The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Series Review: Shoots for the stars, but doesn’t escape the atmosphere

Luckily, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did not serve as the debut to the MCU gracing the silver screen, else Marvel’s grand TV plans may have found themselves dead in the water.

Starring Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Danny Ramirez, Georges St-Pierre, Adepero Oduye, Don Cheadle, Daniel Brühl, Emily VanCamp, Florence Kasumba, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

With the news of the MCU breaking into the world of TV entertainment, while perhaps not surprising, a fan could be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow. Fortunately, the release of WandaVision earlier in 2021 more than justified the creative boundaries that could be stretched to breaking point in telling some Marvel stories on the small screen instead of in a movie format. WandaVision, certainly, simply would not have lent itself to a two-hour movie, and a lot of the heart and the artistry would have been lost from the story if that route had been taken. Instead, what fans were treated to was a moving statement on profound grief and self-discovery from an oft-overlooked Marvel character.

It is, undeniably, unfair to compare WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just because they come from the same Universe. Other than being produced by the same studio, the two share little in common from a production and creative point of view. However, while WandaVision was a necessary story to be told on TV, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would not have lost much from being made into a movie, nor was it structured to fit a conventional episodic format. Instead of feeling hooked from week-to-week like audiences found themselves with WandaVision, spending the intervening time speculating upon what was going to happen next, based upon clues from the comics and within episodes, each instalment wasn’t structured to maximise tension, but rather felt like a rather long, meandering six-hour movie.

Like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier exists in a post-Blip MCU. Like Wanda, both Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) are grieving after Steve Rogers decided to remain in the past with Peggy Carter after the events of Avengers: Endgame and passed on his shield and title to Sam. In addition to this, the world is suffering as a result of half of the population miraculously reappearing, leading to the emergence of a group known as the Flag Smashers who take umbrage at the Global Repatriation Council (GRC) who seek to tear their lives asunder in the name of getting the world back on its feet.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier dealt with legacy in multiple ways: not only Steve’s legacy as Captain America feeling like a burden felt upon Sam’s shoulders, but also then the way that the brutal John Walker (Wyatt Russell) takes up the mantle as the new Captain America, bringing to the forefront of the audience’s attention the complex race issues that Sam is faced with as a black man representing a country that has historically been unable to address its deeply ingrained institutional racism. Bucky also deals with his own grief and trauma over his past as Hydra’s hitman The Winter Soldier, though this isn’t focussed upon nearly as much as Sam’s character journey is.

Unfortunately, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, unlike WandaVision, fails to put its character development front and centre. While there are some lovely character moments, these more feel like they are pauses between the ridiculous number of other plot threads that are being forced into the show. Despite being not fully fleshed out in their motivation or their goals, the Flag Smashers and their gradually increasing terrorist threat dominate the plot, as do ridiculously long fight sequences which, while visually impressive, are not necessarily narratively engaging.

Add on top of that the return of Zemo (Daniel Brühl) from Captain America: Civil War, Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter, Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) returning and also a mysterious plotline involving the Power Broker and even the Dora Milaje, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels quite over-stuffed and yet also seems to rattle through with very little stakes, tension or, in fact, with very much that’s engaging at all.

Ultimately, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just didn’t grab my attention in the way that I sorely hoped that it would do – and I really tried to like it as well. Unfortunately, if you’re going to make a TV series and touch upon the difficulties of having a black Captain America, that has to serve as much more of a focus than these showmakers seemed willing or daring enough to do. What’s more, you should probably credit your black titular star, who arguably has far much more to do than his white co-star, first, rather than giving him second-billing. This wasn’t a story that couldn’t have been told in a movie, and likely would have benefited from having a reduced runtime, as quite a lot of the events in the series were wholly superfluous to the wider story that was trying to be told.

There were some brilliant moments scattered throughout: the image of John Walker with Captain America’s shield dripping with blood after flying into an uncontrollable rage; Bucky and Sam’s honest conversation about the difficulties that Sam finds in taking up the mantle of Captain America as a black man while practising with the shield – but this simply isn’t enough to legitimise making it into a TV series. It feels more as if it was just setting the groundwork for future stories to come, instead of making it enjoyable as a standalone piece. Most of the tension and the cliffhangers were built upon an intimate in-universe knowledge that not all fans or watchers would have and therefore immediately alienates newcomers. While WandaVision had characters or events referenced to different films in the MCU, this didn’t limit the audience experience in the same way that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier relied upon the audience’s pre-existing knowledge.

There was also far more potential to be mined here: The Flag Smashers fight is an interesting one, and started off pretty sympathetically, but Karli Morganthau (Erin Kellyman) was written far too one-dimensionally to be viewed as anything other than a terrorist at the end, while the actual cause that The Flag Smashers were originally fighting for had some valid points. However, the show didn’t seem willing to explore these avenues and rather opted for a “well, I can see both sides” speech from Sam. Additionally, the return of Zemo could have been an opportunity to further explore Bucky’s trauma from his past, but was not used in an effectively captivating way.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier simply does not have to exist, and it does not compare with the brilliant creativity and artistry on display in shows like WandaVision which really highlight the extraordinary pieces of work that are possible with a Marvel budget and talented storytellers. Whether or not The Falcon and the Winter Soldier executives were actually interested in making a compelling product for TV is a moot point, as there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how to structure and piece a TV show together, in which mystery and tension is sustained in between parts but, mostly, the experience felt like a long, sluggish, plodding crawl to the finish line.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is streaming in its entirety on Disney+.

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