NOTE: Some spoilers from throughout, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” are present in this review
With the winking, meta-fueled craziness of WandaVision having kicked off the freshly-launched slate of Disney+ Original Series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the start of this year, it was certainly strange to follow that fan-favourite miniseries with another MCU miniseries that instead shifted this world’s tone in the complete opposite direction. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier shirked the fantastical side of the MCU in favour of a starkly grounded, politically charged action-thriller that gave an unapologetically complex look at the chaotic post-Blip world, as well as the uncertain state of America, and its continued struggles with issues such as race, the class divide, foreign policy, and the military-industrial complex. This is all much heavier material than the MCU is used to addressing, but it does fit with the spirit of the fantastic Captain America movie sequels, which both offered their own surprisingly grounded take on the affairs of spies, soldiers and governments struggling to adapt to a world slowly becoming permeated with super-powered people.
But even then, that was the golden MCU era where S.H.I.E.L.D. had freshly collapsed, and Steve Rogers still carried the mantle of Captain America as a sharp-principled man out of time. Now, in the fallout of Avengers: Endgame, the old superhero guard has come undone. Iron Man and Black Widow are dead, Thor has joined the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America ultimately returned to the 1940’s to live out his life with Peggy Carter in the past, eventually re-appearing in the present as an elderly Steve Rogers, and passing his shield and superhero identity on to his closest friend and confidant, Sam Wilson/Falcon. This at least marks a happy ending for Steve that presents a promising new era for the Sentinel of Liberty, but unbeknownst to Steve, Sam would see himself as unworthy of the mantle, and ultimately donate Steve’s old Captain America shield to the U.S. government, for display in a museum.
This decision by Sam to reject the mantle of Captain America kicks off a series of events that encompass the entirety of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which sees Sam and Steve’s other best friend, Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier struggling with how to move on after the retirement and ultimate disappearance of Steve Rogers. The MCU’s second Disney+ series thus explores themes of power, legacy and race relations through Sam’s and Bucky’s characters, particularly as they come into conflict with a radical faction of freedom fighters called the Flag-Smashers. Loosely adapted from a lone super-villain called Flag-Smasher in Marvel Comics lore, the Flag-Smashers, led by teenage crusader, Karli Morgenthau (a gender-swapped variation of Marvel Comics’ Flag-Smasher character, Karl Morgenthau), fight to prevent the re-establishment of international borders by international governing body, the Global Repatriation Council, or GRC, which already forcibly removed survivors of Thanos’ Snap from their homes and forced them into ‘resettlement camps’, after The Blip restored the missing half of Earth’s population during Avengers: Endgame.
This is clearly a ton of narrative establishment to chew through. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ambitiously tries to explore all of its many narrative ideas in just six hour-long episodes, but as you can imagine, that’s not quite enough time to adequately address everything on this miniseries’ mind. That’s the single biggest issue with this otherwise great miniseries, the fact that it’s ultimately too much of a good thing in too tight of a space, and perhaps needed one or two more episodes, or maybe even a whole second season, to fully explore everything it wants to address with its many personalities, factions and themes. The series is nonetheless incredibly well-produced and exciting though, plus the breakneck pacing ensures that there’s never truly a dull moment throughout Sam’s and Bucky’s battle against the Flag-Smashers. Still, there are times where the show’s narrative frustrates and becomes sloppy, despite all of the parts making up The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s whole being thoroughly outstanding in their conception.
Whether or not you’ll ultimately prefer WandaVision or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will probably come down to a matter of taste (and there will be many Marvel fans that no doubt love both miniseries for different reasons!), but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier particularly excels when it actually finds room to breathe. The first couple of episodes present some tonal confusion, most notably, but the height of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s appeal definitely comes via its third and fourth episodes, which finally see the series perfectly balancing action, drama, humour and thematic commentary. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier then falters a bit again during its final two episodes, delivering a fifth episode that isn’t quite as consistent as its two predecessors, before sticking a bit of an awkward landing with this miniseries’ exciting, but rather rushed and inconsistent final episode. Taken as a whole, this is still a very impressive miniseries that’s well-performed, incredibly polished and thoroughly indistinguishable from the scope and ambition behind Marvel Studios’ movies, but it does nonetheless indicate that Marvel Studios is still nailing down the best way to present their Disney+ shows, especially when, unlike the MCU’s former Marvel Television crop, these Disney+ series offerings are now set to directly influence and develop events and characters in upcoming MCU movies, and not just the other way around.
Clearly, the quest for Sam to properly grow into and accept the mantle of Captain America is a huge part of the storytelling in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Bucky takes on his own quest to reconcile and come to terms with his violent past as the Winter Soldier, but it’s Sam that’s undeniably the star of this miniseries, with Bucky being a tag-along at worst, and a sidekick at best. Obviously, Sam will inevitably embrace becoming the new Captain America eventually, and that’s exactly what he does during The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s series finale, finally coming out to the world as the new Captain America that was hand-picked by Steve Rogers, while also acknowledging the different circumstances of Sam being a Black Captain America. As Sam points out, there are quite a few Americans who will see him as a Black man first, and a superhero second, and he knows that he’ll have to be the face of a growing movement for racial acceptance in America, but he intends to live up to the shield nonetheless, not just appropriate it.
Further informing Sam’s character arc here are two other Super Soldiers that represent two extremes of America’s race problem. On the one hand is Isaiah Bradley, a formerly unknown Black Super Soldier that America experimented upon and unleashed during the Korean War, who was subsequently imprisoned, forgotten and abandoned, having lost both his wife and his former comrades-in-arms by the time he was able to get out and resume civilian life in Baltimore with his grandson, Eli. On the other hand is John Walker, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian military veteran that the American government appoints to be the new Captain America. This goes about as well as you would imagine, with Walker ultimately revealing himself to be unstable and unworthy of the shield, as evidenced after he hoards some leftover Super Soldier Serum stolen by the Flag-Smashers for himself, and eventually murders one of Karli’s people after Walker’s own right-hand man, Lemar Hoskins/Battlestar is accidentally killed by Karli during a battle in Latvia.
