[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the finale of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “One World, One People.”]
Is it possible to agree with everything a show is trying to say about generational trauma, income inequality, and the dangers of nationalism, and simultaneously struggle with the way in which it uses the medium of television to espouse those thoughts? The obvious answer is, “Of course — the objective truths of our world differ from the subjective views of art.” Which is what makes viewing the final episode of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (Season 1?) so maddening.
Long story short, there are going to be a lot of fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe who will revel in the highlights of “One World, One People,” content to overlook the episode’s (and in large part, the series’) shortcomings, thanks to the pops of comic bliss and heroic euphoria that comes with the unveiling of Sam Wilson’s Captain America.
And let’s be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sam’s first entrance as Cap — giving the audience a glimpse of what Bucky used his final favor from the Wakandans for — is glorious (and perhaps unsurprisingly pretty faithful to the comics).
Sam going toe-to-toe with Batroc (perhaps to eschew his non-super reputation) echoes Steve’s own battle with The Leaper at the beginning of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and it’s similarly great.
Additionally, it would be hard to stave off goosebumps the moment after Sam saves the day, lifting the trapped members of the Global Repatriation Council to safety when two Black onlookers have the following conversation:
“Hell yeah! That’s the Black Falcon there! I tell ya.”
“Nah, that’s Captain America.”
And finally, in perhaps the most unexpected resolution, there’s genuine sweetness in Sam taking Isaiah and Eli Bradley to Steve Rogers’ memorial to see Isaiah now immortalized for his bravery in the face of unspeakable evil — both at home and abroad.
(To say nothing of the highlight of the episode: Sam’s nephew using Bucky’s outstretched vibranium arm as a pull-up bar)
Courtesy of Disney+
Look, making prestige television is hard, and both “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” have shown that Marvel has yet to master the steep learning curve in transitioning from films to television. (The fact that they keep referring to the shows as hours-long movies is a bad first step.) And here’s the thing, they might not care. Both shows have seemingly been huge successes, and there’s a chance that both will pop in awards conversations.
But what’s truly baffling about Marvel’s failure to embrace the form is that all the best elements of enduring shows and/or limited series were present here: two charismatic leads with great chemistry, enough mystery and mythos to propel a longer, 13-episode arc, and an incredibly relevant socio-political message.
The structural missteps of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” however, were many: a formulaic episodic construction that saw some kind of fight shoehorned into every entry, a constant case of ignoring the golden storytelling rule “show, don’t tell,” but no sin was greater than the criminal underutilization of its two leads.
One would assume a show called, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” would not only feature these characters, but perhaps even show them sharing screen time with one another. It’s telling that the two best episodes of the series were the second, where our titular leads reunite after spending the pilot apart, and the fifth, which saw them (with only brief detours to Baltimore and Sokovia) fight side-by-side in Latvia and mend themselves in Louisiana.
Anthony Mackie deserves any and all accolades that come his way for playing Sam Wilson, the man who would become Captain America. There’s an effervescent ease to his presence onscreen, whether acting opposite Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo or Erin Kellyman’s Karli Morgenthau. And, of course, the preternatural chemistry he shares with Sebastian Stan’s Bucky, the closest thing the MCU has to an Abbott and Costello. Stan, admittedly, is given less overall to work with, but his breakdown and the relief that came across his face when Ayo broke him of his Winter Soldier protocol in the cold open of Episode 4 was likely the finest acting he’s done as Bucky Barnes throughout the MCU.
Courtesy of Disney+
Mackie additionally deserves credit for adding gravitas to chunks of dialogue that might be laughable coming out of a lesser actor’s mouth. There’s a moment in the finale, after the big bad has been defeated, when Sam launches into a monologue that explicitly states the themes and conflicts of the season. Not only is the screed terribly on the nose, but it’s also comically long, lasting approximately four minutes with just a few interjections from the surrounding members of the GRC. For the sake of comparison, the two most famous speeches Steve Rogers gave, in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Endgame” are 80 seconds and 45 seconds long, with Sam himself remarking after the former “Did you write that down first? Or was it off the top of you head?”
That he’s absolutely right about everything he says doesn’t make up for its over-expository nature.
Which brings this review full circle to the question posed at its start: Is it possible to agree with everything a show stands for and simultaneously struggle with the way it renders those thoughts?
