The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
This MCU miniseries is strong in its central elements, but overcrowded in subplots
Television series have the benefit of taking more time developing both main and side characters than films do. With modern streamers giving many series creators the latitude to write as many or as few episodes as they like, this makes for liberated narrative and character arcs that have a chance to breathe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has already taken on an episodic structure with its interconnected films, but it was still forced to fit into the runtime of feature films. With the new advent of Disney+, Marvel and its head producer Kevin Feige are getting the chance to explore elements that had been shortchanged in their films.
Falcon and The Winter Soldier (2021) is the second MCU series, after the buzzy Wandavision (2021). Here we follow the two sidekick characters Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) that Captain America (Chris Evans) befriended throughout his arc in the MCU. Now that Captain America has retired, giving his famous shield to Sam to carry on his mantle, both of his friends must contend with the legacy of such a beloved character. However, Sam feels the shield carries too much weight, and donates it to the Smithsonian museum, only to have the US government reappropriate it and recast their own Captain America: John Walker (Wyatt Russell). Parallel to this conflict of legacy is the insurgent group, the Flag-Smashers led by a Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), which seek to create a world without borders.
Both Disney+ MCU series have taken on characters that had much potential, but whose arcs were left largely unexplored in the films. In Wandavision it was the relationship between Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the android Vision (Paul Bettany), which demanded us to care about their romance in the films after their tragic fate, but never quite earned it. Wandavision helped develop their bond effectively, and meanwhile played around with the TV form and expectations to satisfying results. Even if its finale was a vomiting of superhero cliches and CGI, it didn’t dampen the ambitious and incredible creative path that led them there. As for Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it is refreshing to have both Sam and Bucky have moments of pause to explore their characters; this especially given the two charismatic actors interpreting them.
Falcon and The Winter Soldier focuses on the bond that Bucky and Sam form, especially around their approach to the dilemma of Captain America’s legacy. This leads to some surprisingly relevant and deep explorations on race (what it means for a black man to be Captain America), trauma (Bucky reckoning with his past as a pseudo-Nazi assassin), and morality (agreeing with the Flag-Smashers’ motivations). Creator Martin Spellman, decides to liken the tone of the show closer to the espionage-style thrillers that the Russo brothers brought to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). This has proven to suit the world of Captain America and the US government, one of skepticism regarding authority, and a blurring of ethical lines. This is most intriguingly explored with the character of John Walker, who we see fight back a jealousy and darkness regarding the incredible pressure of living up to the original Captain America. Russell is able to play a fine line between an unlikeable character and a relatable journey.
What surprised me most about Falcon and The Winter Soldier was the fact that it felt too crowded of a show. Having the breathing room of a series to develop plots and characters should be a gift to space out and let your story breathe, but Spellman seems to overstuff the narrative to the brim. We have the return of villain Zemo (Daniel Brühl) from Civil War, and Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp) from previous MCU films, a subplot with Wakandan guards, and a mysterious Countess named Valentina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who seems have a grander plan outside the series. This results in certain plot points becoming shortchanged, most notably the Flag-Smashers, who despite Kellyman’s best efforts, struggle to break out of a bland opposition group. John Walker’s resolution also is messily handled, with his descent into darkness being somewhat ignored and resolved in a snappy and impossibly simplistic manner.
There is an emphasis in trying to create an action-led series that features quite a few engaging sequences, but seems to spend more time with these aspects than in pruning its overflowing plot. The downsides don’t degrade the central element of the series, however, that of Bucky and Sam growing as characters in order to fill the void that Captain America had left. Their strong development and performances, along with the largely solid narrative arc, do enough to strengthen the foundations of this first season, so that the satellite flaws don’t dig in too deep.