Captain America has gone rogue. In the newest episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell) snaps and shows his true colors — in front of the entire world.
As typical with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this heel turn wasn’t unexpected. Fans who’ve read the comics knew this moment was a long time coming, and the MCU isn’t exactly subtle either.
Here’s how John Walker’s story as an emotional, reactionary Captain America played out in the comics, and how it explains The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s most dramatic twist so far.
Warning: Spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ahead.
John Walker, super patriot
John Walker debuted first in Captain America #323, not as the new Captain America, but as an “anti-Captain America” called “Super-Patriot.” Honorably discharged from the military, John Walker was granted superhuman abilities by the Power Broker. Walker assumed the shield of Captain America after Steve Rogers became disillusioned with his role after being forced to answer to governing bodies like the newly-established Commission on Superhuman Activities.
Super-Patriot was part of an effort by long-time Captain America writer Mark Gruenwald (fun fact: He’s the basis for Owen Wilson’s character in Loki) who wanted an opposite of Steve Rogers to explore the meaning of patriotism. "Basically, I just wanted to do the opposite of Steve Rogers,” Gruenwald said in a 1988 interview with Comics Interview. “I put together his background and character traits by playing the opposite game.”
In evaluating Steve Rogers, Gruenwald made John Walker swerve left. Because Steve grew up poor in Brooklyn, John Walker became a middle-class guy from the American south. Because Steve was old-fashioned, John Walker was “a real young up-and-comer.” And whereas Steve had his head in the clouds, John Walker was “more realistic and more pragmatic.”
Walker allowed Gruenwald to “better define what Captain America the concept is by seeing someone groping, trying to live up to it, trying to grasp all the facets of the concept.” At the same time, John Walker’s darker, more violent streak caught on with readers. It was the late ‘80s, when the popularity of morally gray characters like the Punisher and the Rambo film franchise made readers roll their eyes at Steve Rogers’ wholesomeness. (Gruenwald said the cover to Captain America issue #321, with Captain America guns blazing, was a best-seller.)
Gruenwald noticed cultural trends but didn’t want to compromise Steve Rogers. Walker was an opportunity to give the audience what they wanted without sacrificing a character’s soul.
John Walker’s heel turn, explained
John Walker held the shield of Captain America from issue #333 until #350. During that time, he struggled to live up to the image of Captain America.
Unlike Steve Rogers, Walker was more emotional and prone to fits of anger. Things started turning when an enraged new Captain America beat the super-villain Professor Power to death with his bare hands (Captain America #338) in a moment pretty similar to the one in Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 4. Unlike the Disney+ series, Battlestar was alive and was present to talk down John.
John Walker went off the rails again in issue #345, in which Walker’s parents are kidnapped and killed in front of him by the terrorist group the Watchdogs. An angry Walker snaps and kills all the Watchdogs present. Walker continues his scary streak in issue #347, where he beats up two rejected side-kicks, Left-Winger and Right-Winger, and leaves them to die in an oil tank explosion.
Issue #350 of Captain America staged the long-awaited fight between Walker and Steve Rogers, now dressed in a black and red costume and working under the name “The Captain.” While much of the plot is revealed to be the work of the Red Skull, Captain America #350 still provides the imagery of two clashing Captain Americas who represent opposing sides of patriotism and the American ideal. In the end, Steve Rogers comes out on top as the true Captain America. Walker would wear Steve’s “The Captain” costume and don the new name, U.S. Agent.
John Walker in the MCU
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier diverts from comics canon in obvious ways, namely with the absence of Steve Rogers for Walker to measure himself against. Walker is also shown to be more inherently emotional even before giving himself the Super Soldier serum; Walker was already on his way to losing his cool, but losing Battlestar was the crack that broke the dam. There’s also no Professor Power or Watchdogs for Walker to pummel to death.
But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier more or less retains the spirit of John Walker’s story, while also adding its own unique spin to the story.
Unlike the comics, which were explicitly about patriotism and politics, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an exploration of the more abstract concept of power. The sought-after Super Soldier Serum represents opportunities for those who come by it (except for Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson, who insists he would reject the serum even if it were offered to him).
There’s a lot about John Walker we’ve yet to learn, but the biggest difference between him and Steve Rogers is how they both grapple with power. Oddly enough, both see things the same way: Steve didn’t like how the Nazis bullied their way through Europe, and he saw the Super Soldier Serum as a way to do good in the world. John Walker is the same; note his lamenting of not having the serum in Afghanistan, a night of horror Walker is forced to remember with his medals.
But where Rogers and Walker split is how much they believe in the serum itself. Rogers was going to fight for the Allies with or without the serum. When he was the only one to have it, he took that responsibility seriously. (Remember how Abraham Erskine reminded Steve it’s never the serum that makes a perfect soldier, “but a good man.”) Walker believes he simply can’t do his job as Captain America without it, which is putting more faith into the serum than Steve ever did.
Therein lies the danger of John Walker: The serum makes a good man great, and a bad man worse. So what is John Walker now?
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier streams new episodes Fridays on Disney+.