First all, I have a new article up at Galactic Journey today. This time around, I review the classic East German fairy tale movie King Thrushbeard, which stars a very young Manfred Kurg.
It’s time for my episode by episode reviews of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. If you want my thoughts on previous episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, go here. Also, may I remind you that Disney is still not paying Alan Dean Foster and others.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
The episode starts with a flashback to Wakanda six years ago. The Dora Milaje Ayo tests the newly deprogrammed Bucky by reading out the Russian words which activat the Winter Soldier programming. “Don’t worry, I won’t allow you to hurt anybody”, Ayo assures Bucky.
Then she begins to read. The deprogramming took hold, but we see only too clearly how those words and the memories associated with them affect Bucky. Some great acting by Sebastian Stan here.
Fast forward six years and Ayo is confronting Bucky in the cobblestone streets of what is supposed to be Riga, capital of Latvia, but is really Prague. There’s a great aerial shot of Ayo and Bucky standing on differently coloured cobblestones BTW.
Ayo wants Zemo to avenge the death of King T’Chaka on her watch. Bucky couldn’t care less about what becomes of Zemo, but unfortunately they still need him. So he makes a deal with Ayo. He will use Zemo and when he and Sam no longer need him, Ayo can have him. Ayo is not happy about this, but she grudgingly accepts, though she only gives Bucky a few hours.
With Ayo appeased for now, Bucky returns to the apartment that Zemo just happens to have in Riga, where Sam has more bad news for him. Karli Morgenthau and the Flag-Smashers have bombed a depot of the Global Repatriation Council (which we saw at the end of the last episode), killing three and wounding eleven. Even though Karli has now officially upgraded herself from revolutionary to terrorist, Sam still thinks that Karli can be reasoned with. Zemo, meanwhile, is convinced that Karli is a lost cause. “She’s a supremacist”, he says and continues to point out that the serum only enhances who a person already is and that power always corrupts, whether it’s the Nazis, supersoldiers, Ultron or the Avengers.
“They’re our friends,” Sam objects. “The Avengers, not the Nazis”, Bucky feels compelled to add, as if there was any doubt. It’s one of the few genuinely funny lines in an episode that’s sadly low on the banter that made episode 2 so much fun.
Meanwhile, the other Flag-Smashers are also shocked that Karli has graduated from Robin Hood type thief to killer. But Karli feels no remorse, making Zemo’s point for him. She also plans to give the supersoldier serum to more of her followers. So Karli and one of her followers get the remaining vials of serum from their hiding on a cemetery. However, first they have another appointment to keep, the memorial for Donya Madani, the woman who died of tuberculosis in the previous episode.
In general, this episode does a better job in persuading us that the actual filming location (Prague) is the place it’s supposed to be (Riga), if only because most of the action takes place on cobblestoned street and in and around somewhat decaying Victorian and Art Noveau buildings, which are appropriate to both Prague and Riga. Zemo’s Moorish revival apartment certainly looks cool, though it’s not a style I associate with Latvia at all (though you do find it in Russia on occasion and Latvia was part of the Russian Empire until 1918) nor is it commonly used for apartment buildings in Europe, but mainly for public buildings. That said, it’s not that unlikely that there might be a Moorish revival apartment building somewhere in Riga. Also, the signage on shops, restaurants, cafés, etc… in the background looks Latvian rather than Czech. It’s probably very bad Latvian – not that I can tell, because I only ever knew three words of Latvian and I forgot two of them – but at least they’re trying.
However, the cemetery where Karli and her henchman Nico have hidden the remaining vials of the supersoldier serum is an exception. It is clearly a genuine European cemetery with 19th and early 20th century headstones. However, some of the headstones are clearly in view, including the one underneath which Karli and her friend have hidden the serum, and the names on the headstones are obviously Czech rather than Latvian. Both languages look quite different, because Latvian is a Baltic rather than a Slavic language. Of course, there is a large Russian minority in Latvia, but any Russian headstones would have Kyrillic rather than Latin inscriptions.
Karli’s friend Nico even references the occupant of the grave, a man called Lukasz. That’s not a Latvian name and the spelling is Polish rather than Czech. Nico declares that Lukasz was his grandfather who fought the Nazis. Now the three Baltic states had the misfortune of being occupied in rapid succession by the Soviet Union, then the Nazis and then the Soviet Union again and remained part of the Soviet Union until it fell apart in 1991. In general, the Soviets were disliked even more than the Nazis in the Baltic states (except by the large Jewish population of the Baltic states, most of whom did not survive) and towards the end of the Soviet Union, the Latvians were quite open about that. Of course, it is possible that the Nico’s grandfather friend was a Pole who somehow ended up in Latvia and fought the Nazis, maybe as a partisan or with the Red Army. But I still wonder why they didn’t just set the episode in Prague, since that’s where they’re filming it anyway.
