I probably won’t do episode by episode reviews of the new Marvel series on Disney+ The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, because compared to WandaVision, it’s a much more straight forward action adventure story and doesn’t seem to be the sort of show that invites a lot of analysis. Which is perfectly fine, cause sometimes all you want is some banter and explosion and entertainment. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier certainly delivers that.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
Like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is set after half of population of the Earth (and the Universe) were snapped back into existence and deals with the aftermath of what has apparently been termed “the Blip” in the Marvel Universe. Our heroes, Sam Wilson a.k.a. the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes a.k.a. the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), were among those who were first snapped out of and then back into existence.
Now I have to admit that it’s been a while since I watched Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame and while I remembered that Bucky and Wanda had been among those snapped out of existence (along with Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy), I had completely forgotten that Sam had been snapped out of existence as well. For some reason, I assumed he survived.
However, Sam is back in action now (quite literally) after five years of non-existence. And indeed, the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier starts off with a thrilling action set piece. A terrorist group called LAF has hijacked a US Air Force plane in Tunisian air space along with a US Air Force officer whose name I’ve forgotten. The US military wants the guy back and so they sent in Sam to retrieve him.
Sam uses his mechanical wings and his trusty drone Redwing to sneak aboard the plane and beats up some terrorists, but then gets beaten up by their leader, who is none other than Georges Batroc (portrayed by Canadian actor and martial arts fighter Georges St. Pierre), last seen in the opening scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Batroc has hijacked a ship full of SHIELD personnel and Captain America is sent in to rescue him. Apparently, after his bad experience with sea piracy, Batroc has decided to change careers to aerial piracy. His fate, however, is still to get beaten by Captain America and heroes connected to him.
Batroc, who is an established comics character, also mainly seems to exist to provide our heroes with thrilling action sequences, which have little to nothing to do with the actual plot. And so after a bit of kicking and fighting, Batroc and the surviving terrorists bail out of the plane in flight suits, taking their unfortunate kidnapping victim along. Sam gives chase through the series of Tunisian canyons, probably the same canyons where Luke Skywalker once shot womprats. There is a lot of flying, shooting and fighting, especially when Batroc’s backup helicopters and the Libyan air force, who are not at all happy to have American superheroes and French supervillains duking it out in their air space, show up. In the end, Sam rescues the American officer and tricks the Libyans into shooting Batroc’s helicopters out of the sky. Batroc survives, undoubtedly to provide another thrilling action scene intro to another Marvel movie or TV show.
I’m probably being a bit mean here, because the opening scene is genuinely thrilling. I’m just not sure whether it has anything to do with the overall plot except to introduce Sam’s liaison on the ground, Lieutenant Joaquín Torres (Danny Ramirez). Those familiar with the Marvel comics will recognise Torres as the man who took over the mantle of the Falcon after Sam became Captain America. Whether we will see Torres donning Sam’s wings in the series remains to be seen. Nonetheless, I like Torres.
Torres also informs Sam about a global terrorist group that’s more dangerous than Batroc’s LAF, namely the so-called Flag Smashers. Torres explains that the Flag Smashers want a world without national borders and that they also think the world was a better place during the five years it only had half its population. You can obviously see why the latter might be a problem, if the Flag Smashers act on it, but quite a few critics, e.g. Benjamin Lee at The Guardian and Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at The Daily Dot, wondered why a world without borders is apparently a bad thing in the Marvel universe, since many of us think it would be a very good thing, if at all feasible.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw also points out that while it’s nice that the US Air Force informs Sam that he is not authorised to operate in Libyan air space, the overall attitude of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in particular towards international intervention is troubling, to say the least. Hey, Avengers, the city of Schkeuditz would like to have its airport repaired, considering you first trashed it in a pointless fight and then pretended it was in Berlin. Crap, is this how BER finally got finished after ten years?
To be fair, Hollywood action films and TV shows in general are very pro-military and give a rat’s arse about the US military operating where it has neither business nor mandate to be. Marvel is far from the worst offender here, compared to the likes of NCIS, Hawaii Five-0 and various military glorifying action films like Top Gun.
