Review: The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

Review: The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

Fights, Flag Smashers and the Falcon’s Moment. We review The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and its position in the MCU. Spoilers ahead!

Rating: 4/5

Last week saw the monumental step into phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the final episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier aired on Disney+.

Where are they now? 

Captain America: Civil War saw the start of an unlikely friendship between two characters who couldn’t be more different. It took one comedic interaction in the film to trigger a follow-up series dedicated to the love/hate relationship of Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. A relationship that shouldn’t work in theory, but thrives in this action-packed, deeply written, and well-executed superhero show.

The show picks up from the fallout of Avengers: Endgame, where Steve Rogers hands over the Captain America shield to Sam. Not only did this trigger the start of the series, but gave the show a story to work with and unpack. Surprisingly, the first episode opened with Sam handing over the shield to the US government. We immediately see the beginning of a much-needed discussion about what it would mean for a black man to be Captain America. As for Bucky, the viewers meet him in a government-mandated therapy session. He is denying any signs of trauma or nightmares from his past as the highly-skilled, Super-Soldier assassin, The Winter Soldier.

The first episode builds the foundation for the characters and narrative. Viewers re-meet them in 2024. We see the impacts of The Blip on Sam, his family and the 106-year-old World War II soldier. They are suddenly expected to seamlessly assimilate back into society. It was disappointing to not see both characters meet in the first episode. However, it built anticipation for the chaos about to ensue once they meet in episode two. It did not disappoint.

The Flag Smashers

Sam and Bucky find themselves tackling various antagonists throughout the show. The most dominant one being the rise of the anti-nationalist group, the Flag Smashers. This group is led by the young, headstrong Karli Morgenthau. The Flag Smashers’ main motivation is to unite the post ‘Blip’ world as a society that exists without borders and to share resources equally. They are challenging the Global Repatriation Council, which give preferential treatment to the people who disappeared for five years.

Upon first look, Karli’s intentions are in the right place, but her execution falls short. To establish dominance in her movement, Karli steals Super-Soldier serum from the mysterious ‘Power Broker’. The struggle with the serum is one of the main power struggles within the show and invites an interesting perspective on what it means to be a ‘Super-Soldier’. It also brings a hard to hate enemy back into the mix.

Revival of the Buddy-Cops

Marvel fans recognised a strong partnership between Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan way before this show. The pair bring their offscreen chemistry onto this Disney+ platform and reignite the 80s buddy-cop dynamic one would usually see in films such as Lethal Weapon. Throughout the six episodes, the audience has an insight into two characters who have only ever been united with their mutual friend, Steve Rogers. But what happens when you take Steve away from the trio? Bucky and Sam must navigate this new dynamic – one that is similar to Nick, Winston and Schmidt in New Girl.

The dynamic between the two was already cut out for them. You don’t have to look far on YouTube to find hours of press footage with Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie tag-teaming against Tom Holland or insulting one another. It’s enough to even make a non-MCU fan crack a smile. Luckily for viewers, we see some of that magic in the form of two beloved superheroes who have not previously had the attention or recognition they deserved. Usually described as “background characters”, Sam and Bucky prove to audiences just how important these characters can really be. They also show how well-loved and vital their roles can become in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Captain America: what does it mean?

“How does it feel?” An aged Steve Rogers asks Sam Wilson, as he holds the Captain America shield for the first time.

“Like it’s someone else’s.” Sam Wilson replies.

This quote underpins most of the show’s trajectory and we see the struggles Sam Wilson faces when confronting the possibility of him taking on the Captain America role. For Steve Rogers, his role and reputation were simple. Being a white man with blonde hair, blue eyes and full of Super Serum, he became the embodiment of what it meant to be American, on and off-screen. Now ten years later, what does it mean for Sam Wilson, a black man, to take on the Captain America shield?

America has a past and a present embroiled in racial tension. There are two very different lifestyles and treatments depending on the colour of your skin. Representing a country that does not represent you is not only a weighted ask, but something that seems unattainable. How can he step forward and be the embodiment of the American people when there is so much work to do to dismantle, challenge and eliminate racism?

In a moving monologue in the last episode, Sam speaks to politicians about what it means to be a black man in America and shines a light on the groups of people who are regularly neglected by the government, hence the uprising from the Flag Smashers. Co-written by Anthony Mackie himself, the monologue is a self-reflexive, honest moment for Sam and highlights his awareness that people dislike him because he is a black man holding the shield, but that is not enough to stop him from doing so.

