This will sound strange, but I feel a little bit sorry for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. If everything had gone to plan, this would have been the first MCU TV show with Disney money to justify bringing the largest cinema franchise to the small screen. However, a global pandemic disrupted things, which meant that WandaVision was the first series to be broadcast, and that show was a phenomenon (which I loved). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is fine – solid MCU entertainment, with action and banter and crossover with the rest of the MCU – but it’s not on the same level as WandaVision, which means it looks worse by comparison and is therefore scrutinised more intently.
A brief synopsis: it’s 6 months after the Blip; Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) decides to give Captain America’s shield to the US government to be displayed in a museum; Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is in government-mandated therapy and making amends for his time as the Winter Soldier. A group of terrorists calling themselves the Flag Smashers are fighting because they believed that life was betting in the time before the Blip. Meanwhile, the US government announces a new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), with the shield that Sam had returned to them. Bucky is angry with Sam for returning the shield; Bucky accompanies Sam on a mission to stop the Flag Smashers, where the new Captain America arrives with his sidekick, Lemar Hoskins aka Battlestar, wanting to work with Sam and Bucky, who refuse; they fight the Flag Smashers, who are revealed to be super soldiers. To find out about the super soldiers, Bucky breaks Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) out of prison, who takes them to Madripoor, a criminal island run by the Power Broker. After the mission goes wrong, they are rescued by Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp), who has been living as a fugitive there are the events of Captain America: Civil War. Sam, Bucky and Zemo go to Latvia to find the Flag Smashers, where they run into the Dora Milaje, who want Zemo, and the new Captain America, and events go from bad to worse, leading to conflict …
I’ll discuss the positive first. Seeing Sam Wilson become Captain America was fantastic (and with a costume so true to the comic books as well, which I wasn’t expecting) – the show was built towards the moment, so it was a long time coming, but worth it. I’m so happy that Marvel has pulled the trigger on letting a black man take the mantle; I loved Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, but it’s great to pass it on to someone who isn’t blonde, blue-eyed white man. Also, the series didn’t ignore the racial tension inherent in a black man assuming the mantle of the representation of America’s might and all that it had done to black people over the centuries. This was done brilliantly by the inclusion of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) into the MCU – the comic book mini-series Truth: Red, White & Black, written by Robert Morales, drawn by Kyle Baker, is now canon and I couldn’t be happier. The scene between Bradley and Wilson discussing what happened to Bradley and how a black man shouldn’t wear the flag was riveting, easily one of the best scenes in the series.
The chemistry between Mackie and Stan is as great as it has been in the films – they are both good actors who work well together, which is one of the primary reasons this series got made. Wilson and Stan have some great moments in the series – Wilson giving the Captain America speech, Stan realising that the trigger words no longer turn him into the Winter Soldier – and the show works best with the two of them together.
The introduction of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine was absolutely fantastic (and such a well-kept secret, which made it even more of a delightful surprise) – I giggled with glee every moment she was on screen as she had a blast with the role. The MCU continues to cast amazing people who are perfect for the role and I look forward to her continuing presence in the MCU.
The other new actors were good – Erin Kellyman, after her star-making turn in Solo: A Star Wars Story, was great as Karli Morgenthau, head of the Flag Smashers; Wyatt Russell was tremendous as John Walker (or Craptain America, as I heard him described on the Empire Spoiler Special Podcast), combining some high-level douchery and making you want to punch his smug face with some depth about his demons and the pressure of becoming the official new Captain America.
On to some of the negative stuff I foreshadowed. I’m aware of rumours that the show was rejigged because of a supposed storyline in the series about releasing a virus on the world, something that clearly had to be changed for the series to be released after a global pandemic had actually killed millions. This would have an impact on the assuredness and smooth narrative we are accustomed to in MCU films, and there are scenes and sections where you can see some sort of patchwork to cover issues. However, the writing on the show suffered in making the programme a satisfying entertainment.
There were far too many incidents of characters acting stupidly or out of character just to progress the plot from one point to the next. Having Sam give up the shield because he doesn’t feel worthy to the American government (instead of, say, Wakanda, the source of the vibranium) so that we get our new Captain America and thus get the story going doesn’t make sense, but it is understandable. Having Sam not turn off his phone while on a covert undercover mission so he gets a phone call from his sister that jeopardises the mission is ridiculous. Having Zemo (an excellent Brühl – love the dancing memes) suddenly have a vast fortune, dismissed with the line, ‘I was a baron’, with a car stored where they happen to need one is laughable. Having Zemo put on the purple mask – with no build-up, no mention of any significance, no point – in the middle of a fight and then take it off almost immediately and then never refer to it again is absurd; just because something is in the comics doesn’t mean it has to be in the MCU, especially when there is no point. Having John Walker run around the world doing whatever he wants without any sort of boss or orders (he is a highly decorated soldier, still in active service) seems to be a missed opportunity to explore some of the dynamics in the US military approach to foreign affairs, let alone a lapse in storytelling logic. The Flag Smashers seem to be there just to provide a reason for John Walker to have something to fight against, and they are ill-defined – are they a small group with no influence or a large group with the ability to infiltrate high levels of power? What is the Global Repatriation Council and why are they not really mentioned until near the end of the show, rather than the start where it would make sense? Sharon Carter taking off her mask in New York when the reason she wore the mask was because people were looking for her – what’s the point of that? And the scene where, on the steps of the government building where she has just been pardoned and make a phone call telling her associates that she is back in business as the Power Broker (I thought this was a strange choic for the character; perhaps it’s a Skrull thing?) because she’s now back in the US secret agencies was illogical and idiotic. The writing was patchy, inconsistent and not as thought-through as we’re used to from the MCU, with lots of areas for nit-picking and wondering what the point of something was, or wondering why something wasn’t explained better to justify its inclusion.
Visually, the show wasn’t dazzling. Director Kari Skogland is competent and functional, but the action scenes never really sizzled the way they should have compared with, for example, similarly based action scenes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the choreography was nothing special – the fight where Sam and Bucky take the shield back from Walker should have been a corker, but it didn’t.
Another element that coloured my view of this show was learning that the creators of the Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, get nothing from this show. In a great interview Brubaker did with Kevin Smith, Brubaker revealed that they get no money from Disney for their part in the show. Brubaker wasn’t complaining because he knows it was a work-for-hire gig, but when something goes on to make a lot of money and people who make the films and TV make a lot of money by basing work on the original work, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Marvel/Disney to say, ‘You know what? Here’s a very small fraction of our huge profits to say thanks’. That Brubaker makes more for the cameo in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is disgusting and shameful.
This makes me sound more down on the show than I am – it’s entertaining MCU fare that saw Sam Wilson become Captain America (although underserving Bucky Barnes’ character development) and introduced Madripoor into the MCU; it’s just that it could have been so much better. At least we’ll see Sam as Captain America in a film in the future; I hope the parameters of a two-hour film work in favour of tightening the baggy writing and being more focused.