After the wildly inventive Wandavision that left us all singing “Agatha All Along” and forming crazy red string boards in our home offices, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier offers a more grounded approach in comparison. The first episode of the series, “New World Order”, feels very familiar, we are treading on familiar MCU ground. And that may be a comfort for some fans, but it might feel a little stale to others.
For all intents and purposes, “New World Order”, directed by Kari Skogland and written by Malcolm Spellman, serves as the first hour to an extended six-hour movie. In that way, it both benefits from its introduction to major themes and concepts for the season and also struggles because of its lack of momentum. At least, until those final moments.
“New World Order” opens with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) struggling with his identity. After Cap gave him the shield at the end of Endgame, it felt like a given that he would take up the mantle of Captain America. But as Kari Skogland told us in her interview, it isn’t that easy for Sam. There is a lot of extra baggage that he has to unpack before he can hold up that shield.
For now, he’s comfortable in his Falcon suit, we see him soaring through Tunisian airspace on contract work for the government, helping them take down criminal organizations and plane hijackings. The action is wildly cinematic, as we follow Sam twirling and soaring through the sky, explosions abound in an aerial dogfight (is it a dogfight when one person is in a flight suit?). We spot Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) last spotted on the Lemurian Star in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And of course, there’s a duality again as we see Sam take on Batroc and his LAF cronies, reminding us of the way Cap and Nat infiltrated the ship back when times were simpler and before everything hit the fan.
We meet First Lt. Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez) here, comic book fans will recognize him as another person who will don the Falcon mantle. Perhaps after Sam picks up the shield, we won’t be down one flying superhero? Torres certainly exudes the same type of fanboy energy (though far more subdued) that a young Peter Parker once had. Torres is an intel agent, and he’s been tracking a group called the Flag Smashers (not exactly the most inventive name), who believe that the world was better during the Blip. They want a world unified without borders. But, Sam points out the obvious issue, “Every time something gets better for one group, it gets worse for another.”
In Washington, we watch as the Smithsonian debuts a new Captain America exhibit. We know from Torres that there are some wild theories flying around about where Steve is — one of them is that he might be out on the moon (I see you, Dr. Manhattan). Rhodey (Don Cheadle) is in the crowd as Sam presents Cap’s shield (from an alternate universe?) for them to place into a display case.
“We need new heroes,” Sam says in his speech. “Ones suited for the times we’re in. Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning, and this thing, I don’t know if there’s ever been a greater symbol. But it’s more about the man who propped it up, and he’s gone. So, today, we honor Steve’s legacy, but also, we look to the future. Thank you, Captain America, but this belongs to you.”
Rhodey asks the question we all have on our minds, why didn’t Sam take the shield? But we know why. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to him, and Sam is not the type to fake-it-til-you-make-it. But Rhodey warns him, after the Blip, allies are enemies, alliances have been torn apart. The world is still very broken. They need the symbol and the man. Sure, the average citizen may be thanking you on the street, but the aftermath of the Blip is bound to turn sour.
Returning home to Delacroix, Louisiana, Sam reunites with his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) and her two sons Cass and AJ. We learn that Sam and Sarah grew up on the docks where the Wilson Family Seafood business finds its home and where their fishing ship is anchored. Sarah has been struggling with money. Superhero work doesn’t pay, and she’s in dire straits. She’s ready to sell the ship and move on, but Sam is adamantly against it. It’s their home, it’s where the two of them grew up, it’s a part of the family.
But the reality is that the Blip blinked people out of existence and on paper that means there was no income for 5 years for some people. Despite Sam’s best efforts to curry favor with the accountant by flashing his Avengers status, there’s no loan. Sarah asks, “How can you have an income if you don’t exist?” And the accountant can only spout fine print, going on about new rules and how things are ‘tightening up’ since people are showing up again. Funny how that seems to happen, huh?
Sam is faced with a dilemma. Yes, he is an Avenger and a superhero who saved half the people in the universe. But there was no hero fun, no Stark-bucks, it was just goodwill. And that goodwill can’t fix up the family ship, and Sarah can’t keep it afloat without repairs. I’m sensing some impetus for Sam this season.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, James Buchanan Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Bucky to his friends, is in therapy. It’s a condition of his pardon, but it’s also meant to help him through the very real nightmares he’s been suffering from his time as the Winter Soldier. We spot him sleeping on the bed in his apartment, a callback to Sam and Steve’s conversation in The Winter Soldier about returning from war and the bed being too soft. Bucky has spent the last few decades as a perpetual soldier and that comes with its own trauma. His therapist, Dr. Raynor (Amy Aquino) is a fellow soldier and full of tough love.
She matches up to Bucky’s snarky comments as he scowls in on the therapy couch. Raynor has him working on his list of people that he wants to make amends to, finding those people, and crossing them off a list. The rules for making amends?
Rule 1: He can’t do anything illegal.
Rule 2: Nobody gets hurt.
Rule 3: He must tell the person, “I am no longer the Winter Soldier, I am James Bucky Barnes, and you’re part of my efforts to make amends.”
Of course, Bucky isn’t one to follow the strictest rules now that he isn’t under mind control, and in a snappy sequence, we watch as he hacks a senator’s car, punch her shady passenger, and call the cops on her so that she can get hauled away. She was a Hydra pawn, someone he helped get into office, and now he’s fixing his mistakes. But that doesn’t make the nightmares go away. And this is a process, as we can see from shots of Bucky’s notebook, the list is long. But, at least there are some fun easter eggs from the list. Note, these aren’t confirmed, just an educated guess.
