‘New World Order’ may set a more traditional tone for a superhero genre story than WandaVision did, but it still offers a glimpse at the deeper trauma-focused narratives that lay ahead of us. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is going to be a deep dive into the psychological trauma that comes with being a superhero, and I’m looking forward to it.
Bucky and Sam don’t interact in ‘New World Order,’ but that feels appropriate given the amount of baggage they each have coming out of Endgame. We need to see how they’re each coping with the world, and really feel the trauma they’ve suffered so far in the MCU. And boy, this episode really accomplishes that goal. These boys have some issues, but only one of them is seeing a therapist about them, and even that feels like it’s being done incredibly reluctantly. Please take care of your mental health, guys! Hell, Sam, you ran group sessions for veterans so I know you know this.
‘New World Order’ starts with Sam on a mission to handle a potentially hijacked plane in Tunisian airspace, which the US military can’t take care of on their own for reasons. Sam discovers that the plane has already been hijacked, the pilot is dead, and there’s a soldier being held hostage on board. It’s all up to him to save the soldier before the bad guys cross over into Libyan airspace, where even he can’t follow and the soldier would be lost. Why he can act in Tunisian airspace but not Libyan airspace isn’t quite clear, but those are the rules we’re given here.
This sequence is done with some of the best action and areal combat scenes I’ve seen from the MCU, and felt like a wonderful treat to the fandom after our long and delayed wait for the series. The part of this sequence that strikes me as something ‘new,’ however, isn’t the action itself, but the context in which the action takes place. It dips its toe into some unfortunate tropes, but seems to intentionally back off of them in a rather blatant way.
Prior to the finale of WandaVision, I felt I needed to do a full MCU rewatch to get myself back up to speed. Whenever I do a rewatch, I’m immediately critical of the depiction of Arab people as terrorists in the first Iron Man film and was grateful we’ve moved away from that sort of trope in recent MCU content. It’s disappointing to see such a quality film series fall into such blatantly negative themes, and it’s even more disappointing that that’s the tone we chose to start it all on. I was especially on guard during my rewatch since the discussion of Marvel’s relationship with the military and the propaganda that comes with that relationship, which has been an intense discussion in fandom the past few months. While this isn’t a new discussion, it’s certainly picked up steam lately, perhaps anticipating this series, or perhaps because we’re all stuck at home due to the pandemic.
So when the very first major setting in ‘New World Order’ is a military combat operation in northern Africa in countries with majority Muslim populations, I was a bit nervous that we were going back to that awful trope. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seemed self-aware of this baggage, however, and chose to make the bad guys French, and the Tunisian citizens grateful and innocent bystanders who happen to live in an unstable region. There are still elements of military propaganda present in this set up – the locals are oh so grateful to be saved by the Americans – but it’s certainly a huge step away from the first Iron Man film. On that front, at least, I give the writers some credit. If we return to this setting, however, I’ll be watching how they handle this whole ordeal very closely.
Another element I’ll be keeping a critical eye on is the group called ‘The Flag Smashers,’ which have a potential to dip into some other uncomfortable tropes, mainly painting globalism with a broad brush and taking a rather nationalistic point of view. The implication seems to be that this group rose after the Snap, pushing for a borderless world, and actively fighting to return society to how it was when half the population was gone. I’m not entirely sure how a population decline can lead to a rise in globalism, but I was a film major in college, not a sociology or political science major, so maybe this link is just a bit beyond me. You can bet I’m going to be reading up on some stuff this week, though, because it’s rather strange and I want to understand.
I’m hoping this group ends up being more nuanced than what they appear to be on the surface, but if it ends up being a simple ‘globalism=bad’ message, I guess that’s just another unfortunate storyline we’ll have to grapple with as a fandom. It’s particularly unnerving to have this theme develop during an episode titled ‘New World Order,’ which is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that posits that the world is moving towards global totalitarianism under ‘elite’ rulers. The opportunity to take massive missteps with these themes is huge, and, while I’m a huge MCU fan, I’m not entirely confident in its ability to be as nuanced with these themes as the topic deserves to be. It feels especially risky in an environment where right-wing terrorists are increasingly latching onto these types of conspiracies to justify their violence.
If all this criticism sounds like I’m hating the show, just hold off for a second on that assumption. I friggin love this show so far. Being critical of media doesn’t mean I’m ready to throw the whole thing out. If that were the case, I’d never have made it past Iron Man. Besides, this is just the first episode and we have no idea how these things are going to be handled in the coming weeks. I may be pleasantly surprised!
Once the Tunisian sequence has run its course and we’ve established who the bad guys are, ‘New World Order’ pivots back to America and starts digging into Sam’s trauma. Digging into the traumas of superheroes is why I’ve been so excited about this show. This is kind of my thing. And the MCU does it incredibly well. What the franchise lacks in sensitivities towards depicting nuanced antagonists, it makes up for with the psychological journeys it sends its heroes on.
Sam purposefully passes up the mantel of Captain America and remains the Falcon. He donates the shield to the Smithsonian, ostensibly honoring the memory of Steve Rogers, but clearly filled with self-doubt, thinking he’s unworthy of taking up the position. Sam is badass, and he knows he’s badass, and he’s confident in his badassery, but he’s also in mourning and doesn’t feel worthy of this particular mantel. The shield feels like it belongs to ‘someone else,’ and he’s probably going to be working through that feeling for the next five episodes. There’s a lot to explore there.
