'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier': TV Review

'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier'
Courtesy of Disney+
A rousing start with two promising heroes.
3/19/2021

Following in the footsteps of 'WandaVision,' Disney+'s new Marvel drama finds Anthony Mackie's Falcon and Sebastian Stan's Winter Soldier dealing with the consequences of the MCU in action-packed form.

Many traumatic things have happened to the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But even with the movies taking on running times approaching three hours, there simply hasn't been the opportunity for our heroes or their loved ones to get the emotional support they all desperately need.

It's tempting to look at the Disney+ extensions of the Marvel brand as televisual therapy for superheroes, augmented by the occasional CG skirmish. Certainly WandaVision was at its best when it was a show dealing with grief that happened to feature Marvel characters. And it was at its worst when it was a Marvel show that happened to deal with grief. The sub-par action sequences that masqueraded as the climax of the finale didn't detract from the things the show did well — the performances by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany were especially outstanding — but they perhaps diminished the overall impact of the series a bit.

The second Disney+ entry from Marvel was actually supposed to premiere first, before COVID delays; The Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins with an action scene that, in this context, plays as a "The excitement is back!" note of reassurance to fans who worried WandaVision got too touchy-feely. Then, for those who loved the introspection of WandaVision, the 47-minute pilot continues with 30-plus touchy-feely minutes. It's a balance that will probably play well.

In that opening scene, Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson, donning his Falcon suit, is sent on a mission — one the American military can't be seen to be involved with, and one I can't fully explain — that has him soaring over, around and through a Middle Eastern desert. After the surprisingly lackluster Vision-on-Vision flying fight from WandaVision, this extended sequence is a fun, creatively choreographed adrenaline rush that feels close enough to anything you'd get from a superhero scene on the big screen to scratch that "brightly lit thrill ride" itch that's been building for awhile. Nothing in the rest of the Kari Skogland-directed pilot equals it, but nothing really needs to.

Much has been made of how showrunner Malcolm Spellman approached the six-episode Falcon and the Winter Soldier as a buddy dramedy in the 48 Hours/Lethal Weapon vein. This would not be evident to anybody seeing the pilot, in which Mackie's Falcon and Sebastian Stan's Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes are initially completely separate, even after Avengers: Endgame brought them together in their mutual respect for an aged Captain America and his shiny, shiny shield.

If you recall — and you'll be reminded here, if you don't — Sam's response to Cap presenting him with the shield was that it felt like it was someone else's, a feeling that continues in the beginning of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Sam Wilson isn't a reluctant hero, but he's a reluctant symbol. He doesn't want to become the patriot embodiment of a country where the people who recognize him initially assume he's an athlete and where his position as a frequent saver of the world can't help him secure a bank loan to help his sister (Adepero Oduye's Sarah) keep the family fishing business afloat in Louisiana. Dovetailing with Sam's discomfort with post-Snap America is the rise of an international terrorist organization called the Flag-Smashers, who would like to do away with borders entirely, or something.

As for Bucky, he's very, very guilty about the things he did as a brainwashed assassin. He may look like a 30something hunk, but he's a 106-year-old man who isn't comfortable with the modern world or his place in it. He's seeing a shrink who knows his particular situation and is trying to help him move forward, a process that involves amends and possibly even dating!

Since critics have only seen the first episode, it's almost necessary to review The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as two shows. The Falcon show features the boffo action opening, and also a richer exploration of the lives of those left behind in the Snap and of the internal contradictions of being a Black superhero in a country that doesn't fully embrace Blackness than Marvel has ever approached. Sarah's resentment about Sam leaving home both to join the military and then, unavoidably, as part of Thanos' genocide is something different, as is Sam's opportunity to note how being a superhero is effectively an unpaid position and therefore its own form of privilege. Throw in the bayou location for a lot of Sam's plot and there's some freshness here.

The Bucky story, on the other hand, feels basically like the Marvel shows Jeph Loeb produced for Netflix. That doesn't mean it's bad or that Stan isn't playing the character's neuroses well. It just means that if Bucky Barnes, Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones were to meet in a therapist's waiting room, they would probably discover they have a lot in common and they might even go off to a dingy urban bar to mope together. It's familiar and glum, though the glumness is understandable.

I look forward to seeing how Sam and Bucky interact when they have prolonged screen time together, what this pairing of a conflicted Black patriot and a 106-year-old white guy with a history of fighting (however unwillingly) for the wrong side will feel like. I'd also mention that the first episode includes neither of the two major characters from the MCU previously announced as series regulars, but that another familiar face pops up, as does a new figure whom comic fans are aware of.

There's enough here to make one optimistic that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could emerge as a second Disney+ winner for Marvel.

Cast: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Emily VanCamp, Daniel Brühl

Created for television by: Malcolm Spellman

New episodes debut Fridays on Disney+, starting on March 19.