After WandaVision, especially those earlier episodes that offer barely a hint of what else was going on besides a classic sitcom, it might seem tempting to proclaim The Falcon and The Winter Soldier as Marvel returning to something more like what they usually do. After all, there’s Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), flying through the air over Tunisia trying to stop a terrorist from escaping to Libya. It’s a pretty nifty scene that, at least looks like, it involved some real parachuting stunts. But we’ve seen scenes like that before in Marvel movies. (The parachuting stunt in Iron Man 3 isn’t talked about near enough.) But what’s ambitious about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the groundwork being laid out for what’s to come. And this series could go in some interesting, pretty remarkable directions.
In the first episode of six (I’ve only seen one), Sam still owns the shield that Steve Rogers gave him at the end of Avengers: Endgame. He contemplates his life as a future Captain America and wrestles with the notion that he doesn’t believe it belongs to him. And officials from the United States government are all too eager to commend Sam on his “right” decision, not telling him that they have other plans anyway. As I watched that all unfold (and Mackie really sells the anguish over what he’s deciding and why he’s making the decisions that he’s making) it struck me that that’s how it would pretty much exactly go down in real life. The people in charge who don’t want Sam to be the face of America wouldn’t just tell him “no,” they’d somehow twist the whole thing into being “Sam’s own decision.”
And that’s part of the genius of what creators of this show are doing. Because there are going to be viewers who, if Sam had just taken over as Cap, would say, “Well, I like Sam, but I’m not sure he should be Captain America.” (Almost 100 percent of the people who think this way will be white people for what it’s worth.) By the end of this series, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of viewers who felt that way will be actively rooting for Sam to become Cap. (If he even wants it at that point.) And even that fact gets into a lot of tricky discussions about race and why would viewers need this kind of arc in the first place to accept Sam? But that’s what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is here to do, to make people think about these kinds of questions. (I interviewed Malcolm Spellman, the head writer for the series and he is adamant about this aspect. The interview will run Friday after the episode airs.)
Meanwhile, Bucky Barns (Sebastian Stan) is lying low, going to therapy, and trying his best to atone for his past actions, even though they weren’t really his fault. (If you haven’t seen the movies, yes, Bucky’s past will probably be confusing.) But we see a lot of Bucky just hanging out. Actually, we see a lot of that from Sam, too. It’s nice to see what these two are doing when they are not fighting Thanos. There’s a very interesting scene with Sam and his sister trying to get a bank loan to keep their family business open. Sam is an Avenger and a national hero, but he’s also a Black man and he’s asked about where his income comes from. (Which is something that hasn’t really been addressed before over the course of these movies other than for people like Tony Stark who are just “rich.”) But after one episode we don’t even know how Sam and Bucky’s stories intersect yet.
The series also leans into the effects of “the blip,” which now takes on greater meaning in our own world due to the pandemic, and the series filmed during the pandemic so you can almost feel the notion of losing time having a greater effect on the overall mood of the show than if it had been filmed before. (Sam is also questioned by the bank why he hasn’t had a job in the last five years.)
And on top of all that we have the introduction of the Flag Smashers to the MCU. It’s unclear where that arc is going at this point, but it’s a good bet it will have something to do with the white nationalism we’ve seen spread throughout the United States and abroad.
This first episode is for sure in setup mode. And, no, it’s not weird like WandaVision. But my gosh there’s a lot going on in this series that will unfold over the coming few weeks. And then there’s the final scene of this first episode when a character shows up who puts a lot of things in laser focus. (This character has been publicly announced, but I’ll still not mention him specifically here.) It truly feels like this is a series trying to tackle the multiple things that are actually going on right now in our real world. It may not automatically feel ambitious in that, no, there’s no laugh track and live studio audience. But what this series is trying to do certainly feels like a lot. And my gosh I hope they pull it off.
‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ debuts this weekend via Disney+. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.