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The best Captain America comics you should read to understand The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
If the discourse around WandaVision was any indication, there will be no shortage of comic-based theories to pore over with today's premiere of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and going forward. Though plot details are sparse at this point, trailers, interviews, and casting news thus far make it clear that the series will draw inspiration from a far more diverse group of Captain America stories than the previous three movies have had the opportunity to. Don’t expect to see Bucky and Sam battling against the actual sitting president of the United States (yes, that is a thing that happened) or adapting a story as large in scope as the original Civil War comics books were, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will pull from comic storylines that are no less important to the history of Captain America. In fact, some of these story arcs are among the most important and influential Cap stories ever published.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as characters, are crucial parts of the enduring legacy of Captain America and his shield in the comics (with both having stepped in for Steve Rogers in the past). And since Chris Evans has retired his stars and stripes (allegedly), it now falls to Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan to borrow from the Captain’s impressive lore to continue their MCU stories.
To help prime you better understand this first episode and beyond, SYFY WIRE has put together a list of characters, storylines, and events that will likely inform the further MCU adventures of Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson.
Captain America #312, #321-322, by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary.
In the show, the Flag Smashers are an anarchist group cloaked in anonymity by their signature black hockey masks, complete with a blood-red handprint across the front. In the comics, the Flag-Smasher (singular), is an ideologue named Karl Morgenthau, who fronted the extremist cell known as Ultimatum. Morgenthau clashed with Steve Rogers based on a belief that the concept of nations and nationalism in all its forms was a corrupting influence, with violence and terrorism being the main way he got his point across.
From what we can gather from the trailers and this first episode, the Flag Smashers will see themselves filling a similar role of exposing the evils of nationalism in a post-Blip MCU thrown into chaos by Thanos dusting half the population. One would assume a return to normalcy (i.e. tribes, borders, countries) will not be easy for the Flag Smashers to accept given the events of the past five years.
02. John Walker, aka U.S. Agent
Captain America Vol.1 #332-350, 1987-1989, by Mark Gruenwald, Tom Morgan, and Kieron Dwyer.
If there is any story that will shape a large part of where The Falcon and the Winter Soldier goes, it will be this one. Some decades before the events of the Marvel Civil War in the comics, Steve Rogers was also confronted with an ultimatum by the government to either surrender his autonomy and go where ordered or surrender the costume and shield. He chose the latter and in his place, the government installed John Walker, a bigger, superhumanly strong replacement for Rogers whose blind commitment to his country and his government made him the perfect “mascot” (their word, not mine) for what the government had in mind for the Captain America persona going forward.
This 18-issue arc chronicles not only Steve's journey to reclaim the mantle of Captain America but graphically illustrates how heavy the burden of the title weighs on a person not necessarily equipped to carry it. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that Walker’s time as Captain America led him down some dark paths.
SYFY WIRE caught up with John Walker's creators for an extensive deep-dive of the character, which you can check out here.
Although none of the trailers gave fans a full glimpse of the character, we did get a full look at actor Wyatt Russell as Walker in the first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier when Sam saw him accept Cap's shield on TV. It is not going to be an easy road for Sam to actually become the next Captain America, despite any assurance he may have received from Steve at the end of Avengers: Endgame.
03. Isaiah Bradley
Truth: Red, White and Black trade paperback, 2004, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker.
Truth, a polarizing addition to Captain America’s history published in 2003, tells the tale of an attempt to recreate the lost super-soldier serum on a regiment of Black soldiers used as human guinea pigs in 1942, with shocking and intentional real-world parallels to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The sole survivor of these experiments was Isaiah Bradley, whose tragic history extended on through to his descendants as well.
The addition of veteran actor Carl Lumbly to the cast of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier sparked rumors that he could be playing Isaiah Bradley. If so, it will add another dimension to the story of Sam assuming the mantle of an American Icon, especially in light of the problematic history his country had with the previous Black man to fly Caps colors.
Young Avengers Vol.1 #1-8 by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung and Andrea DiVito.
WandaVision’s brief introduction of Billy and Tommy (who become the heroes Wiccan and Speed in the comics, respectively), as well the upcoming Hawkeye series starring Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop, suggest that Marvel might be planting the seeds for the Young Avengers to make their way to the MCU. Should that be the case, Elijah Bradley, the grandson of Isaiah, could feasibly make an appearance in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This eight-issue arc tells the story of how he came into his own as a costumed adventurer honoring his grandfather.
Thunderbolts #1-12, 1997, by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley. Avengers: STAND-OFF, 2016, by Nick Spencer, Al Ewing, Gerry Duggan, Jesus Merino, and others.
As an old foe of Steve Rogers in the comics, the Zemo family has long been a thorn in Steve Roger's side, and Daniel Brühl’s portrayal of Zemo in Captain America: Civil War showed how dangerous a foe he could be. The main gripe for many fans surrounding his MCU introduction was the lack of comic-accurate headgear. That apparently will not be a problem as Brühl reprises the role this time.
In the second trailer for the show, Brühl’s Zemo can be heard saying “superheroes can no longer be allowed to exist." In the comics, Zemo has been known to fight fire with fire, which might eventually lead to a version of the Thunderbolts on screen or an MCU iteration of Zemo’s other team, the Masters of Evil.
06. Bucky Barnes
Captain America and Bucky #620- 628, 2011, by Ed Brubaker, Marc Andreyko, and Chris Samnee. Captain America #25-36, 2008, and Captain America #610-615.
Bucky’s turn as Captain America came in the aftermath of the comic version of Civil War. It was Steve Rogers' dying wish for his recently returned partner and best friend to inherit the mantle. While Steve did eventually return from the dead, in the interim, Bucky was left to deal with not just the imposter syndrome that came from taking over for a legend, but also the burden of decades of clandestine assassinations as Winter Soldier. The latter concern becoming all too real as he was tried for his war crimes after Zemo exposed his true identity to the world.
Given that the first episode shows the MCU version of Bucky carrying these same concerns, you couldn’t blame him for being fine with Steve passing the torch to Sam. Although, Bucky hasn’t totally dodged the bullet yet, and might eventually shoulder the mantle with Sam.
07. The Falcon
Captain America: Sam Wilson #1-6, “Not my Captain America,” 2016, by Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna.
The mantle of Captain America comes with a heavy weight, and no series drives that point home for Sam better than this 2016 arc. When Steve (in a scene that Avengers: Endgame paid homage to) hands the shield off to his hand-picked successor, there is no way he can properly prepare Sam for possibly his most unrelenting foe: public opinion.
Set against the backdrop of a divided and polarized America, Sam struggles not only with fighting supervillains but with a cynical populous not willing to accept a new Captain America, and especially not one who looks like him.
The first episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier gives us every indication that, for a time, there will be someone else carrying that shield in the MCU. We have good reason to believe that the MCU version of Sam will have to deal with similar issues to his comic counterpart.