In an early scene of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s first episode, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) makes a ceremony of declining Captain America’s iconic vibranium shield, talking of casting eyes to the future, and using Cap’s legacy, rather than image, to push forward in the MCU’s “Post-Blip” (read: after Thanos dusted everyone in Infinity War) world. In its new, TV-oriented phase, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to need the sort of attitude Wilson (“Falcon”) exudes if it wants to maintain the interest of its fans. Or, perhaps, the memory of what once was is enough to keep legends alive?
After a headfirst dive into a relatively-arbitrary action setpiece at 1000 feet, Wilson is turned on to the Flag-Smashers, an insurrectionist organization whose ludicrous brand name endorses all sorts of anarchist and terrorist activity across Eastern Europe, all in the name of returning to the balance the world experienced during the Blip. They liked the world when it was a little less crowded, evidently. Sure.
Meanwhile, Stateside, senior-citizen supersoldier and former Hydra pawn Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) undergoes routine therapy, his past decades of life as a fascistic secret society’s hitman doing no good on the ‘ol psyche. The Winter Soldier, as he was known, has gone cold, essentially on parole. Though sidelined, he gets up to his old tricks meting out vigilante justice on Hydra pawns that have slipped through the bureaucratic cracks. A guy’s gotta have a hobby. The first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier paints a portrait of two men trying to move past the extraordinary events that recently forged their identities, coping in a world where, maybe, they aren’t as relevant as they once were, seemingly yesterday. An apt metaphor for the MCU, perhaps?
It’s at the end of the premiere episode that a new Captain America is revealed, to the clear shock and disgust of both veteran Avengers. Paraded out on television before a crowded stadium in the second episode, John Walker (Wyatt Russell) is a military boyscout, highly decorated, self-deprecating, modest… But to Bucky and Sam, he’s no Cap.
With the premiere hammering the point that Sam and Bucky are struggling, in their own ways, with adapting to the legacy of their friend and mentor Steve Rogers, the shock of a new Captain America elicits a visceral, negative reaction from both men. Thus far, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is most-interesting when the characters, themselves mere sidekicks to the stars of the MCU’s previous entries, reconcile with the loss of their leading man. I suspect the next four episodes of the series will somehow instill the realization that they are indeed capable of filling those star-spangled boots their pal Steve laid out for them. But there’s work to be done here.
The aforementioned Flag-Smashers are up to no good, transporting supplies across Germany when Bucky and Sam take a stab at stopping them, reluctantly aided by Walker and his partner Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett). The evil-doers give the odd quintet the slip, leaving the old guard and the new kids on the block even more at odds. The action in both the premiere and second episode is the sort of MCU setpiece we saw in some of the Earthbound entries of the franchise; hopping between moving trucks or diving out of planes. Exhilarating in theory, there isn’t quite the punch of Nick Fury’s manic car chase from 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Iron Man 3’s Air Force One rescue. Been there, done that.
Also tired are some of the general characterizations we have so far, with Bucky, brooding on the floor before his television as he gazes seriously at the introduction of Walker’s Captain America, or how nonsensical and arbitrary the Flag-Smashers appear. That’s not to say we won’t dive into their paramilitary motivations in future episodes, but for now it’s a whole lot of “don’t care.” Even Bucky’s therapy sessions, a means of coping with the PTSD one would no doubt be wrought with following the kind of insane violence perpetrated throughout the Marvel films, feel cliched and predictable.
Most interesting is perhaps Sam’s return to his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) and her kids in New Orleans, and their struggle to sustain the family business. Turns out being the Falcon and saving the galaxy doesn’t get you much credit on loans. Not only that, but in the second episode, a terse argument between Sam and Bucky in the suburban streets of Baltimore sees a pair of beat cops roll up on the two superheroes, holsters ready, as they ask the white Bucky if the Black Falcon is bothering him. Whoa. Seeing a character as heroic as Sam Wilson profiled by racist cops is a devastatingly bleak new angle for the MCU, and something of a statement in itself; you can be a literal Avenger, and still the cops are going to be wary of a Black man on the street. For as real and interesting a facet the touches upon race in Falcon and the Winter Soldier are, it simply makes me more curious as to why the past decade of the MCU hasn’t bothered to ask these questions. Better late than never?
I wasn’t a fan of WandaVision, its faux-sitcom aesthetic feeling like a hollow attempt to liven up the drudgery of MCU-malaise, tripping over hammy dialogue and a weak descent into the same old tropes of the suits and spandex that we’ve been digesting for years. I’m concerned that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier won’t necessarily blow me away either, though as a meditation on upholding legacy, and what it means for the world to genuinely change, I’m already more interested here than I was in WandaVision. If nothing else, the odds at which Sam and Bucky find themselves with each other, creating a sort of Odd Couple with lethal weapons, is a fun enough prospect. Though there’s room for me to be won over by future action setpieces and thematic chewing, consider The Falcon and the Winter Soldier off to a passable, if familiar, start.