How much energy can you muster for a drawn-out superhero option on TV this weekend? In terms of content that favors deliberately paced cinematics over instant, wham-bam action, the DC Comics universe already has a four-hour option capturing headlines—and for good reason.
Hence, HBO Max has mildly spoiled the debut of new Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The first episode launched today, March 19, without the surprise and weirdness factor that came with January’s Wandavision premiere. Without novelty on its side, the series has to stand up on more familiar laurels. Thankfully, that’s the case, but the results don’t quite reach the “rush to watch right now” conversation-starter status Disney+ has enjoyed over the past few months.
Shield retires a shield
This is now Marvel Studios’ second post-“unsnappening” series, and it’s the first to take a more predictable tack on fallout throughout the Marvel universe. Endgame set this new TV series up in shameless corporate-synergy fashion, when Chris Evans handed his Captain America shield to Anthony Mackie (The Falcon) and Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier), essentially telling audiences, “Two superheroes will continue a specific plotline—so stay tuuuuned.”
On a macro scale, the pilot’s plot revolves around superheroes who wrestle with personal matters while trying to make the world a better place. But unlike Wandavision, F&WS seems less confident in trusting its audience to immediately sink its teeth into an atypical setup.
Falcon opens the series with a 10-minute, movie-caliber action sequence in which he is asked to “subtly” save a hostage before an airborne kidnapping plot crosses the Libyan border. Hence, Falcon suits up, flies around, and blows up somewhere in the range of five aircraft while punching and kicking a bunch of dudes. (As soon as the word “subtle” was spoken, I predicted this many bangs and booms.)
This is a one-superhero mission, I should add, and everything else Falcon (aka Sam Wilson) does in this episode is completely removed from the life of the Winter Soldier (aka Bucky Barnes). Falcon is openly connected to US military opps. He attends a “retirement” event for Captain America’s shield, chats with War Machine (Don Cheadle) about grief, and reconnects with his sister for the first time since the world unsnapped.
Sadly, Mackie doesn’t hit the ground running as a character we can understand and connect with; his opening-scene grief is unfortunately anchored mostly by rote melodrama and recognizable Cap’n iconography. The Disney+ touch of nicely paced character development doesn’t really kick in until we meet his sister (Adepero Oduye, Netflix’s When They See Us). Their lives diverged wildly after he vanished for five years, and they reckon with their disagreements over a neatly paced series of events that feels more like an ABC drama than an average Marvel film. It’s not “risky” stuff for a superhero series, but we finally get to see Falcon as a human—and particularly, one whose allegiance to family and abundance of charm can sometimes run out of gas.
Loans, therapy, and dates, oh my
Meanwhile, Barnes’s timeline feels a bit more ripped out of a premium-cable archetype. That comparison is bolstered by a disagreeable couch session that only David Chase’s mother could love. As shameless as the scene is, it does well to affirm Barnes’s progress as someone resembling a respectable “hero.” This session’s back-and-forth confirms that Barnes is in the middle of a sort of bad-guy 12-step program, making amends for past Hydra grievances.
Unsurprisingly, his grip on a veritable “chip” is tenuous, and F&WS‘s first episode is at its best when it doesn’t let Barnes off the hook. His progress through this series is likely going to be marked by him having to brutally face his worst demons, and this episode does a nimble job of putting a more animated and emotional cast around these moments. Stan is clearly able to pause and wait for appropriate moments to punch hard, opening up with heartfelt charm one moment and then clamming up with silent, acting-his-ass-off pain and regret the next. These moments work in particular thanks to Stan’s castmates bouncing off them as if they are in the audience with us.
The real reason this episode works can be summed up by one exchange in Barnes’ therapy session, in which he sighs and lets his guard down for a moment. “I just went from one fight to another for 90 years,” he says about his struggle with processing emotions. His doctor pauses for a beat: “Now that you’ve stopped fighting, what do you want?”
This two-line exchange sums up F&WS‘s debut. This first episode is filled with moments for two underdeveloped superheroes to stop fighting, look up at the camera with eyes wide open, and come to terms with who they are as characters and people. Exactly how the full series will pull that off remains to be seen, but from the look of the premiere (and previous series trailers), the answer seems to be more rote than Wandavision‘s approach: some CGI-filled combat, some tenuous agreements between the titular heroes, and likely, the typical Marvel conclusion of “heroes eventually save the day, perhaps at a cost, to set up the next Big Thing.”
So if you were expecting wild twists that’ll keep you turning off social media should you skip an episode, so far F&WS appears to have more emotional dialogue and plot development befitting an ABC serial than your average superhero film. That may ultimately be the crux here: a Disney+ series that might honestly be fine to pause now, binge later. So if you need a breather after four hours of Zack Snyder insanity, take a break this week. But know that Mackie and Stan impress thus far as stars, enough to convince me to keep tuning in to see where F&WS flies to next.
Listing image by Marvel Studios