Everyone's favourite sidekicks are back! Okay, everyone's favourite Marvel sidekicks. Okay, everyone's favourite Captain America sidekicks. Okay, those Captain America sidekicks everyone quite likes.
Damn, let me try this again...
Captain America's sidekicks are back!
UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom to read our thoughts on the the series as a whole. The final section contains big spoilers.
It’s clear that this series was Disney’s first choice to baptise what we might start calling the MTVU. Immediately we have the friendly every-man face of The Avengers, some pleasing, if obvious iconography, call-backs to the impossibly successful Endgame and a rollercoaster highspeed helicopter chase through a rocky canyon (instigated by a familiar springy villain). It’s a heavy dose of the movie magic that with open arms says, “Welcome back to the MCU!”
The first episode wastes no time in putting us back into the world introduced to us in Captain America: The Winter Soldier; a handheld close up of Sam Wilson recalls that much more personal real-world atmosphere cultivated in the Russo Brothers’ first movie for the franchise. It promises elements of a more grounded story within the framework of a more typical blockbuster offering. But that quiet thoughtful moment is an outlier in this jumble of an opener, one of only two or three which ground our characters as fully realised people, instead of just hubs around which plot revolves.
... promises elements of a more grounded story within the framework of a more typical blockbuster...
This has been a particular pitfall in the past for The Winter Soldier himself, Bucky Barnes, previously serving almost purely as a McGuffin to showcase Cap’s loyalty and goodness - a prop more than a person. We get a little to remedy that in episode one as Bucky – played by Sebastian Stan with less brooding darkness and more humour blended with troubled cynicism – attends meetings with his psychiatrist, is shown dealing with PTSD, and performs daily acts of self-harm in the form of befriending the families of people whose deaths he is responsible for. It’s a promising touch and an element which has a lot of scope for exploration.
But where Bucky’s storyline feels like a natural evolution of his MCU character, Sam’s feels dropped in. A family financial crisis and 5 years in non-existence lead to some clunky story beats – a scene in which Wilson is penalised by a bank for having no income for the five years he didn’t exist seems cruel to the point of contrivance. Anthony Mackie himself seems more at home portraying Sam Wilson as a simple action guy. He has much more fun and is much more engaging in the role as he swoops over North Africa on a new set of wings, dodging missiles and beating up helicopters rather than arguing with family members and bank managers.
Slipped in around these two characters are bits of a plot which put newcomer Torres (Danny Ramirez) knee deep in a revolutionary movement to destroy all nation states in favour of one borderless world. Hints of good ideas abound here: secret communications via Augmented Reality visible only through a phone camera; identical masks to confuse and distract authorities à la internet hacktivist group, Anonymous. The first episode, ominously titled New World Order, plays into the importance of these elements, but the structure itself leaves them out in the cold a little as the show seems unsure where to lay its emphasis.
Where the show currently excels is in its pacing. Across these first 45 minutes we have action, intrigue, character development, guest stars and a nice big surprise at the end. It’s a jumble but, overall, it’s quite a fun jumble and even without improvement could easily be a weekly dose of the sort of comfortable watching that you might get from a second or third tier Marvel movie.
... too little to really get excited about…yet.
However, there’s promise of greater to come. If the trailer is to be believed we could be in for a Marvel-made version of Lethal Weapon which, just saying that, brings a smile to my face, and with promise of a return for a fan-favourite antagonist there’s certainly a lot more to be seen.
Despite the bells and whistles of the introductory scenes, this is a slow start to the new series relying heavily on backfilling emotional context. The reminder of Bucky’s past and the resulting upheaval of “the blip” place our two protagonists in very separate positions to struggle their way out of but not yet anything to strive towards. There’s certainly depth and humour to be mined in the run of 5 further episodes, so don’t be too quick to write it off but, in this opener, there’s too little to really get excited about…yet.
Update: The complete series [SPOILER WARNING]
As a show bogged down in the legacy of Steve Rogers, over the first clutch of episodes the series appeared not to know where it was or what it was doing, fumbling its way into territories new for comic book adaptations (if not for comic books themselves).
But following a serious uptick in the quality of writing around the halfway point The Falcon and the Winter Soldier rounds out its first (only?) season with more of an idea about which issues exactly it’s trying to explore. So focused on tackling difficult subjects – dispossession, race, the friction between jingoism and heroism – the series often seemed unsure about what it was trying to say about those subjects. But with its final pair of episodes the show, like its two lead characters, finally accepted itself. This was a story about acknowledging black history, not as a solution to the world’s problems, but as a good – if belated – first step.
