Right before the eight-minute action scene that kicks off “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” an Air Force officer tells Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) that the mission he’s about to embark upon has to be executed under the radar, literally and figuratively. “This has to be subtle,” the officer says, as Sam walks toward the open back of a cargo plane in mid-flight. “Subtle,” Sam replies. “Got it.” And then he jumps out, expands his metallic wings, and soars off for an explosive aerial battle that will never be spoken of again.
From its opening chaos to its closing reveal, Marvel’s second Disney+ series set in the MCU isn’t exactly subtle. It’s mission is to replicate the movies’ big-screen success on smaller screens at home, and its first episode doesn’t deviate from the established plan. Directed by Kari Skogland (Netflix’s “The Punisher,” Epix’s “Condor”), the show looks like “Iron Man” (lots of flying) blended with “Captain America” (lots of American iconography), which is exactly what you’d expect from a show bringing together two supporting characters tied to each hero.
And that’s just it. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is exactly what you expect. Disney and Marvel may have broken from their proven formula for the “WandaVision” one-off, but it would be foolish to think they were done using it. (“Falcon and Winter Soldier” was actually scheduled to premiere first, which makes a lot more sense if the studio’s focus was to ensure a safe, comfortable transition from movies to TV.) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and — aside from those of us growing somewhat bored with a barrage of quick cuts leading to big booms — the Marvel formula still works.
Those worn out or won over by “WandaVision” should know this is the opposite in almost every way. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is totally in color, glimmering with that sunny MCU reflection; it’s made of hourlong episodes, rather than half-hours; it’s stocked with action scenes, instead of sitcom homages, and while twists and turns will certainly be a part of the six-episode rollout, this isn’t a mystery box show. It’s a buddy flick, mostly running on autopilot.
That should prove sufficient for the horde of MCU fanatics out there, but connecting with casual viewers could be more difficult. “WandaVision” spiked curiosity by inviting questions, whether they were about the show’s central mystery, its place in the MCU, or just what, exactly, this action-mystery-sitcom hybrid really was. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” doesn’t invite questions. It gives the fans what they think they want, predictability be damned.
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So what can be said about a show where everything’s a spoiler, and yet very little is surprising? For one, the first episode keeps the eponymous heroes apart, bouncing between Sam and Bucky (played by Sebastian Stan) as they live their lives independent of one another. Set roughly six months after the events of “Avengers: Endgame,” Sam is trying to start his life over after being blipped out of existence for five years. He’s still on contract with the United States government, and he’s trying to help his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), get the family boating business back in the black. But he’s not ready to be the next Captain America, despite the prodding of his former friend and one notable Episode 1 guest star.
Bucky has it far worse. Plagued by nightmares of his past life as a brainwashed HYDRA assassin, the former Winter Soldier is a man out of time (he’s over 100 years old) and out of friends. (Steve Rogers was his last surviving bestie, and if any of that sounds like gibberish to you, then you better brush up on your Marvel movies before watching this. There’s no “Captain America 1-3” recap.) Therapy sessions are shot at a sharp angle and in close-up, conveying how isolated he’s feeling (as he talks about how isolated he actually is). Bucky is just trying to get by, make amends where he can, and find purpose that doesn’t involve killing people. That may prove tricky, given the masked band of rebels on the rise overseas, but that’s where our spoiler-free discussion has to end.
Between the jaw-clenched brooding and reflective staring, Mackie and Stan find small but meaningful moments to illustrate their innate charms. Mackie’s smile has a natural glow that’s impossible to resist, and he gets to crack it a few times while “Uncle Sam” (yup) jokes with his young nephews or cajoles his sister into a new business plan. Stan, meanwhile, has this simple little moment with a Maneki-neko that’s destined for meme glory (while still conveying Bucky’s deep desire for the world to stop moving, just for a second, so he can catch up). Once these two get together, making enough time for fans to enjoy their natural charisma among the requisite action scenes may be the show’s greatest challenge.
That “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” will bring these two mourning men together to fight a common enemy is inevitable, sure. But unlike Wanda, this isn’t a show about grieving the dead; it’s fun, relatively light, and easy to watch. This is Marvel’s version of TV’s “Miami Vice,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Lethal Weapon,” and more. To anyone who watches broadcast cop shows, it should feel very, very familiar, and that’s the point. If it’s about anything other than setting up more MCU projects, then it’s about the personal responsibility carried on by the living. That’s the stuff heroes are made of — more traditionally, at least.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” premieres Friday, March 19 on Disney+. New episodes will be released weekly.