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Josh Reviews The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

April 26th, 2021

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the second MCU TV show to be released on Disney+.  In this six-episode mini-series, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles from the MCU as, respectively Sam Wilson (the Falcon) and Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier).  At the end of Avengers: Endgame, an elderly Steve Rogers gave his shield to Sam.  But as this show opens, we see that Sam doesn’t feel he’s worthy of stepping into Steve’s shoes as Captain America.  He thinks the shield should be put in the Smithsonian, but the government decides to give the shield to a new Captain America: a soldier named John Walker (Wyatt Russell).  Bucky, meanwhile, is still wrestling with guilt over the atrocities he committed as the Winter Soldier, and he’s hurt by what he sees as Sam’s shirking of the role Steve had given him.  Sam and Bucky are pulled together by the threat of a new terrorist organization, made up of people who feel disenfranchised and ignored following the return to existence of half of the world’s population (when the Avengers undid Thanos’ snap at the end of Endgame).

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable series.  With WandaVision and now this, Kevin Feige & co. have successfully done what Marvel’s initial ABC experiment (which began with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the Marvel Netflix shoes were unable to do: create Marvel TV shows that are both entertaining and satisfying on their own, and at the same time fit seamlessly within the continuity of the MCU films.  This is an impressive achievement.

This show isn’t as groundbreaking as WandaVision.  That series was delightfully bold in the way it played with the conventions of the medium (of TV shows).  The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t nearly as adventurous.  This is a buddy-movie action-adventure.  It’s fun and enjoyable but not exactly groundbreaking in its storytelling.  (And its finale was wobblier than I’d hoped… more on that later…)

Just as WandaVision was able to give Wanda and Vision the type of focus and character development they hadn’t been able to get as peripheral characters in the movies, so too is it fantastic to see Sam and Bucky get to step front and center here in this show.  Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan really step up.  I love these characters, and both actors really shine in the show.

I was surprised and impressed by the degree to which this series explored the complexities of the idea of a black man becoming Captain America.  No previous MCU project has come anywhere close to digging into such real world issues.  But showrunner Malcolm Spellman and his team used the story of this show to dig into the racial divide and complexities of our country.  The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is still a piece of escapist entertainment, but I enjoyed the seriousness with which the show allowed Sam to wrestle with his complicated feelings about what it would mean for a black American man to wear the Stars and Stripes.  I thought the series really came to life when it was able to explore the experience of a black man in modern-day America through the character and journey of Sam Wilson.  I was moved by the scene in which Sam and his sister are unable to get a bank loan in episode one, and the moment in which Sam is stopped by the police while walking in the street at the end of episode two.  I was delighted that the series brought in the character of Isaiah Bradley (from the 2oo3 Marvel comic book series Truth, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker).  I loved the scenes in the show with Isaiah.  The great Carl Lumbly was spectacular as the embittered Isaiah, a man who had quite justifiable reasons to be disgusted with the United States of America.

Getting back to Anthony Mackie as Sam, I enjoyed getting to meet his family, including his sister Sarah, played by Adepero Oduye.  I loved the moments when the show allowed Sam to utilize his skills as a counselor, which is how he was first introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  And, of course, I was thrilled to see Sam finally accept the mantle of Captain America in the finale.  It was awesome to see him in the costume.  (I loved how faithfully they depicted the look of Sam as Cap from the comics; however, while I loved the design of the costume, I thought it looked a little puffy and fake on Sam, so I hope they work on that before Sam’s next appearance…)

Sebastian Stan was equally great as Bucky.  I am glad the series didn’t depict Bucky as being all better after having been freed from his Winter Soldier brainwashing by the Wakandans, but that instead the show explored Bucky’s trouble handling the ripple effects of the trauma he’d been through.  I loved all the scenes in the early going between Bucky and his therapist (wonderfully played by Amy Aquino).  One of my favorite scenes in the show was the flashback scene in Wakanda, in which we see Bucky finally get free of the Winter Soldier brainwashing.  Sebastian Stan was particularly great in that moment.

