As human beings, we have a tendency to deify or demonize almost everything we see, including each other, and especially the people who stand out, like our heroes and villains. Now, there most certainly are such things as good and evil, but the truth is that people can be much more complicated in ways which are not readily obvious to a public eye. Everyone is, in their own way, wrestling with the darkness of the world around them and the darkness within themselves. Not everyone walks away from that as purely good or evil, purely villainous or purely heroic.
That is one of the more profound themes which is repeatedly explored in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
As Marvel’s second Disney Plus show, there are inevitable comparisons to be made with WandaVision, but, really, the two shows are so distinct from one another, much live the various film and television franchises within (or loosely connected to) the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that I don’t think there is much good that will come from such comparisons. Each show is its own thing, and we may be better served if we just leave it at that.
I am going to say, though, that this show had much more powerful episodes, and a great deal more character development.
Following the two titular characters after the events of Endgame, the show is largely about their personal journeys, both together and individually. In the Falcon’s case, that of Sam Wilson, we see how and why he decides to take up the mantle which Captain America left in his care. As for Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, he is still trying to move on from being the Winter Soldier, and the trauma of remembering all the harm he ever did. As the two of them are both “Cap’s best buddy,” there is a good deal of friction between them, but they also have a lot in common: they both loved their friend, they’re both trying to cope with everything, they’re both trying to do good, and they’re both angry when the shield of Captain America, which Sam donated in good faith to the Smithsonian in the hopes that the example of Steve Rogers would inspire people for generations to come, is immediately taken and given to some military stooge, someone the government believes they can control.
Said stooge comes in the form of a much-decorated soldier, John Walker. He is everything the government wants in a good soldier, which is precisely what would have disqualified him in the eyes of Dr. Erskine, the scientist who turned Steve Rogers into Captain America. He is loyal, capable, and highly skilled, but also aggressive, egotistical, unstable, short-sighted, and stubborn. He simply does not have the strength of character to bear the mantle of a legend. He proves himself lethally merciless in front of the entire world, but he is also a soldier just trying to do his job, and he even chooses to cast vengeance aside at one point, in favor of saving lives. In short, he is extremely dangerous, but it is while he is trying so hard to be a hero that he becomes villainous.
Somewhat parallel to that is Karli Morgenthau, leader of an anarchist group called the Flag Smashers. She is the young idealist who falls, escalating from the thievery of things her people need to survive, to premeditated murder and bombings, to outright international terrorism. She had a good cause, namely the welfare of a legitimately displaced people, but she let the pressure of it all – her cause, her losses, her enemies in the shadows breathing down her neck – get to her, and went about it all wrong. Perhaps most tragic of all, she manages to box herself into a situation where her surest comfort is her confidence that she and her closest friends could all die and her cause would still continue.
That’s two people in this show who fight for hope but lose to despair. There are others who have simply given up on such entirely. There’s yet another Captain America, of sorts, who was treated most heinously by the very same government he was sworn to serve as a soldier, an trauma that left his angry and bitter. There’s Baron Zemo, the man who truly defeated the Avengers in Civil War, and he does not join the fight for any illusions of hope, but simply because it serves his own ideology to hunt the Flag Smashers into oblivion after they have taken super serum. And then there’s Sharon Carter, who once stood foremost in the fight against Hydra, in Captain America and the Winter Soldier, and was both a valuable support and a romantic interest in Civil War. Since then, she’s become jaded and nihilistic, and, as it turns out, a criminal overlord in a kingdom of thieves. She is quite arguably the worst of them all, the hero who becomes a villain that is wearing the mask of still being a hero.
So, following all of these characters, and more, all across the world and through the depths of their various souls is indeed a riveting experience. Marvel did that part quite well. Yet… well, there are certain pronounced imperfections, things that they tried and failed to do.
For instance: the fights.
They did a fair job with the last few fights, but the earlier fights were a bit lackluster. Even Sam’s first aerial mission as Falcon, as flashy as it was, felt like it dragged on a bit and displayed his limits even more keenly than his strengths. Outside that, however, was the first time Sam and Bucky (and Walker and his partner) fought the Flag Smashers. Sure, there were several of them, and they were juiced up on super serum, but Bucky, of all people, ought to have held his own best of all in that fight. I mean, he was a one-man army in his Winter Soldier debut, and he held his own again in Civil War, but now he’s easily overpowered by a pair of amateurs? Nah, not buying it.
For another: …uh, just how easy is it to break someone out of prison by smuggling them a key card in advance, walking through a prisoners’ area and dropping a note that starts a riot? Because that, along with anything else that just needed to happen to advance this particular plot, was always pulled off pretty dang easy. Like when the Flag Smashers easily defeat Sam, or Walker’s friend is easily killed, or a new suit with new wings is made.
Speaking of, small detail: having a vibranium shield and vibranium wings does not make Sam’s flesh vibranium. Taking a blow from Karli head-on ought to have seriously hurt him, even more because he stood and took it with the wings holding him in place. He ought to have been a Sam sandwich!
For another instance: the politics.
Disney and Marvel definitely live on the Left, but they still have to cater to the Right in order to sell their movies and shows and make money. As such, there is an irritating tendency for them to preach at their audience. That was, I will admit, more balanced in this show than one might have expected. I adore the part where Sam says, “We can’t ask people to step up without meeting them halfway,” but it is immediately preceded by making excuses for people who can be labeled as terrorists and thugs (not to mention “refugees”), so I wonder what “halfway” Disney would have in mind.
Don’t misunderstand, I appreciate shows which talk about the difficult subjects, and this one was far better than it might have been, but, still, it got a bit ridiculous at times.
And what was with Karli talking about being citizens of the planet? There are is no such thing as a planetary citizenship. There are national citizens, but not global ones. Or is there supposed to be some sort of New World Order at work here?
A final instance: the setup for the future. I mean, it’s pretty clear that things are just barely getting started for the Falcon, now the new Captain America, and the Winter Soldier, as well as for the villainy of Sharon Carter, and for the escapades of John Walker, the USAgent, under the auspices of a woman who, in Marvel lore, is Madame Hydra herself. So, will things continue in the form of a second season, or in the next movie?
We must wait and see, but the sense of this as a beginning rather overshadows how the ending feels… as an ending.
What this show did best? The moments where the characters just talked about what was important to them. There’s something powerful in that, especially in how Sam’s character shined especially bright. That was his wheelhouse, after all, just talking to people, helping them. The reason Cap chose him to give the shield to? Because he is a good man, first and foremost.
That comes through, I just want to say, because the casting in virtually every role, major and minor alike, is absolutely brilliant! These are fantastic actors who have great material to work with and with fairly competent direction behind them. I mean, I just have to give a shout out to every member of the cast. They were fantastic.
So, is it a perfect show? Um, no, certainly not. But it’s pretty good, especially because of the characters.
Rating: 7 stars out of 10.