‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ lets former Marvel sidekicks shine

Illustration of the characters Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson from "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" standing back to back
Nerissa Hsieh/Staff

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

This article contains minor spoilers for episodes 1-3 of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

Though it was initially expected to triumphantly kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s slate of television series for Disney+, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is now tasked with being the follow-up to “WandaVision,” which charmed audiences with its canny take on the American sitcom. Where “WandaVision” took full advantage of its TV format, parodying a different set of tropes every episode and inspiring rabid fan theorizing with its weekly cliffhangers, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has a more uneasy relationship with the medium, reading mostly as an extended “Captain America” movie.

The show, like “WandaVision” and presumably the rest of the MCU’s Phase Four, checks in with the world’s remaining heroes as they cope with the catastrophic events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” The absence of Steve Rogers — heretofore the MCU’s resident beacon of goodness — has left his buddies Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) to grapple with his legacy and their place in a new, post-“Blip” world. Bucky is attempting to make amends for his actions as the brainwashed Hydra crony known as the “Winter Soldier.” Sam gives up the shield Steve gifted him at the end of “Endgame,” wary of the burden that is the Captain America mantle, only for the government to anoint a newer, smarmier Cap in John Walker (Wyatt Russell). Supplying the backdrop to this soul-searching is Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), who leads an enhanced group of revolutionaries called the Flag Smashers that advocate for the return of the open borders that came with life after Thanos’ snap.

It’s Marvel, so the politics of the Flag Smashers are thus far largely hand-wavey — their beef with the fictional Global Repatriation Council’s inequitable redistribution of resources after the Blip is a promising but loose gesture at current events. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has much better luck with the journeys of its two leads. Bucky’s guilty relationship with the father of one of the Winter Soldier’s victims facilitates some solid character moments in the show’s first episode, and Mackie does a great job conveying Sam’s discomfort with the symbols of American heroism as a Black man. The scripts’ handling of race occasionally veers superficial, but the presence of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) — a Black super soldier who, unlike golden boy Steve Rogers, was imprisoned and experimented on after his military service — is a thread that offers acute context for Sam’s arc.

These narratives are spliced with the formulaic plot shenanigans typical of the average “Captain America” film; the third episode, “Power Broker,” is particularly guilty of this, shuttling the main characters around with a series of exchanges that boil down to “Let’s go here to get this thing.” The requisite action sequences follow Marvel’s now-familiar house style, sandwiching combat with cute banter and drab settings (the third episode’s climactic fight scene takes place amidst a bunch of grimy shipping crates).

The show occasionally bites off more than it can chew — halfway through the series, it still feels like we’re setting the stage, especially with the recent introduction of subplots for Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl, giving a much hokier performance than in “Captain America: Civil War”). But Stan and Mackie have more than enough likeability as a duo to carry the series through its more plot-driven moments; the real-life chumminess that they’ve showcased on Marvel press tours pays off beautifully in their characters’ onscreen bickering.

The “buddy cop” dynamic has sung from the first episode, but whether or not the show will stick the landing in its attempts at political relevance — which this writer predicts will rely on what happens with the suspiciously detestable John Walker — remains to be seen. By its final episode, “WandaVision” excelled at reconfiguring the MCU’s notoriously crowded narrative economy, fleshing out a focused theme and endowing once-sidelined characters with actual depth. Let’s hope “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” finds time in its second half to do the same.

Grace Orriss covers television. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.