“The legacy of that shield is…complicated.”
(This review is mostly spoiler-free, but as always, if you want to go in completely blind, do not read this.)
After the twisty and idiosyncratic Wandavision, Phase 4 of the MCU continues with the appropriately named The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, bringing us back to a more formulaic and action-heavy Marvel experience, though not without featuring surprisingly deep themes and complex real-world issues, making for an interesting but potentially polarizing show.
Even though Wandavision was almost completely about Wanda, it helped to set the long-term future of the MCU up alongside the events of Loki, something that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier definitely does not do. That’s not to say that it won’t have any effect on the future of the MCU, because it will, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is much more concerned with expanding upon and pushing the two former partners of Steve Rogers into the limelight – Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes. And even though it features much more action than both of the other shows combined, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is less of a superhero adventure and more of an examination of institutionalized racism and radicalization within America, and what it means for a black man to potentially be the symbol of a country that has discriminated against them for its entire history.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins shortly after the events of Avengers: Endgame, with Mackie’s Sam Wilson once again working alongside the US military and Stan’s Bucky Barnes living in NYC, attempting to make amends with the families of victims from his time as the Winter Soldier and attending mandatory therapy sessions. Where Loki and Wandavision (to some extent) could easily be viewed as standalone stories with minimal prior knowledge of the MCU, TFAWS is very much a spiritual sequel to Captain America: Civil War, directly continuing Bucky’s journey towards ridding himself of the Winter Soldier as well as picking up other threads from that film to great extent. As limiting as this is to casual audiences or new viewers, it’s also a blessing in disguise, with limited exposition to be delivered and allowing for more character-driven moments than say, Loki.
Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan continue to impress as their respective characters, bouncing off each other in antagonistic and constantly hysterical ways, some of which we got a glimpse of in Captain America: Civil War. Both actors are given much more to work with over the course of the show’s six episodes compared to previous MCU entries, and it shows, with Sam in particular becoming one of the most captivating characters in the MCU. Without spoiling anything, Sam’s journey towards accepting the mantle of Captain America after being given the shield in Avengers: Endgame by Steve Rogers is one of the biggest reasons this show works as well as it does, and even though Sam and Bucky share the title of the show, sharp writing and a brilliant performance by Mackie ensure that this is Sam’s show through and through.
The idea that a black person would willingly become the symbol of America’s freedom is not a light one, and showrunner and head writer Malcom Spellman is keenly aware of this, never glossing over or minimizing the impact of anything. That idea is abnormally heavy for the MCU, but it’s handled very well, and in a manner that elevates Sam Wilson beyond the comic relief sidekick he was when first introduced. This is only aided by the introduction of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a veteran of the Korean War that was hidden by the US government for decades, and through Isaiah, Spellman ensures that we’re conscious of the massive amounts of courage that it would take for a black person – or any POC for that matter – to want to become a figure that represents the same country that’s tried its hardest to beat down upon their people.
Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of Bucky, and while he gets portions of the show for himself, it’s just adding onto what Bucky’s already done, albeit with much more emotion than shown in the Captain America films. That’s no fault of Sebastian Stan, though, who plays the straight man to Mackie’s Sam Wilson perfectly, while also delivering a nuanced and thoughtful performance as an assassin with no purpose in life. Bucky does get to become his own person though, free of any ties to Steve Rogers, and the show goes a long way towards giving him that agency, even if it’s hard to measure that up to what Sam gets.
Unlike both Wandavision and Loki, TFAWS features a staggeringly large cast, with returning characters and intriguing new additions alike (another reason why it’s almost impossible to treat TFAWS as a standalone property), the most prominent returnees being Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp, top picture), Baron Zemo (a fantastic Daniel Brühl, bottom picture), and Don Cheadle’s Rhodey/War Machine (although Rhodey is relegated to a cameo in the show’s first episode). Sharon, who we last saw in Civil War, is handled frustratingly, including a sudden “twist” towards the end of the show that is out of character and written rather sloppily. Daniel Brühl’s Zemo is the polar opposite of how Sharon is utilized, however, as he smarmily steals every scene he appears in to the point of hilarity, as well as move the plot forward, provide comic relief with deadpan line delivery, and help to keep the show “realistic” (as realistic as a show can be in the MCU). Zemo’s one of the only non-powered antagonists in the MCU, and his presence in TFAWS prevents the show from wandering into more fantastical territory.
In addition to its huge cast, TFAWS is the only MCU Disney+ show so far to feature an antagonist that’s directly in opposition to the protagonist(s), with Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and the Flag-Smashers. While the Flag-Smasher is a single individual in the comics, TFAWS adapts this into a group of superpowered freedom fighters rebelling against the status quo brought about by the Blipped people (people who were snapped away by Thanos) returning. And for the most part, it works, with the Flag Smashers simply wanting for refugees of the Blip to be taken care of, while the more wealthy people get their old lives back. The same can’t be said for Karli, the self-appointed leader of the Flag-Smashers. Although she’s certainly a physical threat to Sam and Bucky, the same can’t be said for her radicalization and the show’s attempts to humanize her, which fluctuate from episode to episode and do Kellyman a disservice, as she does her best with what she’s given.
Of all the new or returning characters that are introduced, though, the true standout is John Walker/Captain America, played to perfection by Wyatt Russell. While fans of the comics will know Walker to be a jingoistic and comically nationalistic super soldier named US Agent, the character is given a much more sympathetic portrayal here, with Russell delivering a star turn as the perfect soldier who’s far from a perfect man. The idea of the original super soldier serum that created Captain America is that it enhances what’s already inside you, and Walker embodies that principle to an extreme. With a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt and guilt for his actions while stationed overseas, not to mention all the pressure from the entire nation to live up to the example set by Steve Rogers, Walker is a ticking time bomb throughout the show, and Russell is a volatile screen presence, managing to outshine both Mackie and Stan at some points. If Walker’s best friend Lamar Hoskins/Battlestar (Clé Bennett) is the angel on one shoulder, the mantle of Captain America is the devil, and that dichotomy pushes Walker in interesting and captivating directions.
As for how FATWS looks and operates, it’s almost painful that it looks so…normal next to the incredible production design and visual style of both Wandavision and Loki. While this is probably due to a combination of director Kari Skogland wanting to be consistent with how the Captain America trilogy was shot and scored (Henry Jackman returns to do the score for FATWS) and the MCU “house style” of generally being bland (of course, there are exceptions), it really doesn’t help much here. As for the action, which there is much more of than in either of the other shows, it’s surprisingly average, especially for a show with a main character that’s all about flying and aerial combat. The only truly extraordinary action sequence is in the show’s first episode, an extended chase scene with Falcon boarding enemy planes in midair. It’s a shame, because some of the choreography featuring Falcon and Bucky is incredibly creative, and with what we’ve seen them do in previous films.
Verdict: With the kind of trailers and marketing that Marvel put out for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, almost everyone in the world was convinced it would be “just another MCU movie”, just chopped up into six pieces. That is definitely not the case, as FATWS presents a thoughtful and human exploration of racism, with a pretty decent superhero thriller as the backdrop. Although The Falcon and the Winter Soldier stumbles when it focuses on the action and adventure it promised, it finds its footing just as nimbly when examining the institutional racism and radicalization surrounding the dilemma faced by Sam Wilson, making for an uneven but strongly written show that makes for an admirably thoughtful piece of storytelling.
Let me know what you thought of the show in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I do not own any of these photos or posters. Disney and Marvel Studios own all of these photos and posters. Some of these images were taken from https://www.cap-that.com/