(This review contains spoilers)
The Captain America trilogy contains arguably some of the best movies in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, so naturally a TV show that follows the same themes, action, and political drama was going to invite some more attention. In the span of its six episode season, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is able to deliver a thrilling arc for one of its two titular characters and provide deep commentary on race and politics. However, the show buckles under its own weight with a too many subplots that never reach a satisfying conclusion and a lackluster villain that diminishes the show’s overall potential. It certainly is no WandaVision, but it does provide a solid watch that is well worth your time on Disney+.
Taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame the show follows Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes as they begin grapple a life without their good friend Steve Rogers. After receiving the iconic shield from his friend, Sam must grapple with the weight of what it means to become Captain America and whether he can live up to that mantle. Bucky, on the other hand, is dealing with psychological ramifications of his time as the Winter Solider and wrestling with what it means to live a normal life after so much time as a brainwashed assassin. At the heart of their internal conflicts is a global organization that threatens the status quo with their political agenda.
The show has a lot to cover, but where it ultimately succeeds the greatest comes in the character arc of Sam Wilson and the journey to him becoming Captain America. The show delves deeper than expected into this arc, exploring themes of racial injustice in America and the weight of a black man wearing the iconic stars and stripes. Anthony Mackie delivers a strong performance throughout the show, imbuing his scenes with the same charisma that made him such a likable character in the movies. Here, he has a stronger sense of vulnerability and weight on his shoulders as he struggles to grapple with whether or not he should become Captain America. The conversations he has in addition to the subtle nuances in his facial movements convey a strong sense of duty held back by a society that is lukewarm to his presence. By the time he puts on the suit and shield and embraces his role, it feels earned and delivers a cathartic excitement for the audience. While we all knew the series was building to that eventual reveal, it doesn’t make the journey any less exciting and memorable.
Unfortunately, Bucky doesn’t not receive similar treatment to his character despite there being so much to mine from his psyche. The premiere started off with excellent promise for his character as he wrestles with the weight of his actions and whether or not he can truly be a good person. There were some strong moments for him, particularly the flashbacks that highlight the pain and trauma he endured to overcome what Hydra had done to him, but they are far and few between. Bucky’s entire character progression is marked by him having a hard conversation with one of his friends Yori, but that conversation is only given its due at the end and is quickly dealt with without having any time to breathe. He feels more like an add on to this series rather than someone who is their own character which is unfortunate given the potential that was there.
That lack of potential and missed opportunity is further highlighted with the re-introduction of Zemo from Captain America: Civil War. I loved this character in the movie, and although he wasn’t needed for that story, his philosophy coupled with the fact he doesn’t have any powers made him an interesting wild card for the show. Seeing him deconstruct superheroes and his view on Cap’s shield further invite an interesting discussion on what power truly is and how society treats its heroes. Unfortunately, he’s only around for the middle two episodes when he could have been the series true antagonist. The manipulation he has over Bucky was fascinating, but it never goes anywhere which could have been utilized to flesh out Bucky’s arc a little bit more. Zemo’s wild card antics provided the series with its most interesting ideas and its a shame that he wasn’t used more.
The series true “villains” lie behind Karli Morgenthau as the leader of an organization known as the Flag Smashers, and John Walker who serves as government controlled Captain America. Walker is by far the more interesting of the two, as he is the exact antithesis to who Steve Rogers was. He’s arrogant, brash, and prideful and yet you do see some humanity within him. The show was doing great when he delivered the series most jaw-dropping moment in bludgeoning a man to death with Cap’s shield. It conveyed the dangers of what a government mandated Captain America truly looks like and further continues the themes of freedom outlined in Civil War. Unfortunately, Walker’s arc feels rushed to make him a “hero” at the end where he saves multiple civilians. He essentially gets off with zero consequences for his actions, and bafflingly makes amends with Steve and Bucky. His character further exemplifies the whole potential over execution that holds this show back.
Karli Morgenthau and her group of Flag Smashers have interesting motivations and philosophy’s but again are executed poorly. Karli comes across too much as a whiney teenage brat instead of a formidable leader with a point to prove. All of her actions and dialogue come off as way too extreme, and make it feel like this character is completely miscast. I would have preferred someone a bit older that would have allowed me to take their intentions more seriously. Furthermore, the show doesn’t do a great job of fleshing them out which makes the eventual speech by Sam at the end of the show feel very forced. The political commentary is rich here, but it is given enough time in the spotlight to breathe and allow us to understand more.
That’s the common frustration that comes with watching this show, it has too many side plots without not enough episodes to dedicate the time too. At only 6 episodes, the show needed to do a better job of pacing its story in order for us to feel the true impact of what it was trying to say. When it comes to the political commentary of refugees and nationalism, the show hits interesting beats but fails to deliver a satisfying and thought provoking conclusion to that arc. Outside of Sam Wilson, no character really has a profound growth or arc that had enough time dedicated to it.
The show does succeed in its commentary on race and Black America, especially when it comes to the scenes between Isaiah Bradley and Sam Wilson. The quiet moments portray the hurt and betrayal these characters feel in an increasingly white society, while their dialogue together feels truly raw and emotional that makes the audience think about their own place in society. The show gives great depth and justice to both of these characters as Sam embraces the mantle of Captain America and Isaiah is given his proper recognition in history for the sacrifices he made for his country. If for nothing else, this show is worth watching just for these themes.
Carrying on from the excellent direction by the Russo Brothers, the show maintains the gritty action form the MCU movies. Whether it’s the opening aerial dogfight, or the hand to hand combat the action is helmed with confidence and able to deliver quality to that of a full cinematic adventure. The finale does contain too much action over substance, but I enjoyed it for what it was and the scale with which the scenes were filmed. It provided an entertaining bout amongst the heavy drama.
I can’t help but see a pattern between the two Marvel shows that have released since the beginning of this year. Both shows give one of its two titular characters a magnificent character study and allow room to flesh out secondary characters from the films. Unfortunately, they both also promise more than they can deliver and don’t always know how to conclude their ambitious storytelling. WandaVision made Wanda look like the villain for most of the show but then asks you to sympathize with her near the end with no consequences for her actions. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has the Flag Smashers try to be sympathetic and then forces an understanding of their motives to the point where the show asks you to not label them as terrorists. I do hope that moving forward into its other shows that Marvel can maintain a bold story while also dedicating the appropriate amount of time to make the conclusions feel earned.
Overall, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an enjoyable show with lack of execution. It succeeds greatly in Sam’s journey to Captain America and the exploration of race and power in an increasingly white society. Outside of that, the show has some fun with its characters but never delivers anything as satisfying or cathartic as what Sam Wilson goes through. As the title of the show changes in the end credits to Captain America and the Winter Soldier, it’s apparent what the show’s main objective was and with that it succeeded greatly. Unfortunately, the show needed less subplots and more focused attention to be a more balanced and rich show that it clearly could be. Definitely still worth a watch if you’re a Marvel fan, especially with the recent announcement of a new Captain America movie in the future.