Heavy is the hand that wields the shield. With Steve Rogers (time)sliding into his golden years at the end of Avengers: Endgame, his pals Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) are left adrift. Marvel’s Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finds the two former Captain America partners struggling. Who are they without Steve Rogers by their side? What can they offer a world overflowing with superheroes?
Both men retreat into familiar roles. Sam gives himself and his winged exo-suit (“bird costume”) to the United States Air Force. Wherever soldiers are in trouble, Sam is there to swoop to the rescue. Bucky, on the other hand, is making amends. As a condition of his pardon, the Winter Soldier must confront those he once dealt with as a Hydra assassin — old collaborators, and old victims. He’s got a list, and it’s way sadder than the one Steve carried around in his back pocket.
Despite a stunning aerial action sequence that opens the series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier delivers a grim beginning. Rogers is not dead, but he may as well be. His absence shadows every frame. Sam and Bucky spend most of the episode staring into the middle-distance, scanning for a silhouette that never appears. They are alone, and even when they desperately reach out for connection with their friends and family, they find a wall of resistance.
Why can’t Sam carry Steve’s shield? He says it feels “like it’s someone else’s.” Cap told him that it’s not. He got the green light, but Sam still can’t swing it. Instead, he hands it over to the Smithsonian to store under glass. He condemns Captain America as a relic.
The self-doubt must be tackled quickly. While the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t dwell too much on the multiple antagonizing forces circling Sam and Bucky, they are definitely forming. A terrorist cell calling themselves Flag-Smasher is assaulting critical governmental centers. They will no longer put their trust in institutions that have too often failed to protect their citizenry. The world doesn’t need countries, it desires unification, and the Flag-Smashers will bring the world together by any means necessary.
And Sam and Bucky are not the only ones feeling Captain America’s retirement. There is a void to be filled. If Sam and Bucky are not careful, someone else will step into the costume while they’re not looking.
We should understand this experience well. How long can we go without another actor inside the Batman costume? A year? Two? Culture craves icons. Corporations crave our dollars. If one person passes on the role, another will gladly take it on. If that selected individual is insufferable, it’s a long wait until the franchise corrects itself.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Anthony Mackie thrives in his character’s anxious state. When he’s in the suit, his Sam balloons with titanic confidence. During the action sequences, Mackie exudes joyous energy. The quips spit with relish, and that vigor is noticeably missing when the fights hit their climax, and the business of character occurs. It’s not as fun, but Mackie’s downtime radiates internal conflict. Waiting for Sam to find himself ain’t so bad with this guy behind the wheel.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan can never shake Bucky’s somber, although smoldering, vibe. The Winter Soldier doesn’t deal in doubt, but self-loathing. Stan owns his hurt-puppy-dog quality, and his thrills ignite in the few moments where he gets to let loose that torment.
Both actors pull you to their agony. You root for them, even when it’s clear that their characters are making the wrong decisions. Decisions that will get decided for them through the perpetual plot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier plods purposefully, but it also has you impatiently bobbing your knee, waiting for the good stuff to arrive.
Head writer Malcolm Spellman knows our favorite Sam and Bucky moment: the two competing Captain America BFFs finding unity in the back of a Volkswagon Bug as Steve finally makes his move on Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) in Captain America: Civil War. He’s not going to give us that in Round One. They’ll get there, but only when Steve’s legacy comes under fire.
While Marvel’s first Disney+ series, WandaVision, initially masked its trauma through a delightful and mysterious sitcom fantasy, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier puts its pain upfront. That’s an excitement that producer Kevin Feige has mastered. While other superhero releases this week promise bigger and badder plots involving world-ending catastrophes stacked atop each other, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier connects its universe through heartache.
The show is not about Flag-Smasher or Daniel Bruhl‘s diabolical return as Zemo. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about finding a satisfying life for Sam and Bucky while their best friend enjoys some well-earned rest. Those here for punching, kicking, shooting, and cameos (okay, yeah, there are a few of those) will find their fingers tapping fruitlessly.
Sure, Marvel always delivers on the beam of blue light firing into the sky, so action junkies can take faith in that, but with six episodes to wade within, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is more My Little Pony than anything else. Friendship is magic. And it’s warm, and it’s fuzzy, and it’s ridiculous, and it’s complicated, and it’s also just the best.