We’d gotten to see some fun buddy-buddy moments between Sam and Bucky in the movies (particularly in Captain America: Civil War), and their jokey chemistry was one of my favorite aspects of the show.  (The series’ sometimes wonky plotting occasionally made the context feel forced, but it was so much fun watching these two bicker with one another that I can live with that.)

I was super-excited when the series introduced Wyatt Russell as John Walker at the end of the premiere.  What a great choice to utilize this character from the comics.  I loved the way the series depicted his story, as we see this guy pushed to his breaking point.  (At least, I loved this story until the what went down in the finale — more on this in a moment.)  I was impressed by Wyatt Russell’s performance.  John Walker isn’t evil, but he’s pretty unlikable.  Mr. Russell allowed us to root against this character while always keeping him anchored as a real human person who was making bad choices.  And as a huge fan of Mark Greunwald’s run on Captain America in the eighties, I was delighted to see Walker’s storyline adapted into the MCU!!

I was a little dubious at first when the series brought back Daniel Brühl as Helmut Zemo (the villain from Captain America: Civil War).  As I’ve already mentioned, I felt that one of the biggest weakness of this series was its occasionally sketchy plotting, and this was never more the case than how the series uses Zemo.  I rolled my eyes at the series’ use of silly 24-type plot contrivances, such as our heroes having to break the bad guy out of prison in order to get his help to defeat another bad guy.  I didn’t love the choice to use that warmed-over Jack Bauer plot line, and I rolled my eyes at the million opportunities Sam and Bucky gave Zemo to escape.  That all being said, Daniel Brühl was delightful as Zemo!  This show made Zemo an even more interesting character than he was in Civil War.  Dancing Zemo memes aside, it was great to get to explore Zemo, and I loved his Lethal Weapon 3 bantering dynamic with Sam and Bucky.  Mr. Brühl was really funny!  I was thrilled that they include a reference to Zemo’s being a baron (because, of course, in the comics his villain name is Baron Zemo), and I also smiled to see him put on the purple mask at one point (even though the series didn’t really give him any plot-reason for doing so).

I loved seeing Florence Kasumba as Ayo, from the Dora Milaje.  That was a fun surprise and a nice bit of Marvel connectivity (as, of course, the Marvel movies had shown us that Bucky had spent time recuperating in Wakanda, where he was known as the “White Wolf”).  I loved the great Dora fight, and how easily they kicked everyone’s tuchases.  (I particularly loved the way they used their knowledge of Wakandan tech to disable Bucky’s arm.)

One of my only complaints about Avengers: Endgame was the ending, in which all the people who’d been snapped away returned five years later.  That seemed like that would cause a huge amount of chaos and disruption (all to preserve Tony’s daughter, which surely could have been done using the powers of the Infinity Gauntlet without also maintaining the five-years of misery for the rest of the world).  Spider-Man: Far from Home turned “the blip” into a joke, which seemed to me the best way of dealing with this mess.  But to my surprise, this show chose to take the time to explore the ramifications of that.  I loved that choice.  I just wish the show had done a better job of developing the realities of the situation.  The GRC (Global Repatriation Council) is kept too vague for my liking.  Who are those people?  How does that organization function with the other world governments?  What is the GRC actually doing?  I liked the idea of the character of Karli Morgenthau, and Erin Kellyman (Enfys Nest from Solo!) was an interesting performer.  But I didn’t feel the show allowed us to get to know Karli as deeply as I’d hoped.  They wanted her to be a villain with an understandable cause, like Killmonger from Black Panther.  That’s the correct idea, but for that to actually work they needed to better develop Karli as a character.

We got some great action in the series, particularly the flying helicopter chase in episode one, and the truck fight in episode two.  Overall I was impressed by the production values and what they were able to accomplish for this TV show.  (However, once you notice that a huge majority of the show takes place inside warehouses, it’s hard to unsee that…!)

