Now halfway through its six chapters, the third episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier -Marvel’s buddy-thriller pairing two of Captain America’s closest friends and allies- is at the point where it needs to start becoming more than just an expository set-up. I’m not sure it’s quite there yet.
With our heroes Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) tracking the activities of a faction of terrorists/freedom fighters going by the name of Flag-Smashers (a hilarious name, still), the two are turned on to the group’s apparent super soldier fighters and look for some unsavory company in aid of their search. Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) has been locked up since the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which he was revealed to be working old Hydra connections and the manipulator of Bucky during his time as the brainwashed Winter Soldier. Their link to the international underworld, Bucky and Sam lock arms with Zemo for a jaunt about the black market community of Madripoor, hoping to pick up a lead on the Flag-Smashers and their super-powered connections. Shootouts, stabbings, and the like follow.
Right off the bat, the third episode demonstrates the duality of the MCU’s attention to detail. I was remotely intrigued and impressed when the first two episodes made an attempt to finally address the implications of Black superheroes, with Sam being accosted on the streets of Baltimore by police officers. Similarly, the financial struggle he faces, returning after the Blip, balancing the mundane battles of life such as taking out a loan, adds a grounded edge to Marvel’s storytelling. It isn’t why we watch these films and shows, but the attempt at connecting to reality is necessary for the superheroics to land effectively.
So, with that attention to logic in mind, it was with bemusement that I watched Sam and Bucky seemingly snap their fingers and extradite Zemo from a maximum-security prison just like that. Funnier still is that Zemo, an international terrorist responsible for literally bombing the UN, strips from his prison skin and returns to a private jet and butler, as if his fortune wouldn’t be pined and confiscated. It’s straight-up silly.
I’ll reiterate once again that yes, you’re probably not watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to figure out the government’s policy on seizing supervillain assets. But the inconsistency with which this and other MCU works approach their stories and logic becomes grating. The plot moves as slow or as fast as the writers will it, so long as we can end up at a punchy barroom brawl or an edgy shootout in a container yard.
The third episode feels especially ludicrous in how, just as some irritating, cocky scientist (Olli Haaskivi) is spilling his Super Soldier Serum secrets (the drug that birthed Captain America, and now the Flag-Smashers, is literally called that) to the gang, explosions take over as arbitrary thugs pop up for an action scene. Or when an undercover rendezvous amidst the off-the-grid criminal community of Madripoor is just a showcase for some “humor” at the expense of Sam, undercover as an eccentric criminal, ultimately culminating in some asinine punch-fest.
The Madripoor scenes, in particular, felt like a poor man’s John Wick and feeling this as I was watching felt validating to learn the episode was written by Derek Kolstad, the creator of the powerhouse Keanu franchise. Something about Marvel must be holding Kolstad’s punches because John Wick this ain’t.
Much in the way the first episodes wore me down, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is just weighed down by cliched dialogue and a lack of a strong narrative. The Flag-Smashers continue to be off in their own scenes, the enigmatic young leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) clearly a “villain” with a heart, she and her goons liberating supplies from armed government camps to distribute to the needy. Whereas Sam and Bucky see super soldiers running rampant, we see a Robin Hood cause, with the obvious implication being that there’s going to be a bigger fish to fry by the time our boys catch up with the Flag-Smashers.
But with lines like “It’s pushing you off the deep end,” The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t getting by on its character work. Stan and Mackie are solid enough in their roles, but the irritated odd couple banter amidst gunfire only holds up for laughs and “character development” for so long. I simply don’t see a resolution in which The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ends up slotting into the MCU canon as a cherished entry.
Sure, we’ll likely wind up seeing some development over the controversial mantle left by Steve Rogers, with the new Captain America shoes filled by the gung-ho and green John Walker (Wyatt Russell) who, by the way, is relegated to mere moments of treading the tracks left by Sam and Bucky this episode. But Walker being benched in the narrative so quickly after the show made such a faux-big deal out of his unworthiness in the second episode is indicative of Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s predictability and safe, boring story. Track down some paramilitary goofballs who aren’t so bad after all, and string us along for the big bad who we really ought to care about…but only once we reach the finale.
I’m speculating, of course, but the doubt in my gut tells me this show isn’t going anywhere you or I don’t already see it traveling. Despite its final-frame cliffhanger and the appearance of Wakandan warrior, Ayo (Florence Kasumba), on the trail of Zemo and our boys, I’m left without much of a care. The MCU does this in its films, where the worst-case scenario gives us a bland two hours and a post-credits tease for what’s yet to come. The Disney+ shows have thus far compartmentalized this “trust me, it gets good soon” aura into episodes, rather than feature films. It leaves me wondering whether it’s more time wasted or less..?