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John Walker’s Sudden Character Swerve on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Made No Sense

Wyatt Russell as John Walker in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

***Spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier***

Going into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I thought that John Walker was meant to emerge as the primary villain of the piece. The character comes with a checkered comics history, and with Karli Morgenthau’s Flag Smashers depicted as having a moral cause, surely the biggest bad to counter would end up being the misguided uber-patriot who dared take up Steve Rogers’ shield. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had a different and completely incongruous turn awaiting Walker in the series finale.

For a while, we got some of the Walker character arc I’d been expecting. Walker (played by Wyatt Russell, with the Russell family jawline on prominent display) slowly unravels under the pressures of being Captain America. Then he full-on snaps after the death of his best friend and partner Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett).

How Walker implodes felt like a purposeful nod at the violent havoc America has often wreaked worldwide on nothing but its own authority. Walker, in his star-spangled outfit, publicly and mercilessly kills a man in a foreign country with Captain America’s shield. That most Americana of symbols comes away blood-spattered as Walker, wild-eyed and unhinged, proves himself unworthy of the shield, the costume, and the title, actions that clear the way for Sam Wilson to take up his rightful role as Cap.

What follows this sequence is TFATWS’s fifth episode, “Truth,” by far the show’s strongest. The episode kicks off with Sam and Bucky confronting Walker and subduing him together. Sam reclaims the shield, and Walker is left broken and defeated. He is then fully renounced by the governmental and military authorities who created him. It’s the rare case of a U.S. soldier being held accountable for horrific extrajudicial actions—if not the reasons why they were in that position in the first place.

The former “Captain America” makes the plea to his superiors that “I only ever did what you asked of me, what you told me to be, and trained me to do.” This statement is true in some respects and worth voicing. Walker was established as a living avatar of America’s rampant military-industrial complex and was doing what was expected of him. He also murdered a man in broad daylight because he was angry and had decided he was a great candidate for super-soldier serum.

A fitting end for John Walker on TFATWS would have been to leave him as we see him in the penultimate episode’s end-credits scene—renounced by the institutions he trusted, his life in shambles, and his purpose unclear. Even at this point, however, he’s still fashioning his own makeshift Cap shield. He clearly hadn’t received the message—at all—about why he has no place wielding those symbols.

The end-credits hint would have been there for comics fans that we hadn’t seen the last of Walker, and that he would continue to be a threat: the looming threat of violent American exceptionalism and world-policing in the form of a reborn “U.S. Agent.” Julia Louis-Dreyfus showing up as the shady Countess Valentina Allegra de Fontaine and the way she reached out to Walker was all the set-up we needed going forward.

Instead, TFATWS made an inexplicable narrative move. Walker returns in the finale, “One World, One People,” and seemingly from one minute to the next his entire trajectory changes. He experiences what must be the most abbreviated and whiplash-inducing “redemption arc” in cinematic history. As Vinnie Mancuso writes in Collider:

There is a moment in which he’s given a choice—pursue vengeance on Karli or save a van full of people teetering on the edge of a ditch—and he chooses innocent lives. The reward for doing that bare human minimum is that he gets fully Marvel-ized; he just becomes a Goofy Hero Guy, quipping at the wrong times, bantering with Bucky, and undercutting any hard-earned emotional tension at every turn.

Suddenly Walker is on Team Sam and Bucky, and he walks away from the final fray with nary a scratch while Karli gets shot and killed by Sharon Carter. This is, again, a man who slaughtered another man with Captain America’s shield and the entire world watching mere days ago—and showed no remorse about his actions. If anything, Walker doubled down, lying to Lemar’s family that the Flag Smasher he murdered was the one who killed Lemar, and jumping straight back into the heat of battle. Imagine how the Flag Smashers felt when the person who brutally executed their friend and compatriot is suddenly there again and then is being backed up by the superheroes.

I don’t care that Walker decided not to go after Karli and to help the people who were hanging out in the most tired of action movie cliches, a perilously dangling vehicle. He shouldn’t have been there at all, and he certainly shouldn’t be back-slapping Bucky Barnes.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has Walker later emerge with Bucky to apprehend more Flag Smashers, swaggering and smirking and quoting, of all people, Abraham Lincoln: “Mercy bears richer fruit than strict justice,” which is just. Head-scratching. Mind-boggling. The quote is the antithesis of everything Walker has been from the start, and he doesn’t even deliver it with a straight face. Russell’s shit-eating grin in this scene is incredible, as though he understood just how absurd it is for Walker to be given such a line. It’s also almost unconscionably cruel to the Flag Smashers after what he’s done.

Now, I’m a usually fan of characters having a chance to redeem themselves or radically alter their former ways of thinking. But the biggest problem with Walker’s abrupt shift here is that it feels so unearned. Sam and Bucky have no reason whatsoever to trust him—in fact, they have every reason to distrust him—yet he joins up without anyone blinking an eye. There’s been no time or explanation for this huge dynamic flip to have occurred. He’s still doing what Sam and Bucky went after him for the week before—taking the law into his own hands and fighting with all the accouterment of Captain America when he has no right to do so.

In a superhero movie scenario, with the clock ticking down on a couple of hours, this is the sort of thing we might have to accept for the sake of limited time. But TFATWS had many hours to tell their story, and after a build of six episodes, Walker’s storyline is allowed to reverse in consequence for him in seconds. Then, as though this were not enough, he’s given his own new outfit and new character name in the fancy government room where he was stripped of his title in disgrace a mere episode ago.

John Walker has no place having a costume reveal in the same hour as Sam Wilson’s big Captain America costume reveal. The whole thing felt dissonant and bizarre. Why is this unrepentant super-powered murderer not also imprisoned on the Raft?

As Mancuso observes in Collider, the most generous reading of Walker’s “redemption” is that TFATWS is commenting on how often people—and criminals—who look like Walker are given a second chance in America: “Because of course. Look at this man’s jawline. The John Walkers of the world have been failing upward since the invention of success.” Yet this reading is indeed generous. Because the show, which hardly shies away from bluntly stating societal truths and injustices, says nothing of the kind where Walker is concerned. No, he gets to join the “right side” again in the big fight, gets a new costume, and declares happily to his loving wife, “I’m back! I’m back! I’m back! I’m back!” And that’s a wrap on John Walker for the time being.

Since the finale’s airing, Wyatt Russell has coyly suggested that he has no idea if he’ll return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Per CBR:

“Part of the way I approached Marvel was it’s all your last time you’re going to do it,” Russell told Vanity Fair. “Marvel operates in a really cool way where they don’t make decisions before they see what works. I’m not a part of any of this decision making, obviously.”

Now, of course Russell can’t reveal any plans for U.S. Agent, and it’s likely true that the secretive Marvel Studios hasn’t given him much more information on the character’s future. But if John Walker actually didn’t return, it would make his unearned “redemption” all the more egregious. Far too much time and energy went into developing who John Walker was, then abruptly untying all those narrative knots. Everything about this character has been uneven and inconsistent; he was essentially set up to fail, and then he didn’t even stay that way for more than an episode.

Some fans will likely point to John Walker’s comics presence as the reason why he was permitted such a role switch. But the MCU is a different beast, and viewers aren’t supposed to have 35 years of comics history in order to understand why characters are depicted the way they are. This is the episode where Sam Wilson makes his long-deserved and long-awaited debut as Captain America. It’s a vital and historic move for Marvel onscreen, and it didn’t need the distraction of John Walker. I’m left wondering why the man who embodied the betrayal of Captain America’s values was shoehorned in to no one’s benefit but his own.

(image: Marvel Studios/Disney+)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.