It’s time for my review of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finale. If you want my thoughts on previous episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, go here.
Thankfully, Disney is about to come to an agreement with Alan Dean Foster about paying him, as Adam Whitehead reports. However, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw reports, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, who created the Winter Soldier for Marvel, are not getting paid for the use of the character in the series due to bad contracts.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
The final episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier starts off where the penultimate episode left off, with the Global Repatriation Council about to vote to forcibly relocate millions of people to their countries of origin (when the wrong people do that, it’s considered a crime against humanity), when the lights go out in the conference room, courtesy of Karli and the Flag-Smashers. The building is immediately put on lockdown and surrounded by heavily armed police officers. Bucky and Sam, who have deducted that New York City is where the Flag-Smashers will strike next and that the Global Repatriation Council is the logical target, are on their way as well.
Bucky just goes in through the front door – apparently the police no longer mind that he used to be a brainwashed Hydra assassin and also that he has absolutely no jurisdiction. Sam – in a brand-new Wakandan designed Captain America costume with wings – makes a grander entrance by smashing his shield though a window of the building and then bursting inside, ready to kick arse and rescue people. Though the kicking arse comes first, because Sam almost immediately runs into Georges Batroc, who really, really doesn’t like people in Captain America costumes in general, because they keep interfering with his nefarious activities, and Sam in particular, ever since Sam foiled Batroc’s kidnapping mission in Tunisia in episode one.
The first twenty-five minutes or so of this forty-eight minute episode are basically one big, non-stop action scene, where the various players (Sam, Bucky, John Walker, Sharon Carter, Karli and the Flag-Smashers, Georges Batroc, the NYPD, the GRC bigwigs) are fighting with and against each other in differing configurations. And that’s okay, because big action scenes are part of what we expect when we watch a Marvel movie or TV show, even if – as Germain Lussier points out in his review at io9 – it goes on a bit too long at the expense of the quieter character moments.
Sam, Bucky and Sharon Carter – who has somehow managed to fly in from Madripoor and sneak back into the US, even though she’s still supposed on the Most Wanted list, which should give Sam and Bucky pause, but doesn’t – quickly figure out that Karli’s plan is not to invade the GRC building to hold the council members hostage or take them out. Instead, the Flag-Smashers want to force an evacuation and then take the council members hostage during the ensuing chaos. But even though Sam, Bucky and Sharon see through that plan and try to prevent the evacuation, they fail, because Sam is busy tangling with Batroc, while Bucky pauses to talk to Karli on a phone a Flag-Smasher sympathiser hands to him.
The phone conversation between Bucky and Karli is an obvious distraction, so obvious that we wonder how Bucky managed to fall for it. Nonetheless, it’s a nice moment with Bucky – veteran of more wars than he cares to remember – tries to convince Karli that her fight won’t end well and that it’s not worth it and that the people she killed will always haunt her. Karli points out that she’s fighting for a cause bigger than herself. “Yeah, I did that, too”, Bucky replies, “Twice. And I failed. Twice.” The contrast between Karli, the idealistic freedom fighter turned terrorist, and Bucky, the jaded veteran who was exploited to fight for other people’s causes more than once, is nice, even though the purpose of the whole scene is just to distract Bucky long enough so the evacuation can proceed as planned.
Half of the council members are evacuated via a helicopter on the roof, which just happens to be piloted by a Flag-Smasher. Sam arrives too late to stop the helicopter and sets off in pursuit, showing off his new Wakandan wing-suit, the refurbished Redwing drone and some mini-Redwings. There is a thrilling chase through the street canyons of Manhattan and across the Hudson River. Sam rescues the pilots of a crashing NYPD helicoper and takes out the Flag-Smasher who pilots the helicopter with his shield. Luckily, one of the hostages (played by actress Jane Rumbaua who also was in the new MacGuyver and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) can fly a helicopter and takes over. It’s a nice action scene, which gives Sam a chance to show off his new Captain America suit and his gadgets. I also liked that Sam included the hostages in their own rescue.
The other half of the council members are evacuated via the parking garage in armoured NYPD vehicles. However, a burly Flag-Smasher has sealed the vehicles with some kind of device, so the doors can’t be opened neither from the in- nor the outside. The vehicles take off, headed straight towards an ambush set by Karli and the remaining Flag-Smashers. Karli also makes it clear that she is fully willing to kill the hostages. Her followers are not quite happy with that, but they still go along with her.
