[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” Episode 3, “Power Broker.”]
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has reached the midpoint of its six-episode arc, which seems as good a time as any to take stock of what Marvel and specifically showrunner Malcolm Spellman have laid out. Much has been made about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first few forays into the television space on Disney+, with “WandaVision” perhaps utilizing the aesthetics and language of television to wallpaper over any narrative issues.
If at times “WandaVision” felt like a six-hour movie broken up quite purposefully into 20-minute chunks (to allow for its various situational comedy homages), “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels like 10-12 shows being crammed into one — which, at this point, is less a complaint than an observation.
It seems with every episode viewers are pulled further down the rabbit hole in the search for the show’s big bad, known as the Power Broker. But it’s also using an awful lot of real estate setting up other characters and plot points that feel less like narrative chum for our eponymous heroes than situations with stakes and characters with arcs of their own.
To wit (and recap), Episode 1 set up Sam and his sister Sarah’s financial issues, Bucky’s amends list (coupled with the therapy sessions he’s attending to cope with past trauma), Joaquin Torres (as Sam’s inside man in the Air Force), and the super soldier serum-aided Flag Smashers. Episode 2 went on to introduce John Walker’s version of Captain America (paired with Lemar Hoskins’ sidekick, Battlestar), Isaiah Bradley (aka Black Captain America) and his grandson and future Young Avenger Eli Bradley, and, finally, the Power Broker, while reintroducing Baron Von Zemo (still locked away after the events of “Captain America: Civil War”) and bringing up a good deal of systematic racism and racial profiling.
Episode 3, titled “Power Broker,” was less aggressive in the table setting, but still found the time to introduce the Global Repatriation Council (a bureaucratic entity with a name so banal they have to be nefarious), a new Marvel setting of scum and villainy in the form of Madripoor, and the return of Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter, on the run herself since the events of “Captain America: Civil War.”
Courtesy of Disney+
At the risk of comparing two somewhat distinct stories, “WandaVision” used its time to delve deeper into two characters reduced to supporting roles in the Avengers films. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” almost seems to be doing the opposite, splaying its narrative wide rather than tunneling further into the psyche of either Sam Wilson or James Buchanan Barnes, which is a shame when there’s so much there to mine. While the dominant subplot, it’d be nice to see more of Sam’s thought process with regard to his abandoned mantle of Captain America. Yes, there are racial motivations to his choice, and — as he made clear to Bucky in Episode 2 — he doesn’t have to explain himself further. But there seems to be more going on. Does Sam fear following in Steve’s footsteps? Is he afraid of failure? Does he long for a more normal life on his family’s boat?
Same goes for Bucky and his list of amends. One could argue there’s a fully-formed “My Name Is Earl”-esque show based solely around Bucky and his list, with each episode revolving around one name, crossing it off, and shedding some of The Winter Soldier’s baggage.
And speaking of pre-existing shows, “Power Broker” almost felt like an exercise in prestige action and drama homages, featuring set pieces that wouldn’t have felt out of place on “Prison Break,” “24,” “Westworld,” or any of the “John Wick” films (specifically the “excommunicado” bounty call from “John Wick 2”).
Courtesy of Disney+
The episode begins with a fake commercial for the aforementioned Global Repatriation Council before segueing to New Captain America (like New Coke) and Battlestar showing up a few days late to the last known location of the Flag Smashers. The ensuing bit of business in the hideout highlights the most glaring differences between John Walker and Steve Rogers, with Walker busting in devil may care, needing a translator (calling to mind Cap understanding and responding to Batroc The Leaper in French in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), and finally, being spat upon by enemies who neither fear nor respect him.
The rest of the episode follows our titular good cop and vibranium-armed cop on a globe-trotting mission which sees them aid Baron Helmut Zemo (played with aplomb by Daniel Brühl) in escaping his German prison and heading down to Madripoor, a fictional city in southeast Asia, defined predominantly in the comics as a place for the very rich and the very poor, a point further driven home by the two neighborhoods: Lowtown, where the trio set out to “scale a ladder of lowlifes” on their march to the super soldier serum and Hightown, where Sharon Carter, seemingly doing very well for herself while an enemy of the state, lives in an luxurious (and massive) stolen art gallery-turned-dance club apartment.
Courtesy of Disney+
There’s also a Flag Smashers C-plot that again seeks to muddy the sympathetic waters for the revolutionary group, by showing the good they’re trying to do before undercutting it in a grotesque and unnecessary display of violence.
If there’s an MVP of “Power Broker” it has to be Brühl, playing Zemo with tongue firmly in cheek, chewing his scenery with an aristocratic smugness hitherto unseen in the MCU. It’s telling that Brühl’s recent directorial debut is about a self-absorbed actor on the precipice of a big comic book movie audition, perhaps allowing him to have more fun with Zemo. And what fun it is! Whether backing Sam up (albeit in a culturally insensitive manner) on the immutable truths of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” soundtrack or reveling in pretending to control the Winter Soldier again, Brühl was a joy whenever he stepped onscreen (though perhaps never more than in this brief shot of him dancing). Also, sporting Zemo’s iconic mask and not looking ridiculous is a feat unto itself. [Honorable mention goes to the similarly returning VanCamp, who does her best John Wick impersonation while dispensing with the endless onslaught of nameless hitmen in the episode’s final set piece.]
All in all, there’s a lot to like about “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” but at times, especially in “Power Broker” it seems more like a collection of good (even great) scenes or set pieces that don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole. A sprawling narrative structure works for venerated shows like “The Wire” where a) the sprawl is the point (a snapshot of a city in peril) and b) there’s still time (five seasons) to dig a little here and there, but here it can feel, to borrow a metaphor from the show, like adding a new ladder (or two) to the side of a building instead of stepping one rung up.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” debuts new episodes Fridays on Disney+.
- It seems unlikely that after two episodes of teasing the Power Broker there’d still be yet another reveal of a new character in Episode 4 (even if that’s exactly what I predicted last week). It’s far more likely now that the Power Broker is a character we’ve already met. This episode strongly implied Sharon, though I think that’s a red herring.
- Florence Kasumba’s surprise turn at the end of the episode now means Ayo has appeared in every film or series where the Dora Milaje have appeared.
- How heartbreaking is it that Bucky is using Steve’s notebook for his amends list?!
- I haven’t read enough Machiavelli, but the thrust of The Prince is seemingly about coming to power via honorable methods. Maybe Zemo’s turned a new leaf? Not likely.
- “The weakest point in any system isn’t the hardware or software, it’s the meat-ware.” Bucky with the line of the episode for the second week in a row.
- There’s no way they could have predicted this episode would come out the same week as “Godzilla vs. Kong,” in order to make sure and include that Skull Island reference. Not even Kevin Feige is that good… is he?
- It will be interesting to see if Wilfred Nagle’s super soldier serum has the same “good becomes great, bad becomes worse” as Abraham Erskine’s. Because right now, the Flag Smashers seem more like chaotic neutral than either end of the spectrum.
- Conrad Mack, The Smiling Tiger is indeed a character in the Marvel comic universe, though his sartorial style isn’t as garish as what Sam’s forced to wear, in fact, he doesn’t wear clothing at all.
- One of the more glaring negatives: The needle drops throughout were a little jarring. Setting a slow motion “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” walk to Edith Piaf’s “Le Petit Homme” is a choice. Though on the flipside, I can never get enough of The Winter Soldier’s screaming theme.