UK TV review: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (spoilers)
Ivan Radford | On 26, Apr 2021
Warning: This review of all six episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier contains spoilers. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 here.
“You of all people bought into that,” sighs Karli (Erin Kellyman) at the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) makes the anticipated jump from being the Falcon to being the new Captain America. It’s a decision that completes a journey set in motion ever since Steve Rogers passed the shield to Sam at the end of Avengers: Endgame. But, as Sam points out in this Disney+ series, “the legacy of the shield is… complicated”. And that’s before you even get to the act of Sam picking it up – one that raises important questions of representation as much as expectation, to which there aren’t easy answers.
Is Sam ready to become Captain America? And, moreover, is America ready to have a Black Captain America? On both counts, it was a no at the start of show, as Sam shied away from adopting the mantle, only for the military to turn around and immediately crown someone else as Cap 2.0: John Walker, played with a winking arrogance by Wyatt Russell.
Superhero tales have always been, at their heart, tales of identity, from life-and-death decisions that define a hero’s legacy to the national, or even international, spotlight highlighting their every action. The surefire way to work out your own identity? Have someone else try and decide it for you. And so John Walkers’ appointment as Cap 2.0 nudges Sam, and the MCU and America at large, to consider who they are and want to be in the future.
It’s a noble, big and timely theme that sits at the centre of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – and so it’s a huge shame that the show never quite delivers on its exploration of that theme. That’s primarily because the series tries to do too much, filling up the screen not only with Sam, Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Walker, but also with Karli’s terrorist organisation, the Flag-Smashers, trying to change the social order, the return of Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) with his own agenda, a cameo from Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and The Winter Soldier’s own therapeutic arc of redemption.
That we come out of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feeling like we haven’t really spent much time with its leading duo together is a sign that the series hasn’t managed to juggle all of those elements. Indeed, it’s telling that Sebastian Stan’s best moments come in the lengthy epilogues, which see him finally at peace and relaxed as he hangs out with Sam’s family (although an Episode 4 sequence that sees his Winter Soldier brainwashing broken is wonderfully moving). And when we do get Sam and Bucky teaming up in the finale to stop the Flag-Smashers, it’s a team-up that’s confused by the arrival of Walker attempting to redeem himself by doing something good.
Walker’s sort-of redemption comes after we haven’t seen him since he dosed up on super-serum and used Captain America’s shield to beat a man to death. He appears once more in the climactic set piece with a makeshift shield he seems to have made himself – although the lack of any scenes to explain how he got from being blacklisted by the military to joking with Bucky is an obstacle that’s hard to get around. By the end credits, he’s recruited by Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine to be “US Agent”, a super-strong tool for presumably bad things (the fact that comic books veteran Contessa Valentina is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and is called Contessa Valentina, suggests she’s going to be an MCU villain).
Russell’s unhinged, unsettling and chilling performance is great – he shows what happens when Captain America’s power and symbolism is wielded by someone with unthinking privilege and no moral scruples. But his tragic arc doesn’t really land, only muddying the show’s waters further – a real shame, given Walker marks a rare moment in the MCU when Marvel acknowledges the normally right-wing politics and sentiments at the core of superhero blockbusters, as heroes fight to maintain the status quo of American society.
The introduction of Karli, then, is a neat way for the series to examine questions of entitlement and disenfranchisement, as she fights to stop a relocation programme that would leave people displaced after the balance of the world was upended when the Thanos-induced blip was reversed, bringing people back into existence after five years. Sam, whose sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), and nephews are struggling to make ends meet, can relate to that problem, as even being a superhero can’t make him and his loved ones immune to the inherent inequalities of modern civilisation. While Bucky is trying to reinsert himself into the world, Sam is trying to shoulder one burden while already carrying another, and Mackie’s performance is wonderfully charismatic and thoughtfully brooding, often juggled with a light touch and a witty humour. It’s a joy to see him get the chance of impressing with the added screen-time that a TV show affords.
Except you can’t shake the feeling that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would work better as a movie than a TV show. Baron Zemo’s presence is a distraction, really only serving as a way to get Sam and Bucky from Place A to Point B, while Emily VanCamp is absolutely under-served by Sharon Carter’s return, which sees her hiding out in the fictional lawless nation of Madripoor but then takes her back to American soil anyway with zero repercussions, whether she’s wearing a Mission: Impossible mask or not. The final reveal that she is the Power Broker is a throwaway tease for an upcoming Marvel movie or series that could easily be positioned as the surprising cold open for that project. Removing both of those elements would leave a streamlined two-hour feature with more time to discuss Karli’s cause and make her a more credible villain, to fill in the plot holes involving Walker and, most of all, more chance for Sam and Bucky to interact and show off Mackie and Stan’s gradually warming chemistry. (It’s no coincidence that the best episode out of the six was Episode 5, which merged a training montage with a poignant heart-to-heart that should have happened several episodes sooner.)
It would also mean more time to delve into the story of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), the most interesting character in the series by far – a super soldier who got his strength as a result of involuntary experiments performed by the American military on African-American soldiers. His scenes with Sam – particularly the emotional moment when Sam arranges for Isaiah’s untold story to be displayed in the Smithsonian alongside Cap’s history – is a rare instance of the MCU considering what it means to be a Black man with power in a predominantly white society.
“You of all people bought into that,” sighs Karli, when she sees Sam stepping into Captain America’s shoes. It’s a great line: she’s right that he’s taken on all of the complicated legacy tied up with Cap’s shield, even as Sam rises above it to try and demonstrate that America can do and be better. The costume design on Sam’s new uniform is superb, not erasing his own Falcon identity (check out the swish new wings) while also moving the Captain America stars and stripes back to the centre (compared to Walker’s militarised get-up, which had a deliberately unnatural look).
There are so many tiny details like that which resonate through the series – a shout-out also goes to Sam’s Air Force support Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez), who provides a Redwing-like human sidekick with his own smarts. But that only makes the jarring missteps and uneven leaps all the more noticeable, such as the moment when Cap’s vibranium shield is stopped in mid-flight by a plastic office chair thrown by Batroc (Georges St-Pierre, returning from Captain America: The Winter Soldier) or when Sam’s rousing final speech to the Global Repatriation Council goes on for several minutes just to make sure every theme the show’s addressing is spelled out in full. It’s a powerful, long-earned moment that marks a major shift and welcome evolution in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, complete with its own reworked end title – you just wish the rest of series lived up to its own legacy.
The Falcon and the Falcon is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.