The Falcon and The Winter Soldier: New World Order (Ep. 1) humanizes our heroes in a world left to scramble in Steve Rogers’ legacy.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier kicks off with what, put simply, might be the finest action sequence ever made for a television show. As Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon, drops from a transport plane in a direct homage to Steve Rogers in The Winter Soldier, the film engages in a frantic action chase set-piece that compares favorably with the action in most big budget blockbusters. When the mission begins, we’re treated to the show’s first surprise cameo, the return of Georges St-Pierre (Kickboxer: Vengeance, UFC Hall of Famer) as Georges Batroc. St-Pierre had a memorable scene as a Steve Rogers nemesis in The Winter Soldier, where he showed a villain maligned for his comic book nickname “Batroc the Leaper” to be a reasonable threat in the Russo Brothers’ more grounded take on comic book lore.
Here, the character becomes Batroc the Airplace Leaper as, with the aid of squirrel suits, he drags Sam on an increasingly ridiculous chase between airplanes and helicopters through an extremely Top Gun inspired canyon run. The sequence might not quite make total sense (how were there so many bad guy helicopters?) but hot damn, is it exhilarating. From the interplay of hand-to-hand fisticuffs to high speed chases to some practical stunt work with sky divers, it’s a genuinely impressive construct. It hits the fun and funny beats MCU action sequences so frequently do. Perhaps Scorsese is right and that’s just the filmic version of a roller coaster, but – damnit – it was worth the wait.
And so, the show is off to a bang. In its first moments it has shown proof of concept on its biggest test: can it bring the feel of a $200m MCU blockbuster to television? The Falcon and The Winter Soldier passes the test easily.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier serves as a showpiece for Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, Outside the Wire) and Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya, The Devil All the Time). The two stars, most often seen amicably quibbling in Steve Rogers’ past adventures, both bring more than enough charisma to the forefront to merit star turns. Both acquit themselves well in an episode that it’s clearly dedicated to laying the framework for a more grounded sense of storytelling in the wake of The Infinity Saga and focused in on two characters who are far less (or not at all in Sam’s case) superpowered than most of their more famous peers. The show may be titled The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, but, at least for week one, series director Kari Scogland (The Handmaid’s Tale) and showrunner Malcolm Spellman (Truth Be Told) are far more interested in the story of Sam Wilson and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes.
And, yet, it’s not nearly as smoothly off to the races as WandaVision was. Perhaps it is the show’s longer running time, or more simply it’s that it cannot hide earnest character development behind a sitcom artifice. The reality is that the interpersonal scenes drag quite a bit here, especially in Sam’s plot. We are asking a character we have never seen before, Sarah Wilson, to do an immense amount of emotional exposition to help fill-in the gaps in Sam’s history. Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) does her best to bring this relationship to life, but it is simply going to need some time to breathe. The scenes of Sam Wilson trying to get a loan for his sister are risible. The same guy who could effortlessly travel around the world in the shadows for the years between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War is now incapable of even getting a simple loan for his sister is absurd. When the last Marvel story to grace our screens saw Tony Stark giving away literally billions of dollars to a child he met about a half dozen times, it buggers belief that Sam Wilson would be unable to scrape the funds to keep his family namesake boat afloat.
I appreciate the need to ground a story, and that economic peril has always been a go-to in Marvel’s comic book formula¸ but it really doesn’t fit the broader MCU. If a tech genius with a multi-billion dollar wingsuit on his back can’t refinance a home loan, something is very wrong. And, look, I get very clearly that this story is not exclusive about Sam Wilson’s finances – it’s very much about how society is content to use a black man for its benefit when there’s a need (or an alien invasion) and then cast him aside when the need evaporates. It echoes the experience of countless black GIs who served their country in World War II or the Korean War. In theory, it’s a smart angle to pursue an important theme. In execution, it makes little sense. When I watched this episode with my wife – someone who has seen some, but not all, of the MCU movies (many at my forcing), quite liked WandaVision, and has never touched a comic book aside from tidying one I’ve bought my son – her eye roll about this plot point was extreme.
And, yes, yes, I get it. It’s a comic book story. Relax. But The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is explicitly challenging me to engage with the show in a more serious manner. It wants to engage directly on the interplay of race, government service, and economics – it’s a noble intention. It also means that when it tries and misses the mark, it needs to be criticized.
