The second TV installment in Marvel’s Phase Four, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier mostly re-created the blockbuster feel of the films, in terms of its action and tone. But series creator Malcolm Spellman used the scope of the Disney+ show to explore race in a way the MCU rarely has, as Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) struggled with his Captain America identity (which was made official by season’s end). The show followed Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) efforts to recover from his trauma and set up the stage for forthcoming MCU projects by introducing U.S. Agent (Wyatt Russell), Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and a possibly villainous Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp). But was the often sloppy six-episode journey really worth it?
Here at The A.V. Club, we’ve had mixed feelings about the show, which often struggled to reach the same heights as WandaVision. So we discussed our thoughts about the finale, “One World, One People.” Did the end of Karli (Erin Kellyman) and the Flag-Smasher story make sense? Would the show have benefitted from more Sam and Bucky banter and partnership? And how will characters like Helmut Zemo and Isaiah Bradley factor into the MCU now?
I believe that the Marvel movies—at their best—are more than just cheap excuses to move some pieces on the board in service of The Next Big Thing, but two shows deep into the MCU’s Disney+ venture, I can see more than ever why some people have that take. The MCU stories work because of the strength of these characters and how (just like in the Marvel comics of old) they feel more like people than impossibly huge and powerful gods. But they do not work when they depend on the twisty plots and mysteries that the TV format lends itself to so well. Both WandaVision and TFTWS have relied to some degree on trying to hook the audience with questions about what’s going on, and in both cases I couldn’t give less of a shit about the way they were eventually resolved. The ticking time bomb of John Walker was a dud, the Flag-Smashers’ scheme never made any sense, and both Zemo and Sharon Carter became completely different people for the sake of plot and an obvious twist.
That all being said, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan rule, and the only reason any of this show worked at all is because of how good they are. Hell, I really liked the escalating cheers from New Yorkers as Bucky and Sam started saving people, and even though Mackie’s big speech was so heavy-handed that I thought for a second that he did have the Super Soldier Serum, I loved that it gave him a chance to just lay out everything the show should’ve been about from the beginning—and it doesn’t hurt that the scene seemed like an obvious nod to my all-time favorite Captain America moment in the comics.
I must preface this by saying I am unhealthily attached to Sam Wilson, Bucky Barnes, and Steve Rogers. I’ve always been invested in their storylines and what happens to them. As someone who absolutely loathes Avengers: Endgame, I put a lot of pressure on TFTWS to “fix” the wrongs I took as a personal slight (namely, Steve’s character basically getting body-snatched, barely talking to Bucky after he became a fugitive to save him, and then ultimately deciding to peace out and stay back in time with Peggy and presumably poof her previous husband and family out of existence). I was hoping the show would tie up loose ends and give me closure. Unfortunately, I left this finale feeling even more unsatisfied.
In short, I think the series wasted Sam and Bucky. Part of the draw for me was getting to see both of them on screen together engaging in hijinks and some beautiful, beautiful banter. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan are incredible, and I wanted even more of their comedic dynamic. I wanted more time with Sam and watching him settle into his complicated role as Cap. Instead we got hours of Zemo and John Walker, chasing the Flag-Smashers, who weren’t ever believable as villains, and trying to figure out who the Power Broker was (which… what the absolute hell)—plot lines that forced Sam and Bucky to take a back seat in their own series. WandaVision, which I initially had no interest in watching, was a poignant and masterful exploration of grief and loss. I hoped to finally see something similar with Bucky and Sam working through losing Steve. Instead we got 7,345,374 heavy-handed close-ups of the shield that did nothing to unpack the giant Old Man Steve-shaped elephant in the room.
The Falcon And The Winter Soldier’s many narratives were frustratingly messy. For all its well-meaning attempts to deal with Sam’s and Bucky’s identity struggles, the show just didn’t dig deep enough, instead spending time on plots that were ultimately unsatisfactory. The big villain, Karli Morgenthau (and the Flag-Smashers), was perfunctory, and I still don’t think I fully understand what her endgame was because her storyline wasn’t mapped out properly. Even with John Walker, the finale quickly puts him on a path to redemption after he publicly decapitated someone as Captain America. It’s haphazard.
The show was at its best when it focused on the two titular protagonists. Every single scene with Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) was stellar, as were the banter-filled Sam and Bucky moments or their meaningful conversation in episode five. Those are the subjects they should have addressed more, but the show opted for redundant reinvention arcs for Helmut Zemo and Sharon Carter. Those appearances, including moments with the Dora Milaje and “Val,” were fun, but they took away from the meatier substance that could’ve made TFTWS as emotionally impactful as WandaVision. The show has transformed Sam into the new Cap and turned him and Bucky into a formidable duo, so I’