Fly Like an Eagle (or More Like a Falcon)
MCU 25: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Season 1
What is a Captain AmericaCreated by Simon and Kirby in 1941, Captain America was a super soldier created to fight Germany and the evil HYDRA. Then he was lost in the ice, only to be found and reborn decades later as the great symbol of the USA. series with Captain America? That's not to say that there isn't someone calling themselves "Captain America" in this new series from the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe., but Steve Rogers isn't in this TV show, and he was Captain America, while his chosen successor, Sam Wilson aka Falcon, doesn't feel like it's his place to take on the role. So the show, ostensibly about Captain America, doesn't actually have a proper Captain America in it.
My initial question, though, can actually be extended further: what is the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. when three of its biggest characters -- Captain America along with Black WidowNatalia Romanova was one one of the greatest and most effective Russian spies, a deadly killer who could blend in anywhere. Then she was turned and became one of SHIELD's most effective, and trusted, agents. and Iron ManBillionare Tony Stark has a secret: while he travels the world by day as a playboy philanthropist and head of Stark Industries, he combats the evils of the world as the armored Iron Man. -- are no longer in it. Yes, Black Widow will finally get her own movie, set in the past, and her mantel will pass off to a new version of the character, and Iron Man will even get his own successor in the eventual MCU series Ironheart, but at the same time the universe is at a crossroads, having to reinvent itself without its headliners.
But then the Captain America films have been all about defining the state of the MCU. I've noted this before, as the films established the Super Soldier Serum that acted as a subtle B-plot to many of the early films, followed by the fall of SHIELD that set much of Phase II in motion, and then strife within the AvengersMarvel's answer to DC's Justice League, this team features many of Marvel's biggest superheroes working together to protect the world and avenge its evils. leading to a new status quo. At each step of the way the Captain America films have acted, in their own way as "point-five" films to the Avengers, adding story and context to the MCU's meta-plot.
In that regard Marvel's new series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, has the same basic function. The first full era of the MCU ended with the Avengers bringing back everyone Thanos wiped away with "The Snap", and this new period, called "The Blip", caused new issues. How does the world recover when half the population first disappeared and then reappeared again? We didn't see much of this in the first big series from Marvel, WandaVision, which was largely a stand-alone series, and there've only been hints in that series and precursor to this new "Phase IV", Spider-man: Far From Home, that the transition post-Blip has been anything but easy.
Falcon and Winter Soldier changes that. Now we're all in on the story of the universe and there's a lot of issues, to be sure. Most of the problems are faced, naturally enough, not in the rich countries but in poorer nation and "third world" countries, countries without vast supply networks and resources to deal with half the population suddenly returning. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), see that first hand as he was one of the people that was wiped away during the Snap only to return in the Blip, and he's struggled to deal with a family that's been without him for five years -- sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) and his nephews -- and a country that is willing to take his help as an Avenger but won't give him economic resources to help him recover after his five years away.
Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), too, has his own struggles as he's plagued by memories of the past, when he was an unwilling agent of HYDRA. He has to find a way to get past it, a mission that can help him deal with his guilt and grief. He blames Sam for giving up the shield of Captain America and what it means (as Sam donates it to a museum), and he blames him even more when someone else is given the shield by the U.S. Government and becomes the new Captain America: John Walker (Wyatt Russell). But there's even more going on as a new group springs up in the wake of the Blip, a "terror" group called the Flag Smasher, lead by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), who are fighting against the oppression they've felt as Blip refugees. And, as Sam and Bucky soon learn, the Flag Smashers have their own super soldiers working among their ranks. How this could be, and what can be done about it, acts as the main through-line for this season guiding Sam on his journey from Falcon to, maybe, Captain America.
I'm torn about this first season of this show (assuming this is more than just a one-season-wonder, which Marvel says is likely). On the one hand, it's good to spend time with Sam and Bucky, to see their dynamic evolve. They were both friends with Steve, the original Cap, and while they both worked with their hero they never really worked with each other. There's a void in the middle of their dynamic and while everyone else just expects these two to work together, there's no easy bond between them, nothing to link these two as friends aside from the guy that's missing. The show explores this dynamic and does a pretty good job of letting the two of them develop their own co-worker relationship (and, eventually, friendship).