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is an important entry in the MCU, tackling institutional racism and the dark side of patriotism (“You of all people bought into that bullshit,” chides Karli when she sees Sam in the red, white, and blue), but failing to utilize the mechanisms of long-form storytelling to properly to reveal those truths. The finale, in many ways, exposes that those cracks were present throughout (letting down those hoping an ending would justify overlooking lingering issues).
Maybe this would have been better as a movie. Maybe then, at least, the audience would have been treated to Marvel’s hero shot showcasing our eponymous heroes side-by-side (something maddeningly absent from the finale).
Yes, at the risk of belaboring the point, what’s most disappointing about “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is just how little time we spent with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and while there might be a Season 2 on the horizon, that, if anything, should have made the case for spending more time with our heroes before expanding out to include more characters, more villains, and more spinoff fodder.
Here’s hoping the crew of next year’s (unconfirmed) “Captain America and The Winter Soldier” will take the lessons from “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” to heart, giving its audience hours upon hours of the Star-Spangled Man and the White Wolf refurbishing old boats in the Gulf of Mexico.
The entirety of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is available on Disney+.
Courtesy of Disney+
- I understand it’s a comic book show and that somewhere on their planet is a big green guy who sounds like Mark Ruffalo, but boy, does the logic of this universe make little to no sense at times. Here’s five that really jumped out at me:
- 1. I’m sorry, but what even was the point of Sharon sporting the “Mission: Impossible” mask if the three lines are “Excuse me, sir, are you supposed to be here? (peel face) It’s me.” “Sharon, what the hell are you doing here?” “Relax, no one’s looking for me here.” But if no one was looking for you then…why the mask?
- 2. Sam throws a vibranium shield and Batroc throws a conference room chair and they both crash to the floor simultaneously as if they’re equally heroic weapons.
- 3. Bucky saves one truckload of hostages and doesn’t immediately walk over to the other truck to save that batch?
- 4. Apparently, John Walker can just waltz around New York as Captain America after being court martial’d last episode. I get that you wouldn’t arrest him while he’s fighting the Flag Smashers, but maybe right after he quotes Lincoln to Bucky. (Forgiving guy, that Bucky — remember last episode when John tried to murder Sam?)
- 5. Sam’s big speech is delivered at a normal conversational decibel level, in the middle of New York City (in the wake of a massive terror threat), at least 10 feet from the nearest microphone, and yet it’s piped through the country as clear as if he was podcasting it.
- A $50 gift card to Arby’s to the first person who can accurately summarize Sam, Bucky, and Sharon’s “original” plan to save the hostages.
- “Sergeant Barnes.” So random soldiers all recognize (and salute) Bucky.
- “I thought Captain America was on the moon.” Random guy gets the line of the night.
- The Inaugural Dennis Green Award for “They Are Who We Thought They Were” goes to Sharon Carter, heavily hinted to be the Power Broker, and surprise, surprise, she’s the Power Broker. Sometimes no misdirect is the most misdirect, or so someone thought.
- Marvel has often been accused of having a villain problem, and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” was no different. The Flag Smashers and Karli Morgenthau in particular never quite elicited any real dread. A potential reason: rumors that the original Flag Smashers plot centered around a biological weapon capable of causing a pandemic. Understandably, this was modified in the wake of Covid-19, but it might be the reason the group lacked any real teeth. Also, I stand by my original position that their mission statement and list of demands, while noble, were inherently confusing.
- Spinoff Alley:
- Sharon’s heel turn seemingly points to some evil cabal, perhaps the Thunderbolts or Leviathan, comprised of the various villains this series left scattered in its wake: Sharon Carter, Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (who I’m guessing is on the other end of that post-credits phone call), Baron Helmut Zemo, and US Agent (RIP Batroc The Leaper).
- Sam returning to Baltimore gives more screen time to young Eli Bradley, the future Patriot, who along with Kate Bishop (“Hawkeye”), Cassie Lang/Stature (“Ant-Man: Quantumania”), Tommy/Speed and Billy/Wiccan (“WandaVision”) will likely form the initial incarnation of the Young Avengers.
- And I don’t know where, don’t know when, but all signs point to Joaquín Torres as the next Falcon.
Courtesy of Disney+