The Disney+ MCU rolls on with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a six-episode miniseries that — like its immediate predecessor, WandaVision — feels very much like a transitional exercise, connecting the paradigm-shifting aftermath of the Endgame saga to the franchise’s next release phase. It’s a more thematically ambitious series than WandaVision, but it’s also a lower-concept one, much less satisfying and coherent in the execution.
There are two major elements at the core of it: Captain America’s looming legacy, and the disruptive end of “the Blip,” which restored the disappeared half of the world’s population after five years of Thanos-snap oblivion. The former proves more central to the motivations of the titular characters: Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), aka the Falcon, to whom Steve Rogers bequeathed his famous shield, and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the Winter Soldier, Steve’s old army buddy whose past it marred by years of brainwashing-induced assassinations. Sam is still affiliated with the military, but he’s conflicted about picking up Steve’s mantle, ultimately refusing the call and handing the shield over to a museum. Bucky, meanwhile, has been pardoned for his crimes and is in the process of making amends for his murderous history. The two come together to face a new, post-Blip threat: the rise of the Flag Smashers, an international group that’s gotten its hands on a new batch of super-soldier serum. The Flag Smashers are deploying this powerful asset to empower their movement, which advocates for the displaced people who benefitted from the Blip’s population shortage only to be herded back into camps by an officious Global Repatriation Council once the Blip was reversed. Sam and Bucky work together to rein in the Flag Smashers’ destructive agenda, but their job is complicated by the appearance on the scene of John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a war hero who the U.S. government has appointed to be the new Captain America. Walker has a much less nuanced view of the Flag Smashers’ aims, and only ends up complicating a tenuous global political situation, forcing Sam and Bucky to step up their efforts to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution.
Considering the clockwork expertise with which Marvel typically builds out its properties, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — while introducing numerous promising elements — is surprisingly ineffectual. It somehow manages to feel both shorter and longer than it should be; it’s either a rushed TV show or a bloated movie, its herky-jerky pace never quite clicking. It’s a shame, because the show does something important and long overdue: it interrogates the inherent exceptionalism of superheroism, the unexamined abuses of power and the collateral consequences. These problems permeate the films, never quite getting much more than lip service (with the exception of attempts in The Winter Soldier and Civil War). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tries to change this by holding Captain America’s legacy up against a culture of toxic nationalism and unaddressed racism in the United States. This thematic argument reaches a powerful apex in episode 5, “Truth,” which is a first-rate hour that truly realizes the series’ potential. Unfortunately, the rest of the season is a mess of interesting points poorly articulated. This is particularly true of the villainy, which relies far too heavily on the Flag Smashers’ bland leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), a character whose supposedly charismatic leadership never makes it off of the page to the screen. Better is Russell, who is counterintuitive casting for Walker (aka USAgent, a historically problematic Avenger antihero), but manages to do interesting things with a role that feels rushed and incomplete. Meanwhile James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) return to provide historical connections to the previous films, and they’re all fine, but none of them contribute meaningfully to elevating the project.
At the end of the day, it’s a disappointingly workmanlike affair. It doesn’t spend enough time earning its emotional beats, and fails to pick up the many interesting gauntlets it throws down, especially when it comes to effectively articulating the Flag Smashers’ point of view. That, in itself, might have gone a long way toward smoothing over the show’s rougher edges. Mackie and Stan remain broadly likable, and it’s possible USAgent and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in an inspired cameo) could becoming solid recurring characters in the next phase. But even as someone in it for the long haul with the MCU, I found it very difficult to get excited about this particular effort.