The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the second Marvel show to come to Disney+ with the first episode, “New World Order”, introducing us to a more mundane aspect of the world after the Avengers brought everyone back from the blip. Set a few months down the line from the events of Endgame, and in no way connected to what happened in WandaVision, Falcon focuses on Steve Rogers’ erstwhile sidekicks, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). As with WandaVision, it is fun to watch two great, but underused, MCU actors finally get some material worth their time. But also as with WandaVision, Falcon gets off to a slow start. It’s even more apparent here, because there is not the weirdness of WandaVision to cover the sheer amount of plot setup occurring in 40 minutes. There are also multiple conversations in which characters state obvious things to one another that the characters should already know, such as Bucky’s therapist stating that his therapy is mandated as part of his pardon, something he is undoubtedly already aware of. Writers, please find contextual ways to impart information like that so that characters aren’t left having conversations no two real people ever would.
That said, this episode is not a bust by any means. The parts that are good are SO good they make the clunkier pieces stick out even more, but there are some interesting things introduced here. For one thing, we finally learn that no, Avengers are not paid. This seems outrageous and like a MAJOR oversight, but Sam tells a banker that Avengers basically get by on the grace and favor of the public. The context is stellar because Sam, one of the only Black Avengers, is in the process of being denied a bank loan to save his family’s business and home. So, the Avengers get by on public goodwill, but that goodwill does not extend to Sam the same way it does to, say Steve Rogers—who the world apparently believes is dead?—which of course opens many interesting doors for the show to explore. Sam’s sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye, ten years after Pariah), survived the snap with her two sons, but the resulting struggle to get by in those five years has left her nearly broke. The scenes with Sam and Sarah do an OUTSTANDING job of seeding context clues for what the world was like while half the population was gone, and how hard it is for the returned to acclimate after the Avengers “saved” everyone. This is the kind of detailed writing that serves actors and characters equally well.
It also sets up an interesting parallel with our real world. Sam and Bucky do not interact in this episode—an odd choice for a show that basically exists due to the real-life chemistry of Mackie and Stan—but both are veterans, and both are struggling with reacclimating to civilian life. Sam wants his world to resemble that which he knew before he left for the Air Force, forcing his sister to sit through indignities she has already faced on her own countless times. And Bucky, acutely aware that his world is gone—he is 106, well outside his own lifetime—struggles to find a new normal while dealing with the guilt and self-recrimination of his Winter Soldier days. These are characters in extraordinary circumstances, but we have generations of real veterans who face similar challenges (Sam’s position within his sister’s family feels a bit like a military spouse coming home after a deployment and trying to feel their way back into the rhythm of home life). If Falcon keeps pressing this particular sore spot, it could go to some very interesting and narratively challenging places.
Another interesting and narratively challenging element is the issue of race in the MCU. Steve Rogers bequeathed his shield to Sam, but Sam is struggling to accept it and all it represents. Rhodey (Don Cheadle) shows up to encourage Sam to claim the Captain America mantle for himself, but ultimately Sam decides to donate the shield to the Smithsonian. But apparently the government wasn’t being entirely honest with Sam, because at the end of the episode the very government flak who accepted the shield is seen handing it to a new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell, doing his best douche-face). The look on Sam’s face, the way his shoulders slump when he realizes Steve’s shield is gone is heartbreaking. Again, I hope the show keeps up the pressure on this development and really challenges what it would mean for America to accept a Black Captain America in the 2020s. These are deep themes to open up, and though the punchy-kicky parts of Falcon are completely uninteresting—though they are exceptionally well done and a little more brutal than we’re used to seeing in the movies—the character elements of Falcon soar, when given the chance.
I don’t know if people will be willing to roll with the slower-paced development of Falcon, and how much of the plot so far revolves around relatively mundane domestic issues. There is no weird magical element to prompt endless speculation, and the villains introduced so far, primarily a new group of anarcho-terrorists called the “Flag-Smashers”, have pretty basic motivation: they liked things better in the blip, the end. Far more compelling is Bucky Barnes struggling to confess his role in a man’s innocent son’s death, and Sam trying to hold his family together after five years away. But this is the kind of “nothing is happening” storytelling that people often complain about in comic book stuff, though these scenes are where all the actual story of Falcon are contained. The plotty action stuff and Flag-Smasher set up isn’t as interesting, even though Danny Ramirez as Joaquin Torres is bringing the right kind of “Golly gee, AVENGERS!” energy that lightens up the more rote proceedings (and says a lot about what Sam, in particular, means to some people in the world). This is a promising, if slow, start for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but the success of the show will depend entirely on how hard they hit those themes of racism and veterans struggling at home.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is streaming on Disney+ with new episodes each Friday.