The Disney series begins with an episode that borrows the size and the flash of the MCU and introduces some missteps to older Marvel shows.
A review of the premiere of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier – complete with Spoilers – will appear as soon as I get you out on Pinochle …
The Kevin Feige era of Marvel TV began earlier this year with WandaVision, a show about television that was clearly made for television (at least until the finale) and one example of this is how versatile the Marvel brand can be. Would an homage to the history of the American sitcom have been a sensation or an afterthought in pop culture without this connection to the MCU? With several Avengers in attendance, WandaVision announced how many things were possible under this now familiar logo.
However, WandaVision only came first because the pandemic disrupted production of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which originally started late last summer should debut. And if that premiere had been our first look at Feige’s vision for Marvel’s 35mm endeavors, the conversation would likely have turned out very differently. Because where WandaVision suggested that Marvel shows could be anything they wanted, this first chapter of Falcon largely reflects what we’ve seen before – not just in the MCU films, but in the Marvel series, the was produced when Jeph Loeb was in charge of the TV ending of things. It’s hard to over-judge the episode simply because it brings up so many story ideas, but it also feels a lot like an episode of one of Marvel’s now-abandoned Netflix shows, just with a much larger budget and more direct connections to the Movies.
The premiere opens more firmly in the MCU field than anything WandaVision did in its early episodes. We start with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) brooding over the shield he inherited from Steve Rogers in the final minutes of Avengers: Endgame (*) and hear a snippet of their conversation, including Sam admitting it feels like it’s someone else, and Steve assured him it isn’t.
(*) Where did this sign come from anyway? Thanos largely destroys Steve’s shield during the climatic endgame battle. Is it something Steve – perhaps even Howard Stark – did during his decades of peaceful marital bliss with Peggy Carter? Which, depending on which member of the Endgame creative team you ask, either took place in a parallel timeline or in the same timeline that Steve was frozen in for so long? Did Wanda somehow conjure it up when she was building her own sitcom family?
From there we go back to Sam to stop a terrorist group called LAF – including Batroc, the mercenary who appeared in the opening sequence of Captain America: The Winter Soldier – before they can cross the border into Libya with an American hostage. Sam’s aerial pursuit of Batroc takes him from plane to plane, through canyons and clouds, and multiple helicopters, giving him leeway that the action scenes on the Netflix and ABC shows couldn’t afford. Director Kari Skogland shoots it clean and there are some cool custom beats, especially when the LAF thugs with wingsuits soar around them. But it’s also a bit repetitive, and both Sam’s wing and his Redwing drone have been pimped to the point where his powers are basically indistinguishable from War Machine’s. Part of the fun of Falcon is that it basically just flies and yet can be so effective against bad guys with no extra powers. Turning it into a human fighter jet can be entertaining in itself, but it also creates the expectation that any problem can be solved by a previously unknown device in the flight belt or Redwing.
When the Batroc chase isn’t the best From what we’ve seen from MCU action sequences, she still wouldn’t feel out of place as a tertiary set piece in any of these movies. After that, however, we find ourselves in the dark, fearful, lazy mode of the Netflix Marvel shows (*). Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is in therapy and is still coping with the many atrocities he committed while being brainwashed to become the Winter Soldier. Sam gives up the sign, feels unworthy of it, and then goes to Louisiana to argue with his sister Sarah over whether they should sell the fishing boat and her parents’ house. Many characters and subplots are set up, including another terrorist group called Flag Smashers, as well as an attempt by the US government to introduce a new Captain America after they regain access to the shield thanks to Sam’s naivety. Most of the time, however, it is a lot of sluggish shots of one or the other hero who feel baffled about the current state of their lives and the state of the world they returned to when the Hulk brought them back to life. Our two main heroes don’t even share a scene with each other, although hopefully it won’t be that long for the defenders (do you remember them?) All to appear together on the Netflix miniseries named for that team. Can you say « six hour movie » boys and girls?
Some of this may not be showrunner Malcolm Spellman’s creative vision as much as the various headaches he inherited from Endgame. Reading interviews with the Russo brothers (who directed) and the screenwriters, it becomes very clear that none of them really thought about the aftermath when half of humanity suddenly suddenly five years after Thanos turned them to dust reappeared. And why should they have? They all prepared to move on from the MCU to other projects. A post-blip world wasn’t their problem. But it is a great deal for Spellman and everyone else trying to tell a story in this shared universe. The blip would be almost as traumatic as Thanos’ snapshot and would bring the dead back to a radically different world where their loved ones may have moved on or have literally outgrown them and where governments and economies were in ruins (*).
