Is it worth the watch? – Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)

Since I wrote a comprehensive review on WandaVision, I felt like I owed it to myself and to my sense of completion to also write about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. After all, their branch of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe consumed my recreational (aka fandom) life for a good couple of months in 2014, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier first came out. That was several years and a couple of great and not-so-great character arcs ago.

(Read here: Is it worth the watch? – Marvel’s WandaVision)

This post is only 70% spoiler-free. It’s not a review. It’s a post-processing.

Here’s the short of it in seven words: if you have free time, watch it.

The return of Marvel favorites. From shadowing Steve Rogers to taking the center stage.

The Premise and the Plot

It’s 2024, six months and some change since Hulk snapped and “the Blip” returned everyone to their place in the universe. Another handwave-y organization, the Global Repatriation Council (GRC), is tasked to fix things back to normalcy. People who bought apartments and homes in the last five years were displaced when their previous owners blipped back. I imagine a lot of people’s homes have been taken by the bank or bulldozed into buildings. Governments are trying to either return to the pre-Snap normalcy, or to the reality where half the population’s been dusted. Either way, millions of people have become internationally displaced. And almost no one is happy.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a 6-episode series installment to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, jumping from the last thirty minutes of the film Avengers: Endgame (2019). It specifically deals with the ramifications of Hulk’s Snap and Steve Rogers’ retirement. The Disney+ and Marvel Studios action-adventure production stars Anthony Mackie as The Falcon and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier as they deal with the shifting of borders and identity.

To fully appreciate this series, you need at least passing familiarity with the Captain America trilogy, Age of Ultron, and Endgame.

Final trailer. Catch the back-and-forth and banter. And they do look good together.

The show starts off immediately with an action-packed flight and fight sequence to remind us of Sam Wilson’s prowess while introducing a fun support character in First Lieutenant Joaquin Torres (played by Danny Ramirez). The first sequence also reintroduces an old baddie from the Captain America franchise, mercenary Georges Batroc (reprised by Georges St-Pierre). In between fast-paced takes, we see James Buchanan Barnes taking it a lot slower and snarkier while working through both nightmares and state-mandated therapy. He’s trying to make amends. He’s a 106 years old and stretched out.

But unlike WandaVision, which was an exploration of grief limited to a town and a handful of characters, TFATWS goes global. This isn’t just about how the Falcon is dealing with receiving the shield, or how Bucky feels about being more alone than ever.

The plot properly begins with the introduction of an international group called “Flag Smashers”, headed by the young and charismatic Karli Morgenthau (played by Erin Kellyman), who was orphaned and displaced in the Snap. The ragtag band of freedom fighters steal from the rich and from GRC warehouses to give supplies and medicines to the displaced poor. They’re described in-universe as a take on Robin Hood.

And, later, the US government reveals a new Captain America in the form of John Walker (portrayed by Wyatt Russell). That’s only the first episode.

It’s easy to get hooked on this show (we certainly had a nice go of watching all six episodes in one sitting). The next five episodes explore how both Wilson and Barnes deal with the legacy of Captain America, and what it even means to be a hero in a world that’s truly been messed up beyond recognition.

While I was expecting a buddy cop comedy series (and there is a lot of banter between Wilson and Barnes to justify that), the series is surprisingly sensitive and ambitious in its depth. The series could have been a mess of plot points –what does it mean to be a black hero in America? What does it take to be “the star-spangled man with a plan”? How can we begin to deal with the massive displacement and poverty of millions of people? Why does the Government keep killing people through sheer lack of empathy? (I may be drawing from personal experience).

“It doesn’t have to be a war.”
“It already is.”

Sam Wilson and Karli Morgenthau

In the series finale, Marvel actually doesn’t go with its usual boss-style 1v1 fight between good and evil –surprise! In between a stunning costume change and one-liner quips, Sam Wilson’s character truly shines in attempting to rescue, orate, and deescalate instead of punching his way to the top. It’s what Captain America would have wanted. It’s what he deserved.

Finally, this show established both titular characters as must-see properties in the future! This girl has definitely (metaphorically) bought her tickets for Captain America 4.

The Production

I just watched a couple of minutes of Wonder Woman 1984 this afternoon for the first time. I hate to say it, but how does a made-for-digital TV series execute sets and production better than a theatrical film with a higher budget? How could Marvel Studios deliver such amazing fight scenes, sets, CGI, and overall production spread over six episodes with only $150 million? It’s magic. It’s tragic (for DC).

Behind the scenes featurette. Opposites attract. And fight scenes with Falcon or the Winter Soldier are always stellar and creative.

The best thing about this show’s production is how seamlessly it blends with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As we’ve grown to expect with the Marvel TV series offerings, Director Kari Skogland transformed a limited series concept into a cinematic adventure. Most scenes could be cut and edited into something that would fit the big screen. The Smithsonian even makes its nth appearance in the franchise.

