After a lot of table-setting during the first two episodes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s third chapter “Power Broker” is more focused, with most of its runtime dedicated to one group of characters pursuing a single objective. Here, Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) jet off to Germany to add a few more characters to the mix who turn out to be welcome additions to the show’s struggling chemistry. While still unlikely to knock anyone’s socks off, “Power Broker” may be the most even and consistent episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and feels the most like a complete chapter in the narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.
Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are on the trail of eight Flag Smashers who have been injected with a variant of the super-soldier serum. This leads them to Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds), who is in prison in Munich for the crimes he committed in Captain America: Civil War. Convinced it’s the only way to get him to reveal the Hydra secrets they need to track down the serum, Bucky arranges a clean prison break for Zemo against Sam’s wishes, and since the cat is already out of the proverbial bag, Sam reluctantly agrees to accept his help.
Like in Civil War, Zemo is a soft-spoken shit-stirrer, and he quickly starts testing Bucky’s berserk buttons while trying to ingratiate himself to Sam. If there’s any weight behind this attempt to drive a wedge between our two leads, it isn’t paid off this week, but the addition of a third party does help to lubricate the grinding gears of their painful attempts at charming Lethal Weapon bickering. Sam and Bucky arguing about Marvin Gaye alone isn’t funny, but Zemo chiming in to calmly praise the Trouble Man soundtrack for “capturing the African-American experience” is good for a chuckle, especially if you know that the comics version of his character is a card-carrying Nazi.
Unlike in Civil War, where he was depicted as an Everyman pushed to the edge by grief, here it is revealed that Zemo is a fabulously wealthy Baron of the now-defunct nation of Sokovia, whose private jet becomes their mobile headquarters. We also see Zemo in action this week, demonstrating the prowess at killing that is only hinted at in Civil War. These two developments bring Zemo closer to his comic book counterpart, but also distance him from what made Zemo interesting as a villain in the film. Zemo is not nearly as pitiable as he once was — the rage and misery are gone from his eyes, and now he reads as just another cold killer with an agenda. He’s never a physical threat to the Avengers, just an intellectual and psychological one, but now he’s operating on a playing field where he, himself, is dangerous, which takes something special away from him. As tired as the “villain in a box” trope has become, I think he was better off in there.
Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Zemo leads the trio to Madripoor, an island nation in the Pacific Rim where criminal enterprises have thrived ever since the Golden Age of Piracy. Madripoor, like Sokovia before it, is a fictional country drawn in the broad strokes of its region of the world in order to avoid getting too politically specific. It’s a comics tradition, though your mileage may vary on whether or not it’s actually less offensive than using a real county. Madripoor is a cool-looking location, evoking the neon-accented skyscrapers of Bangkok and Hong Kong City, but for an island in the Indonesian archipelago, it appears to have remarkably few Asian residents.
There, Sam half-heartedly poses as the mercenary Smiling Tiger, while Bucky must play-act at being the programmed heavy Winter Soldier once again, a role he slips into with a discomfiting ease. Zemo arranges a meeting with a local gangster, Selby (Imelda Corcoran, who played a different role on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who gives him the next clue towards the serum. But when Sam blows their cover, Selby is suddenly assassinated, with Sam, Bucky, and Zemo framed for her death. In a brief homage to John Wick (this episode’s screenplay is credited to John Wick writer Derek Kolstad), numerous assassins immediately receive a text message declaring a price on our heroes’ heads, and Sam and company take off running through the dayglo streets of Madripoor’s “low town.” It seems like we might be in store for a cool chase scene as they’re pursued by a machine gun-toting motorcycle gang, but the excitement lasts under 60 seconds as they are rescued by former S.H.I.E.L.D. & CIA Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp, reprising her role from the Captain America sequels). When we do get a proper extended action sequence later in the episode, it is set in a drab dockyard among shipping containers on an overcast day, a far less appealing location for the action.
Sharon has been a fugitive ever since she violated the Sokovia Accords to return the Captain America shield to Steve Rogers back in Civil War, and while her new criminal lifestyle has embittered her significantly, she’s also made it work for her as Madripoor’s preeminent dealer of stolen art. Sharon agrees to help Sam and Bucky track down the scientist responsible for reproducing the super-soldier serum in exchange for Sam’s assistance obtaining a pardon back in the States. She kicks a substantial amount of ass on their behalf in the gritty dockyard fight, killing with a ruthlessness that we rarely see in MCU heroes. (Compare to Bucky’s aiming for shoulders in the closing gunfight.) This, an ominous exchange with her bodyguard after the fight, the fact that people who actually know the Power Broker never refer to them using personal pronouns, plus the title of the episode in which she is introduced, seem to be clues that Sharon herself is the big bad of the season.
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Operation: Paperclip 2 is Going About as Expected
Sam, Bucky, and Zemo corner Dr. Wilfred Nagel (Olli Haaskivi, The Deuce) in his laboratory, hidden within a Madripoor freight yard. Dr. Nagel is a cookie-cutter amoral scientist with a god complex who was part of the effort to reproduce the super-soldier serum for Hydra in the years before Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When Hydra/S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, Nagel was recruited by the CIA to work on their own serum initiative. It’s the CIA — not Hydra — that gives him the blood samples taken from Isaiah Bradley, the abused and imprisoned Black super-soldier we met in the previous episode. After the Blip, Dr. Nagel again finds himself unemployed but is scooped up by the Power Broker, who gives him the resources he needs to complete his work — producing 20 working samples of a more subtle, easier to dose super serum. It’s from here in Madripoor that Karli Morganthou stole the entire supply of the serum for the Flag Smashers, painting a target on her own back for the Power Broker.
It’s a small thing, but I’d like to acknowledge the deliberate choice that’s made here not to absolve the US government of any part in their abuse of Isaiah Bradley. It would have been easy to have Dr. Nagel explain that Hydra, under the guise of S.H.I.E.L.D., arranged the imprisonment of and experimenting upon the secret Black Captain America, but instead, the story unambiguously places the responsibility for this upon a sanctioned US government agency, and we get reaction shots of Sam and Bucky acknowledging the gravity of this. It is a refreshing change from Captain America: The Winter Soldier attempting to explain every atrocity around the globe by saying “Hydra did it.”
Seeking to destroy any and all samples of the serum and anyone who can reproduce it, Zemo puts a bullet in Dr. Nagel before one of the bounty hunters outside conveniently destroys the entire laboratory with a rocket launcher. This concludes our characters’ business in Madripoor, at least for now, which is part of what helps “Power Broker” work as an episode of television. The main characters arrived at a destination, explored it a bit, found what they were looking for, and then left, with the only geographical zig-zagging occurring in the subplots (which can both wait til next week to explore, since they’re only morsels here.)
The destruction of the lab leaves the super-charged Flag Smashers (and any samples they’ve yet to distribute) as the only source of the new serum, which gives us an idea of the focus and stakes for the second half of the series. The Flag Smashers subplot has been the least fleshed-out portion of the show so far, but all signs point to them being the center of the show’s climax, which should present opportunities to dig in more. Every other character is motivated to find them — that is, until one final player enters the story during the stinger of this week’s episode: Ayo, a Wakandan Dora Milaje warrior (Florence Kasumba, as seen in Civil War and Black Panther), out to recapture Zemo. With three episodes remaining, we can probably accommodate one more big plot complication, especially if we get a good fight out of it, and if Ayo sticks around, so much the better — additional buffers between our would-be Riggs and Murtaugh could only help.