The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — Marvel Studios’ second TV series that ended its run Friday — was a high-octane offering that became too predictable at times. From the moment Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) handed over his Captain America shield to Sam Wilson/ Falcon (Anthony Mackie) at the end of Avengers: Endgame, it’s been clear where the Marvel Cinematic Universe was headed. You knew that the Falcon is going to end up as the new Captain America ultimately. Spoilers ahead. Even when we got a new Cap in John Walker (Wyatt Russell), you knew he couldn’t last in the role because The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a six-episode miniseries. There was no real suspense about what Walker being Captain America might mean for the larger MCU. He was just a tiny US Agent-shaped bump on the road.
To me, the situation with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier brought to mind the words of George R.R. Martin, the author behind the unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels that were adapted into the HBO epic Game of Thrones. Back when there were several Thrones spin-offs in development, Martin had said that they would never do a prequel centred on Robert’s Rebellion, the war immediately prior to the ascension of Robert Baratheon as King of the Seven Kingdoms. Martin wrote: “There would be no surprises or revelations left in such a show, just the acting out of conflicts whose resolutions you already know.” It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, I know, but watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has been a bit like the equivalent of watching Robert’s Rebellion.
The only interesting thing about this aspect of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was the Marvel series’ exploration of what it meant for an African-American man to take up the Captain America shield. It was something The Falcon and the Winter Soldier creator Malcolm Spellman and star Mackie repeatedly emphasised in interviews prior to premiere, noting that Sam is caught wondering why he should fight for his country when the country never fought for people like him. This has been argued by African-American scholars and activists throughout American history. Black men have died in wars — from World War II to the ongoing Afghanistan invasion — they say, perpetrated by white men. And while they have risked their lives for flag and country, their kind have been discriminated against and killed back home.
But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier didn’t really explore this angle well enough. Most of it was done via the story of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) — introduced early on in episode 2 — who was among the next batch of “Super Soldiers” made by the US military after the original Cap, Steve, was considered KIA during the decades he spent in ice. Isaiah, Bucky Barnes/ White Wolf/ Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) tells us, was one of the few feared by HYDRA. And he was a hero in his own right, even rescuing his fellow Super Soldiers who had been captured. But in return he was imprisoned, tortured, and experimented upon for 30 years by the American government as it sought to re-create its serum to make even more Super Soldiers.
The tale of Isaiah was meant to be a warning for Sam. “Look, this is how America treats Black heroes, let alone regular folk.” The tale of Isaiah reiterated Sam’s biggest fears over picking up the mantle. After all, even before he met Isaiah, he understood that the US would not accept a Black Captain America. It was, in parts, tied to Sam’s momentous decision at the start of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. As Sam says in episode 1 when he gives Cap’s shield to a museum: “Symbols are nothing without the men and women that give them meaning.” The Marvel series was essentially about Sam figuring out his place and identity — but the journey of him embracing his destiny, so to speak, felt half-baked and missing the depth that I craved. And at wits end, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tasked Mackie to deliver all of this via a monologue in the finale.
Instead, what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier explored better was the other side of that coin: how the world sees Captain America. At the end of episode 4, Walker brutally killed someone with the Captain America shield in full public view. It came across as a representation of how the US has behaved ever since it became a superpower post-World War II, waging various wars around the world in the name of peace and freedom. This is partly why Steve was against the Sokovia Accords — because it would mean governments would decide what conflict to tackle or not. Governments tend to think of national interests ahead of human ones. And Captain America, despite the name, shouldn’t be someone who works at the behest of a country.
Walker was just that — a soldier who believed might is right. And by association, the Captain America title and shield stand for the military and not a hero for the whole world. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier spent a lot less time navigating this facet of Captain America, but that one aforementioned episode 4 scene conveyed more for me than the rest of the Marvel series did in its attempts to explore what it means to have a Black Captain America.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had another avenue to explore what Captain America meant to those outside the US, but it bungled that entirely. The Flag Smashers, an anti-patriotic group led by Super Soldier Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), were the primary instigators and antagonists on the show. But if you think about it, they are not villains really. Sam understood this and he told everyone as much in the sixth and final episode, but it didn’t stop The Falcon and the Winter Soldier from trying to paint them as such.
