NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” are present in this review
WandaVision has come and gone, thus completing the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first expansion into Disney+ original series offerings. Before its altered post-covid schedule placed WandaVision in the position of being the MCU’s debut Disney+ series however, it was originally supposed to be preceded by another much-touted miniseries last year– The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Now that it’s finally been able to finish its long-delayed shooting schedule as well, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has arrived fashionably late, sliding onto Disney+ almost immediately following WandaVision’s conclusion, while also presenting a considerably different tone and direction from WandaVision in the process.
Fortunately, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier not only appears to be another largely great MCU series for Disney+ so far, but it also acts as an efficient palate cleanser after WandaVision’s meta-heavy, magic-themed weirdness, before that weirdness once again becomes the focus in the Loki series that’s premiering on Disney+ this Summer. Carrying on from the subtle, yet provocative political commentary and social psychology examined in standout Marvel Studios movies like 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier presents a starkly grounded new perspective on the post-Blip era of the MCU. While its eponymous characters have yet to interact and team up in this series’ first episode, both Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes have plenty of issues to sort out separately as well. This immediately leads to another character-rich Disney+ series that does a standout job of fleshing out two personalities that were formerly supporting characters in the MCU’s movie catalogue, just like WandaVision before it.
Before delving into its proper character work however, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier kicks itself off on a hell of an action-packed note! This is another stark contrast to the more zany, light-hearted introduction to WandaVision, presenting a spectacular opening sequence that pits Sam, fully outfitted as Falcon, against a terrorist group called the LAF, one that just so happens to include Georges Batroc, Batroc the Leaper himself, among its ranks! You may recall Batroc, played by Canadian MMA fighter, Georges St-Pierre, from his brief fight sequence with former Captain America, Steve Rogers aboard pirate ship, the Lemurian Star during the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. After Batroc escaped S.H.I.E.L.D.’s grasp during that mission for Steve and the late Natasha Romanoff, he now appears to have moved up in the world of mercenaries, having captured a U.S. military liaison that Sam must now work to rescue.
The intent of this high-flying opener is pretty clear, especially when you consider that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was originally supposed to premiere ahead of WandaVision in 2020, before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic delayed this series’ premiere by over six months. There was a ton of effort put into this flying sequence, which uses live stunt work, including actual skydivers, along with plenty of tight, up-close camera angles, effectively fast-paced editing, and only a minimal dose of CGI! The plan here was clearly to prove that the MCU’s Disney+ catalogue will be just as ambitious and sublimely produced as the MCU’s movie catalogue, and I’d say that mission was successful, considering that I felt frequently frustrated about not being able to watch this amazing opening on a theatre screen! Sure, the fact that the entirety of WandaVision ultimately ended up preceding The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s premiere episode somewhat undermines the blockbuster-worthy intent of this intro, but it’s still a highly impressive sequence nonetheless, and one that still manages to get the point across regarding just how high Marvel Studios is going to aim in terms of the production values for their lineup of Disney+ shows.
After Sam’s mission is successful and Batroc once again escapes however, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier starts getting into the real meat of its story, which involves dealing with the grounded, realistic fallout from the ‘Vanished’ having been restored into existence during the events of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. Six months have passed in the MCU since the events of that climactic movie, placing the events of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier considerably later than those of WandaVision, and only slightly later than the events of the MCU’s previous movie, 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home. Despite having been passed Captain America’s shield by Steve Rogers himself during the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, Sam has ultimately passed on the mantle of succeeding Steve as Captain America as well, instead donating Cap’s shield to the Captain America Museum in Washington, where James Rhodes attends the ceremony, and questions Sam about his decision to reject becoming the next Captain America.
It’s a bit jarring to go from such a fast-paced opener to such a methodical, grounded character piece, and this can sometimes lead to a sense of off-kilter pacing in this first episode for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Still, there’s no denying that this series is once again putting a ton of effort into its scenery, characters and overall detail. Even carrying the polar opposite tone as WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has plenty to say about both of its lead characters, as Sam ultimately goes home to his sister’s struggling fishing business, an inheritance from the late Wilson parents, while Bucky struggles through an existence full of nightmares and unfulfilling therapy. Both men are soldiers that have come home from the greatest war that ever faced humanity, and both now find themselves aimless, desperate and unable to truly find their place in the post-Blip world, after having lost five years of their already complicated lives to Thanos’ Snap.
