The hand that swings the shield is heavy. With Steve Rogers (Zeit) slipping into his golden years at the end of Avengers: Endgame, his friends Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) stay driving. Marvel’s Disney + series The falcon and the winter soldier finds the two former partners of Captain America in battle. Who are you without Steve Rogers by your side? What can they offer a world full of superheroes?
Both men withdraw 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 fall to the rescue. Bucky, on the other hand, makes amends. As a condition for his pardon, the winter soldier must face those with whom he once dealt as a Hydra assassin – old collaborators and old victims. He’s got a list and it’s a lot sadder than the one Steve carried in his back pocket.
Despite a breathtaking aerial action sequence opening the series, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier make a somber beginning. Rogers isn’t dead, but he can be too. Its absence shadows every frame. Sam and Bucky spend most of the episode staring into the distance, looking for a silhouette that will never appear. They are alone, and even when desperate for connections with their friends and family, they find a wall of resistance.
Why can’t Sam wear Steve’s shield? He says it feels like it belongs to someone else. Cap told him it isn’t. He got the green light, but Sam still can’t swing it. Instead, he hands it over to the Smithsonian to be kept under glass. He condemns Captain America as a relic.
The self-doubt needs to be addressed quickly. While the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t go into too much detail on the multiple antagonizing forces encircling Sam and Bucky, they definitely form. A terrorist cell called Flag-Smasher attacks critical government centers. They will no longer rely on institutions that have failed too often to protect their citizens. The world doesn’t need countries, it wants a union, and the flag destroyers will bring the world together by whatever means necessary.
And Sam and Bucky aren’t the only ones feeling the retirement of Captain America. There is a gap to be filled. If Sam and Bucky aren’t 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 in Batman costume? A year? Two? Culture longs for icons. Corporations crave our dollars. If one person passes on the role, another will happily take it on. If that selected person is unbearable, the franchise will take a long time to correct itself.
In The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Anthony Mackie lives in the anxious state of his character. When he’s in the suit, his Sam rises with titanic confidence. Mackie exudes joyful energy during the action sequences. The jokes spit with relish, and that power is noticeably lacking when the fighting reaches its climax and the deal with the character takes place. It’s not that fun, but Mackie’s downtime exudes internal conflict. I’m waiting for Sam not to feel too bad with this guy behind the wheel.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan Bucky’s gloomy, if smoldering mood can never shake. The winter soldier does not act in doubt, but in self-loathing. Stan possesses his injured pooch quality and his thrill ignites in the few moments he can let go of this agony.
Both actors pull you to their torment. They take root for them, even when it is clear that their characters are making the wrong choices. Choices decided for them by the eternal storyline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier trudges purposefully, but it also makes you kneel impatiently and wait for the goodies to arrive.
Lead author Malcolm Spellman knows our favorite moment from Sam and Bucky: The two competing Captain America BFFs find unit in the back of a Volkswagen Bug when Steve finally attacks Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) in Captain America: Civil War. He won’t give us that in round one. You’ll get there, but only if Steve’s legacy comes under fire.
While Marvel’s first Disney + series, WandaVision, initially masked his trauma with an adorable and mysterious sitcom fantasy, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier put their pain in the foreground. That’s a fuss that producer Kevin Feige has mastered. While other superhero releases this week promise bigger and worse plans that include disasters around the world, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier join their universe through heartbreak.
The show is not about flag smasher or Daniel Brühl‘s diabolical return as Zemo. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are all about finding a satisfying life for Sam and Bucky while their best friend enjoys a well-deserved break. Those who are here for punching, kicking, shooting, and cameos (okay, yes there are some of these) will find their fingers tapping unsuccessfully.
Sure, Marvel always delivers the beam of blue light that shoots into the sky for action junkies to trust, but with six episodes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is more My Little Pony than anything. Friendship is magical. And it’s warm and fuzzy and it’s ridiculous and it’s complicated and it’s just the best too.