What if you’d done all the right things, made all the right choices in life, but you still weren’t good enough?
That frustration, that struggle, sits at the core of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s John Walker, marvelously played by actor Wyatt Russell with a gradually escalating sense of deadly futility. Chosen by the government to carry the thematically heavy Captain America shield, Walker was a decorated member of the U.S. Army. He appeared a perfect fit as he had that rare blend of “aww shucks” corn-fed Americana and camera presence. Perhaps too much camera presence as his greatest moments always seemed to be staged moments earlier in the series.
But all you have to do is look at Walker’s ill-fitting headpiece as Capitan America to know the role doesn’t apply. It’s not that the headpiece was ill-fitting. It’s more that Russell’s Walker doesn’t have that perfectly chiseled Chris Evans / Steve Rogers jaw to fill it out. He always appears as a child playing dress-up. The perfectly realized visual of Walker in the Captain America outfit thematically underscores just how ill-suited he was for the role.
The rest all falls to Wyatt Russell’s tremendous performance to bring it home.
Cast as Capitan America rather than built for the job, Russell’s Wyatt exists as a man constantly playing catch up. He lacks an injection of the Super Soldier Serum to put him on equal footing with the other supers at play in the series. He’s just a man carrying a shield that he will never fully deserve.
Walker knows that, and Russell subtlely injects that into all of his early scenes in the film. Every interaction plays out like someone let the air out of his balloon of self-confidence. His action scenes, although strenuously attempted, all fall flat. He completely fails to deliver on the promise of the Captain America mantle, and Russell plays that inadequacy to perfection. It exists in how he speaks. It lives in how he carries himself. He breathes insecurity in the face of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Russell gives us an expertly crafted performance that works not only on the dialogue-driven surface but also the physicality of a man faced with superhero competition and completely failing to measure up at all.
So, it’s no shock that, given the chance, Russell’s Walker steals a single vial of the Super Soldier Serum and takes it for himself. From that moment on, Russell’s performance become one of vengeance, of rage, and of a school yard bully suddenly empowered with superhuman strength. He carries himself differently. He lunges at everything with the force of a feral tiger. It’s as if all the shame bottled up in those first episodes now comes flooding back but channelled into pure, white hot rage.
Faced with the death of his best friend, Walker erupts and brutally murders an antagonist. It’s a challenging moment to watch as blood spatters on the stars and stripes shield. Yet, thanks to Russell’s performance, I wasn’t left adrift with the character of John Walker. Russell’s earlier hang-dog performance rests in the back of your mind, so you understand the rationale behind all of his later choices. It’s not an endorsement of his actions, of course, but there lives a comprehension of who this man is and why he has done what he did.
In the end, Russell’s Walker is completely abandoned by the U.S. government that brought him to prominence. He loses the mantle of Captain America but later dons a new identity that better fits him, visually and thematically. As the series closes, the audience ravenously anticipates the next chapter in this rage-filled aggressor.
And as a now life-long fan of Wyatt Russell, I cannot wait to see what he does with the character in future Marvel shows.
Wyatt Russell contends for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.