Bucky commandeers a motorbike (it’s a Honda, but I couldn’t make out the exact model) and goes after the armoured trucks with the council members, while Sharon takes out the burly Flag-Smasher who poses as an NYPD officer with a mercury vapour grenade which melts his face. For a supposedly good girl, Sharon is pretty damned murderous. However, Bucky and Sam are not around to see any of that.
Karli and the Flag-Smashers have set an ambush for the trucks at a construction site and are just about to take out the drivers, while the locked in council members are unable to escape, when Bucky catches up with them. “Give him someone to rescue”, Karli orders, well aware that true superheroes will always prioritise saving lives over taking out bad guys. So one of the Flag-Smashers sets one of the trucks on fire, leaving Bucky to desperately try to pry open the sealed truck. However, the weird locking device that the Flag-Smasher who had his face melted by Sharon attached is a challenge even for Bucky’s bionic arm.
Meanwhile, John Walker shows up like a bad penny, still decked out in the Captain America outfit he doesn’t really have a right to wear anymore. Unlike Bucky, who’s trying to rescue, Walker goes straight for Karli. “I didn’t mean to kill your friend”, Karli says, “I don’t kill people who don’t matter.” This understandably infuriates Walker even more, because Lemar mattered very much to him. Once again, Karli also sounds eerily like the Red Army Fraction‘s statements in which they declared that they didn’t really mean to kill the drivers and bodyguards they blew up along with the CEOs, bankers or prosecutors who were their true targets, but it’s war and shit happens*.
John Walker may have a homemade shield and supersoldier serum coursing through his veins, but Captain America he’s not and so he gets the shit kicked out of him by the Flag-Smashers. It also quickly becomes clear that a shield made from ordinary steel rather than vibranium doesn’t really cut it. However, when one of the trucks threatens to fall into the construction pit and Bucky is getting ready to try and catch it, John Walker does rise to the occasion after all and tries to save the truck and its passengers rather than go after Karli. However, John Walker alone is not enough to save the truck. Luckily, Sam has finished with his helicopter chase and shows up just in time to rescue the truck and his passengers with his tricked out new suit to the cheers of various bystanders, who are debating whether this really cool superhero who just rescued a bunch of people is called “Black Falcon” or “Captain America”.
While Bucky, Sam and John are fighting the remaining Flag-Smashers, Karli has escaped into what appears to be a subway tunnel under construction, where she is stopped by none other than Sharon Carter. Sharon and Karli point their guns at each other and Karli reveals that she knows Sharon and that – big surprise – Sharon is the Power Broker. Sharon offers Karli to work for her again – she can still use supersoldiers as muscle, which is apparently what Karli was originally supposed to be, before she stole the serum and decided to become a freedom fighter/terrorist. Karli, however, has a mission. Batroc shows up as well. Karli realises that Sharon double-crossed her and Batroc is working for Sharon. Meanwhile, Batroc, never the sharpest knife in the drawer, finally realises that Sharon is the Power Broker and promptly decides to blackmail her. Bad idea, because Sharon shoots him, though she is wounded herself in the exchange.
Before Sharon and Karli can continue their stand-off, Sam shows up – once again too late to see Sharon being villainous – and tries to convince Karli to give up. During the fight between Sam and Karli, it’s very obvious that Sam is fighting defensively rather than offensively. He doesn’t want to kill Karli, he wants to persuade her to give up. However, Karli isn’t giving up and points her gun at Sam at a moment, when he dropped his shield. We never know if she would have shot or not, because Sharon uses the opportunity to get rid of a witness while pretending to be a hero and shoots Karli, who then expires in Sam’s arms, while clutching the hamsa amulet of the late Donya Madani. It clear from the beginning that Zemo had a point when he said that Karli was too radicalised and that she wouldn’t stop unless she was killed. Nonetheless, the show takes the easy way out, because it’s not our heroes or even John Walker who have dirty their hands by taking out Karli. Instead, it’s a villain – Sharon – who does the dirty work.
We are now treated to a highly evocative shot of Sam carrying the martyred Karli in his arms, looking very much like a biblical angel. Karli is taken to an ambulance, but it’s too late. She’s gone. Meanwhile, Bucky and John Walker lure the remaining Flag-Smashers to a specific location by sending them a message via the Flag-Smasher app. Then they arrest the remaining Flag-Smashers and hand them over to the NYPD.