(*) In retrospect, this whole mess was created because no one wanted to kill Tony Stark’s adorable daughter. The Infinity Gauntlet comic that inspired Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame took place in much less time, ending with everything and everyone being exactly as they were before it snapped into place.
Spider-Man: Far From Home (which is based in the MCU but as the Sony / Marvel collaboration has its own concerns) chose to act that way wasn’t a big deal. WandaVision touched the blip in Monica Rambeau’s story, but could have gone further into the darkness: Imagine the poor resident of Westview who had only a few days to adjust to this new reality before stepping into Wanda’s sitcom fantasy set about six months after the blip, Falcon and the Winter Soldier shows how messed up the world would be even after this miracle. We were told that the Flag Smashers preferred the more chaotic, less nationalistic world of the past five years. When Sam tries to trade with his Avengers celebrity for a loan that would help Sarah, it is clear that the bank and other big institutions are taking advantage of the post-blip chaos to crush the little guy. (Given the growing wealth disparities caused by the Covid pandemic, it is the premiere site that feels most connected to our world.) War Machine himself appears briefly at the beginning to ask Sam explains why he gave the sign away and tells him, « The world is broken. Everyone’s just looking for someone to fix the problem. »
It’s clear that our two title characters need to help fix things, even if neither is in a great place right now. Sam doubts his worth to follow Steve. Bucky tries to remedy the situation to cause even more damage – like making friends with the father of an innocent bystander whom he killed on a mission as a winter soldier. Bucky is the most tormented character right now, though ironically he has some of the easier moments of the premiere, including a lively session with his government-hired therapist (played by Amy Aquino, an ace-character actor) and a date with the waitress in his Favorite sushi bar. though both scenes ultimately end up with the crippling guilt he feels for what he’s done.
These seem like reasonable arcs of character for the season: Sam gets to the point where he feels like the shield deserved – either on his own or just to get him off that scammer cap – and Bucky accepts that he can’t blame himself for the things that Hydra made him do. But on paper, many of Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage’s arcs were also interesting (*), only to be ruined by sluggish, repetitive steps and a lack of interest in highlighting individual episodes.
This season is going to be be about half as long, so that’s a start. And we know from their scenes together in Captain America: Civil War that Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan have great buddy chemistry, even though the way in which neither buddy really likes the other. So it’s way too early to worry too much. The premiere is something like an inkblot test. You can check out the Batroc sequence, scale, and presence from actors like Mackie, Stan, and Don Cheadle and expect this to be significantly different from Marvel’s previous shows. You can watch the scenes from Bucky Moping or Sarah Hectoring Sam where the episode feels much longer than 48 minutes and worry about the new god of Marvel’s television operations snapping his fingers and doing things more or less that way as they were before.
* Since the new cap (played by Wyatt Russell) is introduced at the very end, I’ll wait another week to get into its comic book story. However, if you want to take the nerdy leap on your friends, here’s a backstory on the character who has several printed names, particularly the US agent.
* Meanwhile, the show seems like a slightly different take on Flag -Smasher than in the eighties comics where the character was an individual (and later part of a group called ULTIMATUM because of course it was). You can find more information on him here.
* Ironically, this somber episode gives Sam a more colorful costume than in the movie, playing on the red that has been the key to his color scheme in the comics for most of his story. (Though oddly enough, his original costume was … green?)
* The movies were already having a lot of fun with Steve as an out of time man, so I understand why the show with Bucky doesn’t want to rely too much on that note. But it feels like Spellman’s script goes back and forth on how comfortable this forties man feels in the modern world.
* For a long time in the comics, every active avenger received a weekly grant from $ 1,000 from a charitable foundation Tony Stark founded on his mother’s behalf. (It becomes a plot point when the always financially troubled Spider-Man realizes that this is a good reason to join the team.) In the MCU, however, the Avengers don’t seem to get paid (or paid), I suppose, paid as the team does not appear to be active after the final. Instead, during the Civil War, Tony donated money on his mother’s behalf to fund MIT student projects.
* When Sam’s new military buddy asks Torres where Steve Rogers went after Endgame, he shares a conspiracy theory that Cap is now in a secret Base is on the moon and looks down on the people on earth. That’s exactly what Marvel did for a while with the original Nick Fury (the old white man who fought with a Cap in WWII, not the middle-aged man who looks like Samuel L. Jackson).
* Nice, a copy of Jack Kirby’s cover for Captain America Comics # 1 on display at the Smithsonian, complete with the iconic image of Cap pushing Hitler out.
* After all, Georges St-Pierre surely convinces as a guy who goes with someone like that strong like Captain America or with rocket propelled wings like Falcon can stand from head to toe, but I have to admit I missed the cartoonish French accent and ridiculous mustache he has in the comics.
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