Despite appearing in six movies apiece, neither Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) nor Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is much of a character. Bucky, first introduced on the big screen in Captain America: The First Avenger, is a 106-year-old WWII veteran who spent most of the past century as a brainwashed super-assassin and most of the time since as a quiet, sad, handsome MacGuffin. Sam, who debuted in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is a former Air Force pararescue pilot who now flies his unique winged jet pack as a member of the Avengers, where he has all but disappeared into the massive Marvel ensemble. They both live in the long shadow of Captain America, Steve Rogers, to whom each has served as right hand man in one era or another.
Now, with the Infinity Saga behind them and their biggest stars departed, Marvel Studios is looking to develop their underserved midcard into main eventers with a string of TV miniseries. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier aims to give both characters room to develop, but also to explore the aftermath of the world-shaking events in which they took part on the big screen. Its opening hour meets that aim well, but also teases at deeper social and political themes that, if they are fully explored during the show’s run, could make The Falcon and the Winter Soldier an intriguing piece of pop television.
No Captain, My Captain
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier immediately cozies up to the hit films that preceded it, opening in a way that closely mirrors Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both TFatWS and CA:TWS begin with a scene of a quiet moment — the film, with a jog around the national mall; the series, with Sam ironing his shirt and getting dressed for his speech at the Smithsonian. In the film, this is followed by an action sequence in which Steve Rogers casually leaps out of the back of an aircraft into the ocean to fight Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre) on a hijacked ship and rescue the crew; on the series, it’s an action sequence in which the Falcon casually leaps out of the back of an aircraft over a desert to fight Batroc the Leaper on a hijacked plane and rescue a captured airman. It couldn’t be any clearer that this is Sam Wilson’s audition to the audience for the role of Captain America, at least in Cap’s capacity as military operative, which Sam passes handily.
Director Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Loudest Voice) and her team are also put to the test of delivering a strong opening action sequence. WandaVision’s Matt Shakman was spared this challenge due to that series not going Full Marvel until its final act, and off the bat the action on TFatWS feels less like a cheap imitation of a Marvel movie’s spectacle and more like the real thing. Some of this is no doubt due to the VFX team having more time to work, since this series was initially going to be the first of Marvel’s Disney+ event series and ended up with extra lead time, whereas the WandaVision finale was finished in a hurry. But any action sequence is ultimately about the story of the action and the way that it’s shot, and the multi-stage aerial chase feels like the appropriate scale for the first act of a superhero flick while also introducing the audience to all of Falcon’s tools, both personal and technological.
While Sam Wilson has every confidence in the fight-and-flight department, he’s less sure in his ability to play the role of Captain America the symbol, and after mulling it over for at least six months, Sam decides to relinquish the shield left to him by the agèd Steve Rogers to the Smithsonian’s long-standing Captain America exhibit. When Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (guest star Don Cheadle) confronts him on his decision to abdicate the mantle of Captain America, Sam doesn’t quite give a straight answer. He doesn’t give the impression that he finds himself, specifically, to be unworthy — he doesn’t suggest that the shield should go to someone else, after all — he simply doesn’t feel like it belongs to him, that Steve Rogers simply telling him that he’s the next Cap doesn’t make it so. To Sam, Steve is the shield, and to place the shield behind glass in a museum is to preserve its meaning, but the meaning of any symbol is mutable over time and Sam may come to regret not taking charge of redefining it for this new era.
Uncle Sam vs. Redlining
Apart from his off-and-on gig as a contractor for the United States Air Force, Sam Wilson is focused on more personal concerns, reconnecting with the family that moved on without him during the Blip (the five-year gap during which half of all life in the universe was effectively dead). His sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye, When They See Us) and her two sons live in Delacroix, Louisiana, where she and Sam grew up. The Blip has dramatically uprooted the economy, and Sarah plans to sell her fishing boat — which Sam sees as their family legacy — and find a new line of work. Sam believes he can consolidate her debt and take out a loan to get the family and the business back on their feet, but is met with an obstacle not even a superhero can overcome: the American banking establishment. Sam and Sarah are denied a loan by a smiling bank officer (Vince Pisani, Irresistible) on account of Sam not having a work history during the five years that he was dead. Sarah rightly points out that A) that would be true for half of all people on Earth, and B) banks never have to look far for an excuse to deny their services to Black people.
Showrunner Malcolm Spellman (Empire) has been vocal in pre-release press interviews about depicting Sam Wilson enduring the everyday struggles of Black Americans, and how celebrity does not mean immunity from double-standards, microaggressions, or outright hate crimes. The idea of Sam as a Black superhero operating in a society where white supremacy is only subtle to white people is baked into the premise of the show, into Sam’s very hesitance to call himself Captain America. Driving that home is the final twist of the episode, when Sam watches on television as the very government official who told him that handing over the shield was “the right decision” bestows it, along with the title Captain America, to another white man.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its sequel Civil War both begin by approaching social and political issues — the surveillance state and military accountability, respectively — but then rush to an exciting action climax without making a firm stance on anything. Marvel has done better since with Black Panther, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s longer running time should allow it to go deeper into the themes it sets up if the storytellers choose to do so. In general, mass media tentpoles are a bad place to look for anything more than superficial gestures towards relevance, but it certainly appears as if TFatWS will be leaning into Sam’s struggle against the assumption of white entitlement.
