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Emapthy and "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier": How One Scene Exemplifies What It Means to Communicate

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney.

Maybe this is wrong or immature, but there’s a lot of people who look to series and movies as road signs for the future. That what they see on the screen is somehow the reality, a potential reality, or their personal reality.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier certainly capitalizes on this, showing the journey that Sam Wilson takes to exchange his Falcon identity for Captain America, and Bucky Barnes finally taking major steps forward to move beyond his decades-old identity of the Winter Soldier.

Normally I don’t buy into such preaching, propaganda if you like, as it's someone’s skew on their perspective of a story. It's not some absolute truth. However, in episode five, "Truth," there was one scene that made me rethink my position.

"Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself."

— - Moshin Hamid

The Stage

The scenario takes place sometime after the two partners have finally taken down the new Captain America in Latveria and reclaim the legendary shield. Now back at Sam’s family home in New Orleans, the two are tossing the weapon between the two of them like a frisbee. By this point, Sam had told Bucky about his discussions with the forgotten super soldier, Isiah Bradley, and what had happened to him after the Korean War.

Bucky apologizes to him, revealing that he and Steve Rogers, the original Cap, had discussed giving the shield to Sam prior to the end of Endgame. They thought that Sam deserved it as he represented Steve’s resolve to do the right thing no matter what. However, the fact that he was Black never entered the equation. There was baggage that the shield represented the Black soldiers who had been experimented on with the super serum and either died or were locked away because of the government’s racism. Bucky adds that they couldn’t have known about the contradictory legacy given Cap being stuck in ice and Bucky being a hibernating, brainwashed assassin for decades.

Bucky apologizes for his anger towards Sam for giving up the shield, handing it to him in a spirit of benevolence rather than resentment, as he had earlier in the episode when he won it from John Walker in combat. Sam thanks him and listens to Bucky’s words that the new Cap’s actions with the shield were not his fault. Sam could not help but feel guilty after watching him beat down and decapitate a surrendered foe with the very weapon he himself had surrendered back in episode one.

In turn, Sam counsels Bucky that he needs to let go of Steve Roger’s thoughts about him and his own murderous past and move on. Make real amends to the people he’s hurt for their sake and not his own.

It’s a short but powerful moment of empathy, and as someone who has had to use that, there were some breakdowns I wanted to do of that scene because there’s a lot going on there.

The Meeting Place

Starting out, the two men already had a common ground which is the beginning of empathy: their mutual friend, Steve Rogers, and the mission to take down the Flag Smashers across Europe. This contributed to this moment because, beforehand, there was a lot of animosity between them from the surrendering of Cap’s shield to the government by Sam.

At that time, both men clearly had baggage that they were dealing with that fueled the feud, but they either couldn’t say it or would not. Though they both give surface reasons for the rivalry, that's all it is. By "Truth," enough shared struggle has bonded them that they could finally truly open up about why the fate of the shield was such a thorn in both their sides.

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They are able to approach each other as equals rather than adversaries.

Seeing Someone’s Pain

Though it's off screen, Sam explains what happened with Isiah and that because of that history, the legacy of his friend’s shield and the mantle it represented was complicated for him.

This comes to the next step in empathy: acknowledging the other’s pain. When Bucky apologizes sincerely, it's out of finally understanding why Sam was so prone to have issues with the weapon.

More importantly, he’s not apologizing out of submission or accepting full responsibility. After he apologizes, he explains his and Steve’s view, that though it’s a bad word these days, they were "color blind" to Sam’s race or any racial issues that were at play at the time. In their eyes, he had earned it. Thus he ends it with, “How could we?”

Bucky acknowledges not only what happened to Sam, but his own feelings, being low-key defensive, but not aggressively so. Now that he gets it, the two have more compassion for where the other was coming from. This then allows both to speak into their issues.

My Mind My Choice

The next part of empathy, the conversation, was important because they don’t accuse each other. They speak into each other’s lives as a shared experience to a degree, and where there isn’t, they acknowledge that. More importantly though, it ends inclusively.

Neither man outright says that they accept the other’s advice. Yet they both are allowed that space to workout the rest on their own.

This is important because beating someone into submission either verbally or physically is not changing that person’s mind. And oftentimes this is where talks break down as well. It creates a simmering resentment that will lead to either an insincere apology, sabotage, or a later, explosive incident. Rather, both people express their views/feelings and move on. It leaves it up to the other person to decide for themselves or not what they are going to do with that knowledge.

It's important to note here as well that this doesn't always lead to the ideal resolution. Life is not a Marvel picture after all. The other parties may decide to continue on their path of conflict. But it’s their choice and whatever happens after that, at least the attempt was made and the other perspective is now known.

Mistaken Empathy For Weakness

Most peoples’ problem with empathy stems from the belief that empathy = submission. That by allowing the other person to even speak their mind is to give ground that was otherwise or should be yours. Bucky’s and Sam’s first talk shows as much, being both forced on them to talk by Bucky's counselor and being already hostile towards each other. And the more powerful the emotions involved, the less likely the other is to truly listen.

Other times, the issue is that a party may not want to talk at all because they’re comfortable enough in what they know. They believe that their current knowledge is both enough and justified. From this point of view, at the very least hearing the other’s side threatens to destabilize their comfortability and empowerment. Most people are not inclined to do that.

Though The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about heroes battling terrorists while trying to talk them down to get the moral win, it’s no secret that real world issues can be, as the unnamed senator says in the final episode, more complicated. Empathy alone will not save the world. But it could help set the stage to create a better one, or at the very least give factions true insight into their enemies’ intentions and goals.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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