The GRC bigwigs try to thank Sam for saving them from those nasty terrorists, but Sam won’t have any of that. He declares – conveniently in front of dozens of news cameras – that as far as he is concerned the Flag-Smashers aren’t terrorists, because they had a point. He also declares that the GRC are no better than Thanos when they try to forcibly evict millions of people from their new homes. One of the GRC bigwigs points out that they’re helpless and don’t know what to do, whereupon Sam declares that if they want to feel helpless, try being a black man in America. He also says that the world and the GRC can do better. Oh yes, and Sam is Captain America now, even though he has no supersoldier serum coursing through his veins, neither blue eyes nor blond hair and no official mandate either. And yes, he knows that some people will hate him for that (even though everybody we see unabashedly cheers for Sam, regardless of race), but he’ll do what he has to do.
With this scene, Sam pretty much proves that he also has the other quality a good Captain America needs, namely – as Keith R.A. DeCandido points out in his Tor.com review – the ability to give inspirational speeches at the drop of a hat. And it’s not a bad speech, though it goes on too long and is a bit too blunt in parts – but then it seems Americans sometimes need their moral messaging in a blunt way. And Sam does manage to convince the heartless GRC bigwigs. To quote Daily Dot reviewer Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, “If only it were that easy in real life.”
That said, one part where I would have liked Sam to be more blunt is in drawing the parallels between the GRC’s attempts to forcibly relocate millions of people and the way refugees are treated by many governments in the real world. Indeed, the whole refugee parallel could have been made much more clear in the show, but instead it got buried under the muddled politics of the Flag-Smashers. And in fact, the most annoying about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is how muddled and partly incoherent that motives of the Flag-Smashers are. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw notes that there are hints that the show originally was supposed to include a killer virus plotline, which was deleted due to hitting too close to home, and that that’s the reason why the Flag-Smasher plot is so incoherent. But it’s still annoying when it takes several episode to become even vaguely clear what the main antagonists even want.
This speech is the central moment of the finale, the moment where Sam fully takes on the mantle of Captain America. However, there are still some loose ends to tie up. And so we see Bucky visit his friend Mr. Nakashima, the old Japanese man whose son he killed, while he was the Winter Soldier, to finally tell him the truth about what happened that way. We don’t see much of their conversation, but we later see that Bucky left a gift for his therapist Dr. Rayner, the notebook he inherited from Steve with all the names crossed out, as well as a thank-you note.
Meanwhile, Sam goes to see Isaiah. Isaiah has seen Sam’s big speech and is not unimpressed, though he tells Sam that he’s no “Martin, Malcolm or Mandela”. Sam also takes Isaiah and his grandson to the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian, where a new display remembering Isaiah Bradley and his fellow black supersoldiers has been set up. The grandson is really impressed, because grandpa is a real hero now, while a touched Isaiah hugs Sam. It’s nice scene, though like AV-Club reviewer Sulagna Misra and io9 reviewer Germain Lussier, I can’t help but wonder how Sam managed to convince the Smithsonian staff to set up this display so quickly. Wouldn’t they at least require some hard proof that all that happened beyond the word of the new Captain America? Especially since we’ve been told earlier that the project was top secret. Also, what about Isaiah who was justfiedly terrified that he’d be imprisoned again or killed, if the powers that be find out that he’s still alive? Will he be safe now, because it would raise too many questions to kill someone who has their own display Smithsonian? Or has racism been solved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because Sam held a speech?
The remaining three Flag-Smashers are about to be transported to the Raft – the maximum security prison for superpowered prisoners on the high seas – when the truck transporting them suddenly explodes. We see Zemo’s elderly butler holding a detonator. Even from prison, Zemo – who looks remarkably satisfied with himself – still pulls the strings to make sure that there will be no more supersoldiers. Though I can’t help but notice that one Flag-Smasher, the helicopter pilot, is still unaccounted for.
Zemo also sends the photos of his handiwork to Contessa Valentina who promptly shows them to her new best friend Olivia Walker, wife of John. Since I’m not a sitcom person, I haven’t seen much of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but I love her as Valentina. I also love the Bechdel-test passing heart-to-heart between Valentina and Olivia, though it takes a very twisted person to bond with a new friend over photos of charred Flag-Smashers. While they are looking at pics of charred corpses, Valentina and Olivia are waiting for John Walker to come out of the changing room in his new outfit – which looks exactly like his old outfit, only in black. “I don’t need a Captain America”, Valentina points out, “What I need is a US Agent.” John and Olivia are certainly pleased to be back in the superbeing game.
