How the hell does Marvel top WandaVision?
If you ask MCU die-hards (I raise my hand a little too fast at this juncture) what the best entries in the MCU actually are, the adventures of Captain America always feature up the top. Winter Soldier is the apex of the superhero genre: a starry-eyed cold war thriller with the frenetic action of The Raid and the stoic all-American idealism so sorely lacking from Snyder’s Superman. It’s a cold, clear, exhilarating slap in the face, and it’s responsible for giving us two truly nuanced members of the MCU.
The Falcon, and The Winter Soldier.
If you’re a fan, you already know the role these two played from that point on, becoming key players in the Superhero Civil War, the horrors of The Blip (the re-writing of reality at the hands of Thanos), and more. They’re the best of the MCU because they’re the ancillary characters who orbited around Chris Evans’ incandescent Steve Rogers. And now that Cap is off the table, and Thanos has been bested, the world of the MCU is a strange place, dotted with power vacuums and sundered allegiances.
So why not follow Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson (played with absolute clarity by the wonderful Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie) into this new adventure?
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Recap
SPOILERS BELOW: PROCEED ONLY AFTER YOU’VE WATCHED THE EPISODE
Episode one is an absolute barn-burner. It’s a return to the clean, sleek storytelling of Winter Soldier. Our two heroes are both running on separate tracks: The Falcon is running dangerous ops for the US Government. The opening scenes of the episode are a full-blown kaleidoscope of Top Gun-grade airborne maneuvers, with Falcon trying to interrupt a US soldier (whose importance becomes clear by the end of the episode) from being spirited away across the Libyan border. I’m pretty sure the abundant (and fairly seamless) CGI here was intercut with real parachute jumps and skydiving work, meaning the whole thing becomes genuinely nail-biting, even as The Falcon shows off his Stark-tech augmented suit.
Bucky, on the other hand, is in therapy. His track of the episode is quieter, but no less impactful – his battles are internal, and he’s on a quest to essentially make amends to everyone he wronged whilst inhabiting the role of the Winter Soldier. He’s an inverse Captain America: Cap spent decades on ice, whereas Bucky spent decades trapped inside a body that was used to murder at the behest of Hydra. There’s a gorgeous parallel here: in The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson gives Cap a list of things he may have missed and simply must catch up on. Here, we have a similarly carefully cobbled together list, only this time, it’s of lives snuffed out.
Amends, Bucky seems to believe, must be made.
In fact, the best parts of this truly solid episode are when we discover that Bucky isn’t just randomly hanging out with an old Japanese curmudgeon. He’s hovering inches from telling this man that he’s the one who killed his son, but he can’t quite… well, he can’t quite pull the trigger. He’s nudging at the periphery of his newfound humanity. He’s trying to do the right thing, but it’s pity, fear, and remorse which keep getting in the way.
He’s gentle, and he’s wounded. He is, in short, the polar opposite of The Winter Soldier.
Sam’s journey quietens down, too, and we get a truly stark look at what The Blip did to those who waited. His sister, it turns out, was forced to carry the ailing family business, and the tail end of the episode has a kind of incredible scene where Sam and his sister apply for a loan. The teller goes from asking for selfies, to asking how superheroes make money, to turning down two black business owners whose family has banked with them for generations.
By the time the credits roll, there’s one more bizarre revelation: Sam, who decided to refuse the mantle of Captain America and take up the shield watches as the soldier he rescued is revealed to the public as the new Cap.
There’s something telling here: the official who heartily unveils America’s new champion is the same one who told Sam that handing back the shield was “the right thing to do”, and that “we need a real person who embodies America’s greatest values”.
And out comes the most generic, chalky-white, hokey looking iteration of Cap ever to grace the screen.
Sam looks crestfallen.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has, with this first episode, set a very high bar. Both powerful and profound, it’s a brilliant debut. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is streaming on Disney+.