The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wrapped up last Friday, concluding an incredibly frustrating story that never quite brought all of its ideas home. WandaVision was not perfect, but it succeeded in turning a side character into a real protagonist with interesting dramatic themes and a complicated narrative, and it did so through consistent storytelling in which every problem stemmed from the central concept (“Wanda is sad”). Falcon never found a grounded center like that, and the first episode ended up both setting the tone for the show’s major problems and overpromising on thematic elements on which the show didn’t deliver. That first episode featured Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in parallel narratives and they never shared a scene together, and that ends up being the feeling of the show itself, in which Sam’s story and Bucky’s story never really have anything to do with each other. Sure, they team up to stop the Flag Smashers, but Bucky’s journey to redemption and Sam wrestling with the complicated history of Captain America and America, in general, has nothing to do with that. Falcon never found a way to bring these threads together, and the show feels disjointed as a result.
The finale is the most uneven episode in the whole season. It’s a pretty good resolution to Sam’s story, in that he accepts the shield and the mantle of Captain America, even though he knows many people will resent him for it, or even hate him. Anthony Mackie is saddled with an OUTLANDISH monologue in the finale to tie it all up, which he sells on sheer charisma and guts, but a character only has to deliver a monologue like this, explicitly wrapping up the major plot points, when something within the narrative is all the way broken. It’s not on Mackie at all, and it is to his credit he makes the scene work, but it is a sign of how busted Falcon really is, that Mackie has to monologue for almost five minutes to make it all make sense. But that’s just one example of how rocky this episode is. Isaiah Bradley (Carly Lumbly) finally gets his place in history, being recognized in the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian, and while that is a nice gesture, it does nothing to erase his 30 years in prison or his suffering through inhumane human testing. Acknowledging at the Bad Thing is not the same thing as addressing the Bad Thing. Falcon in no way addresses what happened to Isaiah, which is too bad because his story contrasted with Steve Rogers’ and Sam’s is one of the most compelling elements of the show.
Bucky’s resolution is handled equally poorly. All season we’ve been building to the moment when he confesses his part in the death of Yori’s (Ken Takemoto) son, but in the end, we don’t even get to see the moment play out. Bucky makes his confession, then we cut to him exiting Yori’s apartment. Let that moment breathe! It was the dramatic crux of his whole storyline! Similarly, he farewells his therapist by giving her his completed book of names he owes amends to, when a better resolution, one that plays directly into Sam’s speech to him about “doing the work”, would be to see Bucky sit down in therapy, ready to dig in and do the work of healing. It would have been a perfect close to his story, which started in a combative, unproductive therapy session, to see Bucky finally embrace the idea that he deserves to heal. It’s like Marvel wants to have these moments showing the ugliness within these characters, but totally skip over the hard part of writing these characters out of their emotional corners. Instead, we get shortcuts like Bucky essentially quitting therapy because he said sorry once and now, he’s all better. That’s not how this works! That’s not how ANY of this works!
John Walker (Wyatt Russell) ends on an equally frustrating note, though this is mostly a “we’ll deal with it later” problem, as we’ve seen in many Marvel things before, including WandaVision. I get that they don’t want to commit to him being a total bad guy, that the point of Walker is that he is a good man warped by a broken system, bent by the military industrial complex into a twisted shadow of Steve Rogers. But there was real cognitive dissonance in going from the previous episodes, in which he was treated as a straight up murderer, to seeing Bucky share a “well done” moment with him in this episode. It would be one thing for Bucky to let him go, recognizing that, like himself, Walker is not a lost cause. It’s something else entirely for Bucky to be friendly with the dude after everything that took place up to that point. That moment between Bucky and Walker feels less driven by earned motivation and more a product of simply needing to get Walker out of the story in a way that leaves his fate up in the air. Is he bad? Is he good? Well, he DID sign up to work for a mysterious woman dressed in black who gave him a blank black business card, and I feel like when that happens, your first question should be:
But I guess we’re supposed to pretend like there’s a chance Walker isn’t, at least for now, on the wrong side of things because Bucky was nice to him once. I’m just so frustrated by Falcon. WandaVision was able to overcome its flaws because the parts of it that worked, worked REALLY well, and it made both Wanda and Vision feel like fuller, more complete characters in the MCU. It did such a good job of that, it even makes Wanda’s previous, underdeveloped appearances in Marvel movies feel more important than they actually are in the moment. Falcon does not do the same here. Sam Wilson, at least, shows some potential as a future leading man of Marvel and main Avenger.
Bucky Barnes, though, despite Sebastian Stan’s incredible performance, remains a cipher. He’s only ever as emotionally troubled as he needs to be in any given scene, his arm is only as indestructible as it needs to be for the next stunt, his spy skills are legendary until they’re not—we’ll talk about Sharon Carter in a separate post—and we still don’t have any real sense of who he is without Captain America (any Captain America). Far from feeling these characters have been kickstarted into a new phase of storytelling, it feels like we’re still treading water. The promise of a fourth Captain America movie from the showrunner of this series is not the enticing boon Marvel thinks it is, given how wildly uneven The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is. There is hope for Sam Wilson, at least, that a better told story could make him the star of the show. But just send Bucky to space already. Get him all the way away from the Avengers and maybe he’ll finally become a real character.