We’ve seen Marvel add comic book heroes as supporting players to films to give a little flavor to their world, possibly sell an extra action figure or two, but none as significant as Anthony Mackie’s turn as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sam Wilson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He makes a bigger splash than Natasha Romanoff did in Iron Man 2 or Hawkeye did for his cameo in Thor. The film opens with Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, running laps around Wilson, kicking off the sequel with the seeds of their friendship. Later, when the chips are down, Cap calls on Wilson for help and the former agent straps on a piece of winged S.H.I.E.L.D. tech to get right into the heart of the action.
The origin is a departure from the comics, but the characterization is close enough for it not to matter. Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers have an immediate rapport and friendship, and the visual of Falcon with his wings, fighting alongside Captain America, feels ripped from the printed page. He may not have his usual red-orange and white costume or his trusty bird Redwing, but the movie version of Falcon, buoyed by Mackie’s effortless charm, makes quite an impressive debut.
Falcon was the first African-American superhero from Marvel (Black Panther is African but not an American), and was typical of Stan Lee’s desire to make the Marvel universe more reflective of the world outside his readers’ doors. Lee, with artist Gene Colan, introduced Wilson in Captain America #117 (1969), in a story where Captain America discovered an island controlled by a pocket of ex-Nazis faithful to the Red Skull. Wilson, an escaped prisoner of these villains, is trying to organize a revolt with the island’s indigenous natives by his side. When Cap arrives, Wilson is inspired to take on a superhero identity himself (the Falcon!) and the two train together while plotting to take the island back from Red Skull’s forces.
Early writers played fast and loose with Wilson’s backstory. Originally conceived as a former Harlem social worker, other writers added a darker criminal past to Wilson and tried to explain away his social work as implanted memories from the Red Skull. Marvel, in its desire to present a unified continuity, later merged the two backgrounds by saying he was a former social worker who became so disillusioned due to his parents’ deaths that he gave up on it all and briefly entertained a life as a petty criminal before the plane crash left him stranded on the island where he met Captain America.
Surprisingly, Falcon was introduced without the wings that we famously associate with the character. His original green-and-orange togs didn’t have them at all, and even though he switched to a more birdlike white-and-scarlet costume (Captain America #144), the wings weren’t added until a couple of years later, as a gift from Black Panther’s advanced Wakandan technology (Captain America #170).
There’s not that much difference in the comic book and movie versions of Falcon’s flight harness. Both use sci-fi technology to get the job done; the only real difference is a visual one -- the movie version looks more like a piece of military tech while the harness resembles a set of underarm wings in the comics. Most notably, the movie version of Falcon is stripped of his comic book superpowers. In the comics, a Red Skull experiment gives Falcon a psychic connection to all birds that allows him to see through their eyes and gives him a small amount of control over their actions. Captain America: The Winter Soldier ignores this, and it’s unclear if future film appearances of Sam Wilson will try to work this in somehow.
Falcon’s shared cover credit with Captain America during a large portion of the 1970s, with a title change from Captain America to Captain America and the Falcon for several years. Falcon was a short-lived member of the Defenders, but had a much more significant run as a member of the Avengers and has become almost as closely associated with that team as he is with Captain America himself. Though Falcon has not supported his own ongoing monthly title at Marvel, he has benefited from his own miniseries, which attempted to unify his origin, and various solo specials that work to define him as a hero apart from his best friend, Captain America.
The Marvel cinematic universe creates its own continuity, while cherry-picking from Marvel’s publication history. In the case of Sam Wilson, the films are borrowing his backstory as it appears in Marvel’s “Ultimates” line -- a group of comics that exist in a world separate from Marvel’s primary line. It allows the writers and artists to approach Marvel characters and concepts with a clean slate. For example, the version of Nick Fury which is modeled after Samuel L. Jackson originated with this line of books (instead of the Marvel Universe’s grizzled Caucasian version). In the Ultimate books, Sam Wilson is a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who uses an experimental flight pack for special missions.
This origin is carried right over into the Winter Soldier film, providing the cleanest, easiest introduction to the character. We’re big Falcon fans, whether we’re talking about the comic superhero or the Anthony Mackie character, and once you see The Winter Soldier, you’ll be one too. He may not have the cache to start headlining his own films, but I’m excited about seeing him fight alongside Cap as a trusted equal for many sequels to come.
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