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In Defense of John Walker: How Context Can Shed Light on an Unstable Captain America

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

In Defense of John Walker

Episode four of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has solidified in all fans' minds that John Walker, the new Captain America, is evil as fuck. Initially portrayed as sympathetic, being that he looked up to the original Captain, Steve Rogers, and had misgivings about taking on the mantle, his takedown and killing of a Flag-Smasher revolutionary/terrorist has cemented the idea that he is unworthy of the title and the shield.

Yet, while I think the killing of the man was brutal and even unnecessary by that point as he was trying to surrender, I think that fans not only unjustly give Walker a bad shake, but that it also reveals something about their own expectations when it comes to heroes. And I will go into three reasons why.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The Scenario

Let’s start with the situation itself.

During the last episode of FAWS, the Flag Smashers plotted to split up their enemies by dividing them. Sam and Bucky went off to meet with Carli while the rest ambushed Cap and Battlestar in an abandoned building. The ragtag group by now has been seen as going off the rails when they started openly killing people because, as Carli says, “Violence is the only language they understand.” Their newfound extremism makes the reluctant allies of Sam, Bucky, Cap, and Battlestar more desperate to stop them.

The episode clearly established that their intent was to kill the US agents (no pun intended), so on the one hand the fight that took place was clearly self-defense. The odds were more even when the attackers found to their dismay that Walker had taken the last of the remaining super-soldier serum, making him as strong as they were, and with the vibranium shield.

But it was still a struggle. A fight to the death, even when help does arrive and when John finds himself hamstrung by two Flag Smashers so that Carli can finish him off and Battlestar intervenes. But the effort cost him his life as he was quickly and brutally killed by a single punch from Carli.

This consequence, seen as a result of his previous failures to apprehend the terrorists, sends John over the edge, ruthlessly chasing one of them down until he incapacitates one and brutally kills him.

There are clear points against John Walker in this scenario: the fact that he secretly took the serum, the fact that his impatience broke up a possible peaceful negotiation between Sam and Carli earlier, and that the unlucky Smasher who was killed was no longer a threat.

That said, I believe there’s also room for understanding. The man he killed had indeed surrendered, but he was not innocent. He had participated in terrorist acts that had left others dead as well. And thirdly being that John Walker is a veteran, and many vets will tell you that when the killer instinct gets switched on, it's not like you can just turn it off just as quickly.

Had Steve Rogers done this? Yeah, he did, but PTSD is different for everybody. This is why many vets avoid media and circumstances that can trigger them to begin with. More on that next.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The Profile

As mentioned above, John Walker is a veteran of the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. If anyone of us has seen the Netflix Punisher series, we should know where this is going.

He is shown early on to have elements of PTSD. His uncomfortableness in social situations. His rising stress levels as the situation gets more intense, and his slowly deteriorating ability to maintain control in those circumstances, right down to the random twitches that he does. What was almost more surprising to me was that the government did not do a more thorough psych evaluation of the candidates they saw who could replace Steve Rogers. More on that later as well.

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The point is that there were problems from the start. John actually looked up to the morals that Captain America represented unlike his superiors and most of the world. I don’t think he necessarily wanted to take up the role, but felt that he had to because as a soldier, it was his duty. If someone is having doubts about a major, upcoming decision, that should be enough reason to pause right there. That he didn’t even have the support or endorsement from fellow soldiers and comrades of the original Cap only made those insecurities even worse.

Yet the fact that he chose to place himself in those circumstances where he was weakest sets John Walker up to fail as Captain America. Putting anyone with that kind of trauma under those kinds of circumstances guarantees that you will have a ticking time bomb on your hands. And that his friend, who was able to ground him as someone who personally understood him, was killed, only expedited the process.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The Burden

John Walker was brought in by the US government to take over the mantle of Captain America after Steve Rogers mysteriously disappeared during the events of Endgame. This was made all the more convenient by the fact that Sam Wilson, the man Steve himself had chosen to replace him, decided to surrender the shield to the authorities rather than become the Captain himself.

The shield had become just as much a symbol of heroism as the original man himself, and Walker was now given the shield as the new Cap was to cement his legitimacy to the mantle. However, even before the ceremony in his hometown, Walker has the same misgivings that Sam and Bucky had about taking on the shield.

The shield was the incarnation of the higher ideals that the title was to stand for. It was beyond any person who would wield it. Even Steve Rogers understood this, which is why he renounced it in Civil War when he nearly killed one friend to save another, recognizing that he had crossed a line.

John actually did understand what the mantle meant as a moral symbol to people and not just as a national tool. It’s why he felt the tremendous pressure to begin with because to almost everyone one else around him, Captain America was a symbol of power, not true righteousness.

In fact, for the US government, it was nothing new. Even back during World War Two, the US Army saw Erskine’s formula as a way of making more super soldiers beat their enemies. And it was that short-sightedness that caused the creator to choose a weak man in the first place rather than a strong man.

That America continued to chase down the dream long after the war shows just how addicted the authorities were to having the perfect weapon that they could control. And that was the problem with the original. Sure, Steve may have looked like the perfect image of Americana and power for generations past, but his beliefs were ahead of their time.

Steve didn't care about the power because he understood it as a means to an end. It was why, as indirectly displayed when a super-charged John Walker first chucks the shield into a stone column, he never used 100 percent of his power in his battles. And make no mistake, Steve Rogers has killed people too as a World War Two vet.

Steve’s higher morality made him uncontrollable, even back during his original time period. If he followed orders, it was because he saw it as serving the greater good and not some nationalistic agenda. And for a modern US government, that was almost their worst nightmare.

So when the new Captain America comes on the scene, it's the government seeing a second chance at regaining the symbol that they believe they once had—minus the super-soldier serum. Hence why I think they didn't do a thorough mental examination of candidates. They didn't care.

Again, it was all about the symbol of power that the mantle and shield represented to people. Given John’s instability and insecurities, it was only a matter of time before this would become his view too.

Courtesy of Fox Studios

Courtesy of Fox Studios

The Peers

My last defense of John Walker’s recent actions reflects more on the Marvel fan base than the character himself. John's relentless pursuit and killing of the Flag-Smasher was a berserker rage. And where have we seen that before?

Another Marvel superhero, Wolverine is well-known for such fits of rage in both the comic and cinema world. Played perfectly for years by Hugh Jackman, I remember that people would get pissed off if they didn’t get even one berserker rage scene of Wolvie going full claw on some bad guy who had it coming.

Another example is the Punisher. In the comics, he is considered to be as violent as Wolverine and the recent Netflix series stays true to that. Like John Walker, he is a traumatized veteran who not only has scars from war, but has also lost his family. When he starts killing criminals, either by sniper rifle, crowbar, or weighted dumbbell, we as the audience might cringe, but we also feel that these people had it coming. They weren’t innocent and probably did worse things to more people than the Punisher did.

So I ask you: what's the difference between John Walker chasing down and killing someone who has killed other people, and Wolverine and Punisher doing the same to ninjas or mafia hitmen?

The Skew Reflection

The uproar over the depiction of Captain America being so brutal exposes an inner hypocrisy within the fanbase and maybe society at large. It’s not the crime that matters as much as who's doing it to who. Many years ago, an English teacher asked my high school class what the difference was between watching Danny Glover and Mel Gibson go rogue cop on a bunch of racist South Africans and real cops who acted the same?

Many people today want to think of themselves as morally upright people that want true justice. Yet even though it’s just a show, FAWS creates the scenario that, depending on whose involved, maybe we aren’t as high-minded as we think we are.

Maybe we would cheer John Walker's killing of an enemy if certain factors were slightly different.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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