How Isaiah Bradley reflects the broken establishment

One of the most harrowing narratives of the show is Isaiah Bradley, an African American Super Soldier who was unwillingly subject to several human testing trials by the US government. After surviving the tests, in 1951 he was tasked to kill the Winter Soldier. This is why Bucky is the only person who still knows of his story and whereabouts. The US government were then afraid of the ramifications of having an African American Super Soldier, and Isaiah was imprisoned until he faked his death. He lived a solitary life with his grandson in Baltimore. The story may be fictional and made for TV, but it reflects the two different realities white people face compared to black people.

Steve Rogers was championed and made into a national hero, whereas Isaiah Bradley was subject to abuse, imprisonment and a life dictated to by a neglectful system. This is the experience faced by black Americans every single day, even in 2021. The system is not made to protect or look after their African American citizens and Isaiah Bradley is the embodiment of this broken establishment. As Sam approaches his decision to take the shield, Isaiah’s experiences weigh heavily on him and inform how he approaches being Captain America in such a divisive time.

The man who stood the test of time

You can put it down to an excellent script, the comics or Sebastian Stan’s acting talents, but Bucky Barnes never fails to impress. Originally seen as Steve Rogers’ best friend, then the Winter Soldier and now the “White Wolf”. This ten-year character arc has redefined the hero/villain dynamic and how a man out of time can continue to live on. At no point in any of Bucky’s appearances across the MCU does the audience ever see the same version. In this series, Bucky is navigating what it means to no longer be the Super Soldier killing assassin who left a lot of carnage in his path. He confronts these demons through his partnership with Sam and promises to “make amends”.

When looking at who is returning for phase four, Bucky is one of the only characters who has been in the MCU since the beginning, along with Thor. This is a testament to Captain America: The Winter Soldier which has proved to be one of the Infinity Saga’s best films. Sebastian Stan provided one of the greatest physical and acting performances, despite only having around 13 lines in the film.

A new side to Bucky Barnes

Being a 106-year-old man trying to assimilate into modern-day society is harder than it looks. For the first time, we see a comedic, domesticated side of Bucky Barnes. He seems genuinely happy, a rare sighting we’ve not seen since the first Captain America film. This only comes after six episodes of having to do immense work with the help of Sam and the Wakandans. It helps him find a place in the world that doesn’t involve war or a fight. At last, Bucky is finally given a space where viewers have an insight into who he is, away from the association with Steve Rogers. This independent space leaves open the possibilities of far more appearances from Sebastian Stan in the upcoming phase of the MCU.

However, for any fans of his Winter Soldier phase, don’t worry. Zemo still manages to bring out Bucky’s dark side in the third episode. We get the perfect balance of the new Bucky Barnes and his inescapable past.

Big leaps that fell short

If you watch the first five episodes, you will think there could be no downfall for this highly anticipated series. We’ve had domestic Sam/Bucky, the formidable return of the Dora Milaje, gripping fight scenes featuring *that* arm, and the beginning of Sam’s transformation as Captain America.

However, the final instalment of the series somehow misses the mark and doesn’t meet our high expectations. Perhaps extending the series by an episode or two could have tied up the loose ends more effectively, rather than having a disappointing series finale.

Here are the many questions that the final episode left me with:

  1. What was the point of John Walker?

At first, the introduction of John Walker served as the antithesis of Steve Rogers, despite being handed the title of Captain America. Steve Rogers is what America thinks it is, whereas John Walker is what America really is. Uplifted by black people and validated by the US government, John Walker becomes inflated with self-confidence and arrogance. His desire is to prove himself rather than help people.

Why was there so much emphasis on him and his DIY shield by the final episode, despite being stripped of his military achievements the prior episode? Are we also forgetting that he brutally murdered a man with the Captain America shield in the middle of a town square in broad daylight? He could have been a much darker take on white privilege in America. Unfortunately, his character arc seemed neglected by the final episode. While he was not the best part of the show, he deserved a more conclusive end. He has the potential to become a complex protagonist for future MCU projects.

  1. Why didn’t we see Bucky making amends?

Bucky making amends to move forward with his life is an important step for his character development. Unfortunately, it’s not something the audience sees throughout the show. Sebastian Stan showcases the vulnerability of his character in two stand-out scenes within the series.