Isaiah and Walker are both meant to represent The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s themes of power in a social context. For example, the world readily accepts Walker because of his friendly, all-American image, only to later be horrified when he reveals himself as a violent lunatic that’s being crushed under the pressure to live up to Steve’s old mantle. Meanwhile, the noble, but broken Isaiah has already resigned himself to a world that will seemingly never get better, creating a sense of cynicism that Sam has the means to fight as Steve’s chosen Captain America successor. Even then however, there is a complication and nuance to this debate that treats it with the proper respect. In the series finale most notably, when faced with the prospect of allowing civilians to die so he can take his revenge on Karli, Walker ultimately does the right thing and saves the imperiled citizens while letting Karli escape, thus proving that he’s not really a bad person, just a bad Captain America. Likewise, in defying Isaiah by embracing the mantle of Captain America, Sam creates the very hope that Isaiah was deprived of so many decades ago, opting to believe that not even The Blip can permanently undo the world, and that things can only get better by embracing empathy, tolerance and understanding on all sides.
The Flag-Smashers, true to form, represent an abandonment of those principles, albeit one also caused by a failure of the enduring institutions of power to properly accommodate those displaced by the Blip. Karli starts out with good intentions, but ultimately becomes a terrorist that takes innocent lives after failing to be heard, further exacerbating a conflict that sees many Americans in particular happy to frame Karli’s entire group as violent, unreasonable sociopaths. Even then, yet another threat to the world stirs in the background as well, that being the mysterious Power Broker, the cause of these fresh batches of Super Soldier Serum making their way into the hands of the Flag-Smashers. The Power Broker, despite being a different character entirely in Marvel Comics lore, is eventually revealed to be former Avengers ally, Sharon Carter to boot, who was forced on the run and abandoned by her government, much like Karli, Isaiah and eventually John Walker, forcing her to create a black market of off-brand Super Soldier Serum within fictional Marvel nation, Madripoor in order to survive and thrive. This is a hugely unexpected turn for Sharon’s character, and indeed, it raises a ton of questions and doesn’t feel completely believable, but I am admittedly curious to see how Marvel Studios plans to further develop Sharon’s new Power Broker arc in future MCU projects.
If you’re not coming for the incredibly rich character arcs and robust social commentary throughout The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and are instead here for the action and spectacle, rest assured that you do get some truly superb action scenes, in all manners of scope. This miniseries even begins with a high-flying, intense airborne chase sequence, with Sam pursuing Georges Batroc (remember him from 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier?), immediately impressing upon viewers that these six episodes are without compromise, and fully intend to replicate the production values of Marvel Studios’ movie catalogue. During the next several episodes, we then get equally impressive renditions of smaller, hand-to-hand battles as well, both with the Flag-Smashers, and with other unexpected forces, such as the Dora Milaje of Wakanda, who are eventually provoked into trying to recapture Baron Helmut Zemo, after he’s broken out of prison by Bucky as a means of further pursuing Karli’s people.
Frustrated Marvel Comics fans that may have been dissatisfied with the rather loose, unfaithful rendition of Zemo from 2016’s Captain America: Civil War may be happy to know that his return in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier brings the character much closer to his inspiration from Marvel Comics lore. As it turns out, Zemo was a baron in Sokovia the whole time, coming from old money and plenty of privilege, but nonetheless defining himself through his military service and love of family. Zemo even carries his trademark, comic-accurate mask at one point in this miniseries, teasing that his character will continue to evolve in future MCU projects. Zemo’s enjoyable, meme-worthy return here is eventually rounded off by his recapture at the hands of the Dora Milaje, eventually dumping him in offshore super-villain prison, The Raft (where several of the MCU’s Netflix villains are presumably still languishing, if they’re still canon), where he seems primed to become entwined with future, villain-centric MCU storylines. As much as Zemo is often treated as a mere plot device in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, his return will be nonetheless exciting for Marvel fans in particular, especially when Daniel Bruhl is clearly relishing the chance to further develop his more grounded take on the MCU’s Zemo.
It feels like a particularly backhanded, but no less valid stamp of approval to say that the worst element of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is that there just isn’t enough of it. Not even a six-hour miniseries could find enough time to address so many compelling personalities and pivotal storylines, both of which will now have to hopefully be better carried by future MCU offerings. Still, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does manage to soar as an exciting, well-polished series with legitimately too much to say. Its somewhat awkward series finale stands as particular evidence that this miniseries simply needed more real estate, even if it’s otherwise a deep, brilliant examination of race relations and power politics topped by a highly engaging action-thriller storyline of unfiltered Hollywood quality. If nothing else though, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins a compelling new chapter in the saga of the MCU’s Captain America mantle, leaving Sam and Bucky to ironically abandon their former eponymous identities, and embrace promising new paths in the MCU’s future.
The MCU’s Earth may still be reeling in the wake of The Blip, and still teetering on the brink of chaos and anarchy, but even after Earth’s formerly Mightiest Heroes have had their ranks permanently compromised following the events of Avengers: Endgame, hope nonetheless remains for a better, post-Thanos world. Sam has now become the unlikely vessel of that hope, taking the first step in a new world order that will naturally beckon new superheroes, even if it’s just as certain to bring new dangers and villains.
- Riveting, heartfelt character evolution for Sam and Bucky
- Frequently excellent political and social commentary
- Impeccably polished action scenes throughout
- Overstuffed narrative that can't be fully served in six episodes
- Tonal issues in the early episodes especially