‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Is No ‘WandaVision’—But Offers Plenty of Thrills
Marvel’s latest Disney+ series comes with a $150 million price tag and plenty of high-octane action, like the “meat-and-potatoes complement” to the more inventive ‘WandaVision.’
With WandaVision, Marvel kicked off its Disney+ era with a unique conceit tailor-made for the small screen—even as it made sure to keep that show’s story of grief and loss tethered to the larger, serialized MCU narrative. Those hoping for similar risk-taking with the studio’s second TV effort, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, would be wise to temper expectations, at least initially, as the six-part series (premiering March 19) is a more straightforward return to the militarized action that defined the Captain America piece of the MCU puzzle, from which it is a direct offshoot. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Guided by sturdy performances and a premise that promises buddy comedy, anti-terrorist combat, and world-building in equal measure, the premiere of Marvel’s latest shows off few radical moves but delivers just what the faithful want.
Set a few months after the events of Avengers: Endgame—and the reappearance of billions of people on Earth after Thanos’ finger-snapping Blip—The Falcon and the Winter Soldier establishes from the outset that it’s a tale about honoring the past, and important familial legacies, by assuming leadership responsibilities. Its focus is squarely on Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, charming as ever), aka The Falcon, who’s introduced staring at Captain America’s shield in a bedroom while recalling the patriotic hero implying (at the end of Marvel’s record-smashing blockbuster) that it belongs to him. It’s Sam’s apparent destiny to become the new Captain America—a notion confirmed by comic book lore, foreshadowed by the MCU, and known to everyone in this world. That includes fellow Avenger James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), aka War Machine, who at a gala museum exhibit about Captain America, asks Sam outright, “Why didn’t you take up the mantle?”
For now, the reasons for Sam’s decision are somewhat vague; he simply doesn’t seem ready to step into the legendary shoes of his good friend, who’s an old man presumably enjoying retirement in heartland-USA anonymity. Nonetheless, Sam hasn’t left the universe-saving business, as evidenced by an opening scene in which he takes flight in Tunisian airspace against a group of French-speaking kidnappers (led by Winter Soldier alum Georges St-Pierre) who are members of criminal outfit LAF. Sam’s mission is to retrieve an abducted government liaison, which provides an opportunity for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to show off its protagonist’s formidable battle skills. Dodging missiles at high speeds courtesy of his mecha-wings, and deploying a Stark Tech drone named Red Wing to cut open plane doors and shoot down helicopters, it’s an early showstopper designed to verify Falcon’s enhanced-power bona fides, and it boasts the sort of choreographed CGI spectacle that is the MCU’s stock-in-trade.
Directed by Kari Skogland and written by showrunner Malcolm Spellman, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is constructed as a two-handed affair. Thus, while catching up with Sam, it also reconnects with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the Winter Soldier, Captain America’s original best friend from back in the '40s who, after supposedly dying, was transformed into a brainwashed, robotic arm-upgraded assassin for Nazi-esque Hydra. Now deprogrammed, the 106-year-old Bucky is tortured and in therapy, trying to rebuild his life and—following a Wakanda stint that got him back on the heroic track—make amends for past atrocities that still plague his dreams. This involves being difficult with a military shrink (Amy Aquino) and hanging out with an elderly Brooklyn man named Yori (Ken Takemoto), who over lunch at a sushi bar nabs Bucky a date with a local waitress (Miki Ishikawa).
“The world’s broken. Everybody’s just looking for someone to fix it,” says Rhodey to Sam, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier makes plain that both of its title characters are likewise fractured. Sam has shirked the Captain America gig to help his single-mom sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) keep their struggling Wilson Family Seafood business afloat in Delacroix, Louisiana, leading to a bank-loan scene in which the officer (Vince Pisani) is more interested in getting a selfie with the Avenger than in offering financial assistance (in the show’s most pointed moment, Sarah remarks, “Funny how things always tighten around us”). Living up to family obligations is merely another way Sam must embrace the duty he previously fled, and though that thread is hardly subtle, it’s a functional personal dilemma that parallels his forthcoming political/superheroic path.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s premiere doesn’t even get Sam and Bucky together; that will have to wait for ensuing installments. But it does set up one of their eventual adversaries: a clandestine figure in charge of a terror cell called the Flag-Smashers (“Bad guys giving themselves bad names,” Sam quips) that wants a united world without borders. Sam’s special-ops buddy has a run-in with this menace during a Switzerland flash-mob heist that lets the shadowy baddie show off her own extraordinary strength as well as her signature look: a black mask decorated with a giant red handprint. This figure’s identity remains a mystery for now (though casting details have spoiled that it’s Karli Morgenthau, played by Erin Kellyman). Moreover, we know that the series will also soon feature Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the Sokovian creep who orchestrated the Avengers’ break-up in Captain America: Civil War, so there’s plenty more villainy on the way.
A final shot tips off the role that Wyatt Russell’s John F. Walker will play in this drama, but Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter—the niece of Captain America’s long-time love Peggy Carter—remains, like Zemo, MIA for the series’ 45-minute debut, which lays the groundwork for what will ostensibly be a rock-'em, sock-'em miniseries cast in a straightforward Marvel mold. Fleshing out its characters’ ongoing crises via an action-packed good-vs-evil plot, it’s already far less adventurous than its Disney+ predecessor, proving the meat-and-potatoes complement to the inventively out-there WandaVision. That may render it more purposeful than vital, but its ability to dispense traditional big-screen MCU thrills on TV is also nothing to shrug at, and suggests that Marvel’s own multimedia takeover is one step closer to becoming a reality.