Cinema, particularly sci-fi and fantasy cinema, is reliant on suspension of disbelief. We as an audience make a contract with the filmmaker to follow their lead and lose ourselves in the worlds they create. To best enjoy a story about a purple alien seeking out magical rocks, it’s better to not to ask too many questions. As a fan of ridiculous and imaginative storytelling, I’ve learned to quell the curious part of my brain and go with the proverbial cinematic flow. But a recent scene from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has sparked a level of overthinking that’s rendered me near useless for the last week.
If this one scene is true, then no one pays the Avengers. And that brings up far too many questions for me to just ignore.
What Happened in the Bank?
During the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam takes his sister Sarah to the local bank, hoping to leverage his celebrity to get her a loan. Alas, the bank manager rejects him. The scene seems to want us to read it as a statement on the racist institution of the banks. Plus, the fact that the country doesn’t care for veterans once they are out of the fight. But we lose those loose analogs as the loan manager asks too many questions that we get vague answers for. And those answers just lead to a lot of other questions. Because the only thing this scene does establish is a canon that no one paid the Avengers. And worse: that billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark specifically never ever paid them.
“Isn’t there a fund for heroes or did Stark pay you when he was around?” – bank guy
“No, it doesn’t work like that.” – Sam Wilson
Their exchange also implies that even though we begin the episode with Sam in Tunisia blowing stuff up for the US government, he hasn’t been paid by them for that very life threatening and dangerous mission. The loan manager claims he hasn’t had any income over the last five years. Does that mean he did have income when he was on the run? Sam says he has government contracts which are proof of earnings. Yet Sam still has no income? So honestly what the hell is going on? And how does any Avenger pay rent?
So Sam Wilson Never Got Paid to Be Falcon?
Look, the biggest issue here is that with a few easy tweaks you could narratively explain why Sam is broke. He was on the run for two years as a fugitive and then the Blip happened. It might be a reach, but it could have been fine. Instead, this scene basically introduces the idea that the Avengers were paid in… exposure and “good will.” And not only that but the government only ever paid Sam minimally, despite the fact the Avengers were seemingly doing US government sanctioned missions around the globe. In his first appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Sam states he was working for the VA. Wouldn’t he have a pension? Would it have been cancelled after he went rogue? And did he lose that wage he clearly needed when he became an Avenger? Because he apparently hasn’t earned any money since then.
So what you’re telling me is that none of the Avengers were ever paid? How did they eat? Who paid their rent? Did they just turn up at Tony Stark’s house and hope he’d buy them shawarma? Because that seems incredibly unsustainable. And more creepily is the fact that if Sam isn’t getting paid he’s essentially being used by the government as a living weapon.
Still Sad That Redwing Is Owned by the Government Too.
The other immediate thing that stresses me out is that Redwing is owned by the government? I’ve always been mad that Sam’s sidekick wasn’t a real bird and was instead a high-tech death machine, but I never really properly conceived of the fact that it was likely owned by the government. Just like the wings. Because if it wasn’t, surely Sam could just sell it and immediately pay off his and his sister’s debts. Even just pawning that tech would surely get you some good cash?
Also, if the government owns the Falcon wings—as Civil War established—and Redwing, you’re telling me this man has been flying around and risking his life in US military tech and not receiving wages for it? Make it make sense! We literally see him with the US Air Force shooting up Tunisia at the opening of this episode but he just did it out of the “goodness” of his heart? He even says he has “government contracts” but they take half a year to get paid because he has “no income”? The Blip was six months ago so why hasn’t he been getting paid by the Air Force? Killing people in other countries? Not getting paid? And with no agency over his weaponry or wings… maybe they’re making a statement.
Were the Other Avengers Getting Paid?
Well, Rhodey is a Lieutenant Colonel so we can assume the military paid him, especially when War Machine was their property. But if that’s the case then why isn’t that the same deal for Sam? Thor was likely not getting wages, but he lives in Asgard and can fly, so like… good for him, I guess. Tony Stark was a billionaire, so really he didn’t need the cash and had amends to make for all the war profiteering. Bruce Banner… was maybe paid by Tony seeing as they worked together? But he was also on the run for a long time during which he was making no cash. S.H.I.E.L.D. surely had Hawkeye and Black Widow on the payroll at one time as black ops assassins—we’ll come back to S.H.I.E.L.D. later—though who knows if that translated to their time as Avengers.
And let us quickly talk about Vision. He literally bought Wanda and himself land to build a home? With what money? And when? Surely if anyone doesn’t need to get paid it’s a robot who is a) probably Avengers property and b) also doesn’t need to eat or have anywhere to live. A synthezoid has enough money to build a house for his on-the-run witch wife and keep an apartment thousands of miles away, but Sam Wilson can’t pay his family’s mortgage?
Whomst Is Paying for Bucky’s Therapy?
