WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST EPISODE OF MARVEL STUDIOS’ THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER
It’s easy to see why The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was originally intended to be the first of the Disney+ Marvel Studios series before WandaVision. And it is because, by comparison, it is a safer show and an easy toe dip for Marvel Studios into the world of serialized streaming shows. Many may see that as a bad thing, but, frankly, it’s not. The greatest joy in seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe unfold the past 13 years is we can have a gritty political thriller like Captain America: The Winter Soldier AND a cosmic space opera like Guardians of the Galaxy, and have it all make sense together. And here we see that level of versatility on display again. The sheer fact that there’s room in our world for an insane, reality-bending sitcom/drama show about grief, and a realistic action drama about two people and their insecurities regarding living up to the mantle of their closest friend is nothing short of amazing.
And, at its core, that is exactly what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about — two ground-level heroes (in terms of power-set, not physically ground-level in Falcon’s case obviously) thinking that they’re not good enough to be the heroes the world needs them to be in the aftermath of Avengers Endgame. On one side of the story, you have Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) fully doubting Steve Rogers’ choice to pass the shield down to him. On the other side, you have a story about redemption and the PTSD Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been wrestling with since his tenure as the notorious Winter Soldier for Hydra. In the six months after Endgame, Sam is back on missions for the Air Force, taking down bad guys like Batroc the Leaper. Outside of his hero work, he’s just helping his sister and his nephews keep their parents’ shrimping boat and house, trying to get a loan, and doing what he can just to pay the bills. Bucky is in therapy after having nightmares about Hydra missions he was brainwashed into doing, and doing everything he can to make amends for those missions. And on top of all that, a mysterious new group of anarchists called the Flagsmashers has emerged with a leader that appears to be an enhanced individual or “super-soldier.”
The most fascinating thing about the series (at least the first episode) is that we actually take a breath from the apocalypse-saving missions and focus on who these characters are. Indeed, as amazing as movies like Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame are, we barely have any time to analyze these characters as humans, as we’re propelled into peril and superheroics immediately in each film. Bucky escapes after Winter Soldier, and we see him buying plums in Civil War, before we are thrust into a chase between him, Cap, Sam, and T’Challa. Sam goes from jogging buddy in Winter Soldier to Cap’s right hand man (literally since Cap’s always on his left) in the blink of an eye in 3-4 movies. And that’s all fantastic for the films! We love that and want to see our superheroes kick ass, while getting just enough character development in those 2-8 hours of awesomeness for us to love each character and make them three-dimensional enough.
However, the narrative of each film needs to take full focus, and thus we don’t have time to explore every character as an individual in the same way they explored its most important heroes, such as Steve Rogers or Tony Stark. Not once do we think about Sam having a family or personal problems, or Bucky having sleepless nights (unless you’re one of the thousands of Sebastian Stan stalkers thinking about Bucky’s sleepless nights in a different context). But the show does dive into these issues, and in doing so it makes these heroes so much more relatable and brings them down-to-earth with the rest of the mortals. Just because they saved the world multiple times doesn’t mean that their lives are glamorous.
While I realize that spending time with Falcon as he runs charitable errands and tries to apply for a loan at a bank or watching Bucky go to therapy and then lunch doesn’t necessarily sound like a good time, allowing us to peek into their day-to-day lives and troubles is fascinating and relatable in the same way Stan Lee made us relate to Peter Parker’s troubles finding a date and getting groceries for Aunt May, while still balancing life as Spider-Man in early books. In other words, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the exact show Marvel Studios needs right now, even more so now that WandaVision has concluded. Like WandaVision, it deals with the aftermath of the Snap and the Blip on the entire world, but it shows it from the perspective of heroes rooted in the limits of reality rather than those who can break reality. Sam and Bucky do not have the luxury of waving their hands to make life ideal for them. Hell, as it turns out, Sam wasn’t even really paid to be an Avenger — a job that, for obvious reasons, made him unavailable to his family and their needs. Take those troubles and add in Sam’s inferiority complex after being handed the shield by Cap, and Bucky’s inability to forgive himself and you’ve got a recipe for some of the most human storytelling the MCU has committed to thus far. These characters make mistakes, make amends, and try to just live with their choices for better or worse, and that bonds us to them all the more. And coming off WandaVision, human is exactly how we need to see these characters.
