(WARNING: I’ll be heading into spoilery territory after I give my score)
What’s new, folks? After knocking it out of the park with WandaVision, the first Marvel television series to stream on Disney+, the Marvel Cinematic Universe set a high standard to meet for the following series that premiered on March 19, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. It has seasoned creatives behind it, with Empire writer and producer Malcolm Spellman serving as head writer and executive producer and The Handmaid’s Tale director Kari Skogland as director for all six episodes. After WandaVision, a series that demonstrated what the MCU can do when it stretches into the weird and the mystifying for its narratives, I predicted The Falcon and The Winter Soldier would be a return to the conventional superhero action we’re used to seeing from the franchise. While this is pretty much true, the compelling character studies and the thoughtful focus on race step it up a couple notches.
Set six months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, the show chronicles the lives of its dual leads—Sam Wilson/Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)—as they each deal with their own troubles. For Sam, it’s going through soul-searching to decide whether or not he’s the right person to inherit the legendary role of Captain America from Steve Rogers, particularly in regard to his identity as a Black man. For Bucky, it’s tackling his PTSD from the decades he spent as an unrelenting assassin programmed to obey the tyrannical organization of Hydra. When an anti-nationalist terrorist group called the Flag-Smashers emerges, Sam and Bucky find themselves having no choice but to get past their differences and team up to face this new threat.
To go back for a second to WandaVision, it encouraged viewers to care about the eponymous protagonists and engross themselves in the comedy, the mystery, and the tragedy of Wanda Maximoff’s grieving process. It’s a notable feat to achieve, since most of the MCU fandom brushed off Wanda and Vision as forgettable characters. It certainly didn’t help that they weren’t given much storytelling meat to work with onscreen despite the riveting tales that were written for them in the comics. The circumstances are similar for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, a series starring two people who also haven’t gotten much love from a majority of the audience. Personally, I had always been invested in Bucky, especially as he underwent his Winter Soldier arc, and I liked Sam well enough, but he suffered from the same Where’s The Meat Syndrome as Wanda and Vision. Between the two, Sam’s story is explored in greater detail, whereas Bucky’s story receives a surface-level treatment that leaves me longing for a deeper probing of his psychological and emotional scars. Together, they’re an irresistible pair to follow. While I wouldn’t call this a buddy-cop show, it definitely capitalizes on the amusing rivalry that arises from their retorts and their friction. In addition, both actors bring their A-game here. Again, because the overall narrative leans more toward Sam’s arc than Bucky’s, Mackie particularly displays how in-tune he’s become with his role after joining the MCU in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Of course, that’s not all. The show involves other characters like John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a decorated Afghanistan veteran who has been appointed as the next Captain America; Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman, whom Star Wars fans will remember from Solo: A Star Wars Story), the leader of the Flag-Smashers and the driving force behind their goal of giving aid to the many refugees who have been uprooted from their homes and neglected by the Global Repatriation Council (GRC) in the wake of half the world being resurrected in the Blip; Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), former SHIELD operative and niece of Steve Rogers’ love interest Peggy Carter; and Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the extremely cunning Sokovian baron who, after the loss of his family in Sokovia motivated him to tear apart the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War, ends up being recruited to lend Sam and Bucky a helping hand. He even gets to briefly wear his iconic purple mask from the comics. Everyone in the cast is doing a terrific job here, but I need to commend Brühl for infusing one of my favorite MCU villains with a slew of charisma. In Civil War, Zemo’s manipulative prowess and tragic backstory built him up as a terrifying and yet sympathetic figure. Here on The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, he’s presented in a surprisingly humorous light that ends up being not only incredibly delightful but is also an excellent way for him to nonchalantly show he’s ten steps ahead of everyone else. Oh, and his club dancing—what a gem.
The plot itself is enjoyable enough, if not vulnerable to leaps of logic that have to move the plot along and action-genre tropes like the heroes breaking a bad guy out of prison so they can sneak into the underbelly of organized crime. The action set pieces brim with entertaining fight choreography. The best examples are the ones in which the series has Sam use his Falcon gear as a combat tool—typically, to blast exhaust at opponents or nimbly flip and maneuver his way through a brawl. It’s evocative of the Mandalorian’s trick of wielding his jetpack in a similar manner.
