First look UK TV review: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
James R | On 18, Mar 2021
Superhero stories are always, at their heart, tales of identity, as characters face constant choices about who they are. Living with an alter-ego will do that, from life-and-death decisions that define their legacy to the national, or even international, spotlight highlighting their every action. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which follows WandaVision in Marvel’s expansion of its universe on Disney+, is a show that gives its titular heroes time to pause and work out who they are.
As WandaVision profoundly demonstrated, the scale and screentime of a TV series gives Marvel’s familiar figures the breathing space to wrestle with consequences, guilt, grief and regret – all things that don’t really get covered in a two-hour blockbuster. And so we catch up with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) a short while after the events of Avengers: Endgame, both grappling with how to carry on life in a world without Captain America.
It’s a landscape that’s rife for brooding meditation, and the two leading men don’t disappoint. Stan is glowering and near-silent as he attends court-ordered sessions with a therapist (a wonderfully no-nonsense Amy Aquino), who doesn’t hesitate to challenge him on his unhealthy lack of communication about his feelings. Haunted by nightmares recalling his violent missions as the Winter Soldier, Barnes is in the middle of trying to make amends for his past, but even the playful prospect of a relationship with restaurant owner Leah (Miki Ishikawa) is overshadowed by daunting prospect of making amends.
While one man is trying to reinsert himself into the world and build connections, the other is struggling to navigate the connections he already has. Mackie is wonderfully warm and compassionate as we see him reconnect with his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), who is struggling to make ends meet.
Oduye and Mackie’s chemistry is immediately convincing, and they shine in a scene at a local bank that teases out some promising depths for the series, as it examines the way that even being a superhero can’t overcome day-to-day realities.
While the Wilson family wrestle with letting go of an heirloom to forge a future, Sam’s wary of taking one on, as the question of shouldering Captain America’s mantle dominates the show’s opening hour – a question of representation as much as expectation, and one that there isn’t an easy answer to.
All of this is tackled with a deceptively light touch, with an introductory set piece promising the kind of big-screen spectacle and action we can expect from director Kari Skogland (The Walking Dead). Along with a nice cameo from a recognisable hard-punching henchman, it’s a reminder of what the Falcon’s own abilities are, including his nifty Redwing sidekick – a mini-falcon with gadgets aplenty that, frankly, makes Sam’s knack for multi-tasking while in peril quite remarkable.
Mackie excels in this fast-quipping, butt-kicking mode, not because he can switch tone quickly but because he makes that smiling, charismatic presence one and the same as the quieter, introspective fellow we see away from covert missions. It’s his and Stan’s performances that do the heavy lifting, with head writer Malcolm Spellman (Empire) trusting them to convey the turmoil of these adrift men without needing to spell it out.
It’s a shame, then, that we don’t see them together in this first episode, which spends its time setting things up – a terrorist organisation here, some spy-oriented chicanery there – rather than racing ahead to the double-act promised by the title. After WandaVision was praised for its weekly release schedule (something that Disney+ has operated for all of its launch titles, including Hulu series making their UK debut via Star), it will be interesting to see whether The Falcon and the Winter Soldier can survive unfolding at a slow pace, given it occupies far more conventional territory than WandaVision’s puzzle-box mystery.
While this first chapter doesn’t dazzle or leave you immediately demanding the next episode, it does lay out the playing field with confidence and efficiency, reminding us of the human stakes facing Marvel’s heroes and, in one key scene, the fact that the wider world won’t hesitate to push them to the sidelines if necessary. The surefire way to work out your own identity? Have someone else try and decide it for you.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.