Marvel’s latest televisual creation is less creatively groundbreaking than predecessor WandaVision, but continues the trend of exploring the value of quiet, emotional moments in amongst the blockbuster action
Starring Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Danny Ramirez, Georges St-Pierre, Adepero Oduye, Don Cheadle, Emily VanCamp, and Daniel Brühl
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, originally intended to open Marvel’s slate of Disney+ offerings, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and instead was pipped to the post by Jac Schaeffer’s WandaVision. With Disney+’s return to the weekly episodic release model instead of encouraging binge watching, WandaVision became the subject of intense online scrutiny and became a somewhat unexpected phenomenon with its highly creative and unique premise that displaced two powerful Avengers into domestic bliss across multiple eras of sitcom television. Something that WandaVision achieved spectacularly was its balance between its comedy conceit but also the real MCU bleeding through as the mystery behind Wanda’s perfect life became gradually uncovered.
Following this impressive start, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier somewhat pales in comparison, but it’s almost unfair to compare the two. They both lend emotion and depth to characters previously on the sidelines and possess qualities of the MCU film releases amongst quieter, more intimate moments. However, WandaVision really lent itself to the episodic format, with each instalment offering a clue or glimpse into the wider story at large, while The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels far more ordinary, almost like the slightly boring expository section at the beginning of an MCU movie before the main action actually takes hold. There are glimpses at where the storyline is going, but these moments are few and far between and could have been afforded far more screentime compared to seeing Sam and Bucky’s stalled existences. WandaVision‘s episodes stood very well on their own. Events developed, and our characters stood at different points at the end of each episode compared to where they were at the start. In contrast, Sam and Bucky’s states remain the same for the entire forty-five minutes. Crucially, where WandaVision had me anxiously watching the clock realising that time was running out on each episode, Falcon and the Winter Soldier had me checking my watch to see when it would come to an end.
Delivering an undeniably more traditional Marvel product, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels more grounded, as it explores Sam’s experiences with monetary difficulties and racism as well as Bucky’s PTSD. The legacy of both The Blip and its effects upon the Marvel Universe at large, as well as the tremendous gulf left in Steve’s wake also feature heavily here. Compared to Wanda, who was real in her depiction of grief, Sam and Bucky do feel vastly more accessible and relatable.
Right off the bat, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier establishes itself with an incredible blockbuster-calibre action sequence, in which Sam takes on a series of terrorists as he careens wildly through the sky. It really demonstrates how much Marvel are willing to invest in their TV shows, and there was no sign of scrimping on the effects budget, even if it did seem quite similar to lots of what the MCU has produced before. The sections involving Bucky as The Winter Soldier in action in the past were also suitably brutal, with the show pulling few punches.
Despite much of the promotional material relying upon the buddy-cop-esque dynamic between Sam and Bucky, the pair are separate for the entire of the episode. Sam finds himself turning down Steve’s offer from Avengers: Endgame to become the next Captain America and instead insisting that there be no new iteration, handing over the shield to the Smithsonian. At the same time, he is trying to support his sister who is forced to sell their parents’ boat in a time of tremendous economic hardship, with even Sam’s status as an Avenger not securing them a loan, due to not existing for the past five years (apparently the policy of the bank has not been updated to reflect this).
Bucky features comparatively scarcely, with lots of his storyline being portrayed through therapy sessions. Bucky is haunted via nightmares over his past as the Winter Soldier, and is in the process of making amends, which involves getting HYDRA-funded people arrested, as well as befriending an elderly man whose son he killed on a past mission. Despite trying to adapt to a civilian life, Bucky finds himself isolated and solitary.
On the periphery of the episode, Sam’s colleague Joaquin Torres investigates a suspicious group known as the Flag-Smashers, who believe that the world was better during the Blip and want to eradicate borders between the countries. Despite the certain appeal of their goal, it appears that their methods are far from savoury, with the episode establishing them pretty securely as terrorist aggressors.
The final moment of the episode reveals a new Captain America: a character who doesn’t even have to open his mouth to have the entire audience loathing him already. Introduced by the same government official who had encouraged and praised Sam for relinquishing the shield, it’s clear that the undercurrents of racism that pervaded Sam and his sister’s conversation with the bank who refused to give them a loan will continue to be explored with the government’s conscious decision to appoint a white man as the new Captain America instead of Sam himself. It’ll be intriguing to see how far Marvel will go with this route, considering the lack of representation throughout the MCU as a whole, as it is still predominantly a white man’s game, as well as their exploration of authoritarianism, as many of the MCU’s instalments have come across as more pro-authoritarian than opposed to it.
From the slow-burn, largely expository first episode, there’s not terribly much of a clue of where this series is going. Other than making it clear that the Flag-Smashers are the main enemy, and that Bucky and Sam will be united in their outrage at the appointment of a new Captain America, this episode did not nicely balance mystery with characterisation, resulting in quite a plodding, uneventful instalment. There’s little levity and it seems almost too serious to be accessible.
Clearly designed to be part of a larger story, it fails to be satisfying in itself and while certain plot points may become important later on, as of yet, there’s little of valuable note. Bucky and Sam do not progress further than when we found them, and there is little narrative thrust forward to inspire the audience to tune in for the next episode.
Ultimately, the success of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cannot be determined just from its first episode, and it has been done a disservice by following the spectacularly intriguing WandaVision. The narrative is still yet to become clear, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier certainly feels like a movie separated into parts rather than a TV series in its own right. Hopefully the TV format will allow further exploration, development and shift in Sam and Bucky’s circumstances to justify the increased runtime and provide something that will shock and excite viewers.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is released weekly on Disney+ on Fridays.