Review: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier aims high, but falls a bit short

Confession: I wanted to like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier more than I ultimately did. The various trailers seemed so promising, giving off vibes of a “buddy cop” action flick, with a bit more room to flesh out the character development and themes. What we got was a show that was trying to do too many things at once—including setting the stage for the Phase 4 films coming down the pike—and as a result, it never did any of those things as well as it could have done.

(There are a few major spoilers below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)

F&WS picks up in the wake of Avengers: End Game, when Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) handed his Captain America shield to Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson (The Falcon) and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier), having chosen to remain in the past and live out his life with Peggy Carter. Sam and Bucky must grapple with losing Steve and the burden of his legacy. Meanwhile, the US government has named their own new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a decorated veteran and ultimate “good soldier” who thinks he can better embody “American values” than Rogers. (The nerve!)

All three men find themselves battling a terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers, led by a woman named Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kelllyman) , many of whom have been enhanced with the Super Soldier Serum. Where did they get it? From a mysterious person known only as the Power Broker. The Flag Smashers are targeting the Global Repatriation Council (GRC) set up to help those who disappeared in the Snappening (or the Blip), and then returned, re-acclimate to a very different world. (Apparently the Flag Smashers liked it better before everyone came back.)  

“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,” Ars Tech Culture Editor Sam Machkovech wrote in his review of the first episode. “But unlike Wandavision, F&WS seems less confident in trusting its audience to immediately sink its teeth into an atypical setup.” He concluded:

This first episode is filled with moments allowing 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.”

That pretty much sums up my feelings about the series as a whole. F&WS struck me as relentlessly formulaic, adhering so strictly to the Marvel playbook that my overall response was mostly “meh.”  But as always, taste in film and TV is highly subjective; even internally, we don’t always agree. Ars Technica Creative Director Aurich Lawson was much more impressed with the full series than I was, so it’s worth sharing his general thoughts from our Slack discussion for some added perspective:

I’ve really enjoyed the transition from the MCU films to television, as someone who’s seen all of the movies, but was starting to experience burnout after Endgame. WandaVision was a really welcome change of pace, I enjoyed all of it, from the early sitcom concepts onwards. I never felt like it was too slow, or was impatient to get to a resolution. The Falcon and Winter Soldier was a shift back away from the experimental stuff to a much more by-the-numbers approach, but again, the pacing of it all has been really refreshing. If you condensed everything into a 2.5-hour movie, you would lose all of the quiet moments, the ability to slow down and let the characters breathe and feel human. Sam and Bucky’s relationship development felt natural, instead of rushed.

Comic books, as a medium, work best when they’re allowed to have an arc that doesn’t cram the three acts into a handful of issues. Television is just a much more natural vehicle for comic stories, in my mind, and if the MCU can keep delivering stories that are slower and character-driven, then I’m going to remain an interested viewer. I don’t think that the way F&WS treated the black super hero experience could have worked in a film. It would have been too superficial; the show was able to do moments that would have been cut to make runtime otherwise.

I agree with Aurich’s larger point: Marvel’s shift to character-driven standalone series, in between major film releases, is a welcome move, for precisely the reasons he cites: it provides the opportunity to slow down and flesh out the characters and their relationships, as well as develop and explore interesting themes. It’s why I was such a big fan of the various Marvel/Netflix series. I think it’s especially welcome given the traumatic events of Infinity War and End Game. No character emerged unscathed, and both WandaVision and F&WS are focused on exploring the devastating aftermath of those events, albeit in very different ways.

Unlike Aurich, I just don’t think F&WS pulled it off; even the treatment of the “black superhero experience” struck me as pretty superficial. If you’re not going to make the most of the extended TV format to really delve into complicated issues like that, then just make a 2.5-hour movie.

(WARNING: spoilers below. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the entire series.)

Case in point: Sam and Bucky are both processing their grief over the loss of Steve Rogers, while navigating personal challenges (Sam’s tense relationship with his sister, Bucky’s guilt over a young man he killed while being controlled as the Winter Soldier). There are a couple of nice, introspective moments here and there, but those ultimately get drowned out by the complicated central plot of foiling the Flag Smashers, and the big reveal of the Power Broker’s identity.

That’s in stark contrast to WandaVision, in which Wanda’s grief over losing Vision literally drove the entire plot, and also neatly set up Phase 4, with Wanda coming into her full powers (for better or worse) as the Scarlet Witch. And frankly, Mackie and Stan just don’t have the same onscreen chemistry—as performers—as Olsen and Bettany do in WandaVision, and that makes them less interesting to watch, week after week.

The strongest parts of F&WS were those scenes delving into the nuances of Steve Rogers’ complicated legacy, post Civil War, and of Sam’s conflicted feelings about being a black Captain America. I loved the reveal of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a Korean War veteran who had been secretly imprisoned and given the Super Soldier Serum against his will, enduring 30 years of experimentation. He tells Sam he can’t imagine how any black man could take up Captain America’s shield because of what it represents to people like him—and can you blame him?

Bradley’s character juxtaposes beautifully with that of John Walker. Steve Rogers became a patriotic symbol during World War II, when US troops were righteous heroes beating back the Nazi scourge. But the world has changed a lot since then, and Walker is haunted by some of the morally questionable acts he committed on his country’s behalf. It is inevitable that he will crack under the pressure of trying to be the new Captain America, brutally killing a Flag Smasher with his shield in full view of public onlookers, who capture it all on their smartphones. Americans still like to think of ourselves as the righteous heroes in global conflicts, but that powerful image of blood dripping from Cap’s shield is a painful reminder of how much of the rest of the world often views us.

It’s a show-stopping moment that deserved sober reflection, and I wish the show had taken the time in the next episode to fully parse all the nuances engendered there. Instead, we get a knock-down fight between a serum-enhanced Walker, Sam, and Bucky, ending with Sam’s wingsuit destroyed. (Walker escapes with a broken arm, sans shield, and we see him in a post-credits scene melting down his military medals to make a new shield.)

So even here, everything else that’s going on serves to water down the overall impact, particularly in the final showdown, where Sam—in his new Captain America-themed wingsuit—gives what is supposed to be a stirring speech to the GRC members he has just rescued from assassination. Alas, the speech is not especially profound or insightful, and falls flat. It’s clearly supposed to be the defining moment of the show, but Walker and his bloodied shield proved far more memorable.

I wish the writers had just fully leaned into that contrast between Sam and Walker, the way WandaVision leaned into Wanda processing her grief—no other subplots as distractions, no apologies. And I wish they had delved more deeply into Bucky’s lingering guilt; it’s treated as more of an occasional afterthought, instead of a central inner conflict that defines his personal growth over the course of the series. I mean, we’re told he’s finally made his peace in his journey to make amends, but we didn’t really experience his process.

Marvel recently announced a fourth Captain America film in development, with Mackie’s Sam in the titular role. And while F&WS was, like WandaVision, intended as a standalone series, there have been hints of a possible second season. Regardless of what Marvel decides, we’ll always have the memory of Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) dancing:

A full hour of Dancing Zemo, courtesy of Marvel Studios, who saw all your memes.

All episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are now streaming on Disney+.

Listing image by Marvel/Disney+