Warning: contains spoilers!
Disney+ have followed up their successful first MCU television series with something very different. Well, it had to be, didn’t it? WandaVision was so unique that there was no way they were going to follow it up with something even remotely similar. It’s a risky strategy, but also a very clever strategy because it lays the groundwork for a Marvel TV universe in which anything can happen – which is exactly the same tactic that they’ve been employing on the big screen for years. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (very literal title, doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue) is a 6-part series starring Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, otherwise known as the Falcon, and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, otherwise known as the Winter Soldier; a pair of lesser but nevertheless beloved characters from the Captain America and Avengers movies.
I was always a big fan of the Falcon in the comics as a child. Marvel Comics were quite progressive in the 70s with their inclusion of black characters; some of my favourite characters growing up were Black: Power Man, Blade, Black Goliath – which might seem quite odd for a working class white kid from the North East of England, but I never really saw those characters in terms of race. It was only growing up that I realised there were people in the world who would shun Black Panther because of his race and what that represented. Race is an important factor in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and, whether intentional at the time or not, it’s especially poignant in the wake of the George Floyd trial.
The Winter Soldier is a character I was less familiar with. I knew Bucky Barnes from reprints of the old Captain America strips, but the Winter Soldier storyline originated from 2005, an era which is a bit of a blind spot in my comic buying. The first I really knew of the character was when he appeared in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, played by Sebastian Stan. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an interesting movie because it brings to the superhero genre a very 1970s post-Watergate political thriller style and it’s that same style, with a few modern tweaks, that also informs The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Throw into the mix a fractious odd-couple buddy movie vibe and you’ve got all the ingredients for what turns out to be another successful Marvel serial for Disney+.
The story starts where Avengers: Endgame ended for Sam Wilson, with him bequeathed the vibranium shield of Captain America and having to decide whether to take up the mantle. He decides it is too big a responsibility for him and donates the shield for display in a museum. However, he’s later less than happy to discover that the shield has been taken off display and given by to the Government-sanctioned ‘New’ Captain America John Walker (Wyatt Russell). Unfortunately, it’s clear from quite early on that John Walker is no Steve Rogers; he’s something of a loose cannon with serious anger management issues, who is just about kept in line by his assistant Battlestar (Clé Bennet). This is kind of reversal of events in the comics, where John Walker was the fiery-tempered U.S. Agent, who becomes Captain America at one point.
Meanwhile, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier have been reluctantly teamed up to track down the members of a super-powered anarchist group nicknamed the ‘Flag Smashers’, who are all about creating a world without borders and opposing a new international policy which is designed to send thousands of immigrants back to their countries of origin. The group is led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and they are portrayed in many shades of grey – what they stand for is actually quite relatable, albeit naïve and idealised, but their methodology is questionable in the extreme. There is quite a lot of dissent in the ranks, with Morgenthau being happy to have them represented as terrorists and others sensibly preferring a more moderate approach.
The key theme of the serial is power; who should be allowed it and how it should be deployed. The Flag Smashers have power, but they use it recklessly. Elsewhere, power is a commodity, with the super soldier serum that created Captain America up for the highest bidder on the international black market. Some people are concerned about the idea of giving a black man too much power by making him Captain America, so they choose a blue-eyed all-American jock who turns out to be emotionally unsuited to the job. Sam Wilson, who is emotionally suited to the job, is unwilling to take up the position, because he fears the consequences of wielding too much power and he has seen what happened to the last African-American super soldier Isiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) and how he was treated by the Government.
Although it’s done with subtlety, there’s a lot of political commentary in this series. John Walker’s unstable Captain America is very much a national hero for Trump’s America: 80% bravado and a jingoistic show of intent, but only 20% actual suitability for the job. They take great pains not to paint Walker as racist, giving him an assistant and a wife who are both African-American, but he’s still overtly nationalistic and his swaggering lack of forethought about how he behaves in other countries leaves America looking bad on an international level. Is he a bad guy? Well, it’s another grey area; he does viciously murder someone as an act of revenge and none of his actions really help the international situation. Ultimately, as mismatched as they are, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier are the heroes that America needs.
Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan play the odd couple heroes to perfection; although they appear to initially dislike each other, they end up working well together. The story can be quite dark in places, but there’s a lot of humour in there, particularly in the sniping repartee between the two lead characters. Daniel Brühl appears as Helmut Zemo; he might appear very different from the comic book Baron Zemo, but he does pull on a woolly mask at one point that brings him cheekily closer to his comic strip character. Other minor characters from the MCU crop up in parts of varying sizes, most significantly Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter, niece of Agent Peggy Carter and a character who’s not actually who she first appears to be.
Some people feared that the COVID Crisis might mark the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with their previously unstoppable movie juggernaut stumbling to a halt, but Disney+ have stepped up to the mark and broadcast two high quality TV serials so far (with a third, Loki starring Tom Hiddleston, just around the corner). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and WandaVision are very different beasts, but if we still lived in the days when big-budget American TV shows were repackaged for the European cinema market, you could easily edit either of them into an (admittedly rather long) movie and it wouldn’t look out of place on the silver screen. This is excellent stuff that bodes well for the future of Marvel well into the 21st century.
‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ is currently streaming on Disney+