This is a stirring commentary on real-life PTSD, along with the real cost of donating time to the life of being a soldier. After all, Sam is practically met with outright scorn by his sister, Sarah, who pretty much had to keep the Wilson family business afloat single-handedly during the Blip, having survived Thanos’ Snap herself, and is now being forced to reckon with selling her parents’ prized boat, something that Sam is highly against. Meanwhile, Bucky has started trying to make amends for his actions as the Winter Soldier, helping to arrest some of the Hydra plants that he helped create, while also spending time with an old man named Yori, whose son Bucky killed while he was brainwashed by Hydra. Yori then coerces Bucky into a date with a kindly sushi shop owner, and it seems to go fairly well, but a comment about losing children eventually spurs Bucky to flee the date, ultimately unable to reconcile his continued torment over Yori and his dead son, especially when Yori is visibly broken and struggling to carry on after his son’s death. This parallel is further exemplified by the irony that, unbeknownst to Yori, Bucky is even older than he is, with even Bucky’s date commenting that Bucky cutely thinks and acts like an old man, despite Bucky outwardly appearing to be in his early 40’s.
In this case, Sam gets more focus than Bucky though, and that’s primarily due to Sam being used both as the conduit to examine how the Avengers made a living all these years (apparently largely through crowdfunding, and surprisingly not from Tony Stark’s money like in Marvel Comics), and how the world ultimately begins to face a new threat. After some interactions with one Joaquin Torres, who, consequently, succeeds Sam Wilson as Falcon in Marvel Comics lore after Sam became Captain America in the printed panels, Sam learns of a new threat called the Flag-Smashers, a powerful group of radicals that want to create a world without borders or boundaries. This was apparently a world state that occurred after Thanos’ fateful Snap wiped out half of all sentient life in the universe, leaving Earth with billions of people ‘vanished’.
The Flag-Smashers are an MCU revision of a specific Captain America villain called Flag-Smasher in Marvel Comics lore, who has similar aims of pushing for a world free of nations and imperialism. Turning Flag-Smasher into an entire faction for the MCU makes more sense than one non-powered villain pushing this agenda in live-action, especially when it becomes apparent that the Flag-Smashers’ top-ranking members seem to have super-strength! Joaquin believes he identifies the leader of the group after receiving a beatdown from a man in Switzerland, but it’s immediately obvious that this is a fake-out, especially if you already know from this show’s marketing that the Flag-Smashers’ actual leader is a woman, Karli Morgenthau, a gender-swapped variation of the male Flag-Smasher from Marvel Comics, Karl Morgenthau.
The Flag-Smashers are clever, intriguing villains that logically exist as a believable faction in a post-Blip world. After all, it stands to reason that a considerable number of people would believe that the world was better in the five years during the Blip, and would be radicalized by the sudden return of half of Earth’s population, which seems to have created just as many problems as it’s fixed. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, Sam’s effort to donate Captain America’s shield to Washington has also had unexpected consequences, since it enables the U.S. government to pass the shield off to some guy named John Walker, whom they triumphantly present in-costume as Captain America to a crowd at the end of this first episode for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Naturally, as Rhodey warned, Sam’s decision to pass on the Captain America mantle is going to have big consequences, especially as the power of the Flag-Smashers continues to grow.
“New World Order” doesn’t always flow as organically as it could have, especially when those coming for the action are going to entirely run out of it immediately after the intro. Still, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier nonetheless packs a surprising dramatic punch, one that returns to the provocative, grounded political commentary that made the Captain America movie sequels such gems. Both Sam and Bucky face surprisingly human, relatable issues in the post-Blip world, as Earth continues to try and pick up the pieces from five years of losing half of the planet’s population. At the same time, a promising new faction of villains is starting to come out of the woodwork, one that effectively reinvents a recognizable Captain America villain into an entire group of radicals that once again aim to reshape Earth in their idealized image. This in turn presents an interesting theory that’s best explored in a miniseries like this over a movie; What if the Avengers were wrong to reverse Thanos’ Snap?
Fortunately, regardless of how that question is answered in the weeks ahead, it would appear that Disney+ has another superb MCU series on its hands here. It’s genuinely enough to help you avoid dwelling on the fact that it’s been nearly two years since we got a new MCU movie at this point.
- Spectacular opening sequence
- Grounded, heartfelt storytelling for both Sam and Bucky
- Thrilling, provocative introduction to the Flag-Smashers
- A few pacing issues
- Sam and Bucky don't have any scenes together yet