Just so you know where I’m coming from, Captain America has always been my favorite Marvel superhero and not just during his run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Long before Marvel Studios started raking in billions of dollars at the box office, I was enthusiastically following Captain America’s comic book adventures, both as the head of the Avengers and out on his own. So naturally a series set in his world and featuring characters inextricably linked to him is going to appeal to me and a number of other enthusiastic fans.
The recently wrapped Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is another solid MCU entry but one (much like “WandaVision”) with its own unique set of issues. On the plus side, the series pulls both characters and storylines from Cap’s lengthy comics history and brings back some familiar faces from his three movies (among the best of the MCU). And with a hefty $150 million budget and the full backing of Marvel Studios, the series has a legitimate big screen look and feel to it. On the negative side, there are kinks in the storytelling due to its episodic constraints and some erratic pacing that showrunner Malcolm Spellman never quite irons out.
One of the biggest strengths of the six-episode series is that it finally brings some much-needed depth to two of Captain America’s most essential characters. James “Bucky” Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), did have a big part in the Cap films but wasn’t much of a factor in “Infinity War” of “Endgame”. Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, (Anthony Mackie) got even less screen time and was a character in desperate need of some attention. This series not only opens Sam up, but (much like Wanda in “WandaVision”) moves him to a pretty prominent position within the greater MCU.
The series opens with an interesting mix of blockbuster quality action scenes and intimate character building. Both are welcomed features even if they don’t exactly gel together that well. The first episode dives into Sam’s backstory while highlighting his struggle with self-assurance. It ends with the introduction of John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the new government sanctioned Captain America and a character most Cap comic fans will recognize. Then we get the puzzling second episode, a messy blend of action, character introductions, some heavy-handed social commentary, and attempts at humor that seem out of place. It does end with a bang with Daniel Brühl’s return as Baron Helmut Zemo.
This launches the series into the type of show most of us were waiting for. Zemo forced to help Bucky and Sam; the reemergence (yea!!!) of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp); a mysterious crime lord known as the Power Broker; John Walker slowly losing his grip. There’s also a terrorist group called the Flag Smashers led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman). You get the sense that we’re supposed to have some level of sympathy for them, but it’s hard when they’re willfully bombing buildings and killing civilians. There are several other unexpected surprises, but through it all the story stays focused on Sam and his journey towards believing in himself and accepting the path in front of him.
There are quieter moments where the series steps away from terrorist attacks, infighting, and globetrotting. Such as when we meet Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). His introduction is botched in episode two, but we see him later in a complicated yet powerful scene. In it, the reasonably embittered Isaiah shares his dark past with Sam, lamenting that there will never be a black Captain America while also declaring that no self-respecting black man would ever want to carry the shield. Inspired by the 2003 seven-issue limited series “Truth: Red, White & Black”, it’s a heartbreaking picture of someone so pained by the wounds of injustice that he can’t see the possibility of a better tomorrow.
Despite its structural and tonal issues, there is still a myriad of cool and compelling moving parts. So many that you start to wonder if Spellman can bring it all to a fitting conclusion. Well yes and no. The final episode is best defined as serviceable, one with some genuine high points but also some head-scratching missteps which in a way epitomizes the series as a whole. This is clearly Sam’s episode and he is given plenty of moments to shine. It’s really nice to see. Mackie has reached the point where he is in-tune with every facet of his character, but even he can’t save every scene. A glaring example is Sam’s well-intended yet painfully contrived monologue that runs nearly five minutes. It’s so overwritten and woefully on-the-nose.
It’s also a bummer that Bucky eventually falls by the wayside and becomes much more of a supporting character by the last episode. I get this is ultimately Sam’s show, but with his name literally stamped in the title you would expect there to be a little more to Bucky’s story. Yet it’s almost as if Spellman either lost interest or lost ideas. In fact Sam and Bucky barely have any meaningful scenes together in the finale. Back on the positive side, the final episode does give key players like Sharon, John Walker, and even Zemo chances to leave some important marks on the MCU
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” may not have the most seamless story or the smoothest storytelling. It may be a tad too ambitious for its small six-episode frame. It may lack nuance with a lot of its messaging. At the same time it’s hard not to appreciate most of what it’s going for – the buddy movie vibe, the eye-popping action, the wonderful array of supporting characters, its deep social conscience, its darker edge, and a beguiling Daniel Brühl. I still don’t think Marvel Studios has fully figured out episodic television, but you wouldn’t know it by the numbers. All six episodes are now streaming on Disney+.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS
Pacing problems, no kidding. Some episodes were a slog. The Flag Smashers cause could be interesting, but here it was not. Their leader is the least interesting character in the show, and she should be the most interesting, that’s how villains usually work. I don’t know the the comic book roots of Isaiah, but it had to make more sense the the rushed social justice narrative in this story. It is grafted onto Sam without any foundation and becomes a shortcut to the pontificating you referred to in Sam’s speech. The best section of the series was Buckey and Sam in the therapy session. It make the most sense of their past and despite having no action, it was more involving than the action scenes in the show . Zemo is just fan service and a distraction. Sharon’s character is ruined with the last episode. Julia Louise Dreyfuss brought more energy to the show in her three minutes than anyone else.
