REVIEW – ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ ticks all the boxes for MCU fans

After the breath of fresh air that was WandaVision, the MCU returns to its roots with its next blockbuster Disney+ television series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Following in the footsteps of Wanda and co. will prove to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the hugely popular series revived the public’s interest in the Marvel universe after a total void of new content from Marvel Studios for more than 18 months. On the other, it set a new benchmark for daringly unique content from a franchise often criticised for sticking too closely to its own well-worn formula.

For better or worse, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels more similar to the 23 films of the cinematic universe that have dominated the pop culture zeitgeist for over a decade now. The series will tick all the boxes for MCU fans who’ve been craving their usual dose of Marvel superhero adventure that was lacking in 2020. With bombastic action set-pieces, references to the broader Marvel universe, and a dose of mysterious villainy hovering over everything, the show is essentially an MCU film condensed into 45-minute bites. If that sounds like your cup of tea, this is the series for you.

Picking up roughly six months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier presents the world in a broken, divided state. With Iron Man and Captain America both gone, people are yearning for a new hero to set everything right again. After literally being handed the mantle of Captain America in the conclusion of Endgame, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) has evidently rejected the title in favour of remaining as the Falcon. It seems Sam still feels like that infamous shield “belongs to someone else.”

Despite Sam’s hesitation to take a leading role in the Avengers Initiative, the Falcon is still on hand to assist the U.S. Army in a secretive mission high up in the sky. When he’s back on land, Sam is dealing with his disappointed and mildly-estranged sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye). She’s long felt abandoned by her brother due to his superhero duties and now the family’s Louisiana shrimp business is on the ropes.

Meanwhile, James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is still suffering through his identity crisis and grappling with the crippling guilt over his murderous past as a brainwashed Hydra assassin. After cooling off for several months in Wakanda, Bucky is back in the States and seeing a therapist to help make amends for the sins of his past. Shunning Sam’s calls and living a life of seclusion, Bucky’s only friend in the world is elderly Asian neighbour Yori (Ken Takemoto).

But there’s a bigger problem for Sam and Bucky brewing on the horizon with the emergence of a masked fascist group known as the Flag-Smashers. The anti-patriotism movement believed life was actually better during the Blip (i.e. when Thanos vanquished half Earth’s population) and seem hellbent on causing chaos and anarchy wherever they can. However, the identity of just who is leading this troubling movement remains a mystery.

It must be prefaced Disney provided just the first episode of six for critics to review. And, much the three-episode teaser critics were given of WandaVision back in January, this brief taste barely scratches the surface of the real nuts and bolts of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. In fact, Bucky and Sam don’t actually share a single scene together in episode one. Nor is there any appearances of credited series stars Emily VanCamp, Wyatt Russell, and Daniel Brühl.

Even with just 45 minutes seen, it’s clear this series will follow similar themes to those of WandaVision and Spider-Man: Far From Home that explored the difficulties of life after the Blip for our Marvel heroes. The events of Endgame had long-rippling repercussions on those involved that will clearly be the central conceit of Phase Four. Much like young Peter Parker, Sam is struggling to find his new place in the Avengers line-up, which is only compounded by the expectation to assume the Captain America moniker. And, similarly to Wanda, Bucky is dealing with the demons of his past and how to become the hero he was before Hydra got their hands on him.

As side characters in the film franchise, Sam and Bucky haven’t exactly been the most fully fleshed-out characters of the MCU, so it’s pleasing to see them both given their moment in the spotlight. There’s more character development for both of them in this one episode of television than there has been in the numerous films they’ve appeared in. With five episodes still to come, we’ll assumedly delve much deeper into Bucky’s trauma and Sam’s identity crisis and the show can flourish into an impressive character study like WandaVision.

While the first episode doesn’t touch on issues of race, Mackie has said, “Sam considers the shield a representation of the country that we live in. There’s a lot of trepidation as far as how does a Black man represent a country that does not represent him?” If the show (and Disney) has the nerve and courage to effectively explore this notion, it could be something rather groundbreaking. Given the events of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement, it would be a travesty for this show to avoid tackling a pertinent subject that demands to be acknowledged.

Mackie and Stan are both given their chance to highlight their terrific acting skills beyond the action sequences we know they can both easily handle. Stan has always been rather compelling as the conflicted anti-hero with a heart of gold, but the series sharply taps into Bucky’s inner turmoil like never before. He’s a complicated character and it will be a pleasure to spend each week unveiling more layers to Bucky than we’ve previously seen. Likewise with Sam, who’s been a character perpetually stuck in Captain America’s shadow. When he was handed that Vibranium shield, we all assumed he’d effortlessly take to the role, but this series clearly has other intentions in mind for Sam’s complex journey to find his new identity.

As previously mentioned, Mackie and Stan are yet to share screentime after the first episode, but we saw their tremendous chemistry in the MCU films and it will undoubtedly be on display in future instalments. The series opens with a spectacular, lively set piece with the Falcon caught up in a frenetic aerial dogfight that allows the superhero to showcase what he’s really capable of. With all the dizzying cinematography and brutal fight choreography we’ve come to expect from the MCU, the sequence kickstarts this series in tremendous fashion.

There will assuredly be many more of these chaotic, explosive action scenes to come, but the biggest highlights of the premiere were the quieter moments that prove superheroes are still humans who deal with very human problems. If the series can perfectly balance these two elements, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could be another huge winner for Disney+ and the Marvel franchise. While much of the first episode contains elements familiar to content seen elsewhere in this saga, there’s a potentially great show brewing here and the premiere left me eager to see what’s to come.

Distributor: Disney+
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Emily VanCamp, Daniel Brühl
Director: Kari Skogland
Executive Producers: Kevin Feige, Zoie Nagelhout, Kari Skogland, Malcolm Spellman
Head Writer/Creator: Malcolm Spellman
Cinematography: P.J. Dillon
Production Design: Ray Chan
Costume Design: Michael Crow
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Kelley Dixon, Todd Desrosiers, Rosanne Tan
Music: Henry Jackman
Running Time: 6 episodes, averaging 45 minutes each
Release Date: 19th March 2021 (Episode 1 and then weekly)