I think, though, where the show starts to lose me is with everything else. It's not that I think the story of someone else becoming "Captain America" is a bad one. John Walker takes over the mantle in the comics, too, and eventually he's shown to be unfit to wear those stars and stripes. Having his arc be that of a reverse of Steve Rogers is interesting, and see this happen after Sam tries to retire to role is a solid slap in the face to the character to wake him up. I think the issue comes with how this plot line is brought into the show alongside the other major story arc: the Flag Smashers.
Again, I think on its own the Flag Smasher's story is interesting. A group that thinks they're fighting for what's right, that wants to do right by all the refugees left behind, that's a group that could work as a solid counter point to Captain America, or the ideals of the character. Having them stand as a counterpoint to Sam and Bucky is interesting, and I like the idea of the two of them having to fight people that are powered up the way Steve was, just without that characters moral compass. Again, is shows a dark reflection of the original Captain America and what can happen if the role (or the powers) fall into the wrong hands.
What I don't like is having both of these plot lines competing for time in this show. Having both the story of John Walker and the Flag Smashers going on side-by-side leaves us without enough development of either half. We don't get to know John Walker well enough to see what the U.S. Government sees in him, or to see how he would be an unfit person for the role, so we only get to see him through Sam's eyes and Sam feels betrayed because that shield should have been his, or no ones. Meanwhile, the Flag Smashers also don't get enough development. We see what they do, and we learn about the Blip as a way of trying to justify what they do, but there's not enough development of Karli as a character for us to understand who she was before she got the serum, and we don't get to learn how far off the path she strays and if this was due to the serum or just part of who she was.
In a way, I feel like this TV series parallels the first Captain America film just a little too well. That was a movie that rushed through its major story beats to setup its character and have him ready to join the Avengers. It could have easily been two movies, given time to breath and to let the characters really grow, but instead it was crammed to fit a schedule. That same thing seems to be happening here, with two seasons worth of story shoved into a single movie so Marvel can have their new Captain America (spoilers if you haven't read the comics: its Sam) ready to go for his own film adventure down the road.
Ideally for me, Sam and Bucky would have fought the Flag Smashers over the course of this season, and in the background they would have gotten assistance and support from their new military handler, John Walker. This season's arc, with super soldiers and the evil that can be caused by them, would have helped him make up his mind and he'd set aside the shield, putting it in a museum, with the title, he thinks, getting retired. Then, at the end of the season, Walker because the new Cap, which feels like a betrayal for everyone as we saw him over the season and he seemed like a friend to Sam and Buck. The second season would have then followed him as he became the new Cap, struggled under the weight of the role, and fell from grace, with Sam taking the shield back and realizing he has to be Cap because no one else can. That's a two-season arc that breathes and gives all the characters their due.
I don't think this first season of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is bad, but it's also not good. It struggles under its own weight, failing to honor the legacy of Captain America while also rushing the plot beats of a black man feeling betrayed by his country only to then take the mantle for himself and wear it with pride. There are a lot of beats that needed better fleshing out (and this doesn't even get into the rushed characterizations of b-players like Daniel Bruhl's Helmut Zemo, Emily VanCamp's Sharon Carter, or Georges St-Pierre's Georges Batroc) to make everything rise to a satisfactory whole. Marvel wanted to do this story, but they wanted it setup and done in a single arc and it just doesn't work nearly as well as it should this way.
It's weird to see Marvel stumble, but this series does feel like a bit of a misstep. It's not bad, and it's certainly watchable as an action series as well as a buddy-film for Sam and Buck, but it could have been so much better. If this series defines the MCU, it's as a series that is struggling to find its next step after the end of its first big era. Some works like WandaVision (and potentially the upcoming Loki and What If?) show us a new way forward that feels fresh and interesting. I'll watch more of Sam and Bucky any day, I just hope its in a show that pushes what an MCU work could be and finds a way to flesh out its world and takes the needed time to breathe. Falcon and Winter Soldier, as decent enough as it is, isn't the way forward for a fresh and interesting MCU for Phase IV and beyond.