The Falcon and the Winter Soldier began with a bold mission statement of probing into issues of race and nationalism within the framework of a grounded superhero drama. Marvel Studios has a habit of paying lip service to adult themes without diving into them in a substantial way, but with its second episode, “The Star-Spangled Man,” TFatWS surprises by actually doubling down on the heavy stuff, providing hope that it may end up following the exception (Black Panther) rather than the rule (Captain America: Civil War). But there’s also an unpleasant surprise this week that may even overshadow the ideas at play — while there was some spark between stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan during their brief comedic interactions on the big screen, there’s just not enough to light a fire under their own spin-off.
(Rainier Wolfcastle voice) It’s Not a Comedy
While the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier kept our two leads apart, this episode pairs them up immediately, diving into the petty bickering promised by the show’s promotional campaign. But while commercials for the series indicated a snappy “buddy cop” dynamic, it isn’t clicking into place in the actual product. During their first scene together, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes butt heads in an exchange that isn’t terribly clever on the page (Can we retire “That’s not a thing” as a line of dialogue?) but isn’t so bad that it couldn’t potentially be sold by a strong performance, and neither Anthony Mackie nor Sebastian Stan seem at their best here. The pair works much better when exchanging quick barbs during action scenes, as they do later in the episode, but their banter is never as charming as it wants to be. It’s an unpleasant reminder that these two actors were each originally cast based on their chemistry with a third actor who is not present, and an ill omen for the series as a whole.
The failure of the comedy beats doesn’t land entirely on the actors’ shoulders, as they also receive little help from the camera or from the editing. Take, for example, the “couples therapy” scene in which Sam and Bucky are forced to sit down together with Bucky’s psychiatrist (Amy Aquino, ER) and try to hash out their differences before returning to the field. When asked to play out a “soul gazing” exercise, the pair quickly turn it into a staring contest. Conceptually, this is a funny idea, and in the series trailer, it’s depicted with rapid cuts between the two of them in tighter and tighter angles set to Migos’ “Is You Ready?” In isolation, this is a much better version of the scene, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t have that broad of a tone, so the episode plays it totally dry instead and the humor evaporates. TFatWS is committed to carrying on the pensive thriller energy of the Russos’ Captain America sequels, which is incompatible with the Hot Fuzz vibe that moments like this call for. As a result, bits like the staring contest feel totally out of place and fall flat.
On the “superhero thriller” level, at least, TFatWS is still mostly working, as we get another decent action setpiece in the style of the Cap films, scaled down but impressive for television. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier catch up to the Flag Smashers in Munich, where they end up fighting a half-dozen of their crew atop a pair of moving semi trucks. The fight staging is pretty by-the-numbers, but there are character-revealing moments throughout, which is the mark of a worthwhile fight scene. As this is the first full-on action-adventure TV series to come out of Marvel Studios proper, I’m still calibrating my expectations for effects and choreography — for both disciplines, the key contributing factor to quality is time, which is the element where feature productions have an advantage over television. On a big budget limited series like this one, it’s hard to determine what level of criticism is fair, but there’s one complaint that I’ll lob without reservation: We needed a lot more wind to sell that the characters were really fighting on a speeding truck and not standing in front of an LED wall.
Johnnie Walker White
“The Star-Spangled Man” dedicates a good chunk of its 40-odd minutes to giving a proper introduction to the new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell, The Good Lord Bird). We meet Walker as he prepares to greet the public on Good Morning America, wrestling with the enormity of his new responsibility. Through interactions with his wife (Gabrielle Byndloss, The Outsider) and his partner in the field Lemar “Battlestar” Hoskins (Clé Bennett, The Man in the High Castle), we see a humble side of Walker that all but disappears once he puts on the helmet. Surrounding Walker with people of color who love him is also a signal that, while the government preferring Walker over Sam is a symptom of white supremacy, we’re not meant to view Walker himself as a racist. We’re also given cause to dismiss the perception of Walker as a “mediocre white man” given authority, as GMA reporter Sara Haines (herself) walks us through his spotless qualifications, which he backs up when he and Battlestar come to the aid of the Falcon and the Winter Soldier later in the episode.
These are creative decisions I can get behind. If Walker was a “quiet part loud” racist or a bumbling idiot, then nobody watching would learn anything. White people, by and large, do not see themselves in those characters, and they mostly serve to reassure white viewers that, because we don’t say the N-word, we are not racist and do not need to adjust our behavior. But Walker is, like plenty of white people, someone who has worked hard and achieved status but has also received preferential treatment for being white whether he asked for it or not and would probably prefer not to think about it. This arc is not about whether or not John Walker deserves to be Captain America. It’s about the conditions that made Sam Wilson feel as if he couldn’t be Captain America, and how the US government, as a proxy for our country as a whole, told him “you’re right” and handed the shield to a white man instead of reassuring the Black man who’s already saved the world a couple of times that he’s up for the job.
