisle, an online magazine focused on multicultural views, agrees, noting that, “there’s headway being made, but Black representation can be one-dimensional and almost like we aren’t ‘allowed’ to be anything besides downtrodden, re-telling the stories of trauma that give an understanding of our experience.”

Spencer makes Rage a martyr and Wilson a failure. Seemingly as a bit of meta commentary, every single thing Wilson does as Captain America is obstructed, either by the media or the public or evil Steve Rogers. Wilson quits as Captain America in Captain America: Sam Wilson #21, and although he takes up the shield again in Secret Empire he is not the one to defeat Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers is, actually, as the “real” version is restored and gets the chance to defeat his doppelgänger in combat.

And although there’s an elegant appropriateness to the personification of good beating his dark mirror self into submission, it sacrifices Wilson’s character arc to the comic gods. There must be a restoration of normalcy, so Wilson never gets to win. If he has anything resembling closure it’s realizing he’s meant to be the Falcon, but he comes to that conclusion repeatedly throughout Spencer’s run.

Comic books are power fantasies and wish fulfillment. Sam Wilson could have been a different kind of successful Captain America without the need to prove that he shouldn’t have even tried. And if your argument is that the real world tears down black men and doesn’t allow them to get ahead, then comic books are the perfect place for a black man to finally win. Or is that only possible if he’s the king of a fictional nation?

There’s also the fact that, along with being white, Spencer’s background calls into question his right to be telling this story. As reported by Kim O’Connor in 2017, Spencer has a history as a twice-failed conservative candidate for Cincinnati City Council in the early 2000s:

Spencer identifies as liberal these days, but in 2005, when he called himself a Republican, his political platform was rooted in elitism, white fear, and subjugating small-time criminals. The running themes I see now that he’s “liberal” are a blind faith in authority, pathological self-involvement, and a weird persecution complex.

Spencer ran for a seat on the Cincinnati City Council in 2003 and 2005 with a platform of eliminating human services in Cincinnati, beefing up its police force, expanding its jails, and ridding its streets of criminals and homeless people. He also owned a bar in Over-the-Rhine (OTR), a previously-impoverished-and-mostly-black-but-currently-gentrified area of downtown Cincinnati, and was known for calling the police to complain about “squatters.”

Spencer flip flopping on his stance about overpolicing black communities raises a few red flags. It’s clear that he’s changed in the last decade since he broke into comics with Morning Glories. But he’s only changed to the extent that his idea of the black narrative in the United States is to accept a policeman’s baton with Christ-like dignity.

A few months ago I talked about how female showrunner Jac Schaeffer can fix the “hysterical woman” trope with the other upcoming Disney+ show WandaVision. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has a chance to move away from black pain and instead focus on black victory.

But who is Malcolm Spellman? Is he the right man to shoulder the burden of and bring justice to an African-American Captain America’s story?

Spellman is best known as being a writer and producer for Empire, the popular Fox drama about a hip hop music and entertainment company that starred Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Spellman, who is of French and African-American descent, discussed with NPR in 2015 how the show was able to tackle a diversity of issues and push the limits of what people expect from a “black story.” Spellman said then:

And here’s what makes Empire unique: That writer’s room has gay people, a lot of black people, Latinos, people from disparate backgrounds. That seemed like duh to you guys but that s—‘s not happening in other writer’s rooms, right? So the opinions — I don’t want to air myself out but I’ve been ignorant about certain things, you know what I’m saying? And because it’s such a warm environment in there, I’ll say some s— and one of the gay writers will be like, “Dude,” and that discussion is coming out.

Empire was on the right track in terms of inviting a range of voices into its creation and encouraging learning and growing on issues. In 2017, however, Spellman attempted to branch out into a new production — with disastrous results.

Confederate was a proposed HBO show that was meant to be an “alternative history” in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War. Woof, just imagine how that show’s second or third season would have gone over in the current cultural climate. Luckily the show, that was being developed by white showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss of Game of Thrones fame, never came to fruition due to a grassroots backlash on social media against the very idea.

Spellman and his wife Nichelle Tramble Spellman were brought on by Benioff and Weiss as executive producers and writers. Presumably they were meant to bring a black perspective to this very sensitive topic. At the time Spellman claimed, “Me and Nichelle are not props being used to protect someone else,” adding there would be “no whips and no plantations” in the show. It’s hard to imagine, though, that the couple who were initially hesitant to join the project were 100% onboard with its premise. More than likely, in the context of 2017, they were trying to be a lesser evil and save the show from any tone-deaf or wrongheaded decisions by the show runners (who notoriously went on to botch the final season of Game of Thrones).

