Marvel Studios has embraced the streaming future and looks to dominate it, just as the studio dominates the big screen.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is the second Marvel Cinematic Universe series to hit Disney Plus this year. Following on the heels of the surprisingly heartwarming “WandaVision,” this newest show again picks up where “Avengers: Endgame” left off, this time focusing on the titular heroes, Sam Wilson’s Falcon and Bucky Barnes’ Winter Soldier. It might initially appear to offer the standard Marvel fare of flashy action punctuated with hamfisted quips and relatively shallow storytelling, but “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has already confronted several real-world issues, and doesn’t seem to shy away from asking tough questions of its heroes, the cinematic universe and the real world.
After Captain America Steve Rogers returned the Infinity Stones to their proper times and returned as an old man at the end of “Endgame,” he handed Wilson his vibranium shield — the symbol of his heroism and dedication to his nation. Wilson commented that the shield felt like it belonged to someone else, so he handed it off to the government to be put on display. Days later, the government announces a new Captain America, John Walker, played by “Overlord” star Wyatt Russell.
Meanwhile, Barnes, who spent much of his life since World War II as a brainwashed supersoldier assassin, the Winter Soldier, under control of terrorist organization Hydra, continues to try to make amends for his past. His story involves an extremely timely — albeit unintentional — moment in which he must atone for killing an Asian-American man during his time as an assassin.
The two begrudging friends are forced to reunite when enhanced terrorists fighting for a “world without flags or borders” begin staging attacks across the globe. It’s still early in the series, but these “Flagsmashers,” as they are called, are somewhat sympathetic, as they fight for a world that accepts each other without questions or conditions.
The show is three episodes into its planned six-episode run, but has already confronted major issues, such as racism, nationalism and America’s dark history. While the MCU has only focused on Rogers’ Captain America as the sole supersoldier, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has already introduced Isaiah Washington, the first black Captain America who was experimented on against his will during World War II. His introduction, followed by police arriving on scene to harass Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson is a poignant reminder of the real-world issues Black Americans face. It was raw to see such a confrontation in a comic book series.
While the action of the show is focused on the enhanced Flagsmasher terrorists, the real heart of the show is in the character development of Wilson and Barnes, who are each facing their own demons. Wilson continues to struggle with whether he deserves the mantle of Captain America, while the government hands the shield and title to a white person whom it deems is a more “proper” hero for the times. Barnes, who fought alongside Rogers as his best friend in World War II, still has to atone for the actions he committed as an assassin throughout his life and struggles with how the mantle of Captain America is handled.
Mackie has always been a strong actor in the role of Sam Wilson, and he adds even more layers to his portrayal in this show, where he’s given time and space to stretch his acting muscles. The extended runtime allows Wilson’s character to be much more fleshed out, and Mackie leans into that with nuance.
Barnes has always been much more of a milquetoast character. Sebastian Stan is a talented actor, but he’s never been given much to work with in the movies, thus far. But here, he’s finally given material to help flesh out Barnes’ character and his past. Some of the best scenes of the show are interactions with his therapist, during which he must confront what he’s done, even as it haunts him. The show makes a much more valiant effort to spotlight PTSD than the vain attempts in “Iron Man 3.”
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” initially looked to be just another sequel to the flashy movies fans have come to expect, but on the smaller screen. And while it still features some of that frantic, albeit grounded, action of the “Captain America” trilogy, it’s all accented with a much more nuanced look at the world. One might not expect a comic book show to confront racism, police brutality and America’s role in the world in such a way, but this does, and does so in a way that’s entertaining, but thought-provoking. With three more episodes still to air, there is still a lot more ground to cover, and it looks to be an entertaining ride.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” airs each Friday on Disney Plus.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton and writes a weekly movie review column for The Constitution.