'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier' Review: Marvel's New Series is Familiar and Daring in Equal Measure03/18/2021
According to the makers of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the highly anticipated new Marvel series heading to Disney+, their television show isn’t a television show at all. It’s a six-hour movie. And it’s structured like one, too. And since I’m not here to dredge up the ongoing debate over whether or not this the right way to make serialized entertainment (we’ll talk about it in the weeks ahead, I suppose), I can only sit here and wonder what good can come from a review of the first episode, the only one provided to press ahead of the premiere. How do you review one-sixth of a six-hour movie? How can you make judgments about a story when you’re only halfway through the opening act?
The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does not play like a traditional pilot. When director Kari Skogland and showrunner Malcolm Spellman say this is a six-hour movie, they’re not kidding around. The pieces are put in place so the story can fully kick off in, well, episode two. This episode is more of a taste than a full-on mission statement for what this series will be.
Thankfully, it’s a pretty good taste.
Like WandaVision, the previous Disney+ series firmly entrenched in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has no mercy or compassion for those not caught up with the movies so far. Taking place in the wake of Avengers: Endgame, the show finds the world in chaos. Billions of people have been restored to existence thanks to Earth’s mightiest heroes and while that was something to celebrate in a movie theater, it’s a reality that must be grappled with in greater detail on the small screen. Political turmoil grips the globe, a violent conspiracy to do away with the borders of all nations is gaining traction, and Captain America is gone.
As you may remember, Endgame concluded with Steve Rogers retiring from the gig, offering the vibranium shield to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), AKA the Falcon. Naturally, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier essentially opens with Sam refusing the call, donating the shield to the Smithsonian and walking away from the burden of wearing the stars and stripes. Meanwhile, Cap’s other BFF, the century-old super-soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), AKA the Winter Soldier, is just trying to get by. Which is easier said than done when you’re a formerly brainwashed Hydra assassin with a lot of red in your ledger, to borrow another Avenger’s turn of phrase.
Naturally, these two are going to be drawn together to battle a new threat, especially since Steve Rogers isn’t around to deal with it. And naturally, they’re going to butt heads. But not in episode one. Because they never share any scenes in episode one, because this is a six-hour movie and not a TV series.
However, their individual scenes are compelling enough, especially for those already invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sam is doing contract work for the United States government, taking on dangerous gigs that require big, expensive action. Bucky is seeing a therapist and trying to atone for past sins while living among normal folks who don’t have indestructible robot arms. It’s less of a fish out of water story and more of a “barracuda in a goldfish tank” story. Spellman’s script pays equal attention to both characters, even as they exist in their own bubbles at the start of the series. Mackie has an easygoing energy and action hero charisma that radiates. Stan broods as well as anyone in the business. The camera loves them and the audience…well, we already love them from the Marvel movies and the show knows it. It luxuriates in letting us get to know them properly.
While there is action in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (it’s bombastic stuff, too), the bulk of the first episode is about these two and their respective damages. Bucky struggles to atone for the violence he has inflicted over the decades. Sam works to keep his family’s business together, returning after being blipped out of existence by Thanos to discover that his sister is struggling to keep the bills paid and the lights on. Spellman and his writers have a blast with the post-Endgame world, using the space allowed a TV series to ask questions that movies simply don’t have time to address. Do Avengers get paid? What actually happens to a nation’s infrastructure when billions of people reappear after five years? The nerdy world-building is given room to breathe and it’s a hoot.
But it’s the less fantastical details that resonate. And sting. In the episode’s best sequence, Sam takes his sister to apply for a loan and he’s recognized by the bank associate, who is ecstatic to have an Avenger, a celebrity, in his office. But being a world-saving hero doesn’t mean Sam Wilson suddenly isn’t a Black man. As the micro-aggressions mount, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seriously suggests that it’s going to be about a lot more than superheroes punching supervillains. After all, why would the Falcon want to wear and wield the symbols of a nation that routine chews up and spits out men and women of color? No wonder he gave up that shield.
Bucky’s storyline isn’t as inherently rich, but fire up those Tumblrs, ladies and gentlemen: the internet will soon be awash in new gifs of Sebastian Stan looking sullen.
These character details stand out because they’re molded into a show that feels, by design, familiar. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks like an MCU movie, sounds like an MCU movie, and feels like an MCU movie. And for those already invested in this universe (and that’s a ton of people), that will be enough. But after the experiment that was WandaVision, some viewers may be hoping for more. And perhaps that “more” is on the way, as Spellman has made it clear that the racial and political tensions on the edges of the episode will form the core of the series. Can this series be about the unique anxieties of being alive in 2021 while also functioning as another piece of familiar, comforting Marvel entertainment? The jury is still out (one-sixth of a movie, etc.), but there are notes of extreme promise here.
Still, making a television series that feels like it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with massive blockbuster movies is its own achievement. Skogland, a veteran television director, keeps the momentum moving and delivers impressive action, especially with an early sequence that shows off the Falcon’s wingsuit better than any of the movies so far. It makes sense – it’s the first Marvel action scene to treat him as a lead, and the action is built around him accordingly. And yet, the action didn’t linger with me when the credits rolled, as well-staged as it is. My thoughts were with Mackie’s restrained performance, the doubt the pervades so many of his interactions with figures of supposed authority. My thoughts were with the portrait of a world crumbling to pieces, one that can’t help but feel like our own even if it arrived there from a more fantastical approach. And yes, my thoughts were of Stan, sitting on the floor with his superhero metal arm gleaming in the low light, his face ready for brooding gifs to be made.
Perhaps that’s always been the appeal of the MCU, really. Lots of movies and lots of shows can deliver slick action, but few linger like Marvel. Because it’s these characters. These actors. The sense that we want to spend time with these people. These charming, sad, damaged people who just so happen to be superheroes. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier won’t win over people who already don’t enjoy other Marvel movies – it doubles down on what has worked in the past. That’s enough for now. And that’ll be enough for many. But I hope the seeds planted here, the ones that suggest a show about the responsibilities of being a hero in a world that grinds you to pieces on a daily basis, are allowed to fully blossom in the weeks ahead.
At the very least, the humdinger of a cliffhanger ending suggests that things are going to get very sticky, very soon.
The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres on Disney+ on March 19, 2021. New episodes will arrive each Friday.
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