Even if you aren’t familiar with his comic alter-ego, Anthony Mackie is a familiar face. Over the last two decades, he’s defused bombs in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, rap battled against Eminem in 8Mile, and been a consistent scene-stealer in the movies and television shows that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For seven years and six films, he’s portrayed Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, the Air Force veteran turned superhero, who has served as a fan-favorite supporting player within the Avengers roster.
This March, Mackie and his character graduated from his wingman post and took the lead in Disney+ breakout miniseries Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The show, which ended its first season earlier this month, explores what it means to be a modern hero and a person of color in 2021. It ends (spoiler alert) with Wilson stepping up to become the new Captain America and the first Black man to take up the mantle in a live-action production. Representation has become a media priority, but it’s still relatively rare for Black and Brown performers to serve as leads in tentpole franchise films, making Mackie’s ascension to de facto Avengers leader meaningful for the actor and audiences. “It poses questions. Now you have white kids who will look up a Black Captain America,” Mackie told me via Zoom. “I have four little Black boys, and now they’re also going to have a conversation with their white, Asian, and Latino friends. That’s what is most important. When you take the [familiar] and spin it on its head, what do those conversations look like?”
Diverging from the familiar is Marvel’s current M.O. Its first two MCU TV spinoffs use their serialized format to expand the notion of superhero content while referencing a plethora of old media. If WandaVision was the studio’s madcap overview of television tropes, Falcon honors the tenets of summer blockbusters. In between its societal critiques, the show nods to the genre standards of the late 80s and early 90s. There are shades of Tom Clancy-style espionage thrillers each time Sam and Bucky Barnes chase superpowered terrorist group the Flagsmashers across international borders. Likewise, the banter-filled scenes that highlight their mismatched partnership nod to buddy cop action flicks like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hrs. In the comedy variant of that sub-genre, the one-liners are as frequent as the explosions, and every altercation serves as code for bro-y codependency.
In its lighter moments, Falcon and the Winter Soldier veers in that direction with zingers and meme-able visual non-sequiturs. Programming that balances multiple genres and moods is the selling point of prestige TV, but it demands performers who can walk a tightrope. A Juilliard alum who cut his teeth in New York’s theater scene, Mackie fits the bill. Still, putting on his winged-Cap suit for the first time was an emotional experience. “I called my sister and talked to her for a while about it,” he says. “There were so many things I wanted in my career growing up as a young actor. I didn’t go to Hollywood and say, “Make me a star.” I didn’t do some of these other things to get recognition; I worked for 21 years to get to where I am. [So] to have that moment of realizing that all of your hard work has paid off, it’s very humbling.”