There’s also a moment where Zemo comments about a Victorian building that now houses refugees that it’s a pity what has become of the place and that he remembers it of old, from his childhood, when it was glamourous and beautiful and hosted parties. Now Daniel Brühl, who plays Zemo, is 42 years old, which means he was a kid in the 1980s. And in the 1980s, Riga and all of Latvia were part of the Soviet Union (which did exist in the MCU, as the existence of Black Widow, Dotty from Agent Carter and Mickey Rourke’s character from Iron Man 2 show). And Soviet era Riga, while still a beautiful city, was not really a place for glamourous parties. The newly independent post-Soviet Latvia of the 1990s was initially poor, but has since joined the European Union and is one of the wealthier states in Eastern Europe. So it’s possible that the glamorous parties happened pre-Blip, but that’s not what Zemo says. Also, why did the showrunners pick a country with such a complicated history as Latvia, when they obviously didn’t research it?
Meanwhile, Sam, Bucky and Zemo try to track Karli via the late Donya Madani. Since Donya Madani was clearly important to Karli and the Flag-Smashers, a sort of mother figure, Sam correctly assumes that they will show up at her funeral. After all, so Sam explains, the entire community showed up at the funeral of his aunt. The importance of funerals is a cultural phenomenon that Sam clearly understands, while Bucky doesn’t. At any rate, Sam thinks that once they find out where Donya’s funeral takes place, they also find Karli and the rest of her band.
So Sam, Bucky and Zemo set off for the refugee camp where Donya died. The refugees, not that they view themselves as such, are largely hostile and refuse to talk, because they don’t trust outsiders and with good reason, too. So Bucky and Sam get nothing out of the people. Zemo has more luck, because he bribes a little girl with some Turkish Delight in what is obviously a Narnia reference. He also tells the little girl that Sam and Bucky are “very bad men” and that the location of Donya’s funeral should remain a secret between Zemo and the girl. Once again, Daniel Brühl is absolutely brilliant and turns the one-note villain from the comics into a complex and fascinating character. IMO Zemo is one of the best MCU villains, en par with Loki or Killmonger (or Agatha, of course, since it was her all along).
Before Sam, Bucky and Zemo can head to Donya’s funeral and confront Karli, they get unwelcome company in the form of John Walker a.k.a. the faux Captain America and his pal Battlestar a.k.a. Lemar Hoskins, who have followed Bucky and Sam, hoping to apprehend Karli and the Flag-Smashers. John Walker once again proves that we were absolutely right to dislike him at first sight. He yells a lot and wants to send Zemo back to prison,, until Sam and Bucky point out that without Zemo, they can’t locate Karli.
As a compromise, they all go together. But Sam insists on confronting Karli alone. Because of his work counselling veterans, he believes he can get through to her. John Walker and Lemar aren’t happy about this, but they have no choice but to agree.
I really liked that they brought up Sam’s work as a counsellor for veterans with PTSD again, since that was how Steve (and we) first met Sam. Okay, theoretically they first met while jogging, but they first talked after one of Sam’s group therapy sessions. Also, as AV-Club reviewer Sulagna Misra points out, Sam’s experience as a counsellor puts him in contrast with both Bucky and John Walker, since both Bucky and – as we learn this episode, when he reveals that he was awarded his three Medals of Honour for a deeply traumatic mission – John have PTSD, only that Bucky was sent to court-mandated therapy, while John was handed Captain America’s shield and let loose with – as we will see this episode – terrible results. We also realise that Sam’s true superpower are not his wings, though they’re pretty cool, but his empathy.
So Sam goes in alone and watches as Karli and her friends stand around Donya Madani’s open coffin, while Karli holds a speech. We learn a bit more about the Flag-Smashers and their motives in this scene. Basically, when half of humanity was zapped by Thanos, immigrants were suddenly welcome with open arms into countries that would normally do everything in their power to keep them out. These immigrants were given the now vacant homes and jobs and generally had a better life, until the Avengers undid the Blip and everybody came back and the immigrants were suddenly unwelcome and unwanted and thrown out of the homes they’d made for themselves once the original owners returned. This is actually a pretty good explanation for why the Flag-Smashers are so angry, though we would have needed that two or three episodes ago.
We also learn just what the connection between Donya Madani and Karli and the rest of the Flag-Smashers was. Basically, Donya took in children and teenagers orphaned by the Blip (Karli would have been in her teens when the Blip happened) and took care of them, which is why she was so beloved.
