Right on the heels of Marvel Studios’ first actual foray into television, WandaVision, comes The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. While WandaVision made an attempt to shake up the MCU paradigm, even if that mostly just amounted to putting flesh on a pair of woefully underdeveloped characters and “sitcom tv, amirite?”, this next series carries little in the way of structural ambitions, which is not necessarily a pejorative. Instead, F+WS (as I’ll short-hand it) is basically the MCU in miniature, and picks up directly where its two leads left off, sort-of.
The Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is back on the job after losing 5 years thanks to the blip, and he’s a key partner of the US Government, taking on recon and rescue missions. Of course, he has something weighing heavy on him, which is the shield that a time-traveling Captain America/Steve Rogers passed his way, in hopes that Sam would take up the mantle. Instead, Sam has opted to mothball it for a museum display, overridden by the sense that the shield/role simply isn’t his and belongs only to Steve.
Parallel to this, we have The Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who is endlessly plagued by nightmares of the heinous acts he committed during his mind-controlled tenure for HYDRA. In order to recompense, and to say out of prison, he’s cut a deal with the Feds that he’ll work with their psychologist while also “making amends” by utilizing his skills to bring some of the people to justice whom his murderous ways once benefited.
In its first episode, F+WS centers itself on the idea of two individuals trying to find their way back from extended absences of self, and how that impacts them personally, be it Sam’s family, which is something we knew next to nothing about up until this point, or Bucky’s attempts to socialize at all. Neither goes as swimmingly as you might hope.
To tell it straight, this is actually one of the more frustrating aspects of the show, which is less the fault of the series itself and more a shortcoming of the MCU. Since their debuts in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, both Bucky and Sam have been quietly running in place with basically no character growth to speak of since that film. For Sam, it’s just a consequence of the fact that he’d been pushed back further and further into the fray as those films’ casts grew. But Bucky had his much-heralded trip to Wakanda, to find himself or whatever, and I guess it wasn’t much of an experience as he just kind of handwaves it away. As we watch the first episode of this show it just becomes a question of how many times can we watch this guy struggle through the same thing? It’s been 7 years at this point, after all. At least with WandaVision, its stars, while completely underserved by the films that preceded it, underwent a quiet evolution — a sort of unseen history that could be elaborated on.
I hate for this show to bear the brunt of frustration with what precedes it, but making the choice to wallow is still a choice.
As for the rest of episode? It’s fine. There’s a curious lack of clarity towards some socio-political aspects regarding the vague motivations of its villains that feels pretty varporwarish. And watching another character try to describe how the government is struggling to provide support programs for people returning from “The Blip” doesn’t really resonate the same way now that we’re really in a world that relies on support programs thanks to a world changing event.
But the fact is, it’s Marvel. It’s a slickly made product and just like with the show that preceded it, you’re interested enough in knowing what happens next. Kevin Feige and his army of creatives are masters at that. It’s rarely the event as you’re watching so much as what comes around the corner. The art of the reveal. And to wit, the last ten seconds are better than anything that populates the preceding 45 minutes and leaves you licking your lips for what may come and the thematic possibilities.
They got me again. Damn it.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuts this Friday on Disney+.