Following up on the runaway success of WandaVision, Disney+’s next post-Avengers: Endgame series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres tomorrow, following the same weekly release schedule that was either a problem for WandaVision or a reason for its success, depending on who you ask (we’re of the latter opinion). We can’t say we were super-psyched for this one, partially because neither of these guys are our favorite MCU characters and partially because the trailer made it look like a ragingly macho bro-fest full of military porn, which didn’t sound all that appealing after “What is grief, if not love persevering?” Having caught the premiere episode, we may just have to admit we got this one wrong.
Sam Wilson has always stood out among the Avengers for the relative normalcy of his background. He was a soldier who befriended the greatest soldier of all time. That’s literally his whole origin story. Among the wizards, aliens, super-soldiers and geniuses of the MCU, Sam stood out as a decent guy trying his best to keep up with gods. Bucky, on the other hand, may be one of the MCU characters who’s burdened with a little bit too much backstory, making him one of the least relatable of the MCU characters (even if he is one of the prettiest). Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan had great chemistry in their relatively few scenes together in Captain America: Civil War and this entire series seems to have spun out of that tension between Steve Rogers’ two best friends. What The Falcon and the Winter Soldier appears to be doing is giving Sam his origin story (much in the same way Wanda got her origin story nine years after her debut) and giving Bucky his humanity back.
One of the more frustrating things about the post-Endgame MCU is how the various followup stories have dealt with “The Blip,” which is MCU slang for half of all life disappearing for five years. Spider-Man: Far From Home made a few passing comical references to it but offered no examination of the repercussions of the event, which feels more and more like a tonal error on that film’s part. WandaVision gestured a bit toward the fallout, showing a Westview that had seemingly been economically devastated by the events of the Infinity War and hinting at some social tension if not outright resentment between those who stayed behind and those who disappeared. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems to be setting itself up to offer a more thorough look at what the world looks like after everything that went down between The Avengers and Thanos.
“The world is broken. Everyone’s just looking for someone to fix it,” James Rhodes (aka War Machine) tells Sam in one of the best scenes of the premiere. These two characters should rightly have had more time onscreen together before this, since they’re both Black men with Air Force careers who wound up partnering with much more celebrated white heroes who tended to soak up all the glory and now are in the position of taking up their mantles after their partners have died. The occasion for their meeting is a ceremony at the Smithsonian, where Sam pays tribute to Steve Rogers before handing his fabled shield over to the museum. Rhodey is clearly bothered by Sam’s unwillingness to see himself as a worthy successor to Steve and tries to get his teammate to reconsider his reluctance. The subtext of their conversation is that Sam not only doesn’t believe he’s worthy, but that he doesn’t believe the country would accept a Black man calling himself “Captain America.”
Just as WandaVision dealt with grief, F&TWS seems positioned to offer an examination of survivor’s guilt and racism, which is why we’re much more interested in this series after having seen the premiere. To be fair, it’s still awash with macho posturing and military porn, but that’s to be expected considering the backgrounds of the main characters. The premiere opens with an extremely impressive action sequence as Sam, partnering with the Air Force, tries to rescue a soldier kidnapped by a former Captain America foe in a sky battle that takes place mere miles from Libyan airspace. The bodycount is high enough to raise some eyebrows, but the series is perfectly situated in that MCU sweet spot between the superhero genre and a military action film. In other words, we are meant to see Sam not as a superhero, but as a soldier. Granted, we watched the so-called Super-Soldier Steve Rogers battle his way through seven films and we don’t think his kill count comes close to the first few minutes of F&TWS, but as Rhodey made clear, we’re in a different world now; harder, darker and more extreme.
One of the best things about these Disney+ Marvel series (so far) is how they show something the films largely couldn’t: the lives of regular people trying to exist in a world where gods and aliens routinely have sky battles. Once the wings come off, Sam has to live as a Black man in America. There’s a subplot with his sister, who not only has trouble accepting the weirder parts of her brother’s life, but resents him for leaving her behind to carry on the failing family business. There’s an excruciating and infuriating scene as Sam Wilson, world-famous Avenger and acknowledged hero behind the return of half of the world’s population, is redlined out of a bank loan to keep his family’s business afloat, even as the loan officer begs him for a selfie, sheepishly admitting that he can’t approve the loan because things are “tightening” all over. “Funny how things always tighten around us,” his sister replies, with admirably restrained bitterness. We didn’t expect a show like this to go there, but scenes like these can only serve to deepen the MCU and make it a place more familiar to the viewing audience, even if the major events are wholly fantastical and unrealistic.
As for Bucky, without spoiling too much of his post-Endgame status, he’s tortured by nightmares of the uncountable number of killings he was forced to commit as a brain-washed Hydra assassin and trying to make amends while also attending therapy. There’s a wonderful scene between him and his therapist that unpacks just how screwed up he is and how impossible it may be for someone like him to ever return to a whole and normal life. If Anthony Mackie surprised us with the depth of feeling in his performance, Sebastian Stan surprised us with the humor in his. The former cocky wingman (literally) for Captain America is tortured by self-doubt in a society that keeps denying him his due and the formerly morose assassin is a bit of a smart ass who can’t conceive of any sort of life for himself. Both character turns are unexpected and both hint at a much more interesting and nuanced portrayal of these relatively flat and undefined characters.
Of course there’s an over-arching adventure story tying this all together and the premiere episode drops hints as to what kind of foes our heroes will be facing, but really, that’s all window-dressing as far as we’re concerned. What interests us most is that The Falcon and The Winter Soldier may just wind up doing for its two characters what WandaVision did to such success with its own protagonists; define them anew in a way that opens them up to more story possibilities while touching on some fairly un-superheroic, but nonetheless very human emotions.