We’ve come to the finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the Marvel event series that has been a rollercoaster in terms of tone and quality. Throughout my reviews of the series (or season, should Marvel decide to double down) I have remained skeptical of its attempts at lofty social themes — as a product of one largest media companies in the world and a part of a cinematic universe that likes to hedge its bets on political messages, it’s difficult to have high expectations for such things. As the series wore on and the show’s stances on racism and nationalism got heavier and more nuanced, respectively, I became more and more invested, imagining that I’d be more and more let down should they bungle the ending. But now, standing at the finish line with my high hopes in one hand and my low expectations in the other, I think I can squarely say: I don’t think they entirely fucked it up.
It’s Probably Not Important That the Flying Dude Be Able to Turn His Head
After a quiet penultimate episode, the finale wastes little time getting us to the action, as the Flag Smashers penetrate the headquarters of the Global Repatriation Council and use their moles to turn their evacuation into a kidnapping. Half the council is taken away by armored van, the rest by helicopter. Conveniently, there are at least two superheroes on the scene, and one of them’s got wings. Yes, it’s time for the debut of the new Captain America, Sam Wilson, as he does battle with Georges Batroc and chases down the airborne hostages.
Sam Wilson’s Cap costume is very accurate to the one his comics counterpart wore during his time with the mantle in the mid-2010s, and to be perfectly honest I don’t think it looks very good, at least not in the palette of this show. I’m not in the camp that believes that superhero outfits on film or television should have muted colors or that spandex should be swapped out for body armor, but the glossy white in this costume makes Anthony Mackie look like he’s wearing a stiff new sneaker over his head, neck, and chest. Cinematographer PJ Dillon appears to recognize this and keeps Cap out of direct light most of the time, but the shots under hard white light that seem intended to show off the outfit are the ones in which it looks the least flattering and the most like it belongs in Sky High, a good movie with a completely different look from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The crowd response to Sam’s first public appearance is also dissonant — two bystanders share a cheesy exchange of dialogue (“That’s Black Falcon right there!” “No…That’s Captain America.”) that would be totally at home in a Raimi Spider-Man, but ridiculous within the more grounded tone of TFatWS.
The action that packs the first half of the episode is pretty engaging, and wisely doesn’t escalate to the scale of a grand Marvel movie finale. There are heavily effects-driven sections, such as the helicopter chase, but much of the action is on the ground, performed by stunt actors with workmanlike choreography. The storytellers were wise to keep Sam mostly grounded for the past few episodes so that just seeing him take part in an open-air rescue feels climactic. Admittedly there’s no parallel escalation for the action on the ground with Bucky or John Walker, but it’s still shocking to see Sharon Carter basically melt a guy’s face with a mercury vapor bomb.
A Speech! Why Didn’t I Think of That?
“One World, One People” resolves each of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s lingering questions pretty much as expected, but with a twist. It felt like a given for weeks that Karli Morganthau would not survive to the end of the series, ugly as that idea is. The question has only been who will kill her, and it was never going to be Sam. The safest bet was that John Walker would take revenge on her for the death of Lemar Hoskins, but Walker receives something of a short redemption arc, choosing to rescue a set of hostages over pursuing Karli. Instead, Karli is shot dead by Sharon Carter under the pretense of saving Sam’s life, but just as much to protect her own secret identity — Sharon is the Power Broker, of course, but by the end of the episode every other character who knows is dead.
If Karli must die (and the storytellers have decided she must), the next important issue to be resolved in this finale has to be “What is Sam Wilson going to do about the refugee crisis?” Sam has maintained from the start that he believes in the cause that Karli and the Flag Smashers are fighting for, that people who migrated to new homes during the five years when half of humanity was vanished should have the right to remain there now that the population has been restored. He objects to Karli’s violent methods of resisting relocation, but has never offered any alternative solution. Even this week, when parrying Karli’s attacks and refusing to fight back, Sam says “Let me help you,” but never articulates what he means by that. This, of course, is so Karli can stay angry and get the upper hand in their fight so that Sharon killing her can be played as tragically inevitable. But to be fair, if Sam had told Karli what he was planning (“How about I give those big wigs at the GRC a stern talking to?”), that wouldn’t have stopped her either because that plan is ridiculous, and it only works because Sam Wilson is the main character of this series.
After dramatically landing in front of a bank of TV cameras cradling Karli Morganthau’s body, Captain America delivers an impassioned speech to the GRC members that he and his colleagues have just rescued in which he implores them to change their worldview. Stop calling people like Karli terrorists, he says, and consider the terror you inflict on others by sending armed troops into their homes. He reminds them that, as representatives of wealthy nations, they have incredible power at their disposal and can solve problems at a massive scale with relative ease, and that they should surround themselves with people who would benefit from their use of that power rather than those who benefit from maintaining the status quo. It’s a great speech! Every part of it is true. But the idea that it would actually affect global immigration policy is a Sorkinesque fantasy, implying that either none of the people displaced by the Blip ever thought to give a passionate public address before resorting to violence or that political statements are taken more seriously when given by someone wearing a spangly outfit.
But this is a fantasy, after all, and an ending consistent with the themes of the series, as Sam chooses to use the platform granted to him by wearing the American Excalibur on his back to challenge those in power rather than simply do their bidding. Sometimes a symbolic victory can be a very meaningful one, as demonstrated by Sam’s final and most heroic act of the series — adding Isaiah Bradley’s story to the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian, restoring a piece of history that had been expunged by a racist government and giving hope to a man who’s been rightfully embittered by a lifetime of dehumanization.
