Director Kari Skogland is a little relieved to have her Disney+ series, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” completed — now she can actually talk about its complexities free from the fear of spoiling anything. “Obviously with any creative project you never know how it’s going to land,” Skogland said in an interview with IndieWire. The show’s themes, including racism and systemic inequality, were always going to be tough for a Marvel series to tackle, but Skogland is satisfied at the end of the day.
Skogland believes that with the one-two punch of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of the last year the series only becomes more poignant. “From very early on we were in this conversation. We were in a racially charged, emotional conversation about not just racism [and] intolerance, but justice and elitism,” she said.
Having Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson give a speech about the role of government was something she and head writer Malcolm Spellman were adamant to include because it was impossible to tie up the story with a neat bow. “Anthony was very much a part of that end speech which opens the door to discussion,” Skogland said. “You’ve got the power now. What are you [the government] going to do with it?”
All the characters, according to Skogland, showcased different facets of the heroism and villainy that makes up the world. Erin Kellyman’s Karli Morgenthau, leader of the radical group the Flag Smashers, was meant to show how a radical is born. Sam’s final speech, Skogland said, bridged the gap between both characters. “It was important to me that, on the hero side of it, [Sam] understood that what she was talking about was valid,” she said. “I feel like [Karli] had her moment of redemption when she said, ‘I’m sorry.’ She understood that, even on her death bed, she got it wrong.”
The series’ shifting look at heroes and villains manifested most overtly with John Walker’s (Wyatt Russell) take on Captain America, a character that drove vehement discussion on social media. Skogland said when the series started, Walker as a character was unrendered, meaning they weren’t sure how much they would need to experiment with him. They also wanted to open the character up considering Russell, himself, was so charismatic.
“We went [with] performances across the board until we saw in the post-production process [that] we could hone it in and [then decided] we had options where he could be lighter and where he needed to be more earnest,” Skogland said. He’s his own worst enemy, she said, a man who gets in his own way. “He didn’t really get off light in the sense that he is stripped of his stripes, which mean everything to him,” she said. “He’s had to have a very serious reality check on who he is and who he isn’t.”
Factoring in what Walker does throughout the series’ six episodes, it was important for him to never come off as winking. “He was always trying his best,” Skogland said, which is why his character has an emotional journey illustrating how he’s cast aside by those he respects. The dueling stories of John and Sam, said Skogland, are about looking at ego. “Sam doesn’t have a destructive ego and John is ultimately serving his ego,” she said. The question then becomes: Where does ego go when it comes to being Captain America — and a hero in general?
Skogland sees the privilege inherent in John’s character, but also feels there’s a heavy dose of imposter syndrome she wanted to showcase. As John discusses receiving his Medal of Honor Skogland points out “the gray of it,” which is Walker calling it the worst day of his life. “It looked good and people were saved, but people died,” Skogland said. The director said it’s that imposter syndrome — of knowing he didn’t do everything he could — that fuels his drive to be Captain America.
That being said, it’s impossible to look at all that when seeing that same character beat someone to death with Cap’s shield. “Everybody really wanted it to be as gruesome as we could make it,” she said while respecting the series’ PG-13 tone. Questions were asked about how much blood was too much or not enough, and Skogland also didn’t want to be too excessive with the violence just for the sake of it. “I felt the way to pull it off was [to] put it in your imagination. It’s all about what we don’t see,” she said.
“It kind of had to be a ballet in John Walker’s head for us to continue this idea of an experiential execution which is what I was going for throughout the series,” Skogland said. “It meant that as he got crazy we want to go in there with him,” utilizing slow motion and weird angles to highlight that. “He lost control out of grief but it shows his flaw as a result. It’s his fatal flaw,” she said.
Ironically, directing that scene was a badge of honor for the director because of how rooted in reality it is. “It’s one thing for Thanos to decapitate someone,” she said. “But it’s another thing for us in our reality-based, very grounded show to deconstruct a hero similarly.” Skogland said from her first meeting on the series the goal was not just to look at race and the issues inherent in society but inspire discussion and debate. With that in mind, she hopes that audiences look at John Walker’s character arc in a similar manner.
But now that she’s introduced Sam Wilson’s Captain America, where does the story go from here? Skogland said she hasn’t heard anything on a possible second season of the series and while there has been talk of a fourth “Captain America” entry to be written by Spellman, Skogland is skeptical. “I don’t read the headlines, and I also don’t believe them so I have no idea whether a film is even in the works,” she said.
She also hopes that her work on the series can break barriers with regard to who can tell stories. A director since 1994, Skogland’s work has already broken the glass ceiling — but she wants to do more. “I hope that in another way we can move the need to say, instead of being a Black director, or a woman director, or a French director that I’m just a director,” she said. “Because if a woman can only direct women, and men can only direct men, and Black directors can only direct Black actors, then we are missing out on opening up voices to different perspectives.”
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is streaming on Disney+.