Sure, this is a minor quibble. But you’re telling me that Sam Wilson can’t get a loan and has no money but the government—our best guess—is paying for Bucky Barnes to have expensive therapy and apparently live his life? After years as a Russian asset?
Who Do We Know That Is/Was Actually Getting Paid in the MCU?
Let’s break it down. Tony Stark is probably the biggest employer in the MCU seeing as we know he is employing Happy, Pepper Potts, and maybe Rhodey later on. He’s a billionaire who was also a founding member of the Avengers, but who, according to Sam, didn’t see fit to ever share that wealth or pay his teammates a living wage. F**ked up but not surprising for MCU Tony. Doctor Strange was definitely earning a lot of money in his previous life as a doctor. While he had to quit that job and pursue a slightly problematic hero’s journey, he likely had savings. Though the Doctor Strange movie did indicate he’d spent all his savings looking for answers to repair his wrecked hands.
Ironically, in the case of Peter Parker, the MCU removed one of his most famous sources of income by taking away his role as a Spider-Man photographer. But he lives with his hot aunt so let’s assume she’s making sure he can eat and that they can make rent.
Bruce Banner has really always been a bum in the MCU. Maybe Tony was paying him during his time creating the time machine, but also seeing as Tony wasn’t paying Sam, that would be pretty messed up. Scott Lang is a career criminal and he’s just happy to be there so he was almost certainly not getting paid. You know who was definitely getting paid by someone: Hawkeye. This guy, the worst Avenger, owned a whole farm! Where did he get the cash? How many foreign dignitaries did he have to kill to purchase it? The people want to know!
According to Sam, in spite of the no payment there was a lot of “good will.” So are you saying that landlords were just letting the Avengers live for free because of “good will”? Supermarket workers were giving them free groceries? This is getting ridiculous.
Do the Comics Answer Any of These Questions?
Well, kind of. In the comics these discussions are at the forefront of the heroes we know. Marvel has always prided themselves on bringing grounded reality to superhero storytelling. And in the case of being upfront about money in the comics, that’s a fair claim. Tony Stark used to bankroll the Avengers before everyone knew his role as Iron Man. Once he revealed his heroic side, that continued. He’s had issues with money but is generally pretty wealthy. Spider-Man has a legit job(s). The Fantastic Four are either broke or superhero celebrities whose research pays for the Baxter Building. Sam Wilson was a social worker, not a soldier. Bruce Banner was a scientist but was often on the run and didn’t have money.
The movies don’t explicitly deal with any of this, though. For example, in the mid-00s Avengers comics, Tony allows the Avengers to live rent free in Avengers Tower. But that was never established in the MCU. The closest thing is when Wanda is imprisoned in the Avengers Compound and Falcon was potentially living there or perhaps was just guarding Wanda or fighting off Ant-Man. Either way, it’s not an answer. The strangest thing is that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier apparently goes out of its way to establish that Stark didn’t pay the Avengers. That’s particularly odd as it seems to be what the entire MCU is sort of hoping that you’d think until this point. Especially if you’ve read the comics.
What the Heck Was the Deal with S.H.I.E.L.D.?
If Stark never paid them then surely Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. did, right? Well, that is unclear. Sam has no income other than his government contracts. And S.H.I.E.L.D. has been disbanded. That could answer why he hasn’t recently been getting paid by them. But it does seem wild that the most powerful military force on Earth was ostensibly using volunteer labor to do its dirty work. And that’s where the biggest issues with the suspension of disbelief occur. These are not ground level heroes, they’re not neighborhood heroes. They’re militarized figures who were called together by a government approved but not regulated organization to regularly do the work of an imperialist governmentt, apparently for free.
What Does This Mean for the MCU and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier?
It’s unclear if this will be an ongoing thread in the series. We ended the first episode discovering that John Walker would be the new Captain America. It will be interesting to see if the creators decide to have him paid by the government to showcase how bad it is that Sam didn’t get paid. But that would actually add so many other issues. Would that imply the government paid the white Avengers? But Rhodey and Sam were not? And also did the US government pay Steve Rogers? Let’s think about that.
We know Captain America was a tool of propaganda. But as we mentioned above, we don’t know if he was paid. In Age of Ultron he claims he can’t afford an apartment in Brooklyn. Sure, it’s wildly expensive there but like… what can he afford? Was he ever being paid? Where did he live? Who paid for his loft in Washington DC? If anything, the fact that the government created him as a weapon might make him the least likely candidate for getting a wage at all. And if that’s the case, how did he fund his second life with Peggy?
Sure, none of this is real life. You could argue it doesn’t matter. But with a franchise that’s so about continuity and interconnected-ness, we can’t ignore it. That’s because the scene literally unravels the economy of the MCU. We know Tony never paid the Avengers, and we have many, many questions. And no matter what route the show goes, it seems unlikely that in six episodes we’ll get any concrete answers about how the heroes have financially survived for the last 23 movies. But we could still be surprised. For now all that we do know now is that Tony Stark was a cheap, cheap man.