Spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier below.
As basically everyone expected, the finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier sees Sam Wilson step fully into the role as the new Captain America — complete with a ripped-from-the-comics outfit and a new title card at the end of the series for “Captain America and the Winter Soldier.” (Not to be confused with the 2014 film.)
The six-episode series had its ups and downs; it rocked back and forth between high-flying action scenes, a meandering plotline, and portentous questions about legacy, race in America, and issues of global refugees. But the most important legacy of the show (which may or may not be getting a second season) might be how it solves one of Marvel’s biggest behind-the-scenes challenges: keeping characters fresh after almost a decade.
Marvel’s films effectively operate as a gigantic-scale TV series, with a massive ensemble cast that comes and goes across different episodes. Those episodes just happen to be two-hour-long big-budget movies. And like any long-running TV show, it starts to run into the issue of keeping its stars on the show as the costs rise and fatigue or boredom starts to set in.
Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr. cost $75 million for his final appearance in Avengers: Endgame (compared to $500,000 for his first MCU outing), and Chris Evans was so burned out from being Captain America that, at one point, he declared a plan to quit acting altogether (although he hasn’t quite followed through yet).
The obvious solution is to pass down the roles to new actors, much as the comics have done with Jason Aaron’s Thor run or G. Willow Wilson’s reimagining of Ms. Marvel. It’s a good solution, keeping characters fresh or allowing for new spins on the idea of what, exactly, makes someone Captain America (or Iron Man or Thor). It frees up actors from being stuck playing Tony Stark until they’re 80, lets storylines resolve, and gives characters room to grow instead of hitting the reset button each film. (There’s also the helpful side effect of keeping Disney’s costs down by rotating in a new, younger star who hasn’t skyrocketed to fame through years of superhero films yet.)
In that regard, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the perfect blueprint for handing down heroic roles for the rest of Marvel’s universe. Sure, Disney could have just picked up in the next film with Sam Wilson wielding the shield that he got at the end of Endgame, but that kind of off-screen handoff would likely feel like a cop-out.
Instead, Disney devoted an entire miniseries to the transition. It explores how and why Sam doesn’t — and then ultimately does — choose to take up the shield, showcases different contenders for the title, and ultimately shows (instead of just telling) everyone why Sam, in particular, is the right choice. Even more importantly, it gives fans time with Sam in a way his previous bows as Steve Rogers’ sidekick didn’t quite allow for.
It’s the kind of strategy that Marvel is already gearing up to employ for other future second-generation Avengers. Later this year, we’ll see Hawkeye hit Disney Plus, which looks to deal with a similar inheritance of Clint Barton’s role to Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop. The Ironheart and Armor Wars shows set to stream in the coming years will look to explore a similar shift of Tony Stark’s legacy to War Machine and Riri Williams.
Even the films are looking to get in on the action: Black Widow is rumored to see Florence Pugh take over the title of Scarlett Johansson’s Russian super-spy, and Thor: Love and Thunder will see Natalie Portman wield the hammer as the new god of thunder.
Giving these character changes room to breathe doesn’t just make for better storytelling, either; it furthers the interconnectedness of the MCU’s storyline, making each subsequent show and movie a must-watch to understand the next one. And much like the first decade of the Marvel universe, it’s easy to see how Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios could bring all of these new heroes together for the kind of box office-shattering crossovers the Marvel films are known for.
After all, if it worked the first time, there’s no reason why Marvel can’t pull off the same trick with a new and more diverse generation of heroes again.