If you believed The Falcon and The Winter Soldier would be, as its marketing seemed to suggest, a standard Marvel movie chopped into six television-sized pieces, then the reality certainly comes as a surprise. The story of Sam Wilson and James “Bucky” Barnes is less a comic book villain-busting adventure and more an examination of institutional racism, radicalisation, and the looming shadow of lost heroes. Often closer to the run of a (good) Netflix Marvel show than anything seen on the big screen, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is a surprisingly weighty, frequently engrossing show – though every so often it flies too close to the sun and demonstrates an inability to restrain its scope to a level that can be adequately explored in the time it has. Even so, its ambition frequently wins the battle over its uneven quality and lacklustre management of its many components.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s most prominent and well-explored theme is that of race and Black America. The character arc of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) deals with his struggle to follow in the footsteps of Steve Rogers, his departed friend whose last act in Avengers: Endgame was to pass onto Sam the Captain America shield. For a Black man to take on that role – one that’s emblematic of a nation that’s long been unable to address its institutional racism – carries disturbing implications that haunt Sam throughout The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s six hour-long episodes. This is an abnormally heavy topic for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to delve into, and while it’s not an academic-grade dissection, by examining the issue through a superhero lens the message is made clear and accessible to all. Of Marvel’s many on-screen triumphs, its treatment of Sam Wilson’s story is among its strongest and most admirable.
The strength of this exploration comes from both sharp writing and a strong leading performance from Anthony Mackie. Given much more room that he’d have in a movie, Mackie has the ability to convey emotion and inner turmoil through glances and subtle movements. He’s matched perfectly by Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley, a Korean War veteran who suffered at the hands of a racist system decades ago. Bradley acts as Sam’s lighthouse through a fog of pain, and their scenes together are heartbreakingly raw.
These components make the exploration of Captain America’s legacy a more poignant topic than many may have expected. And while the trajectory of Sam’s journey is obvious from the very first scenes, the handling of its weight makes for a distinctly satisfying conclusion to his arc.
While The Falcon may be the clear lead protagonist, his isn’t the only name in the show’s title. Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes is also along for the ride, but despite a fair amount of screen time the ex-Winter Soldier isn’t afforded the same storytelling luxuries as his partner. His personal antagonist is his own past, and segments of the series deal with him making amends for the damage he caused in his life as a Hydra assassin. But these moments are unfortunately few and far between; despite starting on perfect footing in the series premiere, it is not until the penultimate episode that these themes are truly revisited in any meaningful way.
The exploration of Captain America’s legacy is a more poignant topic than many may have expected.
In between those chapters, Bucky’s main foe is Daniel Brühl’s fantastic Helmut Zemo, returning from his role as the instigator of Captain America: Civil War. But, similar to Bucky’s issues with his past, his relationship with Zemo promises more than it delivers. There’s a great Hannibal Lecter-like dynamic between them as the heroes must work with the villain to achieve greater things, but the opportunity for the slippery Zemo to manipulate Bucky in interesting ways is missed.
Bucky certainly gets the shorter end of the stick, then. But while he must play second fiddle to Sam, these six episodes do a substantial amount of heavy lifting to humanise a character that previously has been a plot point more than a genuine person. Without Steve Rogers around, Bucky is able to be his own man, rather than someone else’s mission. The quieter moments where Stan gets to explore the character’s inner turmoil and anxieties really prove that he was worth including in the story, even if the closure of his arc doesn’t provide quite the amount of fireworks that Sam’s does.
For all their individual successes, the show is a double act – even if it does feel like THE FALCON (and The Winter Soldier) – and Sam and Bucky’s dynamic is a contributor to both highs and lows. Early on, particularly in the second episode, the writing really struggles with the pair’s dialogue. The first half of the season positions them as a buddy comedy duo, as if this were Bad Boys or Rush Hour. While humour is an essential part of the MCU, the attempt to use this relationship template in a story exploring such heavy themes feels entirely out of place. Thankfully the crowbarred-in quips are mostly left behind in the latter half, making for a more natural back-and-forth between the two that still delivers jokes when appropriate.
Sam and Bucky’s dynamic is much stronger when they are allowed to be earnest, vulnerable characters. An extended conversation sequence in the penultimate episode allows much of the tension between them to be resolved, as well as address their personal demons. It’s a scene drawn with genuine sincerity, and says as much about the value of supportive friendships as it does the other weighty topics that are dealt with at the forefront.