Wyatt Russell was great as John Walker and I am glad that they did not kill him off and that they made him a more nuanced character than the one-note Captain Nationalism he could have been. However, John also has PTSD and is at least as unstable as Karli and he did beat the Flag-Smasher Nico to death with his shield. And it bothers me that all this seems to have been forgotten in the final episode, where John redeems himself by helping to rescue some hostages. Though we don’t yet know where the Valentina subplot will lead.
The episode ends back in Louisiana, where the Wilsons and their neighbours are having a shrimp boil. Everybody is eager to take selfies with Sam, now that they have their very own Captain America, one who’s a Southerner and black. Bucky is also there and clearly advertising himself as a great potential stepdad by letting Sam’s nephews use his bionic arm as a jungle gym. It’s a lovely final scene and made me hungry for shrimp boil. I also find it interesting that Bucky seems most happy and at peace, when he is among black people, first in Wakanda and now in Louisiana.
However, there still is a post-credits scene with Sharon in front of a congressational committee. Sam kept his promise and Sharon not only gets a pardon, but also her old job back. However, Sharon is a bad girl now, not to mention the Power Broker. And so she’s calling up her contacts to offer US government secrets for sale – while still on the steps of the building where the hearing took place.
Sharon Carter, a long established heroic character from the comics, turning out to be a pretty nasty villainess was IMO the most unexpected and interesting development of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Of course, Sharon’s main role in the comics, though she is a SHIELD agent in her own right, is Steve Rogers’ love interest. Steve and Sharon never had all that much chemistry in the movie and now Steve has gone back in time to be with Peggy Carter (who is Sharon’s great-aunt), there really isn’t any role for Sharon anymore. Of course, they could have turned her into Bucky’s or Sam’s love interest, but turning her into a villain – and one no one suspects at that – certainly is more interesting. Though – as someone pointed out on Twitter – Sharon being the Power Broker means that many of her actions in the Madripoor episode make no sense. io9‘s James Whitbrook isn’t quite sure what to make of the Sharon development, while The AV-Club‘s Sulagna Misra points out that Emily VanCamp is not really an actress who is associated with unambiguously good characters, but is best known for the soap opera Revenge where she played a very Sharon-like character who took bloody vengeance on various rich people who had wronged her family.
Also, it’s notable that both Marvel TV shows to date – WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – featured memorable female villains. WandaVision had Agatha all along, while The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had Karli, Sharon and possibly Valentina, depending on what exactly she’s up to.
All in all, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was fun, but also very muddled with regard to politics, locations and what the hell the main antagonists’ motives actually were. As Camestros Felapton says, it was sort of all right, but could have been much better. Several reviewers have pointed out that the show feels like a long Captain America movie chopped up into forty-five minute chunks. However, instead of using the extra-length to add some more dimension to the plot and charactrisation for the many characters, the result is just a muddled mess in many places.
Anthony Mackie is suitably likeable and charismatic and will be an excellent Captain America, in case there was ever any doubt. And Sam was also one of the less developed Avengers, so it was nice to get some more background about him other than “He used to be a soldier and is now a PTSD counsellor”. Plus, the show smoothed the transition from Steve Rogers to Sam Wilson as the new Captain America. Bucky was more developed from the start and so it makes sense that his arc often takes second place to Sam’s. The show has also found a new role for Sharon Carter, a character left at loose ends, and introduced two potentially interesting new antagonists in Valentina and John Walker. And the Isaiah Bradley subplot was powerful, much more powerful than the occasionally overly blunt “racism is bad” messages that the show delivered elsewhere.
In short, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wasn’t bad at all and a lot of fun, but it could have been so much better.
*The utter disregard of the fate of those murdered bodyguards and drivers – not just on the part of the RAF, but also on the part of the media and the politicians who only felt that the blown up CEO, banker or prosecutor was worth remembering – always infuriated me even as a kid. The worst example I can recall was an interviews with the son of an RAF victim, in which he talked about his father and his two companions. I screamed at the TV, “You could at least fucking remember their names, because unlike your father, who provoked the terrorists by jailing their companions, the driver and bodyguard were only doing their jobs and did fuck all to deserve what happened to them.”