Meanwhile, James “Bucky” Barnes struggles to build a new life for himself in his native Brooklyn. In his dreams, he relives the murders he committed while under the thrall of Hydra, and by day, he tries to atone for them by working through his AA-style “amends list.” Bucky’s therapist (Amy Aquino, Bosch), a fellow veteran, urges Bucky to make some human connections so that the trauma of his 80 years of killing doesn’t crush him to death. At first, this seems to be his aim with his elderly neighbor Yuri (Ken Takemoto, Hit), who he drags out for weekly dinners, until it’s revealed that this friendship is actually another of Bucky’s acts of contrition, as Yuri’s son numbers among the Winter Soldier’s many victims. When Yuri sets up Bucky on a date with young waitress Leah (Miki Ishikawa, The Terror), Bucky has difficulty relating. His honest answers to her getting-to-know-you questions are hard to take seriously, but he’s hot and aloof which is enough to keep Leah interested until the conversation turns to Yuri’s son, when the intrusion of Bucky’s past life into his first glimmer of a new one causes him to punk out.
Except for the common theme of struggling with purpose and identity, Sam and Bucky’s segments of the episode sharply contrast each other in every way, including how they’re shot and edited. Sam’s story is briskly paced, densely populated, and warmly lit, whereas Bucky’s is methodical, lonely, and bathed in blue and black. It’ll be interesting to see what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks like when the two characters meet — who will enter whose world? We have established why Bucky might need Sam, who despite their friction is one of the only people alive who he might consider a peer. What does Sam need with Bucky?
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier employs the camera in a more noticeable way than previous Marvel Studios efforts, including in quiet moments. Bucky’s therapy session has no fewer than eight camera set-ups, which helps to liven up a scene of dialogue between two seated characters, though it may be a bit of an overcorrection. There are cinematography decisions made in this scene that I’m still puzzling over, wondering whether or not COVID-19 safety protocols influenced camera placement or blocking, but even feeling unclear about intent is preferable to the certainty that little thought was put into shooting a scene at all.
Surely We Can Trust The Walt Disney Company to Accurately Represent the Goals and Tenets of Social Anarchism
The episode’s third plotline follows Sam’s new military liaison, 1st Lt. Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez, On My Block). Torres is young, excitable, and Very Online, and hopes to prove himself valuable to Sam by investigating a militant online activist group called the Flag-Smashers. Here’s what we know about the Flag-Smashers so far: They support “a world that’s unified, without borders;” they use an app to organize a flash mob to cover for some sort of bank heist; and during the heist their apparent leader takes time away from their escape to effortlessly throw a cop off one of their comrades and into a lamppost ten feet away. So, in short, they’re rad as hell.
(Sidebar: The scene in which Sam Wilson shrugs off interest in a group that wants a borderless world is preceded by an action piece where his greatest obstacle is the Libyan border. Surely, this juxtaposition is deliberate.)
The Flag-Smashers are named after a villain who debuted in 1985 in the pages of Captain America #382 who, in his crusade against nationalism, literally smashes flags (or burns them, blows them up, etc.). The story depicts him as an idealist with defensible ideas about unity and equality among all people, but also as a violent terrorist and kind of a loser. In TFatWS, Torres acknowledges the appeal of the Flag-Smashers’ agenda immediately, but then volunteers to infiltrate their ranks anyway and gets a swift ass-kicking from their leader. Introducing the group by breaking the eye socket of a character who’s framed as sweet may indicate a similar approach of “Hey, neat idea! But you hit a cop, so we’ll be ignoring it.” Showrunner Malcolm Spellman told /Film this week that “you’re going to be rooting for some of the villains because of what’s motivating them,” but even if the idea of the end of nationalism is given a modicum of credence on the show, it’s impossible to imagine the series ending with the new Captain America deciding to smash the state.
Surely we’ll be getting a lot more details about the Flag-Smashers and their goals as the six-hour series rolls on, but I’m not going to expect much more than a simplistic straw man for whatever post-nationalist world the group hopes to bring about. I am intrigued, however, at the multiple angles by which Spellman, Skogland, and company seem to be approaching national identity as an idea to be explored throughout the series. Even if it’s a given that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will end on a note of “America is good, actually,” the first episode promises that there will, at least, be some meditation on what “America” means in the first place.
I’ve learned to curb my expectations when Marvel productions take deliberate aim at profundity, not because I don’t want them to, but because I have been burned too many times, and fooled, too. In 2014, I swore up and down that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a political thriller — it isn’t, it just does a good enough job pretending to be one that you believe it is for two hours. Structurally, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cannot do this, it is a six-part miniseries that is going to be dissected a week at a time and if it drops its heavier themes in the midst of its action and adventure, we are going to notice. If The Falcon and the Winter Soldier lives up to the promise of its first chapter, we could be in for a very strong entry in the Marvel canon, but its storytellers are going to have to be uncommonly brave to pull it off.