Allow me to digress for a moment.
Even after the disappointment of The Rise of Skywalker, it took me a while to figure out why I had no interest in revisiting the Star Wars sequel trilogy or even in new comics, TV shows, or video games set during that time period. It wasn’t until months later that I realized that, while the prequels are worse films in almost every way, they did something that the sequels did not, which is establish a unique sense of place. There is nothing functionally different about the setting of the sequel trilogy to set it apart from the original — it’s an overwhelming force of fascists in white helmets flying TIE Fighters vs. a scrappy band of rebels flying X-Wings and each side gets one younger Sword Wizard and one older Scheme Wizard. The rules have not changed, so there’s no reason to, say, create Resistance-era DLC for Star Wars: Squadrons. It wouldn’t add anything.
The Infinity Saga, the 23-film cycle that encompasses every Marvel Studios film released to date, is now behind us. While Spider-Man: Far From Home and WandaVision each gave us glimpses of life after the events of Avengers: Endgame, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the first chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to really cope with the global consequences of the five-year-long semi-apocalypse, and it truly feels as if the world has changed. Due to the unanticipated collective trauma of COVID-19 in the real world, this change has been mirrored in our own lives. Even if you’ve been lucky enough not to lose your job or a loved one during this disaster, you have undoubtedly lost time, time with your family, time with your friends, time with your interests. Suddenly, this totally outlandish cataclysm from a movie released before most of us had even heard of a coronavirus has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe feel more real, not less.
There’s no guarantee that this sense of a world totally reshaped by a bizarre universal event will be as present in every MCU release set during this time period, and certainly how it’s explored will vary depending on the tone of each film or series. (Remember, Far From Home successfully mined the Blip for laughs.) But so long as it’s a part of the fabric of this fictional world, it makes the post-Infinity Saga MCU a new place to explore, and can help keep the franchise from growing stale as it takes up more and more space in our popular culture. Marvel has done this once before under similarly difficult odds, when Phase 2 of the MCU tackled the aftermath of Earth’s first full-scale alien invasion. If they can pull it off a second time, then there’s every indication that the Marvel machine will keep chugging along for another decade. (Which is great if you like these movies, and maybe not great if you’d like to see any other kind of movie get made ever again.)
- The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 5 “Truth” Review
- The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 4 “The Whole World is Watching” Review
- The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 3 “Power Broker” Review
Please Don’t Yell At Me Until You’ve Read to the End
When I began reviewing The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I still had the sour taste of the WandaVision finale in my mouth. WandaVision had been a show that genuinely excited me for its first few weeks, and then fell apart by the end due to the apparent need to fit neatly into the Marvel mold. Where WandaVision had promised an adventurous style experiment and then left it behind, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was selling itself in interviews as poignant and socially challenging, and I feared — more than that, assumed — that this would be another bounced check from Marvel, who even in their celebrated rebuke of racist imperialism felt the need to portray a CIA agent favorably. And while they didn’t entirely avoid this kind of pitfall, grading on a curve for products financed by The Walt Disney Company, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is actually fairly radical.
I’m going to clarify that I’m not contending that TFatWS is some kind of leftist victory — it still falls squarely in the territory of liberalism. Sam Wilson’s big speech at the end of this episode is an appeal to those already in power to use their power more responsibly, not a rallying cry to dismantle the mechanisms of that power. On the other hand, try to imagine a mainstream political candidate condemning the word “terrorist” as a divisive label used to shut down nuanced conversation.
Consider also the way that TFatWS frames racism as an omnipresent adversary rather than a beast that can be slain with a single stroke. There is no character in TFatWS who is “cured” of being racist. The individual character who most represents racism in this series is John Walker, whose best friend and spouse are both people of color and for god’s sake gets his own “Black Lives Matter” beat in the finale, but is still the symbol of America’s preference for blond-haired blue-eyed men. This is a Hollywood production aimed at four quadrants that is wholly uninterested in reassuring white viewers that they’re not racist or the beneficiary of racism, and even subtextually acknowledges that racism is a thing that people do more than something a person has. You may not find this radical, dear Fanbyte reader, but unless you bought them Kendi for Christmas last year, your parents probably do.
I like that there’s a scene in “The Whole World is Watching” that acknowledges an inherent connection between Sarah Wilson and Karli Morganthau’s very different battles to keep their homes. I like that the series on the whole contains the message that our society has to un-bury hidden stories of abuse committed by our government against marginalized groups. It’s the lowest, dumbest bar to clear, but I like that even though “One World, One People” included the obligatory swarm of heavily armed NYPD, I’m fairly certain that not one of them actually discharges their weapon.
I want to dissuade you, also, from the perception that, as a leftist, I simply want to read TFatWD as radical so that I don’t feel so bad for enjoying it and participating in the Disney Industrial Complex. Let me reassure you — I still don’t think this show is that good! I think it got better as it went along, and on the whole I like it fine. I simply feel, as I bring my discussion of this series to a close, that I should acknowledge that I underestimated the storytellers’ commitment to this part of the show. I voiced my doubts, and now I need to share my conclusions.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is not the cure to anything, not to racism, not to jingoism, not to the Common Superhero Drama. It did turn out to be, to a limited extent, a balm for my cynicism about what can and can’t be said in a Disney product. For that, I owe showrunner Malcolm Spellman, director Kori Skogland, and producer Kevin Feige a tip of the hat.