After the slow-burning mystery of WandaVision, Marvel’s latest television show is a return to more familiar ground.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which launches today on Disney+, brings cinematic action sequences to the small screen. In just the first few minutes you’re treated to meaty fist-fights, mid-air explosions, and mysterious organisation spreading chaos in Europe.
The show picks up a few months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, during which half the planet’s population suddenly reappeared after five years away, wreaking havoc with a world that had painfully adjusted to their absence.
At the end of the film, Captain America passes on his iconic shield to Sam Wilson, an airman turned Avenger known as The Falcon, who takes to the skies with the aid of a pair of mechanical wings. At the start of the six-part series, we find Wilson sans shield – struggling with the question of whether to take up the mantle or not.
Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes – aka The Winter Soldier – is living in New York, and working his way through making amends, in the style of My Name Is Earl, to a list of people he hurt during the nine-decade long spree of assassinations that he carried out while brainwashed by the shadowy organisation Hydra. Like Captain America, Barnes is a super soldier – with the addition of a high-tech prosthetic arm made of vibranium, the hardest, most versatile metal in the Marvel universe.
A strange mesh of introspection and action runs through the first episode. Barnes works through his issues in therapy, while Wilson takes a trip to see his sister in Louisiana, where she runs a struggling fishing operation – they may be Earth’s last line of defence against the evil forces of the galaxy, but apparently Avengers don’t get paid enough to keep the bill collectors at bay.
If WandaVision was about grief and coping with loss, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a show about identity. The death of the actor Chadwick Boseman, who played Black Panther, leaves Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) as the MCU’s only Black superhero, and series creator Malcolm Spellman has talked about how the symbol that is Captain America would mean something very different if it were taken up by a Black man instead of a white one.
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The trailers pitch Falcon and The Winter Soldier as a buddy show – two big contrasting personalities clashing as they get the job done. It was inspired, according to interviews, by a brief but amusing interaction between the characters in a ten-second scene in Captain America: Civil War. It’s hard to make a judgement on whether their camaraderie works based on the first episode. In the movies both characters are played straight, and they’re yet to actually cross paths by the end of the first instalment, breaking with the general rules of the television pilot which usually establish all the major relationships from the get go.
That could be the biggest failing of Falcon and the Winter Soldier – that it doesn’t feel like a television show at all. According to the creators, that was a conscious decision. “Everybody went into this saying we’re making a six-hour feature,” director Kari Skogland told Entertainment Weekly. “We’ll break it up so ultimately it will look like television, but it will feel like a six-hour feature.”
But there’s a reason that (most) movies aren’t six hours long – no one would sit through them. And there’s a reason that this isn’t a movie – even before the pandemic, it was planned as a television series – and it’s because these characters just don’t have enough about them to be a blockbuster draw, even for a franchise that has turned many obscure comic book characters into household names over the last 13 years.
A lot of the show’s success will depend on whether its supporting characters can keep the plot ticking along at the pace movie fans have grown to expect – to prove this isn’t just a bloated blockbuster that’s been spared the cutting room floor because it happens to be a TV series. (It’s ironic that it’s released in the same week as the infamous ‘Snyder Cut’ of Justice League, which DC fans begged for for years, and which runs to almost four hours).
To do it, it brings back at least two characters from the growing pool of MCU talent: Sharon Carter, a brief love interest of Captain America in Civil War; and Helmut Zemo, the villain from that movie – played with a smouldering intensity by Daniel Bruhl and last seen locked up in a cage like Hannibal Lecter.
It will be interesting to see how the series unfolds over the next six episodes – and whether it can find the right balance between action, exposition and pace. The gentle approach worked for WandaVision because each episode threw up so many questions, sparking hours of discussion by fans online.
If Falcon and the Winter Soldier is just a slow moving version of a traditional superhero movie, it’s hard to see what the point of it is – other than to keep Disney+ subscribers drawn in by WandaVision on the hook until their free trial runs out.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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