It was the choice of Spellman, who was hired as showrunner in October 2018, to concentrate on the racial angle. This is the first time in the MCU’s thirteen-year run that it’s ever addressed such a crucial subject. Unsurprisingly, the approach drew some pushback from the segment of the fandom who felt that this was bogging down the franchise. If anything, though, this is the perfect time to explicitly deal with race, both because of our increasing awareness of racial politics over the past year and because of the content that’s already been featured in the comics. That’s right, Sam determining what it means to pick up the shield and become the new Cap isn’t a storyline exclusive to the Disney+ series. It was originally a comic book run written by Nick Spencer, and a passionately political one at that, often seeing Sam promote left-wing policies and rise up against white supremacy and Wall Street as well as everyday criminals. Intended to depict Sam as a modern replacement for Steve Rogers and the romanticized symbol he represented for an antiquated America, Spencer’s arc ran into strong criticism from the #NotMyCap-type of fans who just couldn’t stand the idea of a Black Captain America.
Aside from two specific plot points (one falls into a problematic trope and the other is the iffy culmination of Walker’s arc), The Falcon and The Winter Soldier weaves in its racial commentary with powerful and intelligent subtlety and refrains from blatantly shouting its message at the audience. This is an example of why behind-the-camera representation is necessary and why it’s vital for this type of show to be helmed by a Black showrunner. Rather than blatantly shouting a simplistic “don’t be racist” message at the audience, the show carefully picks moments to convey the system of oppression and discrimination that the U.S. constructed centuries ago to keep its Black citizens on the lowest levels. This becomes most salient when the plot brings in Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a Black Super Soldier whom nobody ever knew about and was imprisoned for thirty years. His story is a heartbreaking one, highlighting our country’s desire to turn a deaf ear to discussions about race, refuse to teach Black history in schools, and brush off or scold those who dare to point out America’s ways of silencing Black people. The role is elevated by the gravitas and the credibility that Lumbly brings. Fans of DC Universe animation will know him as the voice of J’onn J’onnz/Martian Manhunter in the animated series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.
I recommend you read up on Isaiah’s comic book incarnation, who was introduced in the 2003 seven-issue miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black. Written by Robert Morales, it follows a unit of Black soldiers who were forced to take an experimental prototype of the Super Soldier Serum that predated Steve Rogers becoming Captain America. The soldiers suffered from mutations and death until only one, Isaiah, remained. The miniseries was directly inspired by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a medical trial that ran from 1932 to 1972 to examine how syphilis progressed in untreated Black men. It was an atrocious illustration of how white doctors view patients of color as disposable, a phenomenon that still exists today. Again, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier gives all of this comic book material a respectful and genuine interpretation. I’m eager to see how it will progress in the recently announced Captain America 4, which will be written by Spellman and series writer Dalan Musson. Comments made by Kevin Feige seemed to imply a second season for the show, but now I’m not sure about that after this announcement.
My personal episode ranking:
1. Episode 4, “The Whole World Is Watching”—written by Derek Kolstad
2. Episode 3, “Power Broker”—written by Kolstad
3. Episode 6, “One World, One People”—written by Spellman and Josef Sawyer
4. Episode 5, “Truth”—written by Musson
5. Episode 2, “Star-Spangled Man”—written by Michael Kastelein
6. Episode 1, “New World Order”—written by Spellman
Overall, I came away from The Falcon and The Winter Soldier feeling about as high as I did after WandaVision. Both series were equally engrossing, but in differing ways. WandaVision was an unconventional mystery in which we delighted in moving around and clicking together the pieces over several weeks, while The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was an action-packed ride layered with absorbing character beats and a nuanced lens on race. The MCU has taken two swings on its Disney+ series and come out with resounding hits both times. I expect the result to be no different for their third swing, Loki, which will drop on June 11.
Those are my spoiler-free thoughts on The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. I’m now raising the spoiler alarm for the show, primarily to cover the finale that aired on April 23.
All my love and prayers go to you. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 85/100
Overall, “One World, One People” is a solid finale with some bright spots like the cathartic blast that is Sam becoming Captain America and the engaging action sequences. But the finale also fails to stick the landing on certain aspects of the show, like Bucky’s arc, which felt rushed, and Sharon turning out to be the Power Broker, which came off as illogical.
