Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Sam Wilson’s The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) first came to my attention as a character through the short-lived 1999 cartoon series The Avengers: United They Stand in which he flew around in a super-suit and talked to a large red bird that somehow understood him. I learned about Bucky Barnes’ (Sebastian Stand) Winter Soldier persona for the first time during the 2009-10 six-issue comic book series Captain America: Reborn during where he had been operating as Captain America following Steve Rogers’ assassination. This run, for which I rode the subway very far to collect issues, was also where I met Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), a Shield agent in love with Steve Rogers. These characters have a long and complicated history in the medium from which they sprang onto the silver screen and these films and television shows take great pleasure in alluding to this history with cameos of prominent names and locations or little hints about what might come next. All that makes it tricky to drown out the speculation, the expectation, the meta-critique on any changes being made to powers, backstories, race, or gender of characters and to just take what’s presented for whatever it might be.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2020) is a drama miniseries of six episodes that explored the relationship between Captain America’s two best friends as they try to foil the terrorist plot of a handful of super-strong anarchist revolutionaries called the Flag-Smashers led by one Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman). Joining them in the fight against the Flag-Smashers is their criminal informant Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) a newly-christened Captain America aka John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and his sidekick Battlestar aka Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett).
This is a complicated story that kicks off from the ending of Avengers: Endgame (2019) where an elderly Steve Rogers passes the mantle and shield to Sam Wilson. Readily apparent to everyone was the fact that The Falcon would become the new Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But “no” suggests the show, playing off Wilson’s apparent reluctance to accept the role thrust upon him during the film. Instead Wilson donates the shield to the Smithsonian’s, apparently permanent, Captain America exhibit. Wilson apparently does not feel up to the task of becoming a living symbol and seems to believe the correct course of action is to enshrine Steve’s legacy behind glass in a museum. This is something of a frustrating development given the rather clear-cut mantle passing featured in Endgame but is a necessary evil born of wanting this show to happen. Bucky gives voice to these frustrations, chastising Sam for abandoning Steve’s wishes and not trusting Steve’s judgment.
After spending the first episode apart, Sam on air-force missions in North Africa and Bucky in government-mandated therapy, the duo reunite after the US government publicly anoints a new Captain America. The show maintains the “frenemy” atmosphere between Bucky and Sam where they remain relative strangers to one another brought together only by mutual acquaintance to Steve. It’s amusing to watch Mackie and Stan bicker and insult one another, though perhaps not as entertaining as watching them do so off-screen has become in interviews. A solid chunk of episode 5 is devoted to them becoming friends who can count on each other via montage despite continued lip-service to their jocular animosity.
The show provides us with an embarrassment of antagonists. Sharon Carter and Baron Zemo feature as helpful, but cynical, characters who cannot be trusted. Three of the Dora Milaje led by Ayo (Florence Kasumba) appear to hassle Bucky into returning Zemo to prison for the crime of blowing up their King T’Chaka. Georges St-Pierre reprises his role as Algerian terrorist Batroc the Leaper with a newfound grudge against The Falcon. The deeply unstable Walker and his buddy Hoskins insert themselves into Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s confrontations against the Flag Smashers.
The show’s plot is largely focused on achieving three goals: Get Falcon to become the new Captain America, get John Walker to become U.S. Agent, and get Sharon Carter back into the good graces of whatever government agency she’ll be employed in next. These are all plot points that could have happened rather unceremoniously off-screen between films. One could argue that certain developments need to feel “earned” but this is also the cinematic universe which gave us a line of exposition to explain the sudden existence of Smart Hulk. Since this could all have happened off-screen the show’s raison-d’être has to be found outside of its plot points.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems to exist to deflect criticism surrounding Anthony Mackie becoming the next Captain America. To achieve this the show introduces African-American super-soldier and Korean War veteran Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) who, following decades of torture and experimentation in an American prison, bitterly rejects Captain America’s shield as a symbol of white supremacy. Though we are robbed of some truly incredible-sounding scenes of Bradley’s wartime heroics, Lumbly handily runs away with the scenes he’s given like the veteran actor he is. Bradley, whose super-powered existence has remained a secret for all these years, challenges Sam by giving voice to the misgivings of representing a country struggling to atone for its past sins and confronting him with the inherent power of a black superhero; one Sam was robbed of as a child because of the cover-up surrounding Bradley and one Sam is robbing others of by refusing the call to become Captain America. Sam Wilson’s first impromptu press conference as Captain America echoes bits of his conversations with Bradley and turns the meta-criticism over a Black Captain America into text.
Also struggling to atone for the sins of the past is Bucky who has bizarrely befriended the father of one of his many assassination victims in an attempt to stall admitting his guilt to the troubled man. Eventually talked into doing so by Wilson, Bucky’s admission reputedly provides the man (Ken Takemoto) with closure but robs Bucky of one of his few friendships. Ultimately Bucky seems to shed most of the baggage associated with his decades as The Winter Soldier and find some measure of peace, though we’ve seen similar character development get rolled back before in the MCU. Sharon Carter meanwhile has a rather one-note turn as the secret identity of Madripoorian crime boss The Power Broker. Should Agent Carter return to the MCU we’re apparently meant to expect some kind of betrayal from her.
The real fun of this show is in newcomer Wyatt Russell’s inevitable downward spiral. Anyone familiar with his work as the homicidally troubled Anders Cain in the 2017 hockey comedy movie Goon 2: The Last of the Enforcers should have seen this treat coming from a mile away even if they were wholly ignorant of John Walker’s comic book history. The man, frankly, has a talent for this sort of unhinged commitment. After watching Hoskins die fighting Morgenthau, an already twitchy and newly super-powered Walker flies into a blind rage and publicly executes one of the Flag Smashers seemingly in retaliation. Blacklisted as a consequence, Walker fashions his own shield in a garage and, seemingly out for blood, joins with Bucky and Sam to save the day in the show’s finale. Walker cracks and absolutely crumbles under the pressure of trying to be Captain America. We see him struggle with lines, second-guess himself, and take things far too personally and viscerally. Russell’s role as the nightmare replacement to Steve Rogers is rather thankless and his mini-redemption arc a tad rushed but the USAgent character is such a wonderful terrible dark mirror to Captain America who struggles to do the right thing in a way that was always effortless for Steve Rogers.
As WandaVision (2021) is a show about grief, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a show about legacy. The legacy that haunts us, the legacy that we try and sometimes fail to live up to, and the legacy that we want to leave behind. Without a major motion picture to set-up like WandaVision’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), and certainly without Wanda’s miraculous reality-altering powers, the rampant speculation on this show’s significance within the MCU was hopefully a little less overstated than its predecessor. Let that, perhaps, be this show’s legacy. Though I’m prepared to eat my words if it happens, I maintain that these Disney + originals will remain semi-canonical at best lest they become required reading for theater going audiences. As fun little diversions go, they’re not bad. We get a little more time with some of our favorite characters. A little more emotional depth and motivation than you might find in a typical blockbuster. Whether that’s going to be enough for people once they notice the “trick” that none of this really matters to the canon, I’m not sure. But, next up is Loki (2021) and while that show doesn’t take place in any kind of continuity at all it at least has a confirmed second season.