Marvel’s second Disney+ project in as many months produced a solid if not spectacular piece of polished MCU television. It had all the laughs, fights and thrills we’ve come to expect, but perhaps lacked the X factor that has not yet returned after the snap.
From the original announcement and following Wandavision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s expectation carried an air of… shrug. Whereas the former was built on mystery and intrigue, the preface a whole new weird and wonderful MCU phase, Falcon and the Winter Soldier was to all appearances the filler to bridge a gap between more interesting properties.
As it was, the presumption kinda hit the mark. Falcon and the Winter Soldier told a pretty simple but engaging story, developing two of the MCU backbenchers into contenders for phase 4 A-listers whilst scattering low key introductions and plot threads into the mix to the surprise of no-one.
When a World Changes Back
Unlike Wandavision and SM: Homecoming, this series takes no time in diving straight into the difficult questions posed by the un-snappening and the fallout of Endgame. It’s a world that struggled on, united in the years that followed the blip, only for Stark’s snap to change everything back to the way things were. As you can imagine, for some that didn’t mean changing things back for the better.
It’s a fascinating premise, and one that is pretty brave to tackle. For all the praise Marvel receive in their execution of the MCU, it at times go unnoticed how well they translate massive, ridiculous plots from the pages of comics into a coherent on-screen depiction. Yet here we are, in a world where only a few months ago 4 billion people reappeared from nowhere, changing the life of well, the remaining 4 billion. As much as this brought joy back to many who had experienced loss, for those who benefited from the unity that the blip created, they were once again marginalised by a flawed world which was “back to normal.”
To this end Erin Kellyman’s Karly Morgenthau was unfortunately the series biggest missed opportunity. Leader of the “anti-border” group the Flag Smashers, she provided little else than a one-and-a-bit dimensional baddy who lacked the charisma or acting chops to convince as a genuine antagonist. She never quite passed as a leader either, and though Flag Smashers did a good job of displaying the human side of political conflicts, inconsistent story telling turned the promising group into a mere plot device. It was rumoured that the initial draft of the story involved a worldwide pandemic (scrapped because, you know). If this has transpired, it may well have done more to display their plight.
In the end they still had a big part to play in the most interesting moments of the series, but when it came to the crunch it really could have been any group of generic freedom fighters for our heroes to stop, rather than anything greater or more lasting in their own right.
With a Great Shield, comes Great Responsibility
Speaking of, the show centres around the titular Falcon and Winter Soldier, frenemies of sorts, representing the new and old life of the former Star Spangled Man, Steve Rodgers. Without ever appearing, Rodgers is the unspoken glue of the series. He brings these two characters together, whilst also providing their biggest conflicts. Antony Mackie‘s Sam believes himself unworthy of being the Captain America Steve chose him to be at the end of Endgame, whilst Sebastien Stan’s Bucky clings to the hope that he really deserved the redemption Steve fought so hard for.
It’s a fascinating view, taking us into the “real” lives of superheroes when they aren’t blowing up aliens or taking out Hydra. From the realities of Sam’s ailing finances (how do Avengers get paid?) to Bucky struggling to find something in common with a woman 70 years younger than him… kind of. Mackie gets a bit more to do, and from his journey we see a man waking up to the realities of those who struggled during the blip, in a not dissimilar way to how black people have and do struggle in the real world. It’s a plot lifted from the comics, and on the whole treated with the respect it deserves by those involved.
I like both Mackie and Stan, who come across as genuinely fun in the show and on the press circuit. I would be lying however to say going in I didn’t doubt their credentials in leading their own miniseries.
They fair well. Though they are some way short of the original Avengers in terms of wow factor, I would hasten to remind anyone that we were underwhelmed by Chris Evans in Captain America, the First Avenger, before he really made the part his own in The Avengers. Though these characters have bee around a little longer, with a new wind behind them the potential is there to be front and centre as Phase 4 kicks into gear.