Which Spellman is handling The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? The boundary-pushing Spellman of Empire or the compromised Spellman of Confederate? It’s telling that in a recent Actors on Actors conversation with Daveed Diggs, Anthony Mackie doesn’t mention Spellman:

It really bothered me that I’ve done seven Marvel movies where every producer, every director, every stunt person, every costume designer, every PA, every single person has been white. We’ve had one Black producer; his name was Nate Moore. He produced Black Panther. But then when you do Black Panther, you have a Black director, Black producer, a Black costume designer, a Black stunt choreographer. And I’m like, that’s more racist than anything else. Because if you only can hire the Black people for the Black movie, are you saying they’re not good enough when you have a mostly white cast?

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, that includes Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier, Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter, Wyatt Russell as U.S. Agent and Daniel Brühl as Zemo, does appear to have a mostly white cast. Even with Mackie as the co-lead, and in arguably the more important role, it could very well be that race is not an explicit part of the text of the show.

It’s hard to tell what a Disney+ Marvel show is going to be like in terms of content and bravery with its subject matter. One might think the closest comparison is Netflix’s Luke Cage that premiered in 2016. Cage is similar to Sam Wilson in that he was created by white men (Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr.) and his recent resurgence in popularity was due to a white writer (Brian Michael Bendis), but his show was created by a black man (Cheo Hodari Coker). The show, that sees Cage become the defender of Harlem, very much had race on its own mind. In fact, it confronts the N-word head on in an early episode when a young black gunman threatens to shoot Luke (Mike Colter). “What’re you doing here, nigga?” the shooter asks. Luke replies, “Young man, I’ve had a long day. I’m tired. But I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word. You see a nigga standing in front of you?”

I doubt Disney+, that recently had any utterances of the word “fuck” removed from Hamilton, would allow a similar scene. Even without such an overt engagement with race issues, however, it’s unavoidable as subtext, especially considering what the story appears to be.

I can’t confirm this entirely because there hasn’t been much information or even footage released from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but the presence of Russell’s U.S. Agent as a government-created successor to Captain America speaks volumes. Both Barnes, who also became Captain America for a brief time, and Wilson encounter ersatz Captain Americas in the comics who challenge their right to wield the shield. Both of the fake Captain Americas are also aligned with right-wing terrorist groups.

During the “Two Americas” storyline in 2010, written by Ed Brubaker, Barnes’s Captain America faces William Burnside, the “Captain America of the 1950s” who took over after Rogers went in the ice. The experiments that gave Burnside superhuman abilities also drove him insane, causing him to attack minorities that he believed to be communists. In the present day he leads the Watchdogs, a conservative militia that believe in “traditional values.” Basically, they want to make America great again.

Wilson’s Captain America faces off against U.S. Agent who has been sent by Keane, Herald, Hauser and (secretly) Rogers to retake the shield. Hauser actually spends Spencer’s entire run encouraging #givebacktheshield and #takebacktheshield hashtags to go viral. Even though Wilson resists U.S. Agent and keeps the shield, his morale is shaken.

It seems very likely that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will draw from both of these storylines. And if U.S. Agent and Wilson square off in a battle over who is a more legitimate representation of modern America, it doesn’t matter if Disney has sanded down all the edges. The racial connotations will speak volumes.

Of course there’s the chance that Wilson doesn’t actually become Captain America by the end of the series, or ever. Although an interview with Men’s Health last year refers to him as the new Captain America, Mackie and most publications since have remained coy. But anything less than Mackie’s Sam Wilson as Captain America would be a mistake.

The United States has been torn apart by incompetent and malevolent leadership. The worst behaviors and beliefs have been emboldened. And the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by the police was the last straw for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and any decent person in this country. While old symbols of hate, statues of Confederate soldiers and slave-owning politicians, are being torn down, what other symbols have been embraced? Superheroes.

Setting aside the possible totalitarian baggage that superheroes bring with them, in this moment they’ve been embraced in reality as figures to rally around. So after the hellworld that has been 2020, why not end the year with a pop culture win for the black community and America as a whole?

There also remains a truth that distinguishes the MCU from the comics: Chris Evans, who so perfectly embodied Steve Rogers and handed the shield to Mackie’s Wilson at the end of Avengers: Endgame (2019), is not coming back. At least not as a young man, and certainly not as Hydra Cap. If Sam Wilson becomes Captain America he can stay that way — until Mackie’s contract runs out. So even if Malcolm Spellman doesn’t do the African-American Captain America justice, there’s a chance some later writer will.

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