Disney’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” soars

Sebastian Stan (left) and Anthony Mackie (right) hold Captain America's shield, which the Falcon uses in Disney's hit show

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Sebastian Stan (left) and Anthony Mackie (right) hold Captain America’s shield, which the Falcon uses in Disney’s hit show “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

Phase Four of the acclaimed Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began on Jan. 15, 2021 with the franchise’s first Disney+ original series, “WandaVision.” Hailed as one of the most unique and emotional installments of the MCU, “WandaVision” enjoyed success as it functioned as a character study that explored the aftermath of the groundbreaking “Avengers: Endgame.”

 

Only two weeks after the release of the ninth and final episode of “WandaVision,” the MCU continued with its next series, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” A markedly different show in terms of style and tone, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” tells the story of Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes as they struggle to find their place in the world after the departure of their mutual friend, Steve Rogers (Captain America).

 

From its first episode, it is immediately clear that “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is shot far more artistically than any other project in the MCU. Director Kari Skogland and cinematographer P.J. Dillon has ensured that the show is beautiful to look at while also conveying the emotions of the characters through each shot. A particular stand-out series of shots occurs in episode one where a scene of Barnes speaking to his therapist is presented through extreme close-ups that perfectly sell a claustrophobic discomfort.

 

As with all MCU projects, the cast is stellar in the series. Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Daniel Brühl (Helmut Zemo), and Wyatt Russell (John Walker) all give outstanding performances. For Mackie and Stan in particular, this series is the first instance that their characters have been given proper screen time to develop, and both actors shine as the show’s leads.

 

Of course, the most important aspect of any MCU project is the story it tells. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” features a three-way conflict between Wilson and Barnes, new federal Captain America appointee John Walker, and the anti-nationalist group known as the Flag Smashers. Walker is given the mission to control the Flag Smashers, who are radicals that wish for equality for displaced refugees. Wilson and Barnes have also taken it upon themselves to stop the group, but they quickly collide with Walker.

 

This plot is inherently interesting and carries the first four episodes of the series quite well as various side plots are introduced featuring both new and returning characters. Much of the story’s energy is found in the banter between Wilson and Barnes, the superb pacing, and the fleshing out of previously one-note characters.

 

However, by the show’s fifth episode, plot threads begin to be formulaically checked off one by one to limit what the story must deal with in its finale. This results in a somewhat lack of unity among the side story beats. Only the major conflict with the Flag Smashers is left by the sixth and final episode, making for a spectacular fight sequence but underwhelming (yet satisfying in the sense that it is conclusive) plot ending. This is largely because the Flag Smashers are not characterized well and feel hilariously unthreatening for the amount of weight the story places on them.

 

A surprising stand out character is Walker. From his reveal in the first episode, the show’s fanbase was rife with hatred for the character (actor Wyatt Russell has even received death threats from toxic fans), who is perceived to have taken the Captain America mantle despite Steve’s own intent for Wilson to take it. However, audiences quickly discover that Walker is an incredibly complex antihero that is unlikable as a person but exceptionally well-written. He is a sympathetic character that is fundamentally flawed, rendering him as someone that fans love to hate.

 

One element that remains at a constant level of strength throughout the show is its commentary on systemic racism in America. Wilson, who is a black man, has complicated feelings on being chosen to take the mantle of Captain America while the country views his replacement, Walker (a white man), as the true hero despite Wilson’s status as an Avenger. There are also depictions of racial profiling by law enforcement as well as unjust and inhumane practices against people of color throughout history. This is the first true instance of the MCU speaking on current social issues, and it pays off enormously in a time of great change and reform.

 

Despite its flaws, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” succeeds where it needs to. It gives two underdeveloped MCU characters much-needed focus, introduces one of the most interesting figures in the franchise with Walker, and conveys its timely themes consistently. While the MCU’s second outing on Disney+ is not quite as solid as its first (though it is difficult to even compare “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” due to their stark differences), it adds to the promising start of Phase Four, which will continue with “Loki” in June.

 

All episodes of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” are now streaming on Disney+.