Sounds like I may have enjoyed it a little more than you even though I agree with many of your points. I enjoyed Zemo quite a bit. Same with Sharon. Overall I felt there was waaaaaaay too much to cover in a short six-episode frame. And as you said, the pacing was all over the place.
I’ve yet to watch the last three episodes, which is telling as I couldn’t wait to watch Wandavision, but I’ll get round to them now I’ve read this.
You definitely should. Even the last three episodes have issues but it makes for an interesting whole.
I would have liked it if they made the Flag Smashers goals more clear. It seemed all to vague for much of the series. Also, kind of felt they want it both ways to have Karli be sympathetic, but not too sympathetic so that our heroes wouldn’t look bad fighting her.
I posted my own review of this series on my blog today, should you be interested.
You’re exactly right about the Flag Smashers. Their goals were muddled from the very start. They needed a deeper identity.
Look forward to reading your thoughts.
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I liked the show I think much more than you did as I really liked the fact that it took the time explore themes of racism, identity, and globalization. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan were on their A game yet I think Daniel Bruhl as Zemo just stole the show. Fuck, I know his character is a villain but… fuck he’s cool. I can’t hate him. He’s got some valid points about supremacy and such while he gets the job done and dude can dance.
The Flag Smashers I thought were good antagonists that had some good ideas but Karli definitely became a full-baddie towards the end and not in a good way. That was a big fault as she just decided “let’s just kill these people” as I was like waiting for one of the Flag-Smashers go… “whoa whoa whoa! That’s a bad idea. I think that Zemo is being right all along”.
I do Emily Van Camp as Sharon Carter though I’m not really sure if she’s what she really is or is just playing a version of this supposed character. Yet, I was more intrigued and with glee over the super-secret cameo appearance by a godlike TV star.
I think Bruhl and Carl Lumbly deserve accolades for their work on the show while I also enjoyed what Wyatt Russell did as John Walker as he was just fun to hate as I love hearing Black Nerd call him Party City Cap.
I am excited for Captain America 4 as I want to see Cap and Bucky are going to do next as I do hope they get a new team with them such as Torres as the new Falcon, Eli Bradley as Patriot, and maybe have Yelena aka Black Widow II as well.
If the MCU is going to have a super-duper dance off. It has to be this: Loki vs. Star-Lord vs. Zemo vs. Bully Maguire vs. JLD.
You just completely sold me on the dance off. We need a whole movie dedicated to THAT!!!!
I think it should happen between Phase 4 and Phase 5. They should do a series of MCU shorts directed by Taika Waititi, James Gunn, and many others and then it all leads up to the event with many of the MCU actors playing the heroes and audience members. We could have Chris Evans be some moronic 2000s MTV host and Anthony Hopkins as a referee with a pirate accent. It’s something to give fans a something while the other movies are development. Something fun.
I can honestly say I would have never thought of that! LOL
I really think we fans might a break from the films and so should the actors and then they can do something they can all relax. Do a bunch of shorts like Team Thor but allow each director to do their own thing. Even have Natalie Portman and Karen Gillan do a short since they’re also filmmakers. Then it can lead to this monstrous dance-off challenge. Every MCU playing multiple roles as if it’s Monty Python. Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Australian pretty boy, disgruntled old man, and a Loki fangirl with Tom Hiddleston as a Thor fangirl, a redneck, a B-boy, and Loki.
I agree with your assessment overall and there were parts of the show I think would and could have been delivered better, maybe it deserved one more episode before the Finale. I gave it 4 Stars overall because the emotional connection I gathered from it. It just hit me a little different, maybe because I served in the military and the no man left behind thing is real and then he got in trouble for bringing troops home. Just was for me a different feeling and I actually teared up in a few scenes which I do not think I have ever done in a Marvel Movie or Show.
That’s awesome. It definitely had its moments and I love the supporting cast. Most of all I’m glad Sam gets his due. He’s such a strong character.
The pacing was a bit off, although I enjoyed the exploration of the effects of the two Snaps, and of course the action sequences and Zemo.
Zemo was a scene-stealer!