The first episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier will be an interesting litmus test for MCU fans. After a full year without a big screen blockbuster, there is plenty of pent-up demand for a Marvel action film that the small screen series aims to fill.
The new series definitely leans more into the traditional model of its cinematic counterparts than its Disney+ predecessor WandaVision (which was originally slated to debut after this). This action “buddy cop” set-up will undoubtedly go down more smoothly for action fans than the television pastiche of WandaVision, if only because it is a far less audacious and more accessible, familiar text.
And yet even in its first outing, this is not typical MCU fare. Yes, the episode opens with an extended action sequence as The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) must rescue a military hostage before French terrorists can cross the Libyan border, but aside from that and a brief nightmare/PTSD sequence involving The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), this is all character-based drama and dialogue.
The series takes place several months after the “blip” heard around the world in Avengers: Endgame as Sam ‘The Falcon’ Wilson and Bucky ‘The Winter Soldier’ Barnes acclimate back into regular life. As they mend relationships with family and embark on much-needed therapy, a dangerous new foe begins making moves in Europe.
What’s most striking about head writer Malcolm Spellman’s script is how content it is to focus on small character beats. For the majority of the first episode’s ~44 min runtime (there are six episodes total; I’ve seen the first), The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is almost exclusively dedicated to re-establishing who Sam and Bucky are outside of their Avengers personas.
Sam’s story feels particularly relevant. Not only is he struggling to find his role out of the shadow of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, whose visage features predominantly in several scenes), Sam discovers that even a superhero persona can’t overcome the systemic barriers that keep Black Americans poor and marginalized.
After a year of shining a light on America’s racial inequalities, it’s commendable for the series to focus not only Sam’s uncertainty about how to represent a country that doesn’t represent him back, but also the harsh realities of making ends meet when your profession isn’t saving the world. Giving Sam a sister, Adepero Odyue’s Sarah, and a history (a failed family fishing business in Louisiana) helps to flesh the character out beyond the straightforward pararescue sidekick that was introduced back in the second Captain America movie.
Stan’s Bucky arguably has less to do – in both action and character work – in the first episode. He’s working through his personal Winter Soldier demons from his time under Hydra’s command, when he worked as an assassin to kill a bunch of innocent people. While Mackie arguably gets the more meaty dramatic material, Stan gets to toggle between serious and comedy, particularly as he attempts to evade a no-nonsense therapist helping him to settle into civilian life after his pardon.
It’s solid material for two actors whose characters were never given much to do in films headlined by their bigger, better known counterparts. In many ways The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is emblematic of the kind of stories that Disney+ and Marvel should be focusing on: character-driven narratives that would typically be elided on the big screen to improve the pacing. The luxury of a limited series is not just that these stories can be told, but that they can unfurl at a more leisurely pace over multiple episodes.
What remains to be seen is whether this deep character work will be jettisoned in favour of action sequences and additional characters in future episodes. For clarity: both Daniel Brühl’s villainous Zemo and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter are slated to return and the trailer for the season is, as expected, filled with explosions and chase sequences.
For now, there’s enough here to justify settling in for six episodes, particularly if The Falcon and The Winter Soldier retains the rich character-centric material for Mackie and Stan.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier airs weekly on Fridays on Disney+