The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is worthy. It’s filled with ideas, and it asks plenty of questions. That’s to be admired but it fails as a television show. It’s become a bit of a cliché for creators of the streaming age to say that their show is actually “just one long movie” but that’s certainly the ambition of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But it’s not focussed enough to be a movie. It was a show with a final destination in mind but no idea how to get there. It was like a deranged satnav, that took far too many long and inexplicable diversions and when you finally got where you knew you were going, you just felt a little tired and annoyed.
The show picks up after the events of Avengers: Endgame with Steve Rogers dead (as far as the world knows) having passed his famous shield to his wingman Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). But Sam doesn’t want to pick up the mantle and become Captain America aware of what that shield and the title represents and the complications that come from his race. Meanwhile Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is facing the world for the first time since regaining his agency and feeling guilt about the horrible crimes he committed as the Winter Soldier, going to therapy and generally avoiding taking his place in the world.
And that meanwhile is a problem. Sam and Bucky’s stories do not mesh organically, not really. In fact, they spend the first episode without a single interaction leading you believe that it’ll take something meaningful to bring them together. But no, Buck just shows up at Sam’s work at the start of the next episode to complain about his giving the shield to the US government and then follows him on a mission.
But the titular characters are not the only leads with their own stories. We see John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a decorated veteran become the newly appointed Captain America, who is very probably out of his depth. we also follow the story of Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) leader of the Flag Smashers, a group with super soldier serum fighting for the rights of those displaced by the return of half the population following the blip. Basically, the show has a real protagonist problem.
These are all interesting characters who all have a journey and a reason why they do the things we do. But it also makes it harder for us to take the side of our leading men especially Bucky, whose arc is just following someone else around and getting therapy before working out how to smile again.
It also doesn’t really help that their roles in this new world are so ill-defined. Sam has contracts with the government… okay, but does that give him impunity to roam the world and do whatever he likes? And what’s Bucky’s role in this? He’s been pardoned for his many crimes as a brainwashed assassin but is he also on the books at the same agency as Sam? SHIELD was really useful because it was just a catch-all which meant you could handwave this stuff. Even at the end, I have no idea who was working for who or in what capacity. They could really have used a boss character to tell them to work as a team and that they had 24 hours to solve the case.
But there is depth and good intentions in there. At its heart, the show is about what it means for a Black man to become Captain America. To this end, Bucky introduces Sam to Isiah Bradley, a Black super soldier who fought in the 1950s but was experimented on for 30 years. But it all feels disconnected, there’s no discovery or real motivation behind it. A character just has the knowledge and then they go meet him. Surely there’s value in showing his story or being led to him through an investigation, discovering his story and how he ended up where he is rather than just turning up at a door and having him explain.
Similarly, the dynamic duo decide that they have to break onetime Avengers’ big bad Zemo (Daniel Brühl) out of jail because he’s the expert on super soldiers. They said it was a last resort. It didn’t seem like a last resort. It just seemed like a really random thing to do, and then that led them on another merry chase to Marvel’s fictional city of sin Madripoor where they just happen to run into Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who has become jaded after going on the run after the events of Captain America: Civil War. She shows up throughout the show and is all ambiguous now but there’s no real reason to care. She’s barely a character here and was barely a character in the films before.
Then there’s Karli, a freedom fighter who wants to get her message out by any means and has taken the newly rediscovered super soldier serum along with her comrades. Her cause is interesting but because we’re never shown the world that they’re fighting for, we don’t get a proper sense of what the stakes are, what the world was like during the blip and how it impacted people right after. We need that information. That said, Kellyman is a very different antagonist from those we’ve seen before and it’s a good performance but I still don’t think there’s ever a visual sense that she’s leading a global movement. Everything we see feels far too small.
There are great moments scattered throughout the show. The helicopter fight in the opening episode is some cool action; the shot of Captain America holding a blood-spattered shield is powerful; there’s a thoughtful and well-considered dialogue exchange in episode four between Sam and Karli about what it means to wield power which is probably the best moment in the show. And when Sam takes on the mantle in the final episode, it’s a punch-the-air moment. But it’s all surrounded by darlings that probably should have been killed and tonal shifts which leave the show off kilter.
The show combines the professional superspy genre with the personal and that means exploring Black identity in the US today. There’s a scene of Sam being denied a bank loan to help fix his sister’s boat, the generational family business. It’s an important scene and one we should see on TV in the 21st century which illustrates taht no matter how powerful you are, if you’re Black, there’s always a divide in America. But it’s hard to make this blend of home life and global stakes feel integrated.
After multiple episodes of fighting super soldiers, Sam and Bucky spend most of an episode fixing a boat like they tripped into a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. And for a show which feels for the most part filled with shades of grey, there are some moments of extreme earnestness, which feel like they border on parody. The community all coming together to help fix the boat is on the edge, but when members of the crowd are cheering on the new Captain America and exchanging comments about his identity, it really feels like a cartoon. And Sam’s positive speech about making positive changes at the end almost feels like it’s from an episode of Captain Planet. It’s just so on the nose and idealistic. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s what being Captain America means. Maybe Sam picking up the shield changes the genre from shades of grey to red white and blue, but it’s jarring nonetheless.
So, it’s an admirable failure, but it’s a failure. Up to now, the MCU has been entertaining froth. This goes darker, there’s more swearing and its ideas and intentions are all the right ones. But the format was wrong. They needed to embrace episodic television like WandaVision and The Mandalorian before and make each week count, because at the end, you have a whole load of good things, mashed together into an unsatisfying mess.
All six episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are now available to stream on Disney+.