During the five-year Blip period in the wake of Thanos’ Snap that took away half of Earth’s population, the rich nations opened the gates and allowed people from other countries to come in — a pointed reference to the European refugee crisis. In a way, the world came together to help one another. But then everyone came back in an instant thanks to the Avengers’ actions. And the world returned to its us-first nature as countries drew their borders back up. Now with the help of the Global Repatriation Council — a body helping put things back to normal introduced on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — the rich nations want to expel the migrants back to where they came from.
Karli’s Flag Smashers rally along the fact that the very people who helped were being thrown out on the street thanks to the GRC’s “Patch Act”. They weren’t happy about this — and why should they be? During the Blip, millions of survivors left their home countries, migrated to a foreign land, and helped build the future. They have been living where they are for five whole years now. But now that everyone has returned, they are being dumped back, because the GRC was more concerned about those who returned, as Karli said.
But what’s absolutely clear from this is that the Flag Smashers don’t sound like villains at all. Which is why The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had to work overtime to portray them as such. It’s why their leader Karli resorted to unnecessarily violent acts, including blowing up civilians in episode 3 and threatening to kill all GRC officials in episode 6. Because if she doesn’t, then how do you convince audiences to not root for them? After all, they looked like heroes for what they were doing. They helped the downtrodden with shelter and medicine, while fighting a militarised GRC — no wonder Karli was dubbed Robin Hood by some. It’s also why the refugees wanted nothing to do with the Avengers.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also failed its other title character. Bucky was second in the title, and very much secondary as a narrative focus. He’s involved in most scenes during The Falcon and the Winter Soldier but his story still revolves around him moving beyond his Winter Soldier past. Hasn’t he been doing this since the end of Captain America: Civil War? Even if he made no progress so far since he’s been thrown from one war into the next — thanks to Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame — it’s annoying how little time is devoted to that arc even on his own show. It all essentially boils down to names in a book to whom he must make amends for his brainwashed HYDRA days. As Bucky notes, even though he was being controlled, a part of him was always there.
His journey sees him briefly reunited with Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the Civil War villain who was brought back because of his links to Bucky’s dark past. But if you think about it for more than two seconds, Zemo barely had any purpose beyond that in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Yes, you might argue that he helped Sam and Bucky by taking them to Madripoor and giving them a new lead on Super Soldier Serum, but it’s ultimately the Power Broker/ Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) who shows up out of the blue and leads them to it. And just when you think Zemo’s return might have meant something more after his escape in episode 4, it boiled down to nothing. Bucky follows Zemo to Sokovia only to hand him over to Wakanda’s Dora Milaje, who then took him to the Raft.
Zemo is wasted by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, unless you count the Zemo dance meme in which case he has well and truly served his purpose. The MCU Disney+ series’ best parts usually tended to be these tiny moments. Like the time the Dora Milaje kicked Walker’s butt and dislodged Bucky’s vibranium arm with a couple of touches. Or when Julia Louis-Dreyfus joined the MCU as Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a scene-stealing purple-clad baddie who’s clearly got bigger plans. But where it mattered most, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was found wanting. I enjoyed the episodes as I watched them because there was a lot happening, but it doesn’t feel like it amounted to a lot now that it’s over.
Overall, it just felt like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had little purpose, other than to pass the Captain America baton. This is the first generational passing in the MCU — and it won’t be the last. Along the way, it introduced new antagonists whose future looks promising. Valentina is highest on that list for me, mostly because Louis-Dreyfus is amazing. And then there’s US Agent and Power Broker. Walker seems like a tool for Valentina to get things done, but we’ll hopefully see his arc evolve. And I’m intrigued to see what the MCU does with this new take on Sharon — she’s never turned to the dark side in the comics. This is all fertile ground for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier season 2 as well, but Marvel has been very quiet on that front.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was originally meant to be the first MCU Disney+ series, but then the ongoing pandemic disrupted the show’s production — as it has done with nearly everything in our lives — and pushed it to second. In a way, that worked out for the best — WandaVision showed what the MCU was capable of on TV. It was so much more intriguing and felt more emotional despite being episodic. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on the other hand was fully serialised — its creators described it as a six-hour movie — but had none of the spark that made WandaVision such a delight. Can Loki, the next MCU series, improve on this?