When last we saw Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), at the end of Avengers: Endgame, he was presented with the vibranium shield by an elderly Steve Rogers, as we learnt the latter had gone back in time to live his life with Peggy Carter. While Sam could look forward to a future as the new Captain America, James ‘Bucky’ Barnes, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), could look forward to a future with renewed hopes, as the Wakandans had freed him of the programming he had undergone as an agent of HYDRA.
Picking up some months after the blip had ended with half of the world’s population returned after an absence of five years, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins with Wilson uncomfortable about the Captain America moniker, and feeling undeserving of the shield. We learn of a new organisation calling itself The Flag Smashers, who exist, essentially, as a terrorist organisation whose goals are to return the world to the paradigm of the lost five years.
In that time, borders largely ceased to exist, with freedom of movement, and far less in the way of inequality. Post-the return of the blip, the world is now full of refugees and the displaced: people who have lost jobs and homes due to their absence. Added to the mix is that the group – led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) – have access to the super soldier serum, hence their brutal methods are augmented by strong physical powers.
Having gifted the shield to the Government, Wilson is then shocked to find that they have gifted it to John Walker (Wyatt Russell, son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell), a military veteran now employed to meet the need for the symbol of a new Captain America. Teaming up with Barnes, Sam must work to stop the murderous ways of the terrorist group, while fighting an increasingly unstable Walker, as Sam needs to consider whether he is ready to take the mantle for which Steve Rogers selected him.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is a far easier sell to the casual viewer than the recent WandaVision. Playing as very cinematic, and expertly directed, both in its action and its dialogue scenes by Kari Skogland, it is well-acted, easy to follow, and fills in everything a new viewer would need to know. It expands the universe by introducing John Walker – the US Agent of the comic books, and contains uniformly excellent performances.
Stan is effective as a man still guilt-ridden by his time as the Winter Soldier, while Mackie’s Wilson continues to convey the awesome sense of responsibility that visibly affected him when given the shield at the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame. Their interpersonal dynamic is spiky, due chiefly to Bucky’s assertion that Sam was negligent in refusing the Captain America moniker, and giving the shield away. Sam is quick to admit to his regret. The pre-release trailers played heavily on this dynamic, with scenes of them in what appeared to be couples’ therapy. In truth, this is a small part of the show, but it works well, and is never belaboured.
The show deftly handles themes of racism, with the reveal that there was a black super soldier just after World War II. Rather than become the equivalent of the venerated Steve Rogers, he became a pariah: imprisoned and subjected to experiments. It is not coincidence that just after visiting him, a feuding Bucky and Wilson are accosted by police, with the assumption that it is the African-American man that is causing the disturbance.
Although never stated explicitly, there is the underlying sense that Wilson’s race is a factor in his not putting himself forward as the all-American symbol. At its best, this is top tier Marvel, with themes of what constitutes a terrorist examined, and the very nature of ‘goodness’ looked at, as Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) returning as a morally grey presence, and the Flag Smashers acting out of a sense of desperation at times, particularly when a member of their group dies seemingly unable to access medical treatment. They represent the downtrodden underclass created by an event that was always out of their control.
With the weight of the themes deftly examined, it is easy to see why this was selected for the Disney+ platform. In truth, the format doesn’t entirely suit the work, as it falls between film and television and never truly makes the case for this being the correct format. At six episodes in length, it runs 2-3 times as long as a typical Marvel movie, with the fair expectation that this would let the work breathe. What we get, on the other hand, is deeply uneven.
With Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) making a reappearance, and owning the screen in a way he never managed in his previous entry, all the scenes with their previous antagonist – with the sense of them operating for good, but outside of the sponsorship country unwisely aligning itself with John Walker – are terrific. Locations are varied and interesting, and action shot to the same high standard as the motion pictures. Henry Jackman complements this with a top-class score.
Although three episodes shorter than WandaVision, this is a show that could be condensed, comfortably, into a 150-minute film. The first episode is very slow, and offers no real intrigue until its final frame. The fourth episode finishes with a truly jaw-dropping scene, then is followed by an instalment that feels like it is spinning its wheels. The finale brings all the themes together satisfactorily, but is – for the only time in the run – heavy-handed in discussing those themes.
In short, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier had the materials, the writing, and the execution to be a five-star film, morally complex, and very much in the vein of the second Captain America entry (it is no surprise that there are now rumours of a fourth). In the event it is top-tier content presented in the wrong format and, as such, it is a slightly missed opportunity.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is out now on Disney+.