[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the premiere of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Read at your own risk!]
The premiere of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier introduced a new Captain America, and it's not good news for Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) or Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). The government handed over the iconic shield to a mystery man in the closing moments of the episode after Sam had previously given the shield to the Smithsonian as a way to honor Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). However, with the world struggling to hold itself together when half the population returned after being blipped out of existence for five years, the United States government decided it needed a hero to unite the country, and that hero would be Captain America, whether Sam wanted the title or not.
Fans who have been paying attention to Marvel news leaks and casting know the unnamed man at the end of the pilot is Wyatt Russell's John Walker, who is better known as U.S. Agent in the comic books. Walker was first introduced into the Captain America mythology in the 1980s as Super Patriot, a villain who convinced the press and the public that Captain America was upholding all of the wrong American values. This pressure culminated in Steve giving up the mantle of Captain America to become more of a renegade, allowing the government to replace him with Walker. Naturally, hiring a radically patriotic villain to carry the shield worked out really badly, and Steve returned to expose Walker's lies and reclaim his proper title. Later, Walker reformed and became U.S. Agent, essentially a diet version of Steve's Captain America. However, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier won't be sticking to the comic book pathos for Walker. The hero's name he's given at the end of the premiere is the one he'll be keeping, at least for the time being.
"John Walker is Captain America," series head writer Malcolm Spellman explicitly told TV Guide during a recent press junket. "We started off with John Walker from the [comic] books, and we realized he had to diverge if we were gonna make him Captain America. You can't give that guy from the books the shield, not the way it happens in the pilot [episode]. This John Walker is much more deserving of the mantle. That said, no one gets off easy in Marvel, and John Walker's not [going to] either."
Of course, there are going to be people with a lot of feelings about someone stepping into Steve's hallowed shoes, and the first person in line with something to say about Walker taking on this role is Sam Wilson.
"[Sam] didn't take on the shield because he didn't think someone should replace Steve. So the idea of someone trying to replace Steve is a huge issue," Anthony Mackie explained during the same junket. "That's why [Sam] turned down the shield at the end of Endgame when he said, 'It feels like it's someone else's. It feels like it's yours.' No one else can be Captain America, so why is this guy trying to be Captain America? He's no Steve Rogers."
As the series goes on, Sam's more complicated reasons for not wanting to take the shield for himself are going to become apparent. Sam, Walker, and Bucky are going to each have their own journey to figure out what that shield and the name "Captain America" represents to them.
"This is a discussion about the shield," director Kari Skogland added. "It's a racially motivated conversation. [Sam] doesn't necessarily want to carry the shield... This is a big conversation that is ongoing for [Sam] throughout the series. Everybody has a different imprint. This iconic symbol sort of rests on a very white paradigm. Everybody has their own attitudes toward the shield... John Walker also has his journey to take with it, as does Bucky. Each character gets to weigh in on what it is to be a hero, which is by definition, what it is to carry that shield. It's through that discussion that we decide, or we examine, what is the hero of the future. Is that hero of the future based on the hero of the past? Because Steve Rogers' time, where he was born, is a very long time ago and the circumstances were very different... He was born at a time when heroes were warriors and soldiers. We are now in a time when heroes are first responders, and that's a very different construct."
Fans didn't get to see Bucky's reaction to a new Captain America being named, but Sebastian Stan confirmed that the new appointment will be what brings Sam and Bucky back together in future episodes, and Walker's take on being a hero won't be as black and white as expected.
"He's a thorn of some sorts in their respective paths... It's just circumstances that end up sort of bringing everybody together, one way or another," Stan teased. "[Walker] is justified to be there, so you really do understand where he's coming from as well."
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier continues with new episodes every Friday on Disney+.