If there’s a key difference between John Walker and Steve Rogers (the Captain America whose whiteness we’ve never been asked to engage with critically), it’s that John Walker has never been the “little guy.” We meet him in his old high school locker room, where he was once the triumphant captain of the football team. We get the impression that he’s been playing the square jaw his entire life. He’s a star, the pride of his hometown, and has probably never been pummelled in an alley by a guy twice his size. (Casting Wyatt Russell, who as the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn was always going to end up with a career in Hollywood whether or not he was any good, is an on-the-nose choice.) But as Dr. Erskine tells skinny Steve Rogers in The First Avenger, “a weak man knows the value of strength,” and throughout “The Star-Spangled Man,” Walker shows a comfort in flaunting his power and authority that Steve Rogers would find unbecoming. Sam Wilson isn’t a weak man, either, but he is a marginalized one, which also gives him the fuller understanding of authority that made Steve Rogers the Cap we all loved.
Take Your Evil Deeds Out of My Sight
The Flag Smashers — eight young people who have somehow become powered up by a version of the Captain America super-soldier serum — successfully fend off the Falcon, the Winter Soldier, the new Captain America, and Battlestar and get away with two truckloads of vaccines, which they intend to distribute to refugees displaced by the Blip. Sam is beginning to realize that they may not be the bad guys, and they receive an unambiguously sympathetic portrayal for the rest of the episode as they find themselves on the run from a mysterious group called the Power Brokers.
But despite getting more of their point of view, the Flag Smashers’ aims are still ill-defined. Their leader, Karli Morganthou (Erin Kellyman, Solo: A Star Wars Story) tells her followers that the “assholes” who were in power before the Blip cannot be allowed to take power again, and if we’re to assume these are the same assholes who are in charge of governments and capital in our own world, then yeah, we’re with you. But we still have no idea what was better about the world before the people who were snapped out of existence came back, and our only glimpse into the post-Snap world is the bleak first act of Avengers: Endgame. We haven’t seen any of the good that Karli is talking about, or even had it explained to us, and we need it spelled out because it runs contrary to real-life massive disasters, where historically those with the most power take advantage of the chaos to grab more power.
This episode also drops a bombshell on the audience and then walks away from it far too quickly. After their failure to catch the Flag Smashers, Bucky suggests to Sam that they should steal the shield from John Walker and finish the mission themselves. Sam balks at this, recalling that the last time they bucked authority in Civil War, they ended up fugitives. This is the moment Bucky chooses to reveal a world-shaking secret to Sam, introducing him to Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly, Supergirl), a Black soldier who was injected with the super-soldier serum by the US military during the Korean War, did battle with the Winter Soldier in 1951 and survived, only to be imprisoned and experimented upon by his own government for the next 30 years.
Rather than going into any detail on this incredibly loaded concept (itself born from the controversial 2003 comics miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black), this episode leaves it behind after about three minutes, minimizing it to a breadcrumb on the trail of the larger mystery. Isaiah implies that Hydra was involved in the experiments performed on him in prison (remember, Hydra controlled S.H.I.E.L.D. for decades), which leads Sam and Bucky to Berlin to seek out Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl reprising his role from Civil War), keeper of many Hydra secrets.
There are four episodes remaining in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and it’s possible that we’ll return to Isaiah Bradley in a future chapter, but the course of the story seems to indicate that, if we do get more of the story of the secret Black Captain America, we’ll be getting it from Zemo, not from Bradley himself. Considering how much else has been taken from Bradley, this would feel a bit gross. Likewise, if the introduction of Isaiah Bradley is only to introduce his grandson Eli (Elijah Richardson, When They See Us), a comics character I may address in greater detail in the future, that too feels cheap. If TFatWS operated more like a television show and less like a long film split into chapters, the story of Isaiah Bradley would easily be its own episode (see Watchmen’s “This Extraordinary Being”), and if it remains only a footnote in this story and a backdoor for another character’s introduction, I will be sorely disappointed. Still, there’s an extent to which telling Isaiah Bradley’s story on a Disney+ show at all feels transgressive.
After last week’s premiere, my biggest worry about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was that it would merely broach and hint at an adult political conversation and then duck back into the safety of the Marvel action formula. It’s puzzling that, just one week later, I’m a little less worried about the show not working thematically and a little more worried about it working on more superficial levels, like the Sam/Bucky dynamic or the pace of the plot. We’re about to introduce another set of characters in villain Zemo and (presumably) third-billed star Emily Van Camp as Sharon Carter, but there’s already a lot going on and piling on more characters and subplots could smother what’s already working. But, as with any serialized work, it’s difficult to judge from partway through, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may not even reveal its full shape for another few weeks.