Unlike WandaVision, which capitalized on stylistic differences from episode to episode, this series was wonderfully and masterfully consistent. This happens even in a show that tracks through so many fictional and non-fictional locations –Louisiana, Baltimore, Lithuania, Slovakia, Munich, Madripoor, then-Sokovia. And the world of Marvel is so much richer and more lived in because of it.

The next best thing would be the consistency of the fight choreography. Here’s Sam Wilson using Redwing, his wings, goggles, and all manner of kicks to creatively fight his opponents. And here’s Bucky Barnes going in with brute strength and pinpoint precision. I love it when blocking, script, and choreography all come together to forward character exposition.

Plus, someone give the costume designers an award! All of it! Especially whoever gave Bucky Barnes that leather jacket and motorcycle.

The Acting

The trailers almost got me lowering my expectations when it comes to the acting of Mackie and Stan. I thought they’d be basically themselves exchanging barbs and roughhousing in costume. After all, the pair’s already full of enemies-to-partners potential. But in fairness to them, they were able to get the crowd invested in their character arcs beyond the quick jokes and the callbacks to old ribbing (poor Redwing!).

Every scene at the start felt like Steve Rogers was doing something adorably boomer somewhere just off the frame; Wilson and Barnes’ grief almost gives him physical presence. New faces and characters, such as Sam Wilson’s sister and an old supersoldier, bring fresh interactions and new levels of trauma. The subtlety of acting makes these struggles feel even more real: this is the world we live in, only with heroes and capes.

“Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning.”

Sam Wilson in Episode 1: New World Order

The supporting cast cannot be overlooked. The next paragraph might count as a spoiler, especially if you didn’t pick up the clues from the trailer.

While Sharon Carter (reprised by Emily Vancamp) has been missed since her short appearance in Civil War, the real breakout star is the return of Helmut Zemo (played by Daniel Bruhl). Without going to too much detail, his acting is charismatic enough that you can ignore how wild the liberties taken with his character background and development. He’s got you firmly in #TeamZemo. And you’d love to hate (then maybe surprisingly accept, like a rabid dog that finally learned how to sit) the new Captain America as played by Wyatt Russell. Their performances made me wish for a couple more episodes to explore.

Marvel giving us what we wanted. AKA Baron Zemo showing us his moves.

The Script

The heart! The humor! Family! Found family!

On one hand, the episodes are teeming with laugh-out loud quips and jokes, which is a definite plus. There’s tons of material that highlight slow and steady growth, productively dealing with trauma, and working towards a better future. On the other, there’s a lot of handwaving that goes around to explain the logistics of everything –oh, he’s super rich, or there’s this technology (maybe), or it turns out there’s no such thing as travel time or whatever. Add some Wakandans. Just go with it.

And compared to WandaVision, there’s really nothing new or groundbreaking to the format or meat of the show. In fact, in terms of the issues of systemic poverty and racism that TFATWS tries to tackle, this show (like all of Hollywood) is way overdue. But it is a sincere attempt.

“Every time I pick this thing up [Captain America’s Shield], I know there are millions of people out there who are going to hate me for it. Yet I’m still here. No super serum. No blond hair or blue eyes. The only power I have, is to believe we can do better.”

Sam Wilson in Episode 6: One World, One People

I think there’s still a lot to unpack about the themes of racism and systemic poverty here –as in, the part where Sam Wilson still tries to work with the system that radicalized and killed so many. The idealist and the capitalist in Disney upper management still wants us to believe that some people really deserve to be called villains because they turn to violence instead of lobbying, which is just trash in this and many other contexts. But that’s just the anarchist in me trying to overthrow governments and the system of capitalism.

At least the writing is airtight, committed and engaging in most other ways. Character actions are almost always aligned with their motivations, and things happen in logical (if maybe improbable) sequence. We finally have enough time to get to know our villains, from the almost interchangeable Flag Smashers to Baron Zemo to the faceless Power Broker.

Sam Wilson flies to metaphorical victory and to another Captain America movie. Bucky Barnes moves one step closer to smiling more than once every other day. And maybe for a blockbuster series reaching for clarity in identity and politics, that’s all I can ask for.

And the ending is a vibe. All of it.

End: Is it worth the watch?

Yes! If you have six or so hours to spare, this is a great series to spend the time. It’s a satisfying way to rediscover old and underutilized characters in the Marvel stable, and it drives the world of 2024 even further and further into the future.

(A part of me is wondering how half of the population dealt with the virus, if indeed this version of the multiverse was unfortunate enough to get hit by the Snap and a pandemic.)

For an action-adventure project, there’s a great mix of fighting, sleuthing, and fun. Though it is unlikely that any of the nitty-gritty details would be essential to the next phase of the MCU (aside from the obvious answer to “who is Captain America?“), the in-depth ride along with our developing heroes is something we’d never get in more plot-driven blockbusters. And that makes it worth the watch.

Have a good week ahead!

what do you mean I should be studying for my board exams

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