We are now halfway through The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and man can you feel the gears grinding on this one. WandaVision took a second to get going, but once it got there, it took off and hit some really interesting and heady highs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Falcon, on the other hand, is 50% over and still feels like it’s setting the table—the pacing is HORRIBLE—and while each episode features one or two standout moments, overall, the elements of Falcon don’t hang together. WandaVision had one central conflict: Wanda Is Sad. Almost everything that happened in that series stemmed directly from that conflict, and the few things that did not spring from that were noticeably creakier and weaker than the central conflict. Falcon, though, has multiple conflicts and none of them really align. It’s not that these pieces aren’t individually interesting, it’s just the way they do not work together is bogging down the show and actively working against the good stuff.
At the midpoint, we have moved away from Sam Wilson’s family drama, though racism continues to be a huge theme throughout the series. Episode two, “The Star-Spangled Man”, dives into John Walker (Wyatt Russell) as the new Captain America, a complete toolbag nobody likes. Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) refuse to work with him, which pisses Walker off (probably because he realizes having Steve Rogers’ former lieutenants by his side would further legitimize him in the role of Captain America). At the same time, they are contending with Walker, Sam discovers the existence of a Black super-soldier, Isaiah Bradley (veteran character actor Carl Lumbly, absolutely crushing it). Bucky knew of Isaiah’s existence because he tangled with the Winter Soldier during the Korean War, but Bucky kept the knowledge from Steve. Taken from the excellent comic book “Truth: Red, White & Black”, Isaiah is a stand-in for decades of the American military industrial complex abusing Black bodies in the name of “science” (see also: the Tuskegee experiment). Sam is rightfully horrified to learn what happened to Isaiah, and furious at Bucky for keeping the secret (even though Isaiah’s trauma is not Bucky’s to exploit).
There are rich themes here, to be sure—Black Air Force veteran Nicque Marina is on TikTok breaking down how the show echoes real-world problems of race and veterans issues in the military today—but Falcon struggles to connect the dots. Sam’s struggle with Steve’s legacy, represented by his rejection of the shield, doesn’t quite mesh with Bucky’s struggles to reacclimate to civilian life, and no one is considering how the military industrial complex is currently chewing up and about to spit out John Walker. The only part of this that really connects is the built-in hypocrisy of turning SOME people into symbols while leaving others in the dust, something Zemo (Daniel Brühl) and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) both speak directly to. Sam and Bucky find themselves in the middle of that hypocrisy, but every time the show approaches going somewhere interesting with it, a fight breaks out and the story momentum stops, and too often, it doesn’t restart. We just jump tracks to a different plot problem.
The plot revolves around the Flag Smashers, a group of super-soldiers using their new strength to…be Robin Hood? We’re three episodes in and I am still not totally clear on what the villains’ goal is. It seems that post-blip, the world of the MCU is struggling to repatriate the three and a half billion people who returned, which makes sense, but there is a strange reticence to just dive into the specifics of what is happening, what the conflicts are, and who are the main players. That might be down to an unwillingness to overcommit to details that might muck up future movies, et cetera, but that is the burden carried by an interconnected universe. You can’t shortchange a story because it might back something else into a corner. You just have to work through it. But we’re not really working through it here, so all we’ve got are the Flag Smashers hijacking supply trucks and robbing depots controlled by the “Global Repatriation Council” (I just ASSUME they’re secretly Hydra), and then randomly killing a bunch of people to reinforce that they are the bad guys. Otherwise, they’re actually sympathetic actors and I don’t know why Sam and Bucky would even be invested in stopping them, except Bucky is freaked out by potential Hydra connections.
But so far, we’re not headed in Hydra directions (even if the GRC is HIGHLY suspicious). The big bad being teased behind the curtain is the Power Broker, a person or persons administrating a new generation of super-soldier serum to anyone who wants it. We started with a strong premise in episode one: Sam is struggling with Steve’s bequest and his family’s own legacy, while Bucky struggles to reintegrate into society. But we’ve long since left those conflicts behind. Sam is tangentially still dealing with the Steve/shield issue, but he has leapt from, “I think that belongs to Steve and Steve alone,” to, “I should destroy the shield,” VERY quickly. Too quickly, frankly. It feels like we’re missing an entire episode between two and three that would allow everyone to arrive at their moments of desperation in more believable fashion. Instead, Sam goes right to “burn the shield”, John Walker is screaming “Do you know who I am?” at people—dude, you’ve been on the job for a week, no one knows who you are—and Bucky is busting Zemo out of prison. These are BIG moves with paper thin justifications in the story.
This is not to say Falcon is totally without merit. As always, there is pleasure in watching good actors doing good work, and everyone here is a good actor with something good, or at least fun, to do. Emily VanCamp actually gets to play a personality in Sharon Carter, Wyatt Russell is giving an A+ douchebag performance, and Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan knock it out of the park every week. Stan is particularly good, embodying Bucky as a person who is simultaneously too old for his body and emotionally stuck somewhere in the youth he never really got to enjoy. Bucky springs from old man to moody teenager and back again like a rubber band, and it is GREAT to watch. And Daniel Brühl is back as Baron Zemo, which presents Bucky, at least, with a moral dilemma and potential stakes he isn’t ready to reckon with yet by way of his allies in Wakanda. I just wish it all hung better together, that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier felt more like a cohesive story and less like a series of disjointed fetch quests.