I loved seeing Don Cheadle pop up as Rhodey in the premiere, and I yelped with pleasure when Julia Louis-Dreyfus appeared as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (a great character who has her origins way back in the early Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. comics)!!  Way to go Marvel for keeping Ms. Louis-Dreyfus’ appearance on the show a surprise!  Ms. Dreyfus was great in her scene in episode five.  (Even though her comedic banter felt a little out of place in this mostly serious show, I didn’t mind because it was such a fun surprise.)

Is it just me or do these Disney+ series have something of a problem with their season finales?  I wasn’t wild about the final episodes of either season one or two of The Mandalorian, and although I loved WandaVision, I thought that series also dropped the ball somewhat in the finale.  I felt the same here.  It wasn’t a terrible finale — there was some great stuff, particularly with Sam’s finally embracing the mantle of Captain America.  But I couldn’t believe how completely the show seemed to let John Walker off the hook for his crazy behavior (including the murder of one of the Flag Smashers).  The mid-credits scene in episode five seems to show Walker in full-on crazy mode, building his own shield.  I thought for sure we were building to a confrontation between him and Sam & Bucky; but somehow in the finale he’s bantering about Lincoln quotes with them.  I suspect that Marvel plans on using Walker and Zemo again (maybe for a Thunderbolts series uniting several MCU villains?), and so they wanted to redeem him… but the show skipped over twelve important steps and robbed the audience of a satisfying climax to the story we’d been following.  I loved seeing Walker in a very comics-accurate black U.S. Agent outfit, but that final scene with the Contessa landed with a thud for me.  (There’s no actual reason for her to declare that he’s now the U.S. Agent…)

I was also somewhat disappointed by the conclusion of Karli Morgenthau’s story.  This should have been a moving tragedy, but it fell flat because the series never developed her relationship with Sam to the depth needed for this conclusion to land.  I was also not wild about the revelation that Sharon Carter is the villainous Power Broker.  It was predictable (because after all the build-up, who else could it have been??) and also a case where the series didn’t spend the time to flesh out where Sharon is now or why she’s doing what she’s doing.  I was very happy to see Emily VanCamp back as Sharon, a character who’d seemed important when she was introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but hasn’t been used since Civil War.  But the show needed to spend more time exploring why she’d turned and allowing us to understand her point of view.  I was also bummed that, after the premiere spent a lot of time building up Bucky’s friendship with the old man whose son he’d murdered, the finale cut past the actual scene in which Bucky owns up to what he’d done as The Winter Soldier.  I wanted to see that moment!  I’d also have appreciated another scene with the young woman who Bucky blew off mid-date.

Other thoughts:

* Why would Ayo bring Zemo to the Raft, an American prison, instead of bringing him back to Wakanda to face justice for the death of King T’Chaka?  That seems like a dumb plot move only done so Zemo could be more easily used in the future (such as in the possible Thunderbolts series about which I’d speculated…?).

* This series also seems to be laying pipe for a future Young Avengers series, since we met Danny Ramirez (who in the comics becomes the Falcon — note that Sam let Danny keep his damaged wings) as well as Iaaiah’s grandson Eli Bradley (who in the comics becomes the Captain America-inspired hero the Patriot).

* I loved seeing Batroc again (returning from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  (Is Batroc dead at the end?)

* I was overjoyed to see Madripoor on the show — the first big name from the X-Men universe to get dropped in the MCU!!  That wretched hive of scum and villainy is a major location in the X-Men comics.  I also loved that the show gave us a quick shot of The Princess Bar, where Logan often hangs out!

* Throughout the series, I’d been telling my family that I hoped that this show would come back for a season two that would be called Captain America and the Winter Soldier.  Imagine my delight seeing that title change at the end of the finale!  I’d love for this series to return for additional seasons.  (Though I’m also excited by the news of a fourth Captain America movie being in the works, with Sam as Cap…!)

I doff my cap to show runner Malcolm Spellman and his team for creating such a solidly entertaining series.  Bring on Loki…!

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