The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)

Honor the shield.

I’ve been meditating on what’s been bugging me about Marvel’s last two Disney+ live-action offerings. They’re both pretty good; indeed, the critical consensus is that both WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are great. I have to disagree; they both come so close to greatness that if you squint (or just ignore certain vital elements) you can convince yourself that they are, in fact, stone-cold brilliant series. If nothing else, they feel like natural extensions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a way that prior television outings, like Netflix’s Defenders sub-universe, never managed, and if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel Zombie (and really, who isn’t these days?) that can be enough to ensure your fealty. Make Mine Marvel, indeed.

But they’re not great, they’re just pretty darn good, and that can be enough. I had a good time with both of ‘em. But there are things that niggle me about both (although we’re focusing on TFATWS here), and to really talk about those things we are going to be setting boldly out into Spoiler Territory. If that’s an issue, stop reading now — the star rating is at the bottom of the review.

It Takes Two

In the broad strokes, TFATWS picks up where Avengers: Endgame (2019) left off. While Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka The Winter Soldier, is trying to get into the rhythms of modern life and make amends for his past as a brainwashed master assassin (I am not here to explain MCU continuity, sorry), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), aka The Falcon, Steve Rogers’ chosen heir to the mantle of Captain America, is actually not keen on the job, handing his shield over to the government, ostensibly for museum exhibition. That’s not the case, though; the US has picked a wholesome, square-jawed white guy, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), to be the new Cap, and as fans of the comics know, Walker is a bit of a hardnosed “my country right or wrong” kind of fella.

Our man Sam tries to return to civilian life but can’t even get a bank loan to save the family shrimping boat he co-owns with sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye). His status as a literally-world-saving hero, or even an armed forces veteran, mean bupkis, and it turns out Tony Stark didn’t have the Avengers on any kind of payroll or benefits scheme. Sam, ever the nice guy, grudgingly lets the loan officer who knocks him back grab a selfie with him.

Meanwhile, a terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers is out in the world tearing shit up. Led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), their actions are in retaliation to various governments’ moves to repatriate refugees who crossed borders after the blip; now that half the world’s population has returned after five years (honestly, MCU continuity — if you don’t know it, Google it) a lot of people are getting shuffled around, and the Flag Smashers, who rock a kind of Black Bloc Antifa aesthetic and a vaguely anarchic ideology, are having none of it. It’s these guys that give Bucky and Sam a reason to team up, as they hare around the world following various clues as to Who’s Really Behind All This, with Civil War (2016) villain and series MVP Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) in tow to help in a kind of 48 Hours limited parole scenario.

Zemo’s on fire!!!

Those clues, by the way, point towards someone called The Power Broker, who is selling reverse-engineered Super Soldier Serum to, well, all kinds of people. Who is the mysterious Power Broker? Well, it’s Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), which isn’t much of a mystery when you consider they presented no other characters that it could be (although Marvel just hurling in characters to set up future appearances is not a new thing — in this series that’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as shady secret agent Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, while last time out it was Teyonah Parris as the adult Monica Rambeau/Photon/whatever they wind up calling her). Still, there’s an intriguing question raised: in a world where superhumans are cropping up for all manner of reasons (mostly mad science, to be fair) should there be a choke on artificially enhancing humans? Hell, should there be any superhumans? And who gets to decide that?

That’s four big thematic and narrative threads, and we haven’t even gotten to the inclusion of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), who was secretly Captain America after World War II and is pretty embittered about how he was used and broomed, implicitly because he, a black man, was not seen as fit to be the living embodiment of America (or the American fighting man, or however you might view Cap — and that’s a pretty good question). Four big, meaty, interesting, provocative story throughlines — and TFATWS pretty much muffs the lot.

‘Is it androids, aliens, or wizards?’

Well, to be fair, Bucky’s storyline is fairly well handled. But Bucky is the sidekick in this show, and while the focus is nominally on Sam, Sam doesn’t actually get to do a lot. I don’t mean he doesn’t get his action beats or his big speech moments — the show starts with the former and ends with the latter, with plenty of other examples scattered throughout. Everyone gets “cool” moments (series director Kari Skogland makes sure of that), but that’s all they are: short bits of business that look good, or spark a neuron previously affected by an earlier Marvel film, or both, but don’t actually work on the macro level. There’s a simple question that you should be able to answer for any protagonist, and I can’t answer it for Sam: what does this guy want, and what’s stopping him from getting it?

Does Sam want to live up to Cap’s legacy? No, he does not — he gives up the mantle pretty easily and seems content to step out of the spotlight until circumstances force him back into it. Does he want to stop the Flag Smashers? Kind of, but he kind of agrees with them too, or at least can see their side of the argument. That would be more apparent if Karli and her crew had clear motivations or at least ethical boundaries, but they don’t, tick-tocking from valiant freedom fighters to ruthless terrorists depending on the demands of the scene. Karli and co. never feel like real people with a concrete ideology, so Sam’s sympathy with — or even opposition to — their cause is meaningless because their cause is never fully defined.

This is the core problem with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Because it refuses to ever fully commit to what it’s about, it’s not really about much of anything. It shies away from committing to a thesis. That could be a problem inherent in the construction of Marvel’s shared onscreen universe. These series are fun enough, but part of their purpose is to set up future installments, so there’s a limit to how far you can follow any given line of thought or inquiry before you have to steer it back towards the middle, where most opinions cluster and where the biggest audience lies.