First, when the Dora Milaje are helping him reverse the triggering words which turn him into the Winter Soldier. We see the relief of what years of mental imprisonment has done to Bucky.

Secondly, we see Bucky making amends with one of his only friends, Yori. He is the father of someone Bucky killed when he was the Winter Soldier. In what could’ve been a revolutionary and cathartic scene, it is cut short in the episode. This is a disappointing choice from the editing team. Fans have waited for over five weeks to see this moment between the two. Instead, it’s reduced to a fleeting exchange between two characters who ultimately deserved better.

  1. What was the rush with Karli & The Power Broker?

After five weeks of anticipation to track down both Karli and the mysterious Power Broker, Karli’s final moments and the reveal of the Power Broker appeared to be rushed. Karli was an instrumental voice for the antagonist, who represents the majority of people’s views. Her intentions were in the right place, but her last scene did not do her character justice. Instead, it left a “that’s it?” feeling to the moment. Karli was not morally that far off from Steve Rogers. Even Sam admits to seeing her point of view in the fourth episode, in the same way that Steve protects Wanda in Civil War.

Karli is a multi-faceted character. She appears as a villain but in many ways, is more of a hero than the government-appointed Captain America. Karli may have taken the Super Soldier serum, but it never actually made her evil. She was truly a “misguided teenager”, as described by Sam, who wanted to get people to listen to her. Hence why it was disappointing to see her final moments shadowed by Sharon Carter.  In addition to this, the Power Broker’s reveal became predictable and anticlimactic after weeks of build-up and anticipation. It was a bizarre choice to have Sharon as the Power Broker, but probably the only real way to incorporate her back into the MCU.

The significance of the new Captain America

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is a monumental transition from cinema to the TV screen. It successfully brings Marvel magic into your living room. Despite its rushed ending, it has been an important and poignant series. It provides a brilliant balance of reflection and escapism. It also shows how Marvel remains two steps ahead in the superhero game.

Despite the shortcomings in the series finale, criticism fades away once you see Sam Wilson’s breath-taking entrance as Captain America. It was hard not to scream with excitement at the TV screen when I saw him in the suit. This is the Captain America the younger generations will grow up with and the elder generations will grow older with. There will be children who grow up knowing a black Captain America and diverse superheroes are not revolutionary but normalised.

There’s also a torn sense of whether Sam deserves the shield or if the shield deserves someone as intelligent, hardworking and honest as Sam. There are several defining moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that will get audiences talking about it for years to come: Steve Rogers wielding Mjolnir, Iron Man’s last words and now, Sam Wilson becoming Captain America.

As for Bucky, his mental health and therapy sessions will hopefully vocalise the importance of caring for your mental health. Even heroes need that extra bit of help. This allowed Marvel to recover from the damaging representations of Thor’s depression and anxiety in Avengers: Endgame. A subject matter such as mental health should be treated delicately and respectfully. We see this balance in Bucky’s journey to assimilating into society.

There is no need for the WandaVision comparison

One criticism I want to challenge is the comparison to WandaVision. While it is easy to compare two projects from the same universe, it is not fair to conflate the two. WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Loki series are all independent and unique. WandaVision is the bridge for Wanda’s transition into Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness. It is intentionally created to be different from anything Marvel has ever produced. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the bridge for Captain America 4 and is supposed to stay true to the previous movies. Comparing the two automatically sets this series up to fail. They must be acknowledged and analysed separately.

Final thoughts

The phenomenal cast, scriptwriting and jet setting adventure reflect the Marvel movies we all know and love. The weekly instalments gave viewers something to look forward to in a much-needed time of escapism.

If we can take anything from this series, it is that Steve Rogers’ legacy is not the shield. It is Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. They are both the embodiment of a world we wish to see. Sam Wilson becoming comfortable enough to be Captain America is something to be celebrated. I hope to see future projects revisiting Bucky’s time in Wakanda and the transition of the Winter Soldier into the White Wolf.

As for Sam, I cannot wait to see him finally have a solo film. One which celebrates a new era of Captain America and redefining what it means to wield the shield. From starting as enemies, we have seen the journey of two characters becoming co-workers and now family. No matter what, Bucky will always have Captain America’s back.

This series only scratched the surface of what these two characters are capable of. I hope to see our new Captain America and the Winter Soldier on the big screen once again.

All episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier are available on Disney+.

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