Conversely, the Bucky story gets off to a far more successful start. Using The Sopranos‘ therapist gimmick to delve into Bucky’s tortured past is a crafty way to force an extremely reserved character to open up. His plot too is marked by significant contrivance, but the simple emotional core of his relationship with Yori Nakajima (Ken Takemoto) is more apparent. Tortured by a brainwashed Winter Soldier mission that resulted in Yori’s son’s death, Bucky has ingratiated himself in Yori’s life to make amends. But their relationship takes on a sweet quality when the show reminds you that Bucky is actually 106 years old. And, mentally, he basically stopped aging in the early 1940s. It makes sense that he would find a connection who can remember a world far closer to the one our Mr. Buchanen grew up in.
I was particularly charmed by how the Bucky Barnes of Captain America: The First Avenger momentarily shifts back into the picture as soon as Yori asks out the bartender on his behalf. His mopey physiognomy disappears, and a bit of rakish charm takes over. It’s a nice beat from Sebastian Stan and seems perfectly in line with the character. That their date ends up a cheesy night of chaste board games is simply perfect. Even that is hurt a bit by overwriting, though. Miki Ishikawa (The Terror: Infamy) is an immensely charming presence and her chemistry with Sebastian Stan is strong, but nobody could really sell the abrupt pivot into “dead child” language on a first date. Again, it’s a weirdly inhuman moment that seems to arise as a result of the show’s earnest effort to humanize its characters.
And a quick note for some speculation about the future. Clearly U.S. Agent – aka faux Captain America – is going to serve as some sort of antagonist. Wyatt Russell is inspired casting, as he has the wholesome action hero good looks, but a deep sense of humor and almost counter-culture vibe that makes me think we might be in for a Trevor Slattery situation, and a reveal that he’s just an actor. Nevertheless, I’m excited to see the character actually deployed next week. Bucky keeps a list book like Cap, only instead of Star Wars/Trek it lists people he must kill or with whom he must make amends. On Bucky’s Arya Stark List, I caught two obvious names: “H. Zemo” and “A. Rostov.” Zemo was played by the excellent Daniel Brühl (Rush, Inglourious Basterds) in Captain America: Civil War and is known to be returning. He played the primary antagonist, or really instigator, in the film and I expect him to occupy a similar role her. “A. Rostov likely refers to Andrei Rostov, a D list villain known as Red Barbarian who clashed with Tony Starks decades ago and The Winter Soldier more recently.
There is other small detail point I thought was worth emphasizing, as it’s a particularly savvy callback to past discussions of trauma in the MCU. When Bucky awakens from his Winter Soldier nightmare, he’s sleeping on the floor of his Spartan apartment. It’s a sly callback to Sam and Steve’s very first conversation all the way back in The Winter Soldier. As they’re about to part ways, Sam comments that, now that he’s home, Steve must not be able to adjust to the beds, because they were both used to sleeping on rocks like a caveman when deployed; Steve agrees, quipping that beds are like marshmallows. Bucky has the same trauma, only he has no one with whom to joke about the shared dilemma. It speaks both to the universality of a soldier’s experience and to Bucky’s profound isolation – a man out of time just like Steve Rogers, but now fundamentally alone.
It is always a joy to see Don Cheadle, and he’s well used here. Serving a sort of older mentor role to Sam, and a sounding board on his reluctance to take up the Captain America mantle, is a smart use of the character. It’s also nice to see a scene of two black characters taking center stage in the MCU outside of Black Panther. In fact, in the land outside Wakanda, I’m not sure two black characters have ever had a serious conversation before in the entire MCU. That director Kari Scogland stages the scene before a tribute wall to the man out of time, Steve Rogers, and frames the word “Nazis” pregnantly between the actors speaks volumes. These two black men may be the heroes of today, but they’re forever forced to reckon with the weight of white culture has born upon them. It’s an omnipresent reminder of our country’s fraught history.
Nevertheless, and I know I’ve been super critical here, I thought the episode was incredibly fun. In the most important ways, it feels like the direct sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier that we never received. From genuine leading man work from both core actors to one of the best action sequences in television history, I’m incredibly excited for what’s to come next week. Television is a long form medium for a reason. We shouldn’t get too hot or too cold based on any one episode. It’s clear we have a very talented director at the helm, and a very strong cast. Now it’s time to get Bucky and Sam together and see if their chemistry remains electric!