True, Marvel has a remarkably high number of characters with a US military background, including some like Sam Wilson and Monica and Maria Rambeau, who don’t have a military background in the comics (Sam is a social worker and bird watcher from Harlem, while Monica is an officer of the New Orleans harbour patrol and her mother Maria is a seamstress in the comics). However, Marvel at least occasionally does not portray the US military as an unalloyed good. And so Tony Stark realises that the weapons he designs and manufacturers don’t actually end wars and create lasting peace and that the bad guys have them, too. AIM uses desperate and disabled veterans for its supersoldier projects and covers up its failures with a fake Pan-Asian terrorist group straight from central casting. The people of Sokovia, including Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, become the victims of US intervention and are less than thrilled to see the Avengers show up to fight Hydra in their country, because the last time they saw anything with the name “Stark” on it, it was bombs. A young and enthusiastic Steve Rogers is first used as an experimental subject and later as a propaganda tool by the US Army. He only becomes a combat soldier when he goes rogue and his squad is a motley crew that is much more diverse than anything you’d have found in the real US Army in WWII. SHIELD turns out to have been infiltrated by Hydra for decades. Bruce Banner is hunted and harrassed by General Ross for a fate that he did not choose. And even Captain Marvel, which is probably the most pro-military Marvel movie, shows Carol Danvers and Monica Rambeau having to deal with sexism in Air Force and are banned from flying combat mission due to their gender. Decades earlier, Peggy Carter, even though a war heroine, has to deal with being dismissed and belittled at every corner. By the admittedly low standards of US entertainment media, those are pretty nuanced portraits of the military and warfare.
As for why there are so many more positive than ambiguous or negative portrayals of the military in the US entertainment media, this Daily Dot article by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw about Captain Marvel explains why. Basically, if you want fighter jets, tanks, military helicopter and planes, etc… in your movie, the US military will kindly lend them to you, along with the people who can actually handle that equipment – provided you portray them in a positive light and help them gain new recruits. As a result, anti-war movies are much more difficult and expensive to make than war movies. They also generally look less impressive, because makers of anti-war movies which portray the military in a negative light have to make do with a single rusty helicopter that barely survived the Vietnam war, whereas filmmakers who make pro-military movies get spiffy new helicopter and fighter jets.
That said, the villain Flag-Smasher is a problematic and I would have preferred, if Marvel had not used him. In the comics, Flag-Smasher is just one guy (apparently, the main Flag-Smasher in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a woman, which is progress, I guess), not a whole organisation (though he later is part of one), and his reasons for wanting to abolish nations and borders are both understandable and actually make sense. The fact that this character was portrayed as a villain tells you a lot about what Captain America comics were like in the 1980s and 1990s, when I used to call Captain America “Captain Nationalism” and flat out hated the character. The Marvel movies did a lot to move Captain America away from the old “Captain Nationalism” model and turned him more into what he was intended to be, namely the positive side of America given form. Hell, the Marvel movies actually made me like Captain America.
But what I personally find even more offensive about Flag-Smasher is not his/her ideology, but the character’s real name. For Flag-Smasher is a Swiss person named Karl (Karli in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) Morgenthau. He/she shares a surname with a US-politician named Henry Morgenthau Jr. who came up with a plan to divide Germany after WWII, destroy all industry and make sure that Germans remain impoverished for generations, which would have meant 25 million German people starving to death. I’m not inclined to feel kindly towards anybody who thought my parents and grandparents should have starved to death and that they and I should live in abject poverty and I question to decision to name a comic character after a flat out evil historical figure. I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence either; “Morgenthau” is a very uncommon name, especially spelled that way. I guess we should be glad that Marvel made their Morgenthau a villain.
Of course, it’s possible that the treatment of the Flag-Smashers in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will be less problematic than it seems – after all, the Marvel movies have successfully updated some flat out offensive villains like the Mandarin before. So far, all we have seen of the Flag-Smashers is that they organise a flash mob in Switzerland as a cover for a bank robbery (even terrorists need money). Danny Ramirez has tracked them and tries to stop them and is badly beaten by an unusually strong Flag-Smasher.