...the series often seemed unsure about what it was trying to say...
Knowing now that the show was really Sam’s the whole time makes some sense out of the misuse of Bucky Barnes. But, even with the benefit of hindsight, least successful across the run of the series was the tackling of Bucky’s past. His powerlessness despite his enormous strength was right there to allow him to connect with Flagsmasher, Karli Morgenthau in a different but similarly powerful way to Sam, a way in which righteous indignation might lead to unethical actions. Bucky’s “avenge” list wasn’t so different from Karli’s objectives after all. But the series doesn’t take that opportunity. Frequently the show fell back to being The Sam Wilson Story (Also Bucky is There) but seemingly without adequate reason, and while there were fun moments of tension between the two, Bucky’s actions never felt particularly consequential to the story outside of their part in Sam’s journey. Okay, that was by design, but going through the story, that wasn’t obvious and it created a floundering feeling for those watching week by week. Luckily, his part in Sam’s rise becomes pivotal, his involvement summed up by one of the most powerful lines of the season in episode 5, “Truth”: “I don’t think either of us understood what it meant for a Black man to handle the shield […] I owe you an apology.”
But, in general it was a wasted opportunity, particularly during the scenes in which Sam confronts former super solider experimental subject Isaiah Bradley. Right there on the screen was the point at which post-war trauma meets the black experience in America, the connection Sam and Bucky have embodied by this one man. Sam’s journey with Isaiah became one of the success stories of the series but it always felt like there was a separate parallel for Bucky right there for the taking, and even a strong reason to reforge his bond with Sam. It just didn’t fall out that way.
Other (eventual) successes were the attempts to find something to say about how each of the other characters handle Sam’s position as heir-apparent to the Star-Spangled Shield. Sam found it butting up against his discomfort with championing a system that was keeping his family and his community down. Bucky with crippling self-doubt and reliance on the shield – or the holder of the shield – to keep him ‘good.’ John Walker with his struggle both with his sense of entitlement and with having to live up to an impossible ideal.
In the end, the show became more of an attack on authoritarianism than anything else. Sometimes successfully, sometimes…less so. When given a connection to the Flagsmasher leader Karli Morgenthau, the series let Sam feel his way through the moral grey areas of “freedom fighting,” something Steve Rogers always stood for. But as 'freedom fighting' becomes synonymous with terrorism, there develops a thought-provoking debate…or, at least it might be if that particular flannel hadn’t been wrung out in Civil War or if the Flagsmashers had any kind of consistency to their actions. Frustratingly, their actions jump from morally dubious, to completely justifiable to cold blooded murder and back again. It feels like a miracle that Erin Kellyman, as Morgenthau, managed to hold it all together with a nuanced performance of an often clunky script.
[a] very welcome, if slightly forced, exploration of race in America.
But Morgenthau is just one fork of the attack on authoritarianism. The other: new Captain America, John Walker. Walker, played with great complexity by Wyatt Russell, is the total opposite of Sam. Walker is the answer to the question “who would the government pick to be Captain America.” Someone apparently like Steve Rogers only in stature. Someone who will follow orders, who believes any actions taken in the protection of the system are the right actions. But he’s given depth too. Not just a tool of the state, Walker can’t do anything without being reminded that he is not Steve. He’s not as strong as Steve, not as naturally charismatic, not as diplomatic. In a turning point for the season, Walker is beaten for the first time by a non-super-powered opponent and he realises he’s not even the best soldier. Not strong enough to save people in a warzone, not even strong enough to save his best friend. It would be so easy to discount Walker as simply being a jerk, but a deeper look reveals that he’s a product of his circumstances, just as Steve was. The difference is simply the choices they made. Steve chose to be good and now, faced with different dilemmas, only Sam seems to have the ability to choose the same.
For all the fumbles with drawn out reveals, some formulaic action, and ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ mentality to character introductions, the real tensions are between Sam and Walker, not Sam and Bucky. Despite its very welcome, if slightly forced, exploration of race in America, ultimately the most successful elements of the series can all be drawn back to those first conversations between Steve Rogers and Dr Erskine in Captain America: The First Avenger. To fight for and represent the best of America, Captain America must be not a perfect soldier, but a good man.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
is streaming on Disney+ now.
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