From the moment that Sam first flew onto the screen with his Wakandan-built Captain America gear, I was ecstatic. Compared to the old apparatus, which let him swoop around and was fairly adequate on its own standards, this new Vibranium-equipped suit helps him lift heavy objects, gives him a huge boost in combat, and is all-around gorgeous to look at. Clearly, Wakandan tech is first-class. Enriching the story is the show’s ability to present Sam as an incarnation of Captain America who’s somewhat different from Steve Rogers. While they both share the strong moral compass and the deep compassion, Steve, being a white guy whose quixotic view of America belongs back in the 1940s, simply doesn’t possess the personal insight that’s necessary to truly sympathize with and fight for marginalized communities. Sam, on the other hand, showed himself to be a tougher and more steely Cap, particularly in two of the finale’s beats. The first was the one in which Karli told him to “stay down” and he responded by standing back up and giving a firm “no.” Steve definitely would have used his “I can do this all day” line, but it felt much more convincing for Sam as a Black man to respond the way he did. The second was Sam’s monologue to the GRC members, an utterly authentic scene that once again exemplified how crucial it is for Spellman to not only be the showrunner but also be one of the finale’s two writers. I must say, when that senator told Sam that he has no idea what they’re dealing with, it made me go, “Wow, Mediocre White Guy, read the room, why don’t you?” Sam’s willingness to say “shit” a couple times in his speech further solidified his grit and differentiated him from Steve. In addition, it’s important to note that Walker was ordered by the government to adopt the role of Cap, while Sam summoned the strength to do it himself. Props to Mackie for pouring so much emotion into this scene. Generally speaking, the talent he’s shown in grasping the meat and bones of Sam is hypnotic, and it displays how much evolution both the actor and the character have gone through since The Winter Soldier. The finale’s choice to conclude on the Captain America and The Winter Soldier title card is a spectacular touch, too. I’m eager for Sam’s return in Captain America 4. Let’s not forget that Sam left his old wings behind with First Lieutenant Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez), whom I predict will follow the path of his comic book arc and become the second incarnation of the Falcon.
The finale’s action scenes do a good job at pitting all the main players against each other, ramping up the tension, and showing off what Sam is capable of as Captain America. A favorite beat of mine is Sam recruiting the help of Ayla (Jane Rumbaua), one of the GRC members, during the helicopter chase in which she had to take over the controls right after Sam knocked the Flag-Smasher out of the pilot’s seat. Superheroes calling up assistance from civilians isn’t something I see very often, so it’s a moving touch in this scene that proves Sam is the sort of hero who can calmly talk people through perilous situations and encourage them to be their own superheroes.
I loved what Karli brought as a villain, remaining sympathetic and human despite her radicalized ideology and her determination to fulfill them through increasingly violent acts, including her abduction and attempted murder of the GRC representatives. She was so resolute that she didn’t even care about dying, because the Flag-Smasher movement had gained enough traction to survive its originators. While it might have been intriguing to see what could have unfolded for Karli if she stayed alive, it’s understandable for the show to kill her off and wrap up her arc here. While we’re on the subject, many viewers have been criticizing the Flag-Smasher plot line for coming off as muddled, although I found it to be perfectly fine. There have been tons of rumors about the plot being majorly rewritten and some of the scenes having to go through reshoots in order to cut out a storyline that would have revolved around the Flag-Smashers unleashing a pandemic. It goes without saying that COVID, if these rumors are true, was the big reason behind this change. It would also explain plot discrepancies like Karli’s adoptive mother passing away from tuberculosis and the Flag-Smashers stealing vaccines for some unknown reason. In addition, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was scheduled to premiere on Disney+ ahead of WandaVision, but again, COVID screwed things up.
The show crafted a fascinating character in Walker, who is at once hateable, relatable, and complicated. Russell’s strong performance helps to flesh him out, too. Throughout the show, we saw Walker act incredibly arrogant and impulsive, traits that made him unfit to pick up Cap’s shield. He definitely went off the rails when he used his shield to murder a Flag-Smasher as retribution for Karli inadvertently killing his partner Lemar Hoskins/Battlestar (Clé Bennett). Even in his subsequent clash with Sam and Bucky, the camera just couldn’t stop focusing on the bloodstained shield, as if to make it absolutely clear that Walker tainted the legacy of Captain America with his brutality. At the same time, the show never lets him turn into a flat and boring villain. Instead, it depicts him as someone who sincerely wants to do good and is suffering PTSD from his time in Afghanistan. This doesn’t excuse his terrible behavior, but it gives him multiple layers and makes him feel like a real person rather than a one-dimensional mustache-twirler like WandaVision’s Hayward. Same goes for his minor redemption in which he began fighting the Flag-Smashers in the finale but ended up trying to save the GRC members—an instance that saw him prioritizing innocent lives over his thirst for revenge.
