Last Friday’s epic finale to “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” finally made it official: Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson is the new “Captain America.” Unsurprisingly, the decision — and the show in general — has sparked a wave of criticism. While some of the uproar surrounding the show was blatantly racist, a lot of people took the chance to air out their grievances with the media becoming “too woke.” This frustration is not unique to “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”; over the past few years, an increasing number of people are uncomfortable with what they deem an unnecessary insertion of politics into their entertainment and are bemoaning the death of escapist cinema. This complaint, however, is insanely strange. The thing is, movies are always political if the audience chooses to watch them with a political gaze. Movies have always been firmly rooted in reality — the political messaging was just somewhat hidden in order to avoid alienating audiences, and people have gotten complacent in playing along and completely missing the point of these movies. Movies have not suddenly become more political, writers have just stopped hiding their themes behind smoke and mirrors in the hopes that they can reach out and shake even a few of their viewers out of a state of willful ignorance.
Those who claim that the movies they watch are “apolitical,” “escapist,” or “disconnected from reality” are simply not thinking critically about the media they are consuming. If someone were to look at a film with a political lens, they would be hard-pressed to find many movies that are truly apolitical. The trick is that the political messaging of films was often disguised for an unwitting or unreceptive audience. For example, “Zootopia” made powerful arguments about racial stereotyping, policing, and the repercussions of bigoted government officials while still being a whimsical movie for children. This analysis is not a “hot take” — it is literally the point of the movie. Still, when police officer Judy impulsively grabs a weapon simply because Nick supposedly has violence in his biology, it wasn’t labeled as a political scene. But when Sam is confronted by a cop in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” it is “too woke.” What could possibly be the difference, other than the viewers’ inability to understand the simple metaphor presented in “Zootopia?” The truth is that most people consider movies to be frivolous entertainment because they only engage with media at the shallowest level possible. And honestly, there is usually nothing wrong with that. There is absolutely no requirement to analyze every movie with critical thought. So, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” made it easy for the audience. They did away with a lot of the metaphors and made it easier to understand the story they were trying to tell.
Technically, the viewer can still choose to keep their head in the sand. If someone can’t understand that “Avatar” is a searing critique of colonialism and capitalism, then there is no reason for them to take away anything political from Sam Wilson telling world leaders to provide aid to refugees in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” Everything that happened in the show is fiction. It is only political if the audience takes the fictional story and draws parallels to what is going on around them. And that is the viewer’s personal decision.
As far as the new “Captain America” being Black, simply including people of color in movies is not political. Why is the very existence of non-white people considered a “heavy” topic that takes away from entertainment? “Captain America” is still a superhero franchise with witty jokes, silly banter, and fast-paced fight scenes. Nothing has inherently changed. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is no more and no less political than every other “Captain America” movie. People that glossed over the clear messaging in the original trilogy have no business complaining about this new phase. No one said that the audience has to feel a certain way after watching anything, but viewers who look at a Black man speaking candidly and decide that it’s all a plot to further some sort of an agenda are ruining it for themselves. Rather than feeling inspired or moved, they’re twisting a glorious moment into something it’s not.
People who want their entertainment to remain apolitical simply have to continue letting the themes fly over their heads. Aside from the point that it is a privilege to “take a break” from politics, fiction is only “escapist” as long as the viewer chooses not to connect the story with real life. Movies that are labeled “too woke” are slapped with that label because the writers chose not to engage with complicated metaphors and dialogue that can be interpreted in multiple ways — they chose to make the themes obvious so that it might smack a few of the people who insisted on ignoring anything that was even slightly veiled.
Recently, it’s become increasingly difficult for people to miss the parallels between the stories they consume and the world outside their door. In the past, these parallels were buried; now they’re being showcased more openly. From “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to “Hunger Games” to “Transformers,” political motifs have been a staple in fiction for ages. They’re just getting harder to ignore in today’s day and day.
Films* have always tackled the real-world problems that society is facing, but it has always been up to the audience to make the connections. Just because “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” wrote it out in bold doesn’t change the fact that the message has always been there; some people just chose not to see it.
*The word movie was thrown around a lot in this article, but the audience should be acutely aware that Sam Wilson did not, in fact, wield the shield on the big screen. All of this “wokeness” happened in the confines of Disney+. Disney made a leap by giving the mantle of Captain America to a Black Man, but there is plenty of room for them to backtrack and fumble the progress they’ve made so far.
Art by Angela Liang for the UC San Diego Guardian.