Disney+'s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is over, but that doesn’t mean discussion about it has stopped. One of the most controversial characters on the show that’s still stirring up discourse is John Walker. Many have debated his morality online: Is he a hero, a villain, an anti-hero? Viewers have defended how he murdered a man in the show and insist that he is redeemed in the end as a hero, prompting conversations and arguments across social media. This is all because the fictional character of John Walker represents something very real: white privilege. And white people will defend that without question.
John Walker is always supported by a POC cast. He and the government use black bodies to prop him up. But before he even shows up, we as the audience know the only way John got to be Captain America is because Sam gave up the shield. So, before he even officially gets the title, we know that John’s opportunity only comes from the sacrifices of the black man who rightfully earned the shield first.
From the moment he shows up on screen, John is surrounded by POC: his best friend and sidekick, Lemar; his wife (who doesn’t even get a name); and the HBCU marching band. It’s jarring to see him arrive at this rally where he signs posters of himself held in the hands of POC audience members. All the while the HBCU marching band plays “The Star Spangled Man.” The irony here is critical -- these people of color revere the new Captain America that represents a country that has never cherished or appreciated them the way they do him now. This whole scene can be read as a metaphor for the way America has been maintained since its beginning: using BIPOC as underlings to bolster white leaders. This scene perfectly captures how the U.S. values the white cishet man over everyone else.
Whether consciously or not, John uses his POC loved ones to strengthen his own ego. In his introduction, both Walker’s wife and Lemar come to tell him that he’s going to do a great job, that the people are going to love him, etc. Lemar is always there throughout the series to not only be his conscience, but also to remind John that he “makes the right decisions.” This all feeds John’s ego, inflating it beyond the predetermined inflation that comes with being born into a system designed to help people who look like you succeed. John Walker is given the title of Captain America not because of who he is, but because of the color of his skin, and this is how he is the perfect opposite of Sam, who has been put down all of his life not because of who he is, but because of the color of his skin. And John is allowed to be blissfully unaware of these racial systems that have landed him in this position because of his privilege as a white man.
John Walker manipulates his privilege for his own benefit. As soon as he gains the title of Captain America, he exerts that power over anyone he can. He exerts it over Sam and Bucky after they first meet when he identifies himself as “the government." Later, John is all too proud to be the one to get Bucky out of jail, proudly exhibiting the extent of his authority. When the pair come out of the building later, John is leaning on a cop car, playing with the siren. It’s one of the most tone-deaf things he does in the show. Sam is a black man who was just almost arrested, and Bucky was just actually arrested, and John is toying with their fear while displaying that he has the freedom to be reckless with tools of authority that they don’t. When the pair reject his offer to team up, he immediately antagonizes them, saying, “Stay the hell out of my way”. John must reassert that he is the most powerful out of the three of them in order to protect his sense of superiority (this comes into play later when he decides to take the super soldier serum). The man is on a power trip for the entirety of the series, expanding his privilege to new heights until he takes it too far.
John seems to enjoy wielding his privilege over other POC. He calls Sam Steve’s “wingman,” instantly demeaning him. After Sam insists that he speak with Karli alone, John turns to Bucky and asks “Are you gonna let your partner walk into a room with a super soldier alone?” He talks to Bucky about Sam when Sam is standing right next to them. And when Sam wants to keep Zemo and John wants the villain turned over, he is eager to threaten: “How do you want the rest of this conversation to go, Sam? Should I put down the shield? Make it fair?” He is overly confident that he is the stronger one. And when the Dora Milaje show up, John still tries to swagger, even attempting to mansplain their jurisdiction to them. He orders them to put down their “pointy sticks,” a comment that reeks of racism rooted in the idea that African peoples are savages. When Sam warns him not provoke them, John seems to take it as a personal challenge anyway because he is used to being the authoritative figure in the room. He goes so far as to put a hand on one of the women’s shoulders with the intent to make her submit to his power. However, the Dora Milaje do not.
Then there’s the murder. The most blatant example of John’s privilege is his ability to get away with it. He tries to justify it multiple times by saying that the man killed Lemar, that he was doing it out of “grief” or “revenge.” But this Flag Smasher did not kill Lemar -- Karli did. The man had his hands up, crying “It wasn’t me,” but John brought the shield down on him four times. It was cold-blooded murder, but viewers are trying to excuse it anyway because John is eerily similar to many white men in positions of power today. The whole scene is comparable to real life police brutality. Although John is stripped of his title, authority, and retirement benefits, this is a slap on the wrist compared to the justice that should have been served. Black men have been imprisoned for life for much less. Yet John gets to escape any real punishment and continue to live his life despite the fact that he murdered an unarmed man on camera. He even tries to assert himself as Captain America by making his own shield, deluded by years of being in a position of power and being told that he deserved the title.
Even after he gives up his obsession, John isn’t left alone to rethink his life choices and start on a better path. Instead, Contessa Valentina arrives and gives him a new outfit, a new title -- U.S. Agent -- and John’s back in the thick of the enabling system. He ends the series happy, eager to be used as the government’s weapon once more. He’s never held accountable for his actions. He doesn’t have to worry about any loved ones his victim might have had or even strive to be a good person.
John Walker is a man who has succeeded his whole life because he was born into a system built for people who look like him. Consequently, he believes himself to be above most others. He kills a man and does not feel remorse. Instead, he only feels the need to defend his actions, like many influencers and celebrities who get called out today. His story parallels that of many real white people. He’s so well-written that white viewers take away the wrong idea from this show. So, let’s make one thing clear: John Walker is not a hero.