Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Despite some inventive action, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier premiere is stuck in the past

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Anthony Mackie
Photo: Marvel Studios
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The first episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier often feels like frustrating prologue. However, it’s necessary to give both characters the space to breathe in their own plotlines, especially now that their mutual connection—Steve Rogers—is missing.

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Fans of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will notice this missing link the most. The first episode, “New World Order,” reads as a redux of the movie, only without Cap (though Sam’s cocky demeanor as he dives from the plane recalls the “Was he wearing a parachute?” moment). The premiere starts with Sam Wilson going on a lone mission to take back a captured Army captain from the same opening villain from The Winter Soldier: Georges Batroc, a French pirate who has conveniently moved from ships to planes. The ensuing action sequence is surprisingly inventive, reminiscent of scenes from Top Gun, except everyone is flying solo in wingsuits (!) rather than in planes.

Sam’s not exactly alone—Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez) is his support staff on the ground, warning him not to fly into Libyan airspace. “Is that a problem?” Sam says. “Yeah, it’s a problem! A big problem,” says Torres, his voice almost cracking. Is that a first in the MCU, where the military not only acknowledges but jokes about national sovereignty and other countries’ agency? I’m sure someone will point out otherwise in the comments, but outside of Black Panther and Wakanda, the Avengers have tended to do what they want when it comes to other nations.

Sam manages to save the captain just outside of Libyan airspace, using a helicopter trick not unlike the one Nick Fury used to save him in The Winter Soldier. Later, he meets with Torres in Tunisia, who tells him about an online terrorist group called The Flag-Smashers, who reject international borders and also believe that the world was better during the Blip. Torres doesn’t dive deeper into how those two ideologies match, and it’s strange that they’re immediately conflated. Hopefully that connection is either negated or better explained in future episodes, because I’m not sure what a lack of national borders has to do with ridding the world of half its population. Wouldn’t they be more inclined to agree with national borders, as a way to keep more people out of certain nations? Wouldn’t they be considered the “Thanos Was Right” group? Perhaps that’s a little too real—I’m sure those groups actually do exist.

Speaking of too real, Bucky is struggling with his nightmares and personal demons in therapy. He’s having similar problems as Steve in TWS, where he has no friends and no grasp of how to make any in his old age of 106. Worse, he has decades of terrible, disturbing images in his head from his time spent under the mind control of Hydra. He’s been made to see a therapist as part of pardon—the first for a superhero in the MCU (outside of fan fiction, of course). It also seems like the first time an MCU character has been given such a clear and straightforward path towards redemption——even if it comes from the government—especially compared to the mess following the Sokovia Accords. Black Widow’s fate after the events of TWS, in which she released information about her past, was left relatively murky and independent of government intervention. Even Ant-Man, who actually went through the criminal justice system, didn’t get that much freedom when attempting to redeem himself (and he wasn’t a covert assassin for years like Bucky). Could the MCU be making a case for more restorative justice?

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Bucky tells his therapist Dr. Raynor (Amy Aquino) of his attempts to make amends and working to follow the three rules they’ve set for how to do so, which he navigates mostly through loopholes and self-loathing. Raynor feels like an institutional replacement for the dearly departed Black Widow, who attempted to ply Cap open with a sly coyness. But where Natasha was unable to set Steve up with anyone (not Lillian or even his neighbor, “the nurse”), Bucky’s friend Yori (Ken Takamoto) does get him to go on a date with the hostess of the sushi restaurant they visit. Unfortunately, he leaves in the middle of the date, which is honestly very sweet, mostly out of his guilt over having killed Yori’s son, the innocent bystander from Bucky’s flashback/nightmare. While he’s been crossing off people on his “amends” list in a notebook similar to the one where Cap listed references he had to check out, he knows he can’t make up for what he did to Yori’s son.

In another part of the show that hits hard, Sam tries to help his sister Sarah (Adepero Oguye) get a loan from the bank in order to save their parents’ house and boat in Delacroix, Louisiana. Even as he attempts to explain to the loan officer that he was Blipped for the past five years, that does nothing to win the man’s sympathy. The bank employee just talks about what has changed in the past five years and rejects their loan application.

