3 out of 5 stars

Taking a different approach to the mystery box creativity of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier plays more like a standard Marvel blockbuster, only with six week to tell a five-hour story. This results in more time to dig deeper into Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as characters, but the storytelling also suffers from bad pacing and a feeling it would have made a better two-hour movie by carving off the fat.

Following the denouement of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Sam’s struggling to accept Steve Roger’s offer to become the next Captain America. The legacy of Cap’s famous shield weights heavily on his mind, as the prospect of a black man taking on that mantle feels more like a burden than a blessing. This is primarily down to systemic racism in the US, and it’s to the show’s credit this is one of the key elements tackled head-on through Sam’s character. And it’s not the type of material that could be done justice within the limitations of a cinema experience, which makes it one of the few areas that justified having extra time.

It’s unfortunate the writers don’t tackle the issues if institutional racism further, as the emotional highlights of the series involve Sam unearthing the secret history of “Captain America”. This happens once he’s introduced to Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbley), an elderly black man who was successfully given the super serum during the Korean War but was locked away for three decades by the US government as a result. Lumbley gives a bravura performance as a bitter grandfather, who eventually escaped incarceration to live under a new identity, and is still blessed with super-strength but tortured by how poorly his own country treated him. Blonde-haired blue-eyed Steve Rogers became an idol and hero, whereas Isaiah Bradley lost everything dear to him.

Bucky is similarly tortured, beginning the show in therapy to work through knowing he spent decades as a brainwashed assassin, killing people that included the occasional innocent bystander. So as Sam wrestles with the legacy of becoming a patriotic icon who’s a world away from the image of “Captain America” in most people’s minds, Bucky’s having nightmares about his past crimes and doing his best to atone for his sins. And that’s more difficult now his best-friend Steve Rogers isn’t around, which forces him to work through his psychological issues while on a globe-trotting mission with Sam.

There’s certainly a Lethal Weapon (1987) flavour to the series, especially during the earlier instalments, with two somewhat mismatched men having to work together. The issue of them both being the BFF of Steve Rogers adds a further wrinkle, as they represent the two men Cap thought most highly of during the different stages of his life. The reason Bucky’s upset with Sam for refusing to step into Steve’s shoes also plays well, as he’s worried Steve being wrong about Sam’s suitability means he could be wrong about his chances of remaining a good person after a lifetime as a HYDRA hitman.

The first two episodes of Falcon and the Winter Soldier deliver an interesting setup, containing two bravura action sequences that wouldn’t look out of place on the big-screen. (One of the selling points of these Disney+ Marvel shows is that no expense is spared in translating the MCU experience to weekly TV.) Things grow less appealing in the third and fourth instalments, both written by John Wick creator Derek Kolstad interestingly, with Sam and Bucky breaking Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) from Captain America: Civil War (2016) out of prison because of his useful connections to the underworld.

Indeed, the associated storyline concerning the ‘Flag Smashers’, a terrorist group led by Karli Morgenthu (Erin Kellyman), who want the abolition of borders and the world to return to how it was before ‘the Blip’ (when Thanos erased half the universe’s population), is of questionable merit. There are intriguing aspects of their ideology to explore, but Karli and her cronies are ultimately just a bunch of ‘super soldiers’ to fight occasionally, and never cohere into anything to be totally engaged by. It doesn’t help that Erin Kellyman, while a good actress, isn’t the least bit threatening in either appearance or attitude. Zemo makes for a similarly disappointing addition because, while it’s fun to see Brühl back as the sardonic criminal mastermind, he could be removed from the narrative without much plot unravelling. His role is to be an irritating thorn in the sides of Sam and Bucky for a few episodes (rather like Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 3), and Brühl doesn’t get an opportunity to pose a real danger.

The best component of the miniseries involves John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a decorated US Army soldier chosen by the government to become the new Captain America after Sam refuses the job. He’s introduced looking amusingly goofy in Cap’s blue helmet and chinstrap, only to earn back respect once we realise how courageous and honourable he was during his military career. But then everything gets twisted once it becomes evident Walker has personality defects, as he represents America’s controversial behaviour on the world stage and isn’t the embodiment of his country’s ideals and values.

Walker thus becomes a fascinating ‘bizarro’ version of Cap; a product of a more cynical time, with a temperament and perspective that isn’t outright evil… but where becoming an icon and living with that pressure gives a boost to his egotism and aggression. Wyatt Russell (Overlord) is excellent in this part and, by the end, Walker’s poised to have a juicy continuing role in the MCU. Although it’s a terrible misstep that his part in the finale is so limited and confused, perhaps because his character arc peaked the week before. However, Walker’s presence did help maintain interest throughout the show’s sketchier middle third.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a different take on what Marvel Studios can achieve on television, and one that’s less ambitious and imaginative than WandaVision. It felt more like one of Netflix’s defunct Marvel shows (Daredevil mixed with The Punisher), only with a greater brand legitimacy and more cash to splash on VFX and overseas location shooting. The problem is that a few elements of the story remained difficult to get excited by (The Flag Smashers), some aspects were disappointingly handled (Baron Zemo), the resolution of a few subplots don’t land well (John Walker), and the tone’s often too grim without a sense of fun to keep things rattling along better.

The best episode is undoubtedly the penultimate hour, “Truth”, as it’s where the John Walker’s arc peaks and both Sam and Bucky’s characters are given better material to work with. It’s a shame the rest of the series didn’t match that episode’s balance of character-led drama and exciting action, but instead got stuck in a rut filming foot-chases around Prague streets. (And that can’t help give things a slightly cheap feel for me, as so many straight-to-DVD productions are using the Czech Republic as a base these days.)

Ultimately, this was an average series that succeeded in transitioning The Falcon into Captain America, which was the main objective and a development that felt earned for Sam’s character. It also setup a few ideas the MCU will likely pick up the ball with, involving Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), the mysterious Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and a sympathetic villain in John Walker. Could this have been condensed into a decent movie experience? Sure. Although six episodes allowed more time to explore issues of race and trauma that might have been overwhelmed by more elaborate action sequences at the multiplex.

I’m pleased The Falcon and the Winter Soldier exists and managed to push its two eponymous characters to the next stage of their lives within the MCU, but I also wish it had been more focused and clearer in its aims.

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USA | 2021 | 306 MINUTES 6 EPISODES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Malcolm Spellman, Michael Kastelein, Derek Kolstad, Dalan Musson & Josef Sawyer (based on characters created by Stan Lee & Gene Colan, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, and Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting).
director: Kari Scogland.
starring: Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Danny Ramirez, Georges St-Pierre, Adepero Oduye, Don Cheadle, Daniel Brühl, Emily VanCamp, Florence Kasumba & Julia Louis-Dreyfus