Donya Madani, who due to her hamsa amulet is implied to be from the Middle East, likely was one of those immigrants who were first welcomed with open arms after the Blip and then discarded. However, Karli’s comics counterpart is Swiss and from a rich family. Karli’s nationality is unclear. Actress Erin Kellyman is British and has a notable Staffordshire accent, while Karli is most likely East European. That said, Karli is a white European woman, i.e. not someone who is affected by draconian immigration laws. Whether she’s Swiss or East European, most likely she hails from the European economic zone and therefore covered by the free movement of people regulations. Most of the other Flag-Smashers seem to be white Europeans as well, one is Asian and onr is black. In short, Karli is privileged and can go almost anywhere she likes, ditto for most of the other Flag-Smashers. So why exactly did she become a freedom fight/terrorist? Because of solidarity with Donya? Some more explanation would be helpful here.
Sam is nice enough to let Karli finish her speech, before he confronts her, while John Walker handcuffs Zemo to a valve and furiously paces the floor. Walker also wants to go in right now, though he promised Sam to let him talk alone to Karli. Lemar tries to calm him down and Bucky blocks his way – for now.
Meanwhile, Sam is actually making some headway with Karli. He tells her that Zemo thinks she’s a supremacist, which Karli thinks is ridiculous – after all, she fights for “one world, one people”. Though her words sound pretty genocidal.
That said, “supremacist” is not the term I’d use to describe Karli. Instead, Karli represents the ugly side of the left or what happens when idealism turns murderous. The closest real world equivalent to Karli I can think of is Ulrike Meinhof who went from leftwing journalist and activist who tried to change the world or at least postwar West Germany via her articles to Red Army Fraction terrorist in the space of a few years. Considering that the face of Meinhof and her RAF compatriots was on a Wanted poster in every post office in West Germany for years (even after her death, her face was still in the poster, only struck out), the subject of initially idealistic leftwing activists became murderous terrorists is rarely addressed in popular culture. When I was a kid, the Red Army Fraction was very much a bogeyman, faces on post office walls who were blamed for anything. Whenever we went to the post office and I waited for my Mom to conclude her business, I remember looking at those faces on the wall, reading their names and wondering about what to do, should one of those people ever decide to come into our little post office to buy stamps or something (ironically, something very similar happened in 2015, when three elderly former RAF members robbed an armoured transport on the parking lot of a local supermarket). What drove those faces on the wall of the post office to blow up CEOs, bankers and minor politicians (but never the ones you secretly hoped they would) and a remarkable number of former Nazis was not addressed at all, at least not in the media I had access to. Eventually, I came across more nuanced portrayals which both acknowledged that the violent reaction of the West German authorities to initially peaceful protests in the late 1960s contributed to the radicalisation of people who might otherwise not have become terrorists, but also make it clear that however idealistic their beginnings, in the end those people were ruthless killers. Seen from this perspective I find Karli an interesting character, an Ulrike Meinhof or Gudrun Ensslin in approx. 1968/69 who might still be redeemed.
I’m not sure if the history of the RAF influenced the writers of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in any way. Though if you wanted to address the RAF, fictionalising them would IMO be the best way to avoid triggering and retraumatising surviving relatives of RAF victims, which actually happened when the movie The Baader Meinhof Complex (probably the most nuanced portrayal of the whole sorry saga) was released in 2008 and the widow of an RAF victim literally had to watch her husband murdered over and over again in the trailer during every commercial break on TV (and indeed, the trailer was later recut and the one currently on YouTube is not the trailer that was on TV back then).
Sam comes pretty close to convincing Karli that blowing up people is not the way, but then John Walker bursts in and ruins everything. A big chase and fight results, while Zemo ditches his handcuffs and slips away. Zemo is also actually the one who corners Karli and shoots her, whereupon Karli drops the remaining supersoldier serum vials on the floor. Zemo stares at the vials and then begins to stomp on them, revealing that he is definitely not tempted by the serum, while Karli escapes. However, Zemo misses a vial which is found by none other than John Walker. Uh, oh.
Back at Zemo’s apartment, Sam and Bucky are understandably furious at Walker and Lemar for messing up the mission. Before they can come to blows, Ayo and the Dora Milaje appear to take Zemo. John Walker gets in their face and points out that the Dora Milaje have no jurisdiction here (And you do, Captain Nationalism?). “The Dora Milaje have jurisdiction wherever the Dora Milaje find themselves to be”, Ayo replies in a moment that’s incredibly awesome, even though she is theoretically promoting the breaking of international law. John Walker, being the jerk that he is, does not back down, even though Sam tries to tell him that provoking the Dora Milaje is a really bad idea. So we get another fight, where Ayo and the Dora Milaje literally demolish Walker and Lemar. Sam and Bucky eventually decide to intervene, before someone gets killed, only to get their arses handed to them as well. In fact, Ayo literally disarms Bucky by locking up and detaching his Wakandan made cybernetic arm.
