Then things get interesting. If the recent WandaVision, which focused on the next stage for the grieving Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) after the (second) death of her lover Vision (Paul Bettany), was an eccentric, full-pelt drive into sitcom-style chaos, then The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a much more considered affair. Rather than the full-blown thrills of fisticuffs and spectacle, it quickly becomes submerged in character and story. Afforded the space to breathe, this series is a refreshing deep dive into Marvel characters the likes of which we’ve never seen before – think a David Fincher meditative thriller but with Iron Man-esque wings and super-punches.
Directed by Emmy-nominated television veteran, Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Walking Dead, The Americans to name a few), the six-part series begins soon after the end of Avengers: Endgame, where an ageing Captain America (Chris Evans with digitised wrinkles) handed his talismanic shield-cum-Frisbee to Sam Wilson, with the weighty request he takes on the all-American superhero mantle.
“It feels like it belongs to someone else,” Wilson says in the first episode of TFATWS, to imperious Air Force officer and fellow Avenger, James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), echoing his final line to Cap in Endgame. They amble around a museum exhibition dedicated to Captain America, complete with holographic posters and Uncle Sam-style neon signs. The shield now rests there too, enshrined in glass, because Wilson, struggling to take on the mantle, believes it should only be used by its original owner. He stares at it, teary-eyed – a relic. Or is it?
In New York, genetically enhanced 106-year-old super-soldier and Wilson’s bickering buddy, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the Winter Soldier, is lying low. Haunted by his prior evil tendencies (not his fault, he was being controlled – it’s complicated), he has nightmares of seeking revenge – slitting throats, crushing foes against walls, and choking them. The whole shebang. Like his metallic arm, the past weighs heavy on him. He seeks therapy and struggles to woo a girl.
Alongside coming to terms with their demons, of course the pair must unite (though, slightly disappointingly, they don’t cross paths in the first episode) to face a wealth of villains. The Flag Smashers, a terrorist organisation led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), who gain followers via a Pokémon GO-like app, wear black masks (very in vogue) and want a world that’s unified without borders.
And if that’s not enough, there’s another adversary, in the form of Captain America. No, not the return of Evans’s square-jawed Steve Rogers but his government-approved replacement: Captain America 2.0 or John Walker (Wyatt Russell) who believes he’s the ultimate embodiment of American values.
Again, all very Marvel, but there’s a thoughtful undercurrent here. Death, mental health, racism, and tragedy are not just the subjects of tomorrow’s front pages but themes dissected in this series. Forget intergalactic battles in space, this is superheroes laying themselves bare in therapy sessions, coming to terms with loss in Brooklyn bars, and facing redlining in Louisiana. It’s hefty yet welcome stuff for a superhero series, shot in solemn greys and blues, bolstered by questions about who is an American and why people go to extreme lengths in the name of patriotism. Sound familiar?
After a long-stint as sidekicks, stuck in Evans’s perfectly-formed shadow, this series is a chance for Mackie and Stan to become full-fledged leads. And oh boy, they don’t hold back. When they got the chance, the pair always upstaged the vanilla shield-wielder and now they really shine. Mackie is a sharp, self-assured, natural lead, teeming with charisma, and Stan nails the part of a weathered, brooding veteran (like Ben Affleck’s Batman but without the tedious gruff voice). They complement and contrast in equal measure. Their quick wit and schoolboy rivalry, although at times teetering on cliché, brings some light relief to the more hard-hitting plotlines.
Skogland directs with aplomb, and showrunner Malcolm Spellman (Empire) weaves together intricate storylines with ease. If he makes one mistake, it’s occasionally falling into the perennial superhero universe pitfall of assumed knowledge. Even for the most seasoned MCU fanatic, a lifetime has passed since these two characters graced our screens. He just about gives enough to grip onto but casual viewers will likely find themselves reaching for Google on more than one occasion.
The score, by Henry Jackman (who also scored Civil War and Captain America: Winter Soldier), is tender and verging on cinematic, an almost nostalgic indication that despite being viewed on a different medium, the much-loved universe is in safe hands.
Nothing will ever beat seeing a Marvel film on the silver screen. It’s where they belong. But if the new home of Disney+ allows previously supporting characters like Falcon and the Winter Soldier room to breathe, and writers the chance to explore timely themes in a longer format, who’s complaining? Grab some microwaved popcorn and dive in. The future of Marvel is bright, whether subtle or not, small screen or otherwise.