Sam also returns to his family in Louisiana in ‘New World Order,’ which opens the floodgates for not just more personal trauma, but a glimpse at the trauma the entire world has suffered since the Snap. Sam’s sister Sarah survived the Snap, raising her two children completely alone for five years and managing the family business while coping with Sam’s loss. This means Sarah and Sam are incredibly different places mentally. Sarah has moved on, and she’s ready to sell the family boat that was an integral part of their childhood. For Sam, those five years passed in the blink of an eye and he’s still in the place they left things before Thanos snapped half the world away. His nephews were babies when he left, and now they’re adolescents. The world went on without him and trying to catch up isn’t going to be easy.
This story is going to offer an incredibly interesting glimpse into how the billions of people who suddenly came back from the Snap have to integrate back into society. It doesn’t just have emotional ramifications, such as what’s happening with his sister, but financial ramifications as well. Not having an income for five years means he doesn’t qualify for loans that he did before, which is something you’d think systems would start to figure out how to handle now that billions of people are suddenly back in the world. Only a couple of months have passed and we aren’t quite there yet.
‘New World Order’ also focuses on Bucky’s trauma, which manifests itself through nightmares of the horrible crimes he did as the Winter Soldier. As part of his integration back into society, Bucky has to go to therapy, which is honestly something a lot more superheroes should be doing. Hell, if Wanda had done so, she might have coped better with her insurmountable losses and wouldn’t have taken a whole town hostage. Good for you, Bucky! Even if you seem to be hating it, I’m glad you’re getting some help.
An unfortunate trend in fiction seems to be having characters feel they are ‘too strong’ for mental health services, and that they can handle their issues on their own. I’m hoping the show doesn’t contribute to that trend, and shows that it can actually be useful for people. This is another bit of this series I’m going to be watching closely with a critical eye as I’m a huge advocate for mental healthcare, but I understand that an action story can’t take place entirely within a therapy session. We need to get our hands dirty, too. Just don’t crap all over psychology along the way, okay?
Bucky’s journey to make amends is definitely going to be one of my favorite parts of the series. His efforts to make amends by bringing the bad guys to justice seem easy, and the sequence taking down Senator Atwood shows just how he’s handling it. He’s breaking laws and hurting people, which goes against his therapist’s advice, but he sticks to Rule 3. He is James Bucky Barnes. He’s no longer the Winter Soldier. And he’s making amends… with a smile.
Making amends to the families of those he killed is much more challenging. My heart is going to break when he has to tell Yori the truth about who he is, but it’s inevitable. I have a feeling Yori isn’t going to take it well, and this seemingly sweet friendship between the two of them might not last very long. Brace yourself for pain, guys. This is going to hurt. I want to cry just thinking about this plot. But that’s what I signed up for, I guess. Hurt me, MCU. Punch me in the heart with feelings!
Now let’s talk shipping. Because of course. Did you expect me to not talk about shipping when one of the main characters is part of my forever OTP? I’m a Stucky shipper. Steve and Bucky are my OTP. But this ship has always been a peaceful one for me, free from ship wars or jealousy over other characters having a close relationship with Steve. I respect people who ship Steve with Sam or Tony or Peggy or whatever. Ship and let ship, you know?
It appears this sort of peaceful shipping will extend to Bucky, now, because I find his relationship with Leah to be absolutely endearing. He’s a 103-year-old man with a bionic arm, but damn he sure is cute bringing Leah flowers and playing Battleship over some beers. It’s clear she also has no idea who he is, though, and there’s a pretty big potential for hurt down the line. But I hope he can find some happiness with her for a while, because he’s been doing nothing but fighting for almost 90 years. Dude deserves a break, even if it’s brief. If that brief moment of happiness is with Leah, I’m totally fine with that, even though it’s not my OTP. I just want Bucky to feel some joy for once.
The new character Torres is going to be an interesting one to see develop. In his first few scenes with Sam, he came off like a superhero fanboy, but when he attempts to infiltrate the Flag Smashers, he shows the same sort of initiative that makes one a superhero. It ends with him getting knocked out on the street, but there’s an effort there that’s worth taking note of. I’m sure he’s going to be a major player in the series, as those who have read a lot of Marvel comics seem to be familiar with him already (shh, quiet with the spoilers, guys), so I’m looking forward to how he develops.
Finally, we end with the biggest WTF of all. We have… a new Captain America? What now? Alright, fine. We’ll deal with this I guess! I’m obviously intensely suspicious of this guy, but I’m not ready to hate on him just yet. If anything, I’m more angry with the politicians who felt we needed to do this than I am at some guy they threw into the costume. But who knows (I mean, besides comic book readers, of course), maybe this guy is a big jerk, too.
Overall, I enjoyed the hell out of this episode, despite its very typical MCU flaws and potential for negative tropes. I don’t expect perfection out of the MCU. I expect characters I love to go down very emotional journeys, and kickass action sequences sprinkled throughout them to get our hearts racing between bouts of crying. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is delivering that so far. And it’s delivering that incredibly well.
Now let’s see if they can deliver the nuance the broader themes deserve, too, or if the MCU hasn’t grown beyond that yet. We have five more episodes to figure that out. ‘New World Order’ was just the beginning.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.
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