After his adventure in Tunisia, Sam heads back to Washington DC, where he presents the shield that Steve Rogers bequeathed him to the Smithsonian Museum’s Captain America exhibit, because he feels that without Steve, the shield is just an empty symbol. James Rhodes is also at the ceremony in an unexpected but welcome cameo appearance. After all, both Sam and Rhodey started out as sidekicks to another (white) hero, became heroes in their own right and have now lost their respective best friends. Rhodey point blank asks Steve why he doesn’t take up the shield to become Captain America. Sam has no real answer to that – for now.
After the ceremony, Sam heads to Louisiana to visit his sister Sarah and her two sons. It’s not the happy reunion Sam had hoped for. Sarah and her sons were not affected by the Blip. Now Sam’s nephews, who were only toddlers when Sam vanished, are pre-teens. Meanwhile, single mom Sarah had to hold the fort, i.e. the Wilson family’s fishing and shrimp shack business, and not just during the Blip either, since Sam took off and joined the Air Force at eighteen, leaving Sarah behind. Sarah is not happy about any of this.
It also turns out that the family business is in financial trouble, because the customer base dwindled during the Blip, while costs remained as high as ever. It’s a pity, really, because I found myself craving shrimp during the Louisiana scenes. However, Sarah wants to sell the fishing boat, restaurant as well as their parents’ house, which is mortgaged to the gills. Sam doesn’t want to sell – it’s his legacy, after all. And besides, Sam is certain they can get a loan. He’s an Avenger, after all, and has a steady contract with the Air Force and besides, there are programs to help people who returned after the Blip.
Once Sarah and Sam get to the bank, the (white) manager is totally thrilled to meet a real life superhero, but still won’t give them a loan, because Sam had no income in the past five years due to not existing (and no reported income before that either due to being an Avenger and basically being financed by Tony Stark). All of those nice programs to help people affected by the Blip don’t apply either, because in essence Sam and Sarah are too black to qualify. Sam is understandably angry at this turn of events, Sarah seems more resigned. After all, she’s been here before.
It’s not the last shock for Sam, because when he switches on the TV he sees the same government official who was there when Sam presented Steve’s shield to the Smithsonian announce a new Captain America, a white dude named John Walker, who’s played by Wayne Russell, son of Kurt Russell (who appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as Ego the Living Planet) and Goldie Hawn. Wayne Russell certainly has his Dad’s prominent chin. John Walker is a character from the comics, introduced as an anti-Captain America character named Super-Patriot in 1986. He started out as a villain, but later changed his ways and became a hero named US Agent.
While Sam is realising that Avenger or not, he’s still a black man in a very racist America, our second protagonist James “Bucky” Barnes a.k.a. the Winter Soldier has problems of his own. He’s 106 years old, though he looks thirty, and has spent the past eighty years fighting, much of it as a brainwashed Hydra tool. Bucky has literally been through hell and is not doing well. He has nightmares of the assassinations he carried out for Hydra – we see one of them played out, a flashback to a day where Bucky not only killed his target, but also an innocent bystander.
Bucky has also acquired a therapist (Amy Aquino), which is a condition of getting pardoned for the crimes he was forced to commit against his will. And honestly, if any character ever needed a therapist, it’s Bucky. I was a bit surprised that they did not go with Doc Sampson, therapist to superheroes in the Marvel universe. Doc Sampson is a supporting character from the Hulk comics, so I doubt it’s a rights issue. However, Amy Aquino is wonderful as Bucky’s gruff no-nonsense therapist, who probably would manage to glare down the Hulk as well.
