I’ve written these reviews of the Disney + MCU Phase 4 series slightly out of order.
I watched them in the order they were released. You can read my reviews of WandaVision and the first season of Loki here, if you’d like. At present, I’m making my way through the episodes of What If . . . ? as they are released. But, even though I watched The Falcon and The Winter Soldier immediately after WandaVision, I’m just getting around to writing my review of the series.
In the fullness of age, I’ve learned that there are reasons behind every action I take. Or, I guess in this case, inaction. If you’ll excuse just a moment of introspection, I’ll try to determine why I haven’t written this review before now.
Did I like the show? Yes, I did. Not as much as I liked Loki, I’ll admit. Maybe not even as much as I liked WandaVision. Maybe as much as I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but not as much as I liked—say, for example—The Avengers.
It’s possible that I skipped writing this review before now because the psychedelic ride that Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson took me on was a bit more fun. Something more shiny and different from your run-of-the-mill superhero extravaganza.
After the unusual story told in WandaVision, the tonal shift in this series was abrupt. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this series has more in common with those Jason Bourne and Mission Impossible movies than with the other parts of the MCU. International intrigue, over-the-top action sequences, lots of violence and mayhem. Granted, in this series, the players are all mostly super-powered individuals.
I’m not sure that’s a true difference, however. Can you honestly say that Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and James Bond aren’t also superheroes?
Although I suspect it’s unnecessary, I’m putting up a SPOILER WARNING for what I’m about to say.
The main reason this series exists at all is to show how Sam Wilson, the high-flying Falcon and former sidekick of the Steve Rogers Captain America, assumes his rightful place as the new Captain America. It was a genius move to team him up with Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, who was also Steve’s sidekick way back during World War II. Bucky, as the MCU’s prime version of the Manchurian Candidate, has moved too deeply into antihero territory to become an effective Cap. Oh, Bucky’s still a hero, but he has a darker reputation than Sam does, more aligned with Wolverine or the Punisher.
I enjoyed this Marvel Team-Up between the Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but I always knew how it was going to end. I’ll bet you did, too. It didn’t help that I knew, from incidental zeitgeist reporting online, that the Falcon became the new Captain America in the comic books.
I’m not only okay with this; I applaud this change. It is past time that the living symbol of America that is Cap was something other than a blond-haired, blue-eyed white guy. In many ways, this is the theme of the entire season.
Bucky (Sebastian Stan), as a former Hydra assassin, can’t assume the role, of course. Sam Wilson, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), chooses not to accept the shield or the title, even though that was what Steve Rogers wanted. Instead, Sam donates the iconic shield to the Smithsonian.
Only, the powers-that-be have other plans. Enter John F. Walker (Wyatt Russell), a decidedly non-super soldier (at least at the beginning of the series), who is chosen to be the new Captain America. The shield is handed over to him. Walker turns out to be just a might too aggressive and—maybe arrogant is the wrong term—morally superior. While he is obviously a capable warrior, maybe even a good leader, he lacks Steve Rogers’s basic, innate—again, for lack of a better word—goodness.
The story of John Walker and the character who became US Agent was after my time in the Marvel continuity, but I was peripherally aware that it was going on. This component of the series wasn’t explored as fully as I would have liked because there were larger themes at play here. Walker does provide at least one big, important moment, and his interim role as Captain America was an important part of Sam’s own evolution, but he remains mostly a cardboard character on the screen.
By the way, if the actor Wyatt Russell reminds you of Kurt Russell, that’s no coincidence. Now, father and son are both part of the MCU.
A stronger theme in this season was the exploration of race relations in America. One of Sam’s issues with assuming the role of Captain America is the fact that Cap is a symbol of a nation that still has problems facing its own systemic racism. This is a heavy topic for a superhero fantasy show, but I was happy that the creative minds behind the series chose to address it. This dramatic focus further developed Sam Wilson as his own man, not just someone’s sidekick.
Along the way, in exploring this theme, we are introduced to Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a black Korean War vet. Bradley was an early product of the Super Soldier program, in a manner that suggests the Tuskegee Study, in which black Americans became unwitting test subjects as scientists studied the effects of untreated syphilis. Bradley influences Sam’s final decision to assume the role of Cap, but these dark “truths” give the decision more dramatic weight.
As Ron Popeil liked to say: But, wait! . . . That’s not all.
The Big Bad of the season turns out to be a group called the Flag Smashers, a group that probably considers itself to be composed of freedom fighters, although they come across more as terrorists. The Smashers are led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), and it feels like we’re meant to sympathize with her, in many ways. Because tackling race relations in America wasn’t a heady enough theme, we’re now including more global issues such as war refugees and anti-nationalism.
The Flag Smashers also have access to some version of the super soldier serum, it seems, which is why it takes superhero intervention to stop them.
It also takes Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl)—the nefarious Baron Zemo. He is the Winter Soldier’s main nemesis, of course, a holdover from Bucky’s Captain America: Civil War days. But, as with all things Bucky in this series, this plotline seems to take a backseat to what’s going on with the Falcon. If anything, the Winter Soldier seems to be Falcon’s sidekick in this show.
This series has only six episodes. As you can probably imagine from what I’ve only barely glossed over, the creative minds behind this show tried to pack a lot of stuff into a relatively small box. I’ve extolled the benefits of shorter seasons in the past, but I think this series would have benefitted from a slightly longer season. Say, ten to twelve episodes. Or else the story could have been decluttered just a bit.
I haven’t even mentioned that James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) also appear in the story. Or that Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a guest-starring role.
I know, right? It’s a lot.
When all is said and done, I did enjoy this season. It doesn’t feel of a piece with WandaVision and Loki, both of which were preparing us for a Phase 4 of the MCU that seems to be even less grounded in what we refer to as reality. However, it is action-packed and entertaining, with some heavier-than-normal themes that could have been more deeply explored with just a few more episodes.
Firewater’s Star-Spangled-Man-with-a-Plan-and-All-That Report Card: B+
In short, this was good, perhaps very good, but it fell just a little short of great.