As much as I find Remender’s recent storylines to be thought-provoking, Sam Wilson’s backstory is one long cliché: inner city youth, a community ravaged by drugs, his parents die; Sam then raises his siblings and eventually becomes a social worker. Not that such things don’t happen in our world; it’s that they also so commonly happen in well-meaning, socially-broadening fiction and just plain-bad TV. The backstory feels pat. It’s also against canon. Stories of Sam’s criminal past were so common that Marvel addressed the subject in Marvel Premiere #49 (1979). In a helpful crib sheet, the editors created a Socratic question and answer session:
LIKE HOW COME EVERYONE CALLS HIMS ‘SAM’?
The Falcon’s secret identity—that of the social worker Sam Wilson—is public record.
Due to the well-publicized trial for his past offenses as ‘Snap’ Wilson, the Falcon’s secret identity was revealed.
Prior to his becoming the Falcon, Sam was a small-time racketeer who called himself ‘Snap’ Wilson.
RACKETEER? WHAT’S A RACKETEER?
‘Racketeer’ is a word they used to use to describe undesirable characters who were running illegal business dealings. Like running numbers. Like drugs. Like ‘protection’ operations.
YOU MEAN HE WAS A CROOK.
Something like that.
With friends like this, who needs enemies? The uninformed interrogator may begin confused, but he ends the discussion with black and white clarity. His opposite (collectively, the informed Marvel editors) looks for the least offensive word to describe Sam. But if “racketeer” is a word “they used to use,” the interrogator understands who the Falcon is, and who Sam was: a crook, a thug, and a drug dealer. Marvel’s superheroes might have their foibles—Tony Stark is an alcoholic—but a drug dealer, even an ex-drug dealer, is difficult for young readers to embrace.
Now comes Remender with a helpful retcon: No, no, no, Sam was never a drug dealer. Those memories were implanted by the Red Skull sometime after Sam the social worker arrived at Skull Island. So Sam, we are to believe, was a social worker who had intuitions that he was a drug dealer but really wasn’t, even if Marvel’s own editors thought otherwise. But if he was just a social worker, just how did he get to Skull Island? Are we to believe that the Red Skull put out an ad for a social worker, interviewed Sam, negotiated a salary, then flew him over to Skull Island and only then added the druggie memories? If that is so, then why didn’t Sam’s siblings identify these newly-created, false memories? I might here be a bit obtuse, but wouldn’t his family have asked him how things were going at his new, cool Caribbean gig?
SAM’S SISTER: How is it going?
SAM: Great! I’m a really good social worker and now no longer deal drugs…
SAM’S SISTER: Huh?
SAM: Yeah, and I can now communicate telepathically with a falcon.
SAM’S SISTER: Are you sure you haven’t started doing drugs?
It is not just that such reconfigurings of backstory are ludicrous—after all, Marvel is about to reconfigure its entire universe (or conflate various universes and backstories). It’s that the attempt here to save Sam’s past actually has the opposite effect. Sam is now a do-gooder without any cause. Worse, if Sam’s drug dealer past is a false memory, then it may well be that all of his memories are muddled.
Sam, of course, is free to pick and choose which memories he prefers. To some extent we all do this: we reimagine a recent sports event, making more of our contribution than is strictly warranted, or we relive a conversation, this time inserting a perfectly cutting reply. Yes, to some extent we are all the heroes (sometimes tragic heroes) of our lives; each of us is a Boswell to our Johnson, venerating our favorite subject—ourselves!
There is another useful takeaway from this retcon: Sam, having no reliable past, is freed from it. He is no longer a person with memories of inner city crime or racism or any ism. Unencumbered by his past, he can more easily serve as a hero not just to some people but to all people.
That sounds good, except that without a tragic backstory Sam has never overcome anything. Thus, he can’t really be a hero because he has never had to face life heroically (i.e. ready to sacrifice himself without the aegis of superpowers or technology to save him). Right on cue, Sin tells him that his entire family and everyone he loves will be killed unless he hands over his flight suit and jumps off a cliff. Sam does so without hesitation only to spring back into action a few panels later. Sam explains that he silently ordered his mind-reading bird, Redwing, to pick up the discarded mechanical wings. Sam then put them back on while he was plummeting to (otherwise) certain death.
Never mind how implausible this sounds. All superhero comics are implausible. It again renders Sam’s actions as non- (if not un-) heroic simply because he never intended to sacrifice himself. We saw something like this in Remender’s recent Captain America #24. Sam (then dressed as the Falcon) seemed to sacrifice himself to save his friends. That action turned out to be a noble lie. Sam didn’t die, though he was ready to do so. That is all we can ask of our heroes. After all, assuming here that we elect to believe that superheroes are alive, we don’t really want them to die. Sometimes it is the thought that counts. What we have here, however, is feeble, and not just because thoughts (or memories) can no longer be counted on. Sam does not sacrifice himself to save his friends and family (who, for all we know are not his friends and family); instead, Sam simply outsmarts his opponent—a useful skill, to be sure, but not a virtuous act.