- A. Rostov: A reference to Andre Rostov aka the Red Barbarian, in the comics, he was a colonel in the USSR Army who worked as a warden at the gulag that held the Winter Soldier.
- P.W. Hauser: A call out to Sebastian Stan’s friend and I, Tonya co-star, Paul Walter Hauser. Hauser has also been in films with other MCU stars like Frank Grillo in Kingdom and the late Chadwick Boseman in Da 5 Bloods.
- L. Kaminski: A reference to comics writer Len Kaminski, who contributed to titles like Fantastic Four, War Machine, and Iron Man.
- C. Kusnetsov: This one is a stretch, but there is a Soviet scientist named Dr. Kuznetsov in the comics who created the robot Udarnik. The spelling is a bit off, but given the doctor’s Soviet connections, it could bear some weight.
- H. Zemo: Saved the best for last. Baron Helmut Zemo! We last saw Zemo (Daniel Brühl) at the end of Captain America: Civil War. He spent the majority of the movie working toward his task of getting revenge on the Avengers after his family was killed in Sokovia. Will we see Zemo enter in the form of Bucky trying to make amends?
But it’s not just about lists for Bucky. He needs a social life, Raynor chides. He’s been dodging Sam’s texts, he could count his phone contacts on both hands, and the only person he’s called recently is his therapist. He needs to nurture friendships. She lays it out clearly for him, he’s over 100 years old, his family is gone, he’s alone. Bucky concedes, “Alright, give me a break, I’m trying. This isn’t… This is new for me. I didn’t have a moment to deal with anything. I had a little calm in Wakanda, and other than that, I just went from one fight to another, for 90 years.”
What does he want? It’s not peace, as Raynor calls out again. Peace in Bucky’s eye is being left alone, and she clearly points out, being alone after this type of trauma will only force him to suffer and live his own personal hell. Yes, the Wakandans and Shuri fixed his brain. Yes, he’s been pardoned. But, now what?
Despite Raynor’s legitimate concerns, Bucky doesn’t seem completely friendless, at least not at first. We spot him taking his neighbor Yori Nakajima (Ken Takemoto) out to lunch. Yori’s an older guy, but that suits Bucky just fine. More shade of Steve here who often reminisced with old war vets who lived during his era. At lunch, Yori, who has way more game than Bucky, sets him up on a date with Leah (Miki Ishikawa), the girl working at the restaurant.
We might have considered the Bucky of 1936 to be a ladies’ man, but this Bucky is far less sure-footed. “I haven’t danced since 1943, it feels like,” he grumbles to Yori. But, in the end, he shows up for the date. With a bundle of flowers in hand. It’s very adorable. Leah is charming and easygoing, but this is not something Bucky is ready for just yet. As they flirt over a game of Battleship, Leah jokingly says, “I’m reading your mind,” as she hits another target. And all Bucky can reply is, “Please don’t,” sadly.
It’s moments like this that really make this show for me. Not so much the action or really the main plot, I know I’ll get that no matter what, but getting to see Bucky on a date or Sam on his family’s ship with his nephews. That’s the real gold. Also, I definitely need some kind of short where we flash back to people swiping on Tinder for Bucky. I want Sam, I want Cap, I want Tony, I want Rocket, I want Shuri, and I want Okoye. I want them all swiping and judging his matches and editing his bio.
The date ends abruptly as Leah mentions Yori. We learned that Yori lost a son who was killed while working a job for a consulting company abroad. Hm… vague job title and a job overseas? I think we’re putting it together. Yori’s son was the man Bucky killed in his nightmares and he has been taking the long road in making amends. Coming to Yori’s door after running out on the date, he’s unable to confess the truth. Is it because he’s finally found a friend in Yori? Is it the overwhelming guilt? Is it not wanting to devastate an old man? It’s probably all of the above.
Finally, in Switzerland, we spot Torres working out in the field, following the Flag Smashers as they meet-up in front of a bank. Posing as one of their followers, he’s handed a mask before someone tosses a duffel bag out of the second-story window and leaps out. Trying to take the guy single-handedly doesn’t work, and it becomes obvious to us that there is some super-soldier shenanigans at work. Injured but alive, Torres shares the info with Sam, before the final reveal of the episode.
Sarah runs into the room to tell him to turn on the TV. Breaking News! We spot the same government official who appeared at Cap’s Smithsonian exhibit address the world:
“Unrest in the wake of recent events have left us vulnerable, everyday Americans see it. While we love our heroes who put their lives on the line to defend Earth, we also need a hero to defend this country. We need a real person who embodies America’s greatest values. We need someone to inspire us again, someone who can be a symbol for all of us. So, on behalf of the DOD and our Commander in Chief, it’s with great honor that we announce here today that the USA has a new hero. Join me in welcoming your new Captain America.”
Whaaaaaaat? Well, Marvel sure knows how to end an episode. This new Captain America is named John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and comic book readers will know Walker as U.S. Agent. Equipped with Cap’s suit and his shield, this is a rude awakening for all parties. Are Sam and Bucky going to stand aside while some stranger dons their BFF’s mantle? I think not.
Watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Fridays on Disney+.