Marvel’s Falcon and Winter Soldier — Fun, Exciting and Surprisingly Topical
By Bart Bishop
What does it mean to be an American? This is just one of the tough questions The Falcon and Winter Soldier examines over the course of six episodes — with mixed but admirable results.
The show’s reach sometimes exceeds its grasp. But it’s exciting, poignant and — believe it or not — thought-provoking. Marvel fans will be pleased by the story’s organic progression and the promise of what’s to come.
What’s the Show About?
The second Marvel Studios television series premiered new episodes every Friday on Disney+ from March 19 to April 23. Much like WandaVision — the first Marvel show on the streaming platform — it shines a light on characters who previously had only been supporting players in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sam Wilson aka the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) are both the best friends and partners of Captain America himself, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). The only problem is when the show starts Captain America is no more. Rogers time traveled, lived a long life and retired during the closing moments of Avengers: Endgame (2019). He passed his mighty star-spangled shield to Sam, setting up the conflict of the show.
Sam is reluctant to take on the literal and metaphorical weight of that shield, much to Bucky’s chagrin. Bucky is struggling with the guilt over his actions as the brainwashed assassin the Winter Soldier. He bases his self-worth on Steve’s judgment. If Steve was wrong about Sam becoming Captain America, then what does that mean about Bucky?
Sam and Bucky don’t like each other much, but they must work together to take down the terrorist organization known as the Flag Smashers. Along the way Sam encounters a foil in John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a new government-funded Captain America who looks the classic blond-haired, blue-eyed part but personifies the complications of modern America. The villainous Zemo (Daniel Brühl), former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and the Dora Milaje warriors of Black Panther’s Wakanda all pop up in unexpected ways that test old alliances and audience expectations.
Believe We Can Do Better
The show excels at building up Sam and Bucky to be characters who are compelling outside of being buddies of Steve Rogers. A throughline across the six episodes is Sam’s relationship with his sister and their attempts at salvaging a struggling family fishing business — all of which is new information about Sam as a character. And Bucky’s therapy sessions and attempts at atonement are thoughtful ways of diving deeper into a character who had mostly looked sullen and confused up until this point.
The standout of the show is Mackie and Stan’s chemistry, which is very natural and reminiscent of old buddy comedy action films like Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour. As the show is structured like the three acts of a long movie, they bicker at first, then come to a grudging respect and finally embrace as friends.
The show also delivers in the action department. While WandaVision was mostly confined to suburban neighborhoods and living rooms until a climactic battle — which many would say is part of its charm — The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has a high-flying, globe-trotting sensibility. There are many set pieces and fight sequences that could rival past Marvel movies!
Most importantly, the show grapples with hard questions. Showrunner Malcolm Spellman (Empire) is a Black man and it’s clear he wanted to explore the African-American experience through Sam’s journey. The show provides many opposing views from fellow African Americans, including James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who encourages Sam to take up the shield and Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a super soldier the government locked away and experimented on for years who believes a Black man could never be Captain America.
You’ll have to watch the show itself to see what decision Sam makes — though the announcement of an upcoming movie in the works by Spellman certainly gives away the ending. Even if the show doesn’t speak to your personal experience, it’s hard not to be moved by Sam’s words when he declares, “The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.”
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a fun and at times powerful look at divided people coming together for the greater good. In many ways it’s a much more straightforward blockbuster than WandaVision, but it’s also surprisingly topical and ripped from the headlines. It might bite off more than it can chew, because in the end it’s a Disney show based off superhero comics. But I commend its ambition and look forward to seeing what Sam and Bucky do next!
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