Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Swooping onto Disney+ after some Covid-related filming delays, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Season 1 is a fast-paced thrill ride, and a much deeper experience than the buddy-cop comedy that was expected. Tackling some of the most mature stories ever seen in the MCU, this global adventure marries its heavy themes with rollicking action extremely well, but struggles to fully stick the landing.
Picking up the story (and the shield) after Avengers: Endgame saw Old Man Steve Rogers passing the proverbial torch, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier immediately sets about unravelling the complicated implications of replacing Captain America with a black man. At the heart of this is the shield, which Sam (Anthony Mackie) chooses to dedicate to a museum, only for the US government to take it and give it to their own nominee for the new Cap – the Caucasian, blond-haired and blue-eyed John Walker (Wyatt Russell).
Elsewhere in the world, a group of superpowered terrorists called the Flag Smashers are causing chaos in the wake of half the world’s population returning from The Blip. Led by young revolutionary Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), the Flag Smashers appear to be empowered by a variation of the Super Soldier Serum, leading Sam and his best super-frenemy, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), to reluctantly team up and take them down.
On the surface, this set-up is rife for an action-packed espionage adventure, expanding on the combative relationship between Sam and Bucky in Captain America: Civil War for some Odd Couple buddy comedy. And there’s definitely plenty of that – the global story takes the duo to plenty of striking locations – with the pirate haven of Madripoor being a particular Cyberpunky delight – all the secrecy and subterfuge feels very Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the banter between Sam and Bucky is on point.
The strength of Mackie’s performance means that when his new Cap finally rises, it is a spectacular, fully earned moment.
While all of that stuff is great, and would have made an entertaining enough series on its own, showrunner Malcolm Spellman digs deeper into the history of Captain America, shining a light on the dark secrets hidden in the shadow of the shield. With Walker taking on the mantle, themes of nationalism and corruption of power are threaded into the idea of the Star Spangled Man, culminating in the striking image of Captain America, the symbol of justice, furiously beating a man to death with his blood-spattered shield.
The legacy of Cap and the Super Soldier Program is further diminished when Bucky introduces Sam to Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), the only surviving member of Super Soldier experimentations from the 1950s. A black soldier who was imprisoned and tested on against his will after defying orders to rescue his comrades (a stark contrast to Steve Rogers, who was idolised for similar actions), Bradley is captivating in his anger, and further complicates Sam’s feelings towards the shield. It’s a bold inclusion for a Marvel property, and one that pays off endlessly, with Lumbly’s pained delivery of the line “they will never let a black man be Captain America” perfectly distilling the series’ identity.
While Lumbly threatens to steal the entire show with his devastating performance, this is still Sam and Bucky’s story, and both are better here than ever. Sam’s conflicted journey to taking on the Captain America mantle is executed flawlessly, with the series utilising his background as a counsellor for veterans with PTSD to show how this version of Cap empathises with his adversary, and tries to solve conflict with words before fists.
Seamlessly transitioning to leading man, Mackie proves his mettle wielding the shield, as much to audiences as to the MCU world and himself. Sam’s doubts and disdain for the legacy of Captain America makes for a fascinating emotional arc, and the strength of Mackie’s performance means that when his new Cap finally rises (complete with an outstanding, comic-accurate outfit), it is a spectacular, fully earned moment.
Despite Kellyman’s solid performance, the Flag Smashers feel random and unfocused.
Stan also gets plenty of time to shine across the six episodes, most notably in a flashback with Ayo (Florence Kasumba), that sees him deliver some incredible emotional work as Bucky is finally freed from the Winter Soldier programming. The banter and bickering between Sam and Bucky is perfect, with Stan’s grumpiness a great foil for Mackie’s energy, and the quieter moments that see them fixing Sam’s family boat or training with the shield offers some of the best character moments in the series.
Rounding out the cast are a few names that dance between friend and foe. Russell, the son of two famous actors, is inspired casting for Walker, a man struggling to live up to his predecessor’s legacy. Charming and petulant in equal abandon, Walker is a complex man put under pressure that he can’t handle. Kept somewhat in line by his sidekick, Battlestar (Clé Bennett), it’s when the latter is killed that Walker truly snaps, in a turn that elicits pity more than disgust, thanks to Russell’s insecure, tempestuous performance.
If Walker wasn’t trouble enough, Daniel Brühl’s Zemo returns from his role in Civil War to give the heroes grief. Part Hannibal Lecter, part Bruce Wayne, the new and improved Baron Zemo is a sassy schemer, with internet-breaking dance moves, further explored here into an even more engaging anti-villain. Also returning Civil War, Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) gets an interesting development as a disillusioned underworld criminal, full of bitterness and derision for the government that forced her to go on the run.
The downside to Walker and Zemo’s brilliance is that they just serve to further highlight the failings in the primary antagonists. Despite Kellyman’s solid performance, the Flag Smashers feel random and unfocused, as they wage war on the equally underdeveloped Global Repatriation Council, to further their vague, undefined goals. Part of the problem could stem from the rumoured removed pandemic storyline, which ultimately hit too close to home, but even with that in mind, the Flag Smashers still feel underwhelming.
The action sequences are some of Marvel’s best, and stylistically unique thanks to some inventive uses of Falcon’s wings.
While they may not be particularly fleshed-out as characters, the Flag Smashers are at least good for a scrap or two. The action in this series is brutal, feeling like a natural progression from The Winter Soldier and Civil War (fitting, as the series serves as a bridge to the newly announced Captain America 4). From a John Wick-esque assassin hunt in Madripoor to a balletic battle with the Dora Milaje, the action sequences are some of Marvel’s best, and stylistically unique thanks to some inventive uses of Falcon’s wings.
That’s not to say that everything works completely smoothly. There are some pacing issues in later episodes, and the finale has so much going on that only Sam’s ascension to Captain America gets room to breathe. Karli is dispatched so hastily that her loss feels hollow, despite Sam’s inspiring speech to the GRC – itself a fantastic Cap moment. Bucky’s closure about his Winter Soldier past feels equally rushed, and both Sharon and Walker get new identities revealed so briefly that they feel tacked on at best.
Half the fun of watching Marvel content is spotting all the seeds being planted for future projects, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t disappoint. Unlike the more self-contained WandaVision, this series really connects to the larger MCU, introducing Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (boy, that’s a mouthful) as she renames John Walker the US Agent, and recruits him for when things “get weird”. This looks like a set-up for the Dark Avengers, but whatever it ends up being, it’s exciting.
Zemo’s incarceration in the Raft could lead to the Thunderbolts, Marvel’s equivalent to the Suicide Squad. Sharon’s reveal as the Power Broker sets her up for a confrontation with Sam and Bucky down the line, but her sharp character change has some theorising that she’s actually a Skrull, so she could turn up in Secret Invasion next. Finally, Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez) and Eli Bradley (Elijah Richardson) could easily return in the future as their superhero alter egos, the new Falcon and Patriot, respectively.
Much like WandaVision before it, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier stumbles at the finish line with a messy finale, but the emotional material is exceptional. These MCU series’ continue to explore side characters who have long deserved the spotlight, and produce some of Marvel’s most compelling material yet. There’s a high bar for the upcoming Loki, but after this, things are looking good for the Trickster God. The title change at the end of the finale is small, but poignant, and based on this series, the further adventures of Captain America and the Winter Soldier are something worth looking forward to.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles
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