The Real Winners
Despite the decent showing from the leads, the standout performances came from the sidelines. Daniel Brühl‘s Baron Zemo and Wyatt Russell‘s John Walker added a whole new level of depth to the production. Both characters are their own form of morally grey, and whilst they commit atrocities, there is no doubt that at the heart of their actions there is an understandable rationale, even if you don’t agree with it.
Zemo in particular stole his episodes, with a charisma that has become a running theme in MCU villains. Brühl twins an intelligent, ruthless nature with quite charm, and unusually for a villain Zemo has a habit of coming out on top. Without spoiling the series, his directness, military training and lack of villainous monologuing mean that whilst the showy villain exposits, Zemo is just there quietly delivering on his plans. Of course when he isn’t looking to rid the world of super-powered beings, he is breaking out stellar moves.
Wyatt Russell Continues the now proven Marvel formula of quietly introducing new characters in a natural, story appropriate manner. Walker as the new Captain America is at heart just a guy trying to do the right thing, but overwhelmed by the expectations placed upon him his judgement becomes appreciably clouded. Wyatt really brought depth to a character which could have easily been just another morally questionable baddy. Indeed one of the few interesting threads left open at the end of the series is the future of Walker and how he will fit in to the MCU, potentially in the upcoming Thunderbolts series.
Other standouts of the series included the clever introduction of Carl Lumbley‘s Isaih Bradley, a character of huge social and cultural importance in Marvel comics. He was given a respectful part to play in the show, without ever being so overpowering as to take away from the message, a real credit to the range of emotion he conveys in every scene. It also opens the door to potential prequel’s about the character, or an introduction down the line to his super-powered Grandson.
A Few Missed Opportunities
Not everything stuck in the series, and in addition to the run of the mill villains a couple of other elements fell flat. The return of Emily VanCamp‘s Sharon Carter was ultimately disappointing, adding very little to the show other than an almost too obvious reveal. It was bad enough that it had to be a double bluff; but alas if it looks and sounds like a horse, it’s probably a horse. Marvel may have big plans for her down the line, but her treatment felt half baked and underwhelming.
Marvel secret agent Valentina Allegra de Fontaine made her first appearance, portrayed by sitcom legend Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but as someone with no nostalgia for those roles, she was really quite grating. Hamming it up to 11, with about a 13 on the Tony Stark Smug meter, I struggled to get onboard with a character that was effectively screaming “I’M SO FUNNY” at the audience with every line. It was the kind of cameo popular in the early 2000s, where a known face like Schwarzenegger walks in, cracks a few one liners and gets gone (not dissimilar to his role in 2010’s The Expendables). Fun, yes. silly, yes. For me though it was a zig that should have zagged.
The final complaint is the most picky, but perhaps in context the most important. The best MCU entries have been if nothing else, subtlety brilliant. Whilst a blockbuster like Endgame may have the fist pumping moments that you waited 10 years for, the quiet, expertly crafted moments in between were to many the best parts. This was often lacking in Falcon and the Winter Soldier – not absent, but infrequent enough that the show quickly began to feel a little like “any other action-thriller.” It’s a harsh criticism, but one fitting for a universe that otherwise holds itself to such high standards. This was really hammered home in the finale, where a poignant, impassioned speech should have been the season’s crowning moment – but instead felt heavy handed and awkward. See Rocky 4‘s “we can all change” speech – just a bit too much.
A Low-Key pre Loki Entry
Marvel are truly their own worst enemy. When you get that good, people will always expect you to be that good – this is really the only place Falcon and the Winter Soldier falls down. On its own, it’s a premium piece of streaming content, with high production values, thrilling action, some great performances and enough quality writing to hold attention.
The show did lack that pop however to elevate it beyond just “ok” in the scheme of MCU properties. Despite a generally engaging plot there were no decent universe altering consequences and character development which whilst interesting was kind of presumed from their journey thus far. Falcon and the Winter Soldier sits somewhere close to Wandavision as a great bit of watching, that just lacked the special something to rekindle the MCU flame following the highs of Endgame.
Heres looking to Loki… will a long time fan favourite kick off the multiverse of madness like fans are hoping?