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After such a high-flying reintroduction, series creator Malcolm Spellman, who wrote “New World Order,” brings Sam crashing back down to Earth. It’s particularly dismaying since Sam also tries to use his multiple government contracts as leverage. Learning that there’s no legislation to protect people who were blipped and help them navigate the world they’ve turned to is a particularly frustrating moment to watch during the still-ongoing pandemic. In real life, we’ve watched governments leave people in the lurch, and it looks like TFTWS, rather than indulge in some fantasy, is aiming to capture those systemic failures.

When Sam and Sarah debrief after their meeting, she homes in on what she believes is the actual problem: racism and perhaps a bit of class discrimination. She lashes out at Sam for giving her hope, which is quite painful after five years spent trying to keep everything together. But at the same time, who can blame Sam? How is he supposed to know how terrible the world was in his absence? According to the timeline of events, he only just returned a few months ago, so he’s got a lot of catching up to do.

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Throughout the premiere, the absence of Cap looms over both characters: Bucky feels even more alone than Cap did before he knew Bucky was alive, while Sam has to walk through this world as independent Cap did. Both have moments where they look away from the people they’re talking to, or side-step other’s attempts to connect with them, not unlike Cap did before he found the two of them. There’s little indication that they have been able to keep a relationship going, besides Bucky ignoring Sam’s texts. It’s a surprisingly tender detail that will be relatable to anyone who’s ignored the texts of someone attempting to show care, or anyone whose had their texts ignored by someone who they know is in pain. It probably doesn’t help that both Sam and Bucky probably know that Sam sends those texts more out of the nostalgia behind their original connection with Cap, rather than an actual friendship between the two.

But as we see in the premiere, Captain America’s absence is felt by many more people than just Sam and Bucky. Not long after Sam saves the day in/above Libya, he flies back to Washington D.C. to hold a press conference at the Smithsonian (more TWS vibes) during which he returns Cap’s vibranium shield to the government. Later, he and Rhodey meet up, and Rhodey seems to suggest Sam could do more in terms of being a superhero and protecting the world. Sam demurs, but unfortunately, the government disagrees—“New World Order” ends with a press conference to introduce a new Captain America, complete with shield. They show his face only at the last moment, but his identity is unknown to us*—for now.

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Like Wandavision, the episodes feel like the comics one would pick up weekly from the store, reading hungrily and impatiently for the next issue. The premiere ends abruptly; not on a cliffhanger, but before the real thrust of the story can even begin. “New World Order” feels bogged down by exposition and setup of a (so far) seemingly throwaway plot, but at least the character moments feel true and fleshed out. There’s enough here that I’d be willing to hear more about their individual plotlines, but both seem remarkably hopeless alone. The extensive borrowing of tone, plot, and characterization from The Winter Soldier at least make a lot of sense for these characters—and it helps that the movie was much stronger on its own than most of the Avengers movies.

What makes me most hopeful about this show is that the best parts of the Avengers movies were often the character dynamics, especially the new ones that would emerge when characters that had barely met became intertwined. Rhodey and Nebula bonding over their disabilities was one such dynamic; Sam and Bucky’s antagonism but matching world-weariness and bafflement at the sheer number of Avengers was another. Their dynamic was a delightful and funny surprise. I’m hoping the next episode reunites these two charactersas quickly as possible, because when they’re together, sparks fly—and not just off each other’s metal armor.

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Stray observations

  • *: Comics readers and/or readers of our preview know who’s behind that mask.
  • People who liked the original Captain America: The Winter Soldier soundtrack by Henry Jackman will recognize multiple motifs from the movie, including the Marvin Gaye-esque Trouble Man music as Sam makes his way to his sister’s restaurant.
  • Was I the only one that winced when Bucky’s date brought out Battleship as a video game?
  • At first I thought maybe Bucky’s friend was Jim Morita, the Japanese American member of Cap’s old squad. I wonder if we’ll ever learn what happened to those characters.
  • I didn’t delve too deep into Torres’ storyline because I felt like next week would give us some information on the confusing sequence in Switzerland. Any theories, commenters?
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Sulagna Misra has written for The Cut, The Hairpin, and The Toast, as well as other publications that don't start with "the." She writes about what she thinks about when she’s not paying attention. She’s on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.