When Marvel Studios announced its first wave of original TV shows for the Disney+ streaming service, The Falcon and the Winter Solider felt — at least on the surface — like the least intriguing project of the bunch. WandaVision is set in an alternate reality based on classic American sitcoms. Loki is going to be a journey through time and space, following one of Marvel's quirkiest characters in a story that quite literally has no limits. Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel are going to be introducing new heroes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was easy to wonder what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was going to offer, besides a straightforward action story about two of the MCU's most notable sidekicks. Well, thanks to head writer Malcolm Spellman and director Kari Skogland, that notion has swiftly been proven false.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier sees the return of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) after the events of Avengers: Endgame. Sam was given the iconic Captain America shield by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and, with it, the mantle of the hero himself. But Sam doesn't quite know if the title is right for him, questioning the very notion of Captain America as he continues his work as Falcon.
Eventually, Sam and Bucky will team up for an international espionage adventure that sees them go up against the villainous Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), but I'm not going to dive too deep into that because only the first episode of the series was provided for review. This premiere lays a lot of groundwork for Sam and Bucky and where they find themselves after returning from the "Blip," while also setting up the "Flag Smashers" organization that will play a key role in the series. The titular duo don't even share the screen in the first hour, which shows just how methodically The Falcon and the Winter Soldier moves.
It may be disappointing to hear that Sam and Bucky aren't together in the first episode, but it actually works in the show's favor. We get genuine time with each character to experience the unique challenges they're facing as individuals, without the buddy-comedy aspect of the series serving as a distraction. Like Wanda and Vision, both Sam and Bucky have layers upon layers of depth that have yet to be explored in the MCU. This series finally grants them that opportunity, and we're all better for it.
A lot has been made of how The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will explore Sam's relationship with the Captain America moniker, and his approach to the shield as a Black man who has spent his life serving a country that hasn't ever cared to love him back. Spellman doesn't shy away from really addressing the topic, which is both a huge departure and a major step forward for Marvel. More than anything, it's entirely refreshing.
In all three Captain America films, the saga of Steve Rogers has been rooted in the idea of patriotism and what that word actually means. Steve's values often conflict with the people who are giving the commands, making him question if being an American hero means his loyalty should be to the country itself, or to the values that represent the people inhabiting it. That theme continues with Sam in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but it's much more powerful with a Black man as its focal point. Steve had the freedom and privilege to question his country and still be treated as a hero; Sam can't do that. There's no bending over backward to help out the Falcon, he's treated more like a celebrity than an actual hero, being asked to put out his arms for a fun selfie in the midst of being denied a bank loan.
Sam is objectified for his loyalty to the country, which makes the announcement of John Walker (Wyatt Russell) as the new Captain America that much more painful.
Bucky's side of the story leans into the trauma and guilt that he lives with, having been a soldier of Hydra for most of his life. There's an element of how America treats its veterans that helps form a slight parallel with Sam and his personal journey. The reasons are vastly different, but both men are ignored and set aside by the institution they've given their lives to protect.
Skogland's direction deserves as much praise as Spellman's vision, as she brings it to life by giving both characters their own aesthetic. There are cameras mounted on flying-squirrel suits during an airborne chase scene. There's a scene with Bucky and his therapist that frames the camera solely on the eyes of the two characters as they converse, coming in at an unexpected angle and making you, as the viewer, feel disoriented. It feels a little strange at first but it helps put you into Bucky's frame of mind, mirroring the prison he's created within himself. These types of sequences show that the MCU really can try different things, and be very successful when the right person is behind the camera.
Of course, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an adventure set within the MCU, so there are some very Marvel things about it — which isn't a bad thing at all. Tracks are laid down for stories that will likely take years to unfold, such as the young soldier Torres (Danny Ramirez), who is probably going to take over as Falcon when Sam becomes Captain America. Those things are part of what we love about the MCU, and they're done as well in this show as with any other project in the franchise.
Speaking of Torres, I just want to give a shout-out to the new supporting characters that appear in the series, because they're all worthy of more screen time than they get. Adepero Oduye is especially outstanding as Sam Wilson's sister, Sarah. It's not easy to go toe to toe with Anthony Mackie and emerge as the powerhouse of a given scene, but Oduye does it consistently throughout the episode.
The trailers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier promised a lot of action in this series, and the first episode doesn't have much of it. The few action sequences that are in the premiere are stellar, but this is a show that doesn't mind taking its time. Things will pick up in the second and third episode, I'm sure. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier works because it finds ways to be compelling without a constant barrage of punching. This is smart, well-executed storytelling, and it gives me a lot of hope for what's to come.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres on March 19th on Disney+.