One would imagine that joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty damn cool for an actor. But when you’re tasked with picking up the iconic shield of Captain America and stepping into the shoes of Chris Evans, it’s probably also pretty daunting. That’s why what Wyatt Russell was able to accomplish as John Walker in Disney+’s “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” is not only worth highlighting but also honoring with an Emmy nod for Best Drama Supporting Actor.
It’s natural to want to hate a man like Walker. The U.S. government names him the new Captain America after Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) turns Steve’s shield over to the Smithsonian for the Cap exhibit in the series premiere. There wasn’t supposed to be a “new Captain America,” so when news breaks of Walker’s appointment and he embarks on a major publicity tour as a state-sanctioned hero, it rubs fans the wrong way. It’s meant to. Walker is an obstacle to be overcome on Sam’s personal journey toward embracing the Captain America moniker as a Black man. But there’s another, more nuanced reading of the John Walker character too, one that many viewers tend to ignore because it is easier to paint him as a one-dimensional enemy rather than a complex individual caught up in a complicated web of American propaganda who is ultimately ill-suited for the job he’s been handed.
Like Steve, Walker is a lifelong soldier, someone who has only ever done what has been asked of him by his commanding officers. The pressure he feels to live up to what Steve did as Cap haunts him, and it doesn’t help that he is quickly dismissed by both Sam and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) when he’s only trying to do his job — and is actually pretty good at it most of the time. Their dismissal only further compounds his growing imposter syndrome, seemingly confirming he’s an inadequate replacement for Steve, both in the field and in the hearts of people everywhere.
From the moment Russell first appears onscreen, there is evidence of Walker’s internal struggle as he understands the impossibility of what’s been asked of him. From the set of his jaw to the way he carries himself, Russell delivers a strikingly shaded performance that is as much about the physical as it is about the words that are being spoken aloud. And after Walker steals a vial of the Super Soldier serum halfway through the series in an attempt to level up and try to be a hero worthy of representing America, the way Russell portrays him changes once more. All of those feelings of inadequacy that had previously been aimed inward are turned outward, taking the shape of pure ego and rage. He’s like a caged animal who’s finally been unleashed, and when Walker kills a man in front of a crowd armed with smartphones, it gives fans a real reason to hate him outside of their personal feelings for Sam. However, it’s not as simple as Walker simply being a bad person, and Russell’s performance reflects that.
Walker is clearly the product of an overzealous and too-powerful government that never stops to consider the human cost of its actions, which means as a viewer you understand his actions and the choices that led him to the point that he killed an innocent person without approving of or condoning them. And so much of that is the result of the work that Russell has done to paint a portrait of a conflicted man who just wants to live up to sky-high expectations. You can argue that “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” would have benefited from spending more time with the character (especially as his story pertains to how America fails its veterans), but Russell manages to do a lot with the little time he’s given. So while his appearance might not have been as meme-worthy as his co-star Daniel Brühl’s, it’s inherently more complex, as it requires him to showcase different facets of the character.
But there’s still one more reason this performance stands out: This isn’t a role what we’re used to seeing from Russell, a former professional hockey player who often sports a beard and who recently killed it as Dud, an easygoing, ex-surfer on AMC’s critically acclaimed but little seen series “Lodge 49.” In a way, John Walker reveals to everyone everywhere exactly what Russell is capable of as an actor, and he nails it at every turn. If anyone from “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” deserves to be recognized for their efforts in the series, it’s him.
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