The Falcon and the Winter Soldier series creator, showrunners, and head writer Malcolm Spellman says he “fought hard” for the right to do the series: as a Black creator with a career-long interest in Black art and social issues, he saw the show as an opportunity to be frank about race in America. The series, premiering on Disney Plus on Friday, March 19 — two weeks after the streaming outlet’s previous TV series, WandaVision, wrapped up — focuses on how the heroes Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. Winter Soldier cope with the loss of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, in Avengers: Endgame. In particular, Sam is dealing with Steve’s invitation for Sam to become the new Captain America, taking up Steve’s old shield and costume.
It’s a natural step for Spellman, who previously produced and wrote for the TV series Empire, about the succession battle at a hip-hop music company, and executive produced the documentary series Hip Hop Uncovered. He’s the co-owner of the Oakland hip-hop producing collective Blackball Universe, and his wife Nichelle were partnered with Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ on the aborted HBO series Confederacy, a proposed alternate-history drama in which Southern slavery persisted to the modern day. Ahead of Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s premiere, Spellman spoke to Polygon via video conference about how he’d like Marvel’s fervent fans to respond to the series, why it’s as relevant as anything on the news today, and how he navigated Marvel Studios’ second show about grief, loss, and recovery.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
What did Marvel Studios mandate about what this project would look like?
I think people have a feeling like the Marvel brain trust are these puppetmasters who control people at every step. And it’s not like that. That said, they are very involved creatively. So to describe the process: you show up and they have like — it’s different for every project, but for this one, they had three different possible story arenas to choose from, and then a menu of characters to choose from. But they also let you know, “This is just to get the conversation started.” The thing you end up landing on is different from all of that. They just like to be involved with the process, and let creatives know what they’re thinking. And it helps, because there’s no way to create at Marvel without them being involved, because there’s a whole giant thing happening around you.
So you chose the characters from a menu? Were you involved in deciding to bring Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes back together?
Not for this one. I believe this series was ordained by Mr. Feige and all the Marvel fans in that 12-second moment of Captain America: Civil War when Sam and Bucky are sitting in a car together. I think everyone knew they had to have something together from that moment on. And it was just about the right time to bring it to life.
How do you spin up an entire series from such a brief joke scene?
In a weird way, I feel guilty. I feel like it’s a cheat code. Because what those guys did in those 12 seconds was so rare, in that you know exactly what it’s going to feel like to have them onscreen. And you know you can lean into it. But as far as actual character work, we did a deep dive. We really processed all the baggage Bucky is carrying around from all those murders, and from being manipulated by HYDRA for decade after decade after decade. We brought that to bear and personified that through one character he’s going to have to deal with, and he’s going to either fail or succeed in absolving his sins through this character. That’s his own personal story that has nothing to do with the A-story.
On top of that, we had all his backstory right there for the taking. We knew he’s 106 years old, which is another thing that makes him feel very much like an other. And for Sam, it was pretty obvious to us that his character needed to begin with dealing with the stars and stripes on the shield, in two ways. Number one, the loss of a dear friend, and those huge shoes that anyone who picked up that mantle would need to fill. And then the other thing being as a Black man, is it even appropriate to have that symbol? That symbol means something very different in Sam’s hands than it does in Steve’s. And I think the audience is going to be surprised to see how he responds to it. Because I think a lot of people are thinking, “Oh, after Endgame, we kind of know what Sam’s gonna do.” And they’re gonna be shocked.
How did you bring your own identity into these scripts?
It was why I wanted this series, because I’m Black. I knew it was a huge opportunity. I knew it was such a timely story. Sam not taking the shield is as timely and relevant to what’s going on in the world today as almost anything you’re gonna see on the news. So for me, it was crucial. I fought hard to get it. I knew my ambivalence at the idea of it could contribute to what I’m sure Anthony felt. It’s not that it’s revelatory. There have been books from the MCU that dealt with this same issue.
How do you keep up the tension and investment in an MCU story when you’re going from literal world-breaking stakes to a Black family applying for a bank loan?
Well, we wanted to make sure we did this: Don’t show up with an agenda, don’t bog down the natural storytelling, the organic storytelling. That has to lead the way. And within that, the character embodies those things you’re talking about, those serious issues are brought to life through the character, and through the people in his life. Like Sam’s sister, we put her in there because we knew she was going to have strong opinions too, and maybe not be so cool with the idea of [him becoming Captain America], right? And she’s crucial to him. He adores her. She represents his history growing up in the South. So what you do is, you load it up as you load up his personal life, so the issues can exist organically in the show without without bogging it down and making it feel like you’re trying to get in the pulpit.
It seems from the first episode that you’re actively engaging with what it means to have a Black man potentially representing America, symbolizing the best of America, in an era where America is again visibly struggling with its vast racial issues.
I don’t see no way around it. The two go hand-in-hand, there’s no — we would be dishonest if we tried to run from it. And I do think Marvel has proven with Black Panther that you can have substance in MCU stories. As long as you’re having fun and doing it in a way that’s open, Marvel fans will go along with you on that ride.
WandaVision was a big hit with the kinds of viewers who want to decode and anticipate and solve a show as it’s happening. How are you hoping fans will engage with this series?
I showed up as a fan. Everyone who works at Marvel is a genuine fan. These projects are all born from fandom, and you hope they’re gonna go on the ride with you. I think this one — the way the storytelling enters in this one is not like WandaVision. That series was a mystery, with the fans trying to fill in the blanks. This story is much more cards-up. And it’s super-emotional on its face in a way that’s obvious. Even the plot is much more open. So there may not be intense speculation coming from the fans on this one.
I just want them to appreciate Sam not taking up the mantle, because that gets to his whole journey. All they got to do is ask “Why?” The ones who know won’t ask, and it’s going to be compelling to them. And the ones who don’t get it, well, they get to go on this ride with this man, and see how come he was ambivalent.
What kind of emotional journey can we expect for Sam and Bucky here?
It’s huge. First of all, they both have to deal with the loss of Steve Rogers. And the fact that he’s gone is exposing their relationship. It’s almost like they’re feeding off each other as a point of blame for the loss of Steve Rogers. And on top of that, they have this symbol to remind them that their best friend is gone. The world we built is also a world that needs Captain America. Thanos has been dispatched, 3.5 or 4 billion people have reappeared after being gone for five years and spun the world into chaos. So there’s really only one hero that could calm a situation like that, and he’s gone. And no one is there, obviously, to take up the mantle in the right way. So I think that specter of loss exists in the plot, in the world, and in the two characters.
WandaVision was also fundamentally about grief, loss, and recovery. Does it feel to you like this is going to be a major Marvel theme going forward?
So the global theme for this thing is identity. We have five main characters who all have their own individual journeys underneath that. You have Zemo, who is dealing with what he sees in his mind as supremacy in the form of heroes. Whether you call it vigilantism or whatever, Zemo sees himself as a hero, and that’s his target.
Sharon Carter is dealing with being betrayed or abandoned, because she’s been gone since Civil War, and she’s had to survive on her own. Bucky Barnes is dealing with grief. Same with John Walker [played by Wyatt Russell] — they both have different incarnations of a veteran story, in that you do everything for a country, and then who’s there to pick up the pieces for you? And then Sam is dealing with the symbolism of being Captain America, and whether it’s appropriate. Each one of them has an identity that starts them off in a very fraught state of being, because it’s urgent and immediate, what they’re dealing with. And by the end of this series, each one of these characters is going to look at themselves completely differently, and almost be reborn.