There are many villains in Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Some you love to hate (sup, John Walker) and some you hate to love (looking at you, Baron Zemo). But then, there are the villains that even Marvel can’t figure out: the Flag-Smashers.
This anarchist-terrorist-populist group is a classic example of one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s worst habits. From Killmonger to Thanos, any supervillain who sets out to actually make the world a better place (rather than just destroy it or control it) ultimately turns out to be an evil terrorist. It’s almost like the suits at Marvel and Disney can’t handle the idea of a supervillain with ideals who doesn’t also kill people for fun.
We saw this already in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 3 when Flag-Smashers leader Karli Morgenthau rightfully robbed a government office to feed the poor only to turn around and blow up the building with people inside it. But in Episode 5, Marvel twists the knife once more in a way that seems unfair, even for the MCU.
In Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 5, we see Karli and one of her fellow Flag-Smashers hiding in plain sight in New York City’s Bryant Park. They’re there to disrupt a meeting of the Global Repatriation Council where government leaders will vote to relocate the thousands (or perhaps millions) of people who were displaced by the events of Avengers: Endgame.
After meeting with an old Marvel villain (Batroc the Leaper), Karli picks up her smartphone and opens what I can only assume is the official Flag-Smashers app. A live map of the area shows dozens of followers in the immediate area. With a few taps, Karli turns their icons red on her phone, and in an instant, pretty much everyone in the parks stands up and begins walking towards her with their phones outstretched.
It instantly reminded me of two things: zombies, and modern political protests.
These Flag-Smasher supporters clearly believe in the group's political message (muddled as it may be), but it’s just as clear that Karli will use them for evil and destruction. The episode ends as Karli’s forces attack that government meeting, and it wouldn’t be the MCU if these bad guys with a cause didn’t turn out to be just bad in the end.
But beyond the obvious foreshadowing, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is doing something much more subtle and devious. The Marvel series is taking the modern political protest and turning it into an evil scheme.
In the summer of 2020, as millions of people took to the streets to protest, they found each other through apps. They weren’t using an official Black Lives Matter app. Instead, local and national movements organized on Instagram, Twitter, and Signal. A single post from @justiceforgeorgenyc could bring thousands into the streets, parks, and other public spaces.
I was one of those people, obsessively tracking different groups and organizers on my phone to find the next protest. Sometimes that meant waiting for a notification. Other times it meant simply going to the park and waiting for something to happen. I see a bit of myself and the people I protested alongside last summer in the Flag-Smashers and their zombified followers, and I don’t love it.
Maybe Marvel will prove me wrong. Maybe Karli Mogenthau won’t turn out to be yet another Killmonger, a villain with big ideas who ultimately just wants to watch the world burn. But everything we’ve seen so far suggests the Flag-Smashers are just more of the same.