When Sam Wilson became the new Captain America back in 2014, it felt like the organic evolution of Marvel's two most iconic US patriots. As a then-elderly Steve Rogers passed his shield and duties on to his longtime friend, Sam became a more sharply defined, empowered version of the hero he'd always been.
As Falcon, Sam had spent decades protecting the world as an Avenger and a Defender, and he clocked his fair share of hours as a Hero for Hire, all the while building up an impressive skill set of abilities. Chief among them — leadership. As Captain America, nothing about who he was a person really changed, save for his costume and the amount of attention both we the audience and Marvel's characters paid to him.
That iconic, red-white-and-blue shield cast a spotlight on Sam Wilson that warded off any trace of the idea that he was still a second-stringer, but his shift to the Captain America identity made it bittersweet to consider the inevitable day when he would hand it back to Steve. While this week's Generations: Sam Wilson, Captain America & Steve Rogers, Captain America one-shot written by Nick Spencer and illustrated by Paul Renaud is conceptually interesting, it also undermines Sam's legacy as Captain America when it should be celebrating it instead.
As has been tradition with Marvel's Generations stories, Sam is suddenly sucked through time and space to meet the first person to use his signature superhero moniker. Sam's journey takes him to the 1940s at the height of World War II, where he rather quickly decides to enlist in the Army and join the fight where he knows he'll eventually find the freshly-minted, original Captain America.
Where the characters in other Generations books have stumbled a bit in trying to make sense of what they're doing displaced out of their own times, Sam moves through the past with a resolute purpose. He refers to it as a "pull" inside of himself, quickly advancing through training in a seeming matter of weeks or perhaps months. Soon, he's in Germany, flying through the skies with his jetpack and wings and leading a squadron of black fighter pilots to fight some Nazis.
The book purposefully glosses over specific details about Sam's experience in the past in order for its titular characters to meet one another quickly. When they do, Sam gives a much younger and unsure-of-himself Steve advice about what it's going to mean to become Captain America, not just as a superhero, but as an idea.
Sam's wisdom becomes one of the foundational elements of Steve's Captain America persona. The original Cap goes on to save the day and get encased in ice and Sam... stays in the past. Unlike the other Generations titles, where the character out of time is jerked back to their present after the heartfelt exchange, Sam settles into life in the '40s with a new identity. As Paul Jeffries, Sam starts a family, becomes a minister, and lives through the Civil Rights movement. Eventually, Sam sees his younger self become the Falcon and fight along a revived Captain America, the same Steve Rogers he met during the war.
It isn't until Sam (still living as Paul) is well into his old age when he finally meets Steve again, who immediately recognises him as the flying soldier from all those decades back. Though Steve had figured out that who "Paul" actually was before their reunion, he kept his knowledge away from the younger Sam, reasoning that he was fated to travel back through time. When "Paul" and elderly Steve meet, it's to discuss Steve's decision to pass the Cap mantle onto Sam and, in a lovely bit of narrative symmetry, "Paul" is able to fundamentally shape his own destiny.
The book ends with "Paul" being sucked back into his original present, young once again, and tracking down the recently created "good Steve" to give him back his Captain America shield.
If Generations: Sam Wilson Captain America & Steve Rogers Captain America existed in a vacuum unrelated to Secret Empire, it would make for a solid limited series. In Secret Empire's shadow, though, the book reads a lot more like an obligatory, ceremonial passing (back) of the torch that highlights the fact that Sam's giving up his title at a time when it's been irreparably tarnished.
Of the many things that Secret Empire tried to accomplish, the one that (perhaps accidentally) it actually pulled off was saddling the idea of Captain America with a shit-ton of Nazi baggage. Regardless of what Secret Empire's ultimate goal was, the process of turning Steve into Hydra's leader and then having the character carry out a draconian master plan to take over the world generated controversy that hasn't exactly strengthened the Captain America brand. There's something objectively off-putting about watching Sam give Steve a pep talk that's going to lead to Sam becoming Captain America when we know that that stage of Sam's life is soon coming to an end. We're meant to believe that the "good Steve" is a worthy successor, but that sort of blind faith in Steve seems out of character for Sam, given the experience he had during Secret Empire.
Sam delivering the eulogy for Rhodey in Captain America: Sam Wilson #10. Art by Angel Unzueta, Cris Peter and Joe Caramagna
Comic book characters trade titles all the time, and Sam stepping down from his post — while disappointing — never had to be an inherently bad thing. As Cap, Sam wasn't just a leader — he became a the voice that consoled Marvel's characters as they dealt with the tragic costs of Civil War II and fought villains who championed the sort of racist, anti-immigrant ideology that plagues us here in the real world. Sam Wilson wasn't just the same kind of American icon that Steve had been before him, Sam was the country's first official Black Captain America. And he deserved a better send-off than this.