Complicating Sam and Bucky’s life is John Walker, a state-appointed successor to Steve Rogers. Played with smugness by Wyatt Russell, he is everything Captain America shouldn’t be; a self-righteous, aggressive loose cannon. Walker’s presence in the world is a constant source of stress, both in the way that his actions disrespect the legacy of Steve Rogers, and how he works as a constant reminder that Sam should be the one wielding the star-spangled shield.
In the broad strokes, John Walker is a great examination of the danger of governments wielding superheroes as weapons. Unfortunately, there’s very little nuance to this, which makes this Captain America rather one-note. There are moments where we see a deeper personality – occasional glimpses of the pressure Walker feels as a soldier elevated to the US military’s new poster boy – but the slim episode count and a mountain of other topics and characters means this particular thread isn’t as well-rounded as it ought to be. And while Walker is given enough material to ensure he delivers one of the season’s most shocking and valuable scenes, it unfortunately all leads to a weak, under-developed conclusion for his character.
By the final third it becomes clear that time has been misspent on the wrong elements and the pacing begins to spiral out of control.
A similar treatment is given to the Flag Smashers, a group of morally grey antagonists led by the radicalised Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman). There’s a huge amount of interesting ground this faction treads, touching on issues of humanitarian crisis, anti-nationalism, and the failure of government. Their plight is linked to the MCU’s Blip and how authority deals with the sudden reappearance of billions of people after five years away, but their story is clear commentary on wider societal issues in the real world, particularly the treatment of refugees and displaced communities. This makes for a group of sympathetic ‘villains’, and the opportunity for a more complex approach from our heroes.
Regrettably, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s writing really suffers when walking that morally grey line. Karli Morgenthau is clearly envisioned as a person with good intentions who goes too far, but a lack of granular detail in the Flag Smashers’ story means they come across too much as terrorists who are all too casual about killing innocents rather than freedom fighters. The GRC, a global taskforce that inflames tensions during the post-Blip crisis, is so underexplored, and Karli’s radicalisation so over exposed, that any attempt at nuance is largely off-balance. This occasionally, in its worst moments, comes across as The Falcon and The Winter Soldier outright condemning their argument, and so its worthy observations around radicalisation can be lost to simplification.
Where The Falcon and The Winter Soldier certainly doesn’t suffer is with its action choreography. Director Kari Skogland flawlessly replicates the grittier look of the Russo brothers’ Captain America films. This acts as a neat visual way to connect Sam and Bucky’s story to Steve Rogers’, but also makes for comparably rugged and weighty fight sequences. The premiere opens with a thrilling dogfight that allows Falcon to literally spread his wings, but the best moments are all on the ground where each punch rings loud. A late-season battle in which Sam and Bucky tag-team against a foe calls back to the Steve-Bucky-Tony three-way clash at the end of Captain America: Civil War, and is executed almost as skilfully.
The titular duo’s tag-team fights are in direct opposition to the worst of their dialogue. In fact, across the season, the fluctuating quality of Sam and Bucky’s relationship works as a microcosm for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier as a whole. Its many triumphs, though, helps mask this unevenness up close. Episode to episode, Skogland and showrunner Malcolm Spellman deliver a show that is consistently fulfilling in its drama, gritty direction, and the boldness of its themes. It is only by the final third that it becomes clear that time has been misspent on the wrong elements and the pacing begins to spiral out of control. Alongside the topics already discussed, the story also re-introduces CIA agent Sharon Carter, Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Batroc returns as a secondary villain, there’s a shadowy big bad known only as the Power Broker, a whole new Nick Fury-style character appears with zero context accompanying their surprising big-name casting, and plenty more beside. To say The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is overstuffed is putting it lightly. The end result of this is a conclusion that feels rushed and lacking detail as it races to put everything into place.
The problem here is that, at its heart, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is a character study. For the most part, this is its greatest strength, and it admirably sticks to its guns through the six episodes. But by introducing so many extra ideas, all while consistently dedicating long stretches of time to its central themes and characters, means many – if not all – of its side stories are weak and unfulfilling. Ultimately, this should have been a show about Sam and Bucky dealing with the legacy of their friend, and what that means in relation to America’s socio-political landscape. Thankfully that’s where The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s priorities lie, but it’s little wonder that everything else around its best story threads suffer.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier opens strong. While the story doesn’t quite pick up fast enough to make it a truly breathtaking premiere, its runtime is packed with thoughtful character observations and themes that run deeper than many Marvel movies and shows. It takes the opportunity to establish Sam and Bucky as characters capable of leading their own stories, which elevates them above their prior MCU roles and prepares them for the journey ahead. And while this premiere is more recognisably Marvel than the unusual WandaVision, make no mistake: The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has already begun to explore exciting new ground for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.