The unnamed therapist does her best to get through to Bucky, but he doesn’t exactly make it easy for her. He flat out refuses to admit he has nightmares and also ignores her advice to make friends (“You’ve been ignoring texts from Sam”, the therapist says) and just get to know people. The therapist and Bucky have also come up with a list of people to whom Bucky is supposed to make amends in what appears to be another variation of the weird American fascination with guilt and redemption and people humiliating themselves to gain the latter. Though Bucky isn’t really humiliating himself. We see him exposing a female politician who came into office thanks to Hydra, scaring the women and her bodyguard to death (even though he’s not supposed to either hurt people or do anything illegal), before handing them over to the authorities.
One Bucky’s few friends is an elderly Japanese American man. Initially, I assumed that this was the Japanese-American member of the Howling Commandos and one of Bucky’s old wartime buddies. I’m apparently not alone in this – AV-Club reviewer Sulgana Misra assumed the same. However, it turns out that the old man Yori is a new character, the father of the innocent bystander Bucky killed during the mission in his flashback. And even though he befriends the old man, this is one case where Bucky really can’t make amends.
Yori and Bucky always go to a Japanese restaurant in the neighbourhood. And while they’re there, Yori tries to set Bucky up with a woman named Leah who works there. Leah is definitely interested, but then Bucky is handsome. They even have a date of sorts. Bucky shows up with flowers at the restaurant and is irritated by a waving Maneki-neko cat and tries to stop it from waving (nice juxtaposition between the cat and Bucky’s cybernetic arm). Bucky and Leah wind up playing Battleship together (well, Bucky should know how that works, though not the modern version), but then Bucky abruptly runs off.
Some reviewers, most notably Andrew Welch and Benjamin Lee at the Guardian and Keith R.A. DeCandido at Tor.com, were irritated by the amount of time given over to interpersonal scenes featuring Bucky and Sam. However, I quite enjoyed those scenes. Back when I was still a regular reader of superhero comics, the scenes I inevitably enjoyed most were not the big battles, but the quieter moments of e.g. the X-Men playing baseball or having a barbecue or X-Factor going to therapy and the characters just interacting. And from talking to other comic fans, I know that I’m not alone with that. Many people love the quiet interpersonal as much as the big battles.
However, any superhero movies not made by Marvel often ignore those aspects in favour of lots of action. And if those interpersonal moments are filmed, they often end up on the cutting room floor, because hey, that huge battle scene cost a lot of money, so we’d better use as much of that footage as we can. However, the fact that WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are TV series means that they have enough time to show those interpersonal moments as well. And IMO that’s a good thing.
And while Bucky had a good character arc in the movies, Sam was very underdeveloped. All we knew about him was that he was abn Air Force veteran and all-around good guy. In fact, one of the things I love about the Marvel TV series is that they give underdeveloped and underused characters like Sam, Wanda and Vision a chance to shine.
That said, while WandaVision tried to do something genuinely new and different, the various beats in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seem very familiar, because we’ve seen them before, featuring Steve Rogers rather than Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. As Sulagna Misra points out, the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier very much mirrors Steve’s arc in Captain Americe: The Winter Soldier. As with The Winter Soldier, the series starts off with a high octane action sequence to rescue random hostages, a scene that even features the same villain. And just like Steve before him, Sam finds himself betrayed by people he trusted following this action-packed opening.
Meanwhile, Bucky’s feelings of being displaced an unmoored in time mirror Steve’s – except that Bucky’s situation is even worse, because at least Steve didn’t spend decades as a brainwashed assassin. Like Steve, Bucky has problems fitting in and problems connecting with the other sex. Like Steve, he hasn’t danced since 1944. Just like Steve, Bucky even has a notebook containing a list which he crosses off periodicially. But while Steve’s list includes all the things he missed while he was on ice, Bucky’s list is a list of people he wronged and to whom he wants to made amends.
Don’t get me wrong, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a lot of fun, but while WandaVision was genuinely new and different, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier gives us a slightly different spin on things we’ve seen before. It’s still fun, because Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are characters we like and enjoy spending time with, but I do hope they start covering new ground soon. It also will help once our protagonists actually interact – which they haven’t done so far, since both Bucky and Sam have their own plotlines.
A solid, but not revolutionary entry in the Marvel Cinematic and TV Universe.