Episode two of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, The Star-Spangled Man, isn’t perfect. And whilst it is by no means bad, there are some odd, gentle, almost quiet missteps. Is it unfair to hold this show to such a high standard? Perhaps. But my god, the MCU has set a high bar.
Let’s dive in.
Last week’s debut absolutely soared, with a clean, fast, and at times profound script worthy of the legacy of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This week’s script, however, doesn’t quite reach such profound heights. Perhaps it’s because last week our collective bar was set so stratospherically high. Maybe it’s that WandaVision’s final glorious note is still ringing in our collective ears. Either way, there’s a sense that things are being rushed, relationships fast-tracked rather than allowed to breathe.
Only a little, mind you, but it turns what could have been a great episode into just a good one.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
Here’s the thing: none of the trailers for the show grabbed me, perhaps because they chiefly leaned on the free-and-easy banter between our two heroes as they butted heads in the most charming of ways. Those moments, however, don’t quite have the zing that both performers are so clearly capable of. They’re not bad by any means – I cannot stress enough just how not bad this show is – but Bucky charging up to Sam demanding to know why the shield has been given up to some square-jawed scoop of vanilla ice cream (more on him later) should feel… electric.
But before we know it, Bucky is tagging along with barely any explanation whatsoever. Why is he teaming up with Sam? Because that’s the beat this episode needs to hit. We get where we need to go, sure, and when we arrive, I’m glad to be there. But the connective tissue just isn’t strong enough.
Once they arrive at their destination, we’ve got a truck-bound stoush with the masked baddies from the last episode, a group of Blip-fundamentalists with growing support. The new Captain America rocks up with his sudden sidekick, Battlestar. The story then makes a series of odd assumptions – or rather, doesn’t ask the questions which would allow the answers to feel effortlessly expository. Such as the characters talking about their foes having taken Cap’s super serum. When did this get established? Is it because they’re clearly super-strong? Why does that equal super serum?
All you’d need is Bucky dropping a line like “Sam, see how they’re tossing those crates around and leaping about like what? Who does that remind you of?” Then Sam could quick an eyebrow. “You think someone’s cracked the code on Cap’s serum?” Or perhaps you could reveal upfront that our new Captain America is the first in an age upon whom the serum has worked, and he could tell Sam and Bucky “someone stole the serum, we’re here to find it”, at which point the super-powered smugglers would be the answer to the particularly crunchy question.
Instead, a bunch of stuff happens, some adequate quips are exchanged, and the plot wobbles ever so slightly. It never falls, mind you – this is still pretty solid television – but it feels like the pacing is mildly askew. Much like the new square-jawed Captain America, it’s that thing you like, but it’s not quite right.
Credit where it’s due, however: the opening sequence, with John Walker’s mysterious new Cap appearing on Good Morning America off the back of a superb drumline rendition of The Star-Spangled Man. He’s clearly augmented in some way, but he’s also lamenting that he wants to get to work, not become a PR machine. It’s a terrific way of mirroring Steve’s issues when he first starts out during World War 2, but it makes his sudden turn towards glowering, extra-stubbled darkness at the end of the episode all the stranger.
Why does he suddenly become such a grumpy shit? If he is the man we see at the start of the episode, his sudden turn from “we can work together” to “stay the hell out of my way” is something you’d expect after a multi-episode arc. A gradual slide into disillusionment.
There’s also some truly stunning stuff in the mix this week. Bucky taking Sam to the house of a black super-soldier, Isaiah, who was betrayed by the US Government and is still raw from the experience. This, right here, is a Marvel universe deep cut; in the comics, Isaiah was experimented on and jettisoned by a racist government unwilling to allow the face of America, the standard-bearer of its values, to be a black man.
Here, however, Isaiah is a veteran of the Korean War and one who tore off half of The Winter Soldier’s arm. Here’s hoping we get to see more of him moving forward. On the way out of Isaiah’s house, and after a truly fraught, raw exchange, several cops rock up because Sam (a black man) is seen yelling at Bucky (a white man). This is, when it’s truly popping, a show about race, and about what heroes look like. Hell, what America looks like. In short, I can’t wait to see where this episode sits once the whole series has played out.
As it stands, we’re looking at a six-episode story here. It’s a six-part film, really. So what if the second act dips a little? Let’s just hope that next week, our visit to Baron Zemo brings some Civil War zest to the proceedings.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is streaming on Disney+.