In the comics, Walker does kill a criminal during a mission, and it’s framed so that you know he went too far. Then his parents subsequently get kidnapped and murdered, at which point he goes off his rocker, heads for the gang who killed his parents, slaughters several of their members, and leaves the rest of them in critical condition. He redeems himself somewhat over time, but he remains an asshole who embarks on missions with a personal agenda that can be difficult to get behind. Other superheroes are forced to put up with him because they’re ultimately working for the same side. I’ve heard people call Steve Rogers a symbol of America in all its hopeful and glorified beauty and John Walker a symbol of America in all its realistic and hard-to-swallow ugliness—an on-point description for the two of them.
That being said, I think his resolution—Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) entitling him U.S. Agent and giving him the black, red, and white suit he dons in the comics—was too clean and upbeat. Remember, he did just kill a Flag-Smasher a few weeks ago—an incident that was disturbingly reminiscent of the countless events in which police senselessly kill Black people. It would have been more appropriate for the show to end his storyline on a grave note, remind us of his PTSD and the detrimental effect it may have on the tasks he accomplishes as U.S. Agent, and make it clear that his most recent contributions in New York City haven’t stopped detractors from slamming him. Wherever his next appearance may be, I’d like to see it explore his PTSD and the criticism he’s sure to keep enduring.
Speaking of Valentina, I don’t think I’ve quite gotten over JLD being cast in this role. Seriously, I did a double take when she walked in on the fifth episode and took off her shades. She proceeded to capture Valentina’s personality within those few minutes for which she was onscreen, giving me a crystal-clear picture of her flippant confident and shadowy connections. Things should be interesting now that she’s enlisted Walker as U.S. Agent and will most likely dispatch him on dubious tasks. In the comics, she’s essentially an evil Nick Fury who started out as a SHIELD agent, went out with Fury for a time, became assigned as the leader of the organization’s Femme Force, took on the alias Madame Hydra, and learned she’s a Russian sleeper agent, along with plenty of other things. The thing is, Valentina was supposed to have her onscreen debut in Black Widow (the solo movie that Natasha Romanoff should have gotten way before her death), but the COVID-shuffled release schedule left her to make her entrance in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. I’m curious as to whether Black Widow, which will come out in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9, was supposed to supply us with background info that might have been necessary to know before Valentina appeared on the show. In any case, I’m keen to see how this will go, especially with JLD onboard.
To digress, it’s amazing to watch the broad range of big names that the ever-expanding MCU keeps grabbing—JLD, Owen Wilson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw for the Loki series, Emilia Clarke and Olivia Colman for the Secret Invasion series, Oscar Isaac for the Moon Knight series, Awkwafina for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Personally, I’d be all for Ana de Armas and Pedro Pascal joining the franchise.
Watching Isaiah get his very own exhibit at the Captain America museum was one of my favorite moments in the entire series. The U.S. has a penchant for whitewashing its national annals and erasing the history of Black people, so this is an incredibly potent scene. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Isaiah, especially since Lumbly infuses the role with a profound weightiness.
As I already pointed out, the show provides Sam’s story with more space than Bucky’s, and I wish it could have found a way to navigate the narratives of both leads in equal detail. We didn’t get to concentrate that much on Bucky and his wounds, though I’m glad the finale circled back around to him making amends with Yori Nakajima (Ken Takemoto), whose son Bucky murdered back when he was the Winter Soldier. Granted, Hollywood does have a habit of giving Black leads the short end of the stick and letting their white counterparts gobble up all the attention, and I wouldn’t want that here. But it would be nice to see a Bucky-led series or movie that would let him grow even further and give Stan much more room to flex his acting muscles.
Sharon being the Power Broker all along was a revelation that we all foresaw over the course of the series, just like how we predicted Agnes would turn out to be Agatha Harkness in WandaVision. I wonder if it’s intentional for the Marvel shows to give away so many patently obvious clues for the villain reveals. The Power Broker twist would have been much more impressive had Sharon been left alive during those five post-Snap years, a period in which she could have believably created her own criminal organization on Madripoor. However, she was Snapped, as confirmed by the scene in Endgame that ran through images of a few people who had been Snapped, one of which was Sharon’s. This means she had to gather all her underworld clout in the six-month timespan between the Blip and the events of the show in order to make a heel-turn from Good Guy to Ruthless Crime Lord (she didn’t have to melt the skin off a Flag-Smasher with a mercury vapor bomb!), which strikes me as implausible and unearned. She mentioned in the finale that she was on the run for seven years, so I’m also wondering if her getting Snapped was retconned to give her the time she needed to build her empire.