The whole world is watching.

So, while the series is almost about the treatment of veterans in America, it never goes far enough down that road to make that theme land dramatically (angry old man Isaiah is bought off with a statue in a museum exhibition).

It’s almost about whether the identity of Captain America belongs to the government or the people, and which people in particular, but it pulls back from that, too. Russell’s Walker, a hair-trigger dude with an inferiority complex who straight-up murders a guy in broad daylight and on camera, ultimately gets a pass, joining our central pair to battle the Flag Smashers in the final episode and being accepted as an ally without too much fuss. When the guy set up to explicitly be Captain America’s evil mirror isn’t that evil at all by the lights of the show, what does that say about Cap as an identity and an ideal? What’s it saying about the series’ inherent sense of justice when Walker, to turn a phrase, gets to walk?

It’s almost about the ethical conundrums inherent in the existence of superhumans but let’s face facts: the real answer to that in almost every (there are exceptions; shut up) superhero text is MOAR POWERS, and it’s been a fair while since the MCU’s Sokovia Accords, ostensibly an in-universe superhuman test ban treaty, has meant anything narratively important. We do get Brühl’s Zemo making a very strong case that supers need to be eliminated, but as charming as he is, he’s still a bad guy, and so we’re not exactly encouraged to treat his point of view seriously (still, if murderer and would-be despot Loki can get his own series, don’t count the good Baron out).

And it’s almost about Sam Wilson’s journey from self-doubt to the shield as he realizes that not only can he be Captain America, he must. Except, while I am very happy to see Mackie in that remarkably comics-accurate suit (I’m just a fan of Mackie as an actor, straight up) and the big action spectacular that caps the series is beautiful to behold, there’s just not enough distance between the Sam who handed in the shield in the first place and the Sam who picks it up in the end. You can take some stabs at what character growth has occurred in between, what changed his mind, what made him worthy, but it’s all vague and implied — it’s not dramatized. And drama — specifically the explication of character through conflict — is why we are here. So, it’s a bit weird that this big-budget, globe-hopping, prestige TV series can’t get that right.

Fighters or fashion icons?

But what it really gets wrong is something it gets so close to that the film’s climactic action sequence becomes frustrating to watch once you twig to it: the idea that Sam Wilson as Captain America is not a superhuman, he’s just a human.

It’s right there in the dialogue! Sam straight up says that he has “No super-serum, no blonde hair, no blue eyes.” That’s important, that’s interesting, and that — if executed properly — could actually tie in all of TFATWS’s disparate themes into something cohesive (in that one sentence, it’s already asking us to question our mental image of what constitutes “superhuman”). The idea that this Captain America is, albeit highly trained, committed, driven, etc., etc., a normal baseline human is a really strong one, perhaps an important one. It’s been touched on fleetingly in the MCU before (I’m thinking specifically of Hawkeye’s rallying speech to Wanda in Age of Ultron), but here they’re making the case that Captain American should be a regular, non-enhanced person if he’s going to represent what’s best in the American national character.

Then we get to the big biffo, and there is nothing there to differentiate how Sam behaves in a fight from a superhuman. He takes blows that would kill a normal man, takes out supervillains with the minimum of fuss and the maximum flair, wrapping it all up in time for a stirring but very muddled speech that in itself fails to sum up the series’ actual point.

There’s an in-universe explanation in that Sam is wearing a new super-suit built by the Wakandans (and there’s a lot to unpack in the idea of Captain America’s costume being made by another sovereign power), and it’s obviously woven Vibranium or some nonsense, but the creative team makes a choice to show that Sam is, for all intents and purposes, invincible. He may say he’s mortal, but he acts like he’s immortal — not heroic, not brave, but simply unbeatable.

‘The legacy of that shield is complicated.’

Cinema — and all screen art — is rooted in the idea that showing is better than telling, but TFATWS is telling us one thing and showing us another. I can picture a version of this fight where Sam’s mortality is actually a narrative factor, and he has to think about the risks he’s taking on board fighting super soldiers and trying to save the day. Think about how it could affect his tactics. Think about how it could raise the stakes — one enhanced Flag Smasher could punch old Sam’s head clean off his shoulders. Instead, it’s just another all-powerful hero plowing through mooks. He might not be a super soldier, but he might as well be Iron Man (except, y’know, Tony actually built his suits — Sam got given his). The execution undercuts the stated premise.

That The Falcon and the Winter Soldier works at all is mainly down to Mackie and Stan — both their ability to do a lot with a little, dramatically speaking, and their incredible chemistry. They really do play remarkably well off of each other, and if there’s one thing that does ring true in the show, it’s the relationship between the pair, two sidekicks trying to figure out if each can be the protagonist of their own story. That works, the action set pieces and effects work, that MCU je ne sais quoi works — and that last one is why we’re really here, right? And I dig it, I show up for it, I enjoy it. But it niggles me that we get “pretty good” when “excellent” is just a bee’s dick away, and I suspect that what stops us from getting there is timidity and corporate groupthink. That’s pure speculation on my part, but a team of talented creative professionals put this thing together, and they certainly appeared to want to say something of substance — several somethings — so I’ve got to wonder what stopped them? Because all the pieces are there.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is currently streaming on Disney+