'The Falcon And The Winter Soldier' Showrunner Malcolm Spellman Wants To Revolutionize What A Marvel Hero Can Be [Interview]

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier initially looks and sounds like another entry in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it's got a lot on its mind. Yes, this is a buddy-action series starring Captain America's BFFs. Yes, it features big action, charming actors, and enough Easter eggs to choke a comic book geek. Yes, it's going to scratch the Marvel itch for MCU obsessives and casual viewers alike.

But showrunner Malcolm Spellman wants to make it clear: this is a show about the here and now. Avengers: Endgame concluded with Steve Rogers handing his shield, and the mantle of Captain America, to Sam Wilson. But what does that actually mean? Not just for Sam – a Black man being asked to wear and wield the stars and stripes – but for the rest of the world? Those kinds of questions power The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Spellman says those kinds of questions will continue to fuel the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

"We wanted heroes that felt like they are of the times," Spellman told me over Zoom as we discussed the first episode of the series. It was one hell of a conversation, as the series showrunner made it very clear that this show isn't going to shy away from the tough questions and tough answers. "If you keep it fun and entertaining, you can also keep it honest and relevant," he said, emphasizing that the success of Black Panther has given Marvel the confidence to take chances.

Our full conversation is below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

With these two title characters, you're presented with a gift: two characters audiences already love, but who've been supporting characters and who haven't been fleshed out. So you have characters we're ready to learn about and there are a lot of questions for you as a writer to start answering. So what were the big questions you knew you had to ask about Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes?

What I loved about it is all the stuff we wanted to tackle for the characters was apparent and boxed up and ready to unpack. Meaning this: we know Bucky has done awful stuff for the last eighty, 85 years, right? We know he's been manipulated and hasn't been in his right mind. And we know that he's never really had a second to breathe or become an actual human being. The audience knows that also, right? On top of that, Bucky is 106 years old and has never been present in one era long enough to be of that moment, so the out of place-ness for him is extraordinary. Again, the audience knows all that, so for us, what we wanted to tackle with him was obvious. It allowed everybody to deal with character issues in a very human way with a shorthand that the audience is going to have.

Same thing with Sam. The reason I came to this project was the idea of a Black man confronting that shield and the stars and stripes, right? And the ambivalent feelings I would have about it, obviously Sam would. That wasn't lost on [actor Anthony] Mackie or Nate Moore, who is our Marvel exec. We knew when we dove deep into Sam, we wanted to position him in a way that felt relevant to today so that journey about whether he says yes – you've seen the pilot – or no, creates great emotion and a struggle and a story that people in the real world can be like, "Man, I get that, and that's compelling."

I read some of the recent-ish comics where Sam takes up the mantle of Captain America, and it struck me as powerful, the idea of him having all the power to do this job, but society itself has programmed him with doubt. That was something that I think registers in this episode really well.

We dig deeper and deeper and deeper into that. When you see how it confronts him, and the answer is not the obvious answer, I hope it's going to be very satisfying. Because yeah, you can't be honest in your storytelling and just have Sam pick up after Endgame and take off and fight battles, you know what I'm saying? That would be disrespectful to him, that would be disrespectful to our culture, and it would be bad storytelling. So yeah, that doubt is what fuels Sam's journey, and that doubt is rooted in real stuff.

There's a scene in the episode – I don't want to go too deep into details because people haven't seen the episode yet when they'll read this – but we see Sam is treated as a hero in one moment, and then is disrespected by the same person in a really micro-aggressive way. I kept thinking about athletes who are celebrated, but then told to shut up when they speak their minds. Is that what you were going for in those scenes?

Yeah, I think it's even more common than that, but several people have made that exact comparison. I do think you can see everyone from Skippy Gates to Barack Obama to every one of us who is Black in day to day life have those experiences. When you think about the fact that senators and judges no matter how powerful, or athletes no matter how famous they are, have this basic common confrontation that's based on identity and race, we knew it was going to resonate. Again, how could you ever write the Sam character going to get a loan without dealing with the reality of what happens when Black people try to get loans?

I think it's incredibly responsible and exciting to see a Marvel show tackle this head on. Was that part of the initial pitch? Were there any speed bumps along the way, or was this always packaged in there, no matter what?

Marvel knows what they're doing, and from the moment I first walked through the door, I knew that was stuff I wanted to deal with with this character. That's why I was excited, that's why I was passionate. At no point was there any shying away from it because, if you look at Black Panther, Marvel's fans all over this planet are comfortable having these conversations. If you keep it fun and entertaining, you can also keep it honest and relevant. Black Panther proved that. So did Captain Marvel.

This first episode is full of wonderful little details that keep nerds like me looking at this world and excited about what's going on. All those little questions like, "Do Avengers get paid? What's it actually like to come back after five years of being vanished away by Thanos?" It's a lot of really fun world-building and detail. How did you work that into the script? What were those conversations like when you first said, "OK, what does this world actually look like after Avengers: Endgame?"

So we knew this. If you think about three and a half billion people disappearing for five years and then coming back, you have a global problem that everyone has to deal with. We knew we wanted that to mirror what's happening today in our world. That creates a commonality. The bank scene, a lot of people are responding to that and that logic, and it's interesting because that conversation – the way Marvel works is there's a collective of creative people up there. At times, you're dealing with people who have worked on every Marvel movie on one specific scene, and that bank scene and the groundedness of how that functioned? That went all the way up to the top. So it was a surprisingly intense back and forth with a lot of people about what details matter to them and how we quantify it on top of the more social issues of a Black man getting a loan. It's funny, that was a lively debate.

He's only hinted at in the first episode that we've seen, but Flag Smasher certainly seems like a villain that some people would be ready to rally around in 2021. Was that always a specific choice you wanted to make? Introduce a villain you kind of understand why people would want to follow them?

All the villains in this series – and there's more than one – are dealing with the issues of their times, the post-snap world, which is very similar to our pandemic world. All the villains in this series believe they are heroes, and their argument for why they are heroes is going to be very, very compelling. We did not demonize any of them. You're going to be rooting for some of the villains in this series because of what's motivating them.

I think it would be irresponsible to discuss the idea of someone putting on the Captain America costume without talking about what that actually means to people around the world.

That's exactly right. That's what this whole journey's about, and part of what this series is about is, as Marvel moves into this next Phase, we wanted heroes that felt like they are of the times. You know what I'm saying? We didn't want heroes who felt like they could be fighting crime twenty, thirty years ago. The DNA – how they walk, how they talk, what they believe, and what they've been through – needed to resonate with young people and old people alike of the 2020s moving forward. It had to happen. It's about the next Phase.


The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres on March 19, 2021 on Disney +.