Then there’s the post-credits scene in which the government gives her a full pardon and reinstates her in the CIA, after which she proceeds to launch her scheme of selling government weaponry and intel to her crime ring. Everyone who supported Steve’s defiance of the Sokovia Accords is now free, and Bucky got pardoned as well for the crimes he committed as the Winter Soldier. So it makes sense for Sharon to receive the same forgiveness, especially in the tumult of this post-Blip world. The show never explicitly confirms this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam put in a good word for her. And while I wish her villain turn hadn’t been set up so carelessly, I’m nonetheless trusting Feige to keep steering this franchise in the right direction, and I’m interested to see what’s next for Sharon—maybe becoming the overarching baddie for Captain America 4? One popular fan theory says she’s a Skrull, which could be possible, seeing as we’re coming up to Secret Invasion and it would be a good reason for her out-of-character behavior.
As delightful as Zemo was on this series, I wish it gave his arc a stronger resolution. First, in the penultimate episode, “Truth,” he had a showdown of sorts with Bucky, which I thought was a good way to conclude their dynamic—one that goes all the way back to Civil War, the movie in which Zemo used his stolen Hydra codebook to take control of Bucky—and then Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and the rest of the Dora Milaje arrested Zemo and took him to the Raft, a high-security prison overseen by Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. It happens to be the same prison that Steve Rogers had to break into at the end of Civil War to free Sam, Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch, and Scott Lang/Ant-Man, all of whom were locked up there for siding with Steve on the issue of the Sokovia Accords. Why would the Dora Milaje move Zemo to the Raft, though? He’s responsible for the bombing that killed King T’Chaka, so it would have been more realistic for the royal guards to shuttle him back to Wakanda and put him on trial in their homeland. This comes off as a contrived choice driven by plot convenience, perhaps to lay the groundwork for Zemo joining the Thunderbolts—a team of supervillains cobbled together by Ross and sent out to work on the government’s behalf, which is essentially the Marvel spin on the Suicide Squad of DC Comics.
Ahead of the finale, I was uncertain as to whether it would involve Zemo. He does play a role per se by appointing his butler to plant the car bomb that killed the last four of Karli’s Flag-Smashers. This is meant to execute Zemo’s objective of wiping out Super Soldiers, whom he believes wield too much power and occupy positions that compel society to look up to them as godlike figures. Like Karli, he possesses his own radicalized beliefs that he tenaciously carries out. Still, his ending is a little underwhelming. Maybe it would have turned out more effectively if it included a scene in which Ross started to assemble the Thunderbolts and enlisted Zemo.
I need to point out how great it is for the series to feature Zemo, Karli, and Walker—three rounded and morally gray characters who explore varying levels of darkness and with whom we can empathize. The MCU has gotten a lot of flak for the majority of its villains being clichéd and forgettable. Hopefully, it learns from those mistakes and continues to provide us with captivating antagonists.
Now, I want to talk about Lemar getting fridged in the fourth episode, “The Whole World Is Watching.” For a series that took such an aware approach to racism and Black representation, it felt deeply troubling for it to include this plot point—particularly as it applies to Lemar, a minor Black character whom the show defined as Walker’s pal and nothing more. We never got to learn anything about his life, and all his scenes were dedicated to bolstering his white friend, right up to Lemar jumping into battle to save Walker and then getting killed by Karli. Fridging (killing off women, people of color, queer characters, et cetera to advance the stories of white cishet male leads) is a persistent and abhorrent trope in all forms of media. Even in the horror genre, if a character is Black and/or queer, the chances of their death coming up first is ninety-nine out of a hundred. I very much wanted more for Lemar, what with the rich superhero career he has as Battlestar in the comics and the chemistry between the two actors Bennett and Russell in the scenes they shared. It would be more problematic if Lemar was the sole Black character, but this doesn’t let the fridging off the hook. The show could have adhered more closely to the comics by having the Flag-Smashers kill Walker’s parents, after which the rest of the story could unfold the same way. Sure, this means the writers would have had to incorporate the parents and devote time to setting up the relationship between them and their son, but it’s far better than the
All right, that’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. I’m pumped for Loki to air on June 11. It looks like it will be a throwback to the quirkiness of WandaVision, except instead of centering around a sitcom-themed microcosm, it will hop through various branches of the space-time continuum. Keep in mind that this Loki variant is the one who just wreaked havoc on NYC with a Chitauri legion, not the original Loki whom we followed through several movies before Thanos knocked him off. I hope this will be an original and diverting adventure that avoids recycling material.