Now that reintroductions are out of the way, can we please get to the titular team-up? Before anyone can even say “Flag Smasher,” Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) — formerly Winter Soldier and White Wolf — shelves his lingering trauma for the time being to rejoin the fight. This entails reuniting with Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, who Barnes expected to be the new face behind Captain America’s (Chris Evans) shield. Instead, the mantle falls to a soldier with top marks throughout his training and subsequent military service. But does John Walker (Wyatt Russell) really have the underlying strength of character to carry on Steve Roger’s immeasurable legacy? After all, prowess on the battlefield is only as effective as the heroism fueling it.
Even though they have different ideas about what Rogers ultimately intended when passing the baton, Barnes and Wilson share the same core belief that certain stakes supersede protocol. They have no time to waste competing for the spotlight as the world watches. As is the case in Munich, the pissing contest winds up being a dangerous distraction. When Wilson informs Barnes about new intel regarding the Flag Smasher’s latest operation, the former Avenger jumps at the chance to get back in the fray. The extremist group’s new target: a high-speed train in Munich, Germany, carrying a large supply of medicine. Philanthropy hasn’t been this diehard since the days of Robin Hood.
Needless to say, the preemptive strike ends up being a total wash, though we get our first major glimpse of the movement’s leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman). It’s nice to know Disney is hiring in-house since Morgenthau made a standout impression in Solo: A Star Wars Story in a similar role. Though the merits of this rebellion, for now, seem more questionable than anything the Rebel Alliance stood for. The insurrectionists want to revert the world back to how things were during the Blip — less competition among nations, which all united for a common goal of providing welfare to Earth’s inhabitants after Thanos snapped half its population to dust.
The one thing I do know is that unity cannot be forced; it requires finding common ground and making compromises. Clearly, the Flag Smashers don’t share this philosophy. Their actions invite unnecessary uproar, fear, and division among folks just trying to put the pieces back together now that many of their loved ones have returned. What’s most concerning to Barnes and Wilson is that extremist organization members possess the ability of superhuman strength. Either they are ex-soldiers who were experimented on by their respective nation’s government, or they have found a way to secure whatever chemical concoction created enslaved metahumans out of dutiful men, like Barnes and Rogers.
John Walker and his partner Lemar Hoskins (Cle Bennett) — who dons the moniker Battlestar — come in with good intentions but are in over their heads. Their party-crashing allows their quarry easy escape during the commotion. With the medicine gone, a new rivalry formed between the Avengers and Uncle Sam, and the Flag Smashers leveling the playing field with their mutant powers, the future looks more uncertain than when Thanos wrought havoc.
Beating this new enemy is going to require scratching old scars and making them bleed again. This leads Falcon and Barnes to a poor neighborhood in Baltimore that faces daily harassment from racist cops. One of the residents is an army veteran whose identity was kept hidden for more than half a century. Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) fought against Bucky Barnes in the Korean War during his regrettable Winter Soldier days. But Bradley wasn’t just any novice recruit itching for action — he was a Black man in the military who was tortured and turned into a super-soldier at the behest of the US government.
Even when he returned from his frozen slumber, Steve Rogers had no idea another creation like him existed. The difference is that Bradley did not volunteer to become a weapon of destruction, exploited and abused by a system that had no issue damaging the physical and mental health of a Black man under the guise of patriotism. The scene is heartbreaking to witness, as you can see Bradley reliving the trauma in his eyes as he explains the past horrors he endured. Though the mission to recruit help ultimately proves unsuccessful, no one can fault Bradley for refusing to assist a country that sucked his soul dry.
After leaving the veteran’s home, Falcon is accosted by a cop who not only doesn’t recognize the Avenger but racially profiles him by demanding to see identification. To no one’s surprise, he asks the white man Wilson is arguing with, Barnes, if he’s being bothered in any way, while also neglecting to show equal treatment by failing to ask Bucky for his ID. The whole encounter is a tough pill to swallow but shows just how pervasive racism is in a nation that prides itself on the pursuit of liberty and happiness. This is just more evidence for Falcon and Barnes that the pair cannot operate within the US government’s prejudicial lines. Aiding a country under attack does not mean abetting its problematic behavior.
As it turns out, Bucky is under arrest for violating the terms of his parole. One of these conditions is mandated therapy sessions with Dr. Christina Reynor (Amy Aquino), who has all the time in the world to put up with macho men avoiding their feelings. In fact, the only way Barnes can return to active duty — thanks in some part to Walker pulling rank and bailing him out of custody — is by hashing it out with Sam Wilson. Reynor demands that the resisting duo physically interlock knees while sitting across from each other and locking eyes. The tense diffusion is half-humorous, half-queer baiting, but it seems to get the job done…for now.
With bootleg Captain America and Battlestar doing things by the cold hard book, Barnes and Wilson have no choice but to put their mutual resentment aside and tackle this new threat without government purview. This entails visiting an old villain who they might have to spring out of prison to infiltrate the Flag Smashers. Yep, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) of Captain America: Civil War fame is the closest lead the two Avengers have to find the anti-patriotism organization. At the very least, they can turn an instigator of anarchy into a weapon of peace.