[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” Episode 2, “The Star-Spangled Man.”]
Finally! After the table setting of the premiere, viewers simply had to wait seven minutes and 25 seconds into the second episode of Disney+’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” to see its titular heroes reunite… and immediately begin bickering like a sitcom couple. James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) have long been the most consistent comedic duo in the MCU, and this episode showcased not only the obvious chemistry they have whilst bantering, but the potential emotional depths they might mine together over the course of the series.
So, what’s the inciting event that brings them together? Well, it’s the reappearance of Steve Rogers’ Vibranium Shield in the arms of a new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell). That’s right, Cap is Back (as the posters plastered all over the Air Force hanger where their reunion take place excitedly state)!
Courtesy of Disney+
What this version of Cap is doing is unclear at first, as Walker, prepping for a segment on “Good Morning America” replete with touching pre-taped human interest package, mentions that the gig thusfar has been “a lot of handshakes and suits and speeches and Senator meetings.” Which to be frank, is how Steve’s career started as war bond salesman in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” It’s fitting that Walker runs out for his GMA interview to a drumline cover of “Star-Spangled Man,” both because it mirrors Rogers’ first days as Captain America and hints at the cultural appropriation at play of literally taking the shield that was given to Sam. The fact that Walker grew up in a town called Custer Grove (canonical in the comics) doesn’t do much to dispel that narrative.
With Walker in the midst of a full-court media blitz, Sam is tracking down the Flag Smashers, the online rebel group that Air Force lieutenant Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez) warned him about last week. After bickering with Bucky about giving away his shield, Sam invites the former Winter Soldier on a mission to Munich to attempt to stop the cabal. The ensuing sequence reinforces the duo’s chemistry, from them scoping out their targets, to chiding each other in the midst of the fight, to Sam rescuing Bucky before ending nose-to-nose in a field of flowers (just adding fuel to any ‘shipping fires burning online).
Courtesy of Disney+
It should be noted that in the midst of their battle with the Flag Smashers — who are revealed to be super soldiers like Bucky — John Walker appears with his sidekick in tow, Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett). Neither Walker or Hoskins have any super powers, so they’re both dispatched of quite easily by the band of rebels, led by Erin Kellyman as Karli Morgenthau. The entire sequence, while truncated, is expertly executed by director Kari Skogland with a mix of CGI, green screen, and practical elements mixed in. At times it felt like a shortened iteration of the attempt to steal Vision’s cradle in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
After a brief comedic ride with Walker and Battlestar (the hero name Hoskins has either selected or been saddled with), Sam and Bucky make their way back to the states, with Bucky hoping to learn how more super soldiers exist. This leads the duo to the doorstep of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a Black super soldier created after Steve Rogers who apparently went toe-to-toe with The Winter Soldier during the Korean War and not only lived to tell the tale, but took half of Bucky’s arm with him. For Bradley, however, this didn’t lead to a hero’s welcome, as he was imprisoned for 30 years and used for various experimentation by both the U.S. Government and Bucky’s people (aka Hydra).
The realization that there was a Black “Captain America” angers Sam and leads to a scene which echoes last week’s bank loan rejection/selfie request, with Sam being profiled and accosted by a bunch of white cops before being recognized as Falcon. The duo don’t get off scott-free, however, as their trip to Germany caused Bucky to miss one of his court-mandated therapy sessions.
What ensues is the best moment of the series thusfar, wherein Sam and Bucky are forced, essentially, into couples therapy.
THERAPIST: Are you familiar with the miracle question?
(simultaneously) SAM: Of course not. / BUCKY: Absolutely not.
Courtesy of Disney+
After a brief staring contest, the emotional center of the episode arrives when the duo are asked to state what aggravates them about the other. Bucky assumes that by rejecting the shield Steve gave Sam, there’s a chance Steve was wrong in his choice of successor, “and if he was wrong about you, then he was wrong about me.”
“Maybe this is something that you and Steve will never understand,” Sam responds alluding not only to his free will, but the racial divide that separates the three men. This show has been teased by showrunner Malcolm Spellman as the MCU mirroring our world, which potentially goes beyond the similarities between The Blip and our ongoing COVID pandemic, to our country’s all-to-slow awakening to the systematic racism inherent in our institutions. Hell, the government had even hacked Redwing to essentially spy on Sam.
If there’s any misstep in this episode, it’s the cold open, which seeks to humanize John Walker in a way that is obliterated by his last line. (“Stay the hell out of my way.”) His secondary villain status was cemented the minute his uber-punchable mug showed up as the tag of premiere, so it seemed unnecessary to try and lull the audience into a false sense of camaraderie with the imposter.
It’s also telling that Captain America spent every movie from “Avengers” onward dissociating himself from the patriotic lie of “Captain America” that John Walker seems so eager to play-act. It’s impossible to see Steve ever spouting the line, “I am the government” as John Walker does so cavalierly. It’s likely why Sam struggled with taking on the mantle. What does it mean to be Captain America in this polarized country unwilling to come to grips with its more unsavory components in 2021 (or 2023 in the MCU)?
Marvel’s Disney+ shows will always have the feel of the comic runs that occur between the big cross-title events, existing as smaller stories that delve deep instead of broadening scope, and thusfar “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is proving an excellent second foray into the television space, different in every conceivable way from “WandaVision” and yet every bit as satisfying. It’s telling that Bucky and Sam have the same exact answer to the miracle question, which posits that while one is sleeping a miracle occurs that makes your life better, “In my miracle, he would talk less,” answers Bucky. “Exactly what I was gonna say,” retorts Sam. It’s precisely that kind of dialogue that showcases why both characters should actually talk more, way more, and to each other. Bring on the banter!
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” debuts new episodes Fridays on Disney+.
- Two big first appearances or mentions that didn’t get mentioned in the review: The Power Broker and Zemo. Is every episode going to end with a face reveal? Episode 3: Sharon Carter.
- I know he doesn’t have any powers, and hence needs a weapon, but why did John Walker have his gun holstered in the midst of GMA interview at his high school? Also, based on that setting I kept expecting him to announce he was taking his talents to South Beach.
- I think still don’t quite understand The Flag Smashers’ mission statement: Life was better during The Blip when there were 50 percent less people, so… we aim to get rid of national divisions and borders?
- “I read The Hobbit in 1937 when it first came out.” – Bucky, on how he knows who Gandalf is
- I love that they’ve turned Redwing into BB-8. Have to assume Disney+ is hard at work on drones for kids that beep and blorp.
- Isaiah Bradley’s introduction comes paired with another major MCU debut: Eli Bradley, a member of the Young Avengers known as The Patriot in the comics. I mean, we all knew it was heading there, but with Tommy and Billy on “WandaVision,” Scott Lang’s daughter Cassie in “Ant-Man: Quantumania,” and Hailee Steinfeld as the new Hawkeye in her own titular Disney+ series, we’re not far from the MCU’s Young Avengers at some point in the future.
- At the risk of asking for too much fan service, I, for one, would like the series to follow up on whether or not the seafood Sam and Sarah doled out — after leaving it out in the sun while they were denied a bank loan — got anyone sick.