But I digress as, let’s be honest, no one is tuning into a Marvel Studios show for day-to-day, slice-of-life scenes. We want action and, in its first outing, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier kicks off with a breathtaking sequence of Sam rescuing a military captain from Batroc and his buddies. Helmed by veteran TV director, Kari Skogland, the show thrusts you high up, skydiving around and zipping and flying through canyons, following Sam as he’s being chased by missiles and gun fire. We see Sam making mistakes as he fights and flies, but ultimately making a lot of clever maneuvers that make us remember why Cap gave him the shield. The sequence overall reflects the back-to-basics action style we saw in Winter Soldier. It’s dynamic, fast-paced, energetic, and fun! Unfortunately, in the first episode, that’s about as much as we get, apart from a fairly brutal and complex flashback scene involving Bucky. But again, the show and the narrative understand that there’s a lot of catch up, setup, and character beats that are necessary to establish first before the next awesome action sequence can be earned. And I, for one, am 100% okay with that balance. After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not The Fast Saga. Action is payoff from character and narrative, and this show understands that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also comment on the cleverness of the show in subtly highlighting race issues pertaining to Sam and his sister Sarah being Black in a divided post-Blip America. For instance, in the aforementioned bank scene, Falcon, a hero who has been instrumental in saving the world dozens of times, is still denied a loan for not having income coming in from the past five years he was snapped out of existence. Commenting on the bank being “tight” with its funds despite knowing full well how that incident affected billions, Sarah says, “funny how things just tighten up around us.” Additionally, the set up for the episode begins with Sam believing he’s doing the right thing by thinking the Captain America mantle should end with Steve, only to really be duped by the government into surrendering the shield so they can make “a symbol for all of us” with another blonde hair, blue-eyed Captain America. The sheer fact that it’s a white general speaking about the need for this symbol gives the “us” he’s referring to a bit of a double entendre that is only reinforced by the introduction of another white Captain America. The show is definitely acknowledging, in its own way, the difficulties of being a Black individual during times that are still dictated by systemic racism and bias. And, to me, that’s a very sly and relevant message that is admirable for any property within the MCU to tackle.
On the criticism front, I know a lot of folks may be displeased at the slower pace and lack of action of the episode, though it didn’t bother me at all. And yet, it may still disappoint fans to know that Episode 1 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will not see The Falcon or the Winter Soldier coming together in any capacity by the time it’s over. While it’s not a problem for me, there may be some disappointment there for anyone looking for instant gratification (and let’s be honest — in the age of social media and toxic fandom, impatience is a reality).
One of my biggest gripes about the show, however, is that it’s treading on somewhat similar themes as Spider-Man: Far From Home, which, considering a lot of key players now gone from the MCU, I think are beats we’ll be seeing a lot of in Phase 4. In the same way Peter was intimidated about living up to Tony, Sam here is intimidated by the fact that he has to live up to Cap. And as a result, he and Peter both made stupid mistakes about neglecting the responsibility implied by being offered to take up each predecessor’s mantles/legends. However, while Peter has the benefit of being a naive kid, Sam doesn’t get that excuse. Yes, Cap is a larger than life character, but he chose Sam for a reason. Sam even committed to doing his best — that’s the whole reason Cap gave him the shield. To have that powerful moment from Endgame diminished in this series almost immediately actually makes you sort of dislike Sam’s actions rather than sympathize with them, given how disrespectful it is to Cap and his choice overall. How is giving up six months later “doing your best?” We get why he does it, but the fact that he doesn’t even consider the potential risk apparent with making such a stupid decision is ultimately the reason we, ourselves, start to second guess Cap’s decision too. When by the end of the episode, Sam realizes he’s made a mistake, you kind of have no other response as an audience member outside of “No s**t, Sherlock!” And from there you can kind of piece together that the series will be about an uphill battle for Sam to prove he’s worthy of the mantle, the same way Peter did.
That being said, the series still successfully manages to establish an identity of its own, being a lot more rooted in reality, and focused on developing characters we love and know in deeper, fuller, more meaningful ways. And as such, between WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios is truly taking advantage of the Disney+ platform to flesh out these characters, and transform them into major players within the greater MCU, and I gotta say, so far it’s working great! The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s debut episode represents a fun, exciting, character driven story, and a welcome change of pace from the previous gleefully bombastic and chaotic installments in this franchise, setting up a human show with a lot of promise. In other words, without question, it is indeed a worthy successor to the Captain America legacy!
Overall Score: B+
The first episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier debuts on Disney+ this Friday, March 19.