“Did you know that she could do that?” Sam asks. Bucky shakes his head.
Zemo is clearly enjoying the show (and seeing awesome black women beating up a jerk like John Walker is very satisfying indeed), but he still uses the confusion to slip away once again. Meanwhile, the thoroughly beaten John Walker stammer, “But they’re not even supersoldiers.” Why am I not surprised that Walker’s fragile white male ego can’t take getting beaten up by black women without superpowers? Also, can I point out how really awesome Florence Kasumba is as Ayo? Because she absolutely is. I’m also happy that two of the most interesting characters in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Zemo and Ayo, are played by German actors.
Sam calls up Sharon Carter to ask her to keep an eye on John Walker via satellite, so he won’t cause any more trouble. Meanwhile, Sharon informs him that the Power Broker is not pleased and that he (or she) is after Karli. Emily VanCamp isn’t given much to do except play tech support and indeed I suspect she’s only in this episode for contractual reasons.
Meanwhile, Karli decides to kill Captain America – faux Cap, that is – and destroy his shield. She also calls up Sam’s sister Sarah to set up a meeting, casually threatening Sarah and her kids, freaking out both Sam and Sarah. Of course, Karli later tells Sam that she’d never hurt his sister, but Karli has said a lot of things that turned out to be wrong. It was also nice seeing Sarah again, though I wish she’d have more screentime. And for that matter, whatever happened to Joaquin Torres?
Sam and Bucky go to meet Karli in full superhero gear, but before they can talk, Sharon informs Sam that John Walker and Battlestar are on the move and that they seem to have found the Flag-Smashers – or maybe the Flag-Smashers have found them. Karli apparently only set up the meeting to get Sam and Bucky away from Walker and Lemar. Sam and Bucky immediately come to Walker’s aid and we get another extended fight scene. Walker initially fares badly, but then he suddenly reappears much stronger and faster, implying that he has taken the serum. Sam is horrified and Lemar, who has no idea that his friend John now has superpowers, comes to his aid and is hurled against a pillar and killed by Karli.
I have to admit that I hate this development. I understand narratively why it was necessary to kill Lemar, but I still don’t like it. For starters, fridging black characters is sadly all too common, as Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido points out. And besides, I liked Lemar. He was the only one who managed to talk sense into John Walker. Lemar is someone I can see as a future Avenger, unlike Walker.
Alas, Lemar is dead. Karli, shocked at what she’s done, flees, as do the rest of the Flag-Smashers. John Walker is furious about the death of his best friend and goes berserk. He chases down one of the Flag-Smashers – I think it was Nico, the guy with the Nazi-fighting grandfather – and proceeds to beat the man to death with the Captain America shield, while dozens of people look on in pure horror and film everything on their smartphones. The episode ends with a striking shot of the bloodstained shield.
So the new Captain America is not just a jerk, he’s actually a killer, not to mention a liability for the US, because your national icon murdering people in public and on camera does not exactly win hearts and minds. None of this is really surprising, though it also highlights the parallels between Steve and John. Both were given the serum and turned into supersoldiers, both were used for propaganda purposes, though John embraces that role more than Steve ever did. Both saw their best friend and sidekick killed before their eyes, even if Bucky got better and Lemar likely won’t. But their reaction is very different. After Bucky’d death, Steve did not go berserk and started beating people to death with his shield.
As Zemo said, the serum strengthens the traits that a person already has. And so Karli, the radical activist, becomes a terrorist and John Walker, the rude and arrogant jerk, becomes a killer. Bucky is a bit of a special case, since he was not just given the serum, but also brainwashed. Meanwhile, Steve, who – in spite of his patriotic fervour – was genuinely good person became only better. And what will happen if – or rather when – Sam takes the serum? Well, I already said that his true superpower is empathy, so there’s your answer.
In general, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier continues to be highly uneven only two episodes from the end. The actors are good, the characters likeable (or they’re people you love to hate like John Walker and Zemo), the action is thrilling. It’s not just mindless action either, but the show actually has some big themes to address and question to ask. But in spite of good elements, the result is still a muddled mess. Why wait until past the halfway point to actually tell us what the Flag-Smashers motives are? Why is Karli’s background still a mystery and what little we can gather doesn’t make sense? Also, the full implications of first removing and then returning half of humanity are never really addressed, as Steve J. Wright points out. That was acceptable, as long as the Marvel movies and TV shows largely glossed over the consequences of the blip. But once they try to address this on a larger scale than just Wanda Maximoff’s individual psychodrama, everything falls apart, because obviously no one ever thought the consequences of the blip through.
The Falcon and Winter Soldier is still an enjoyable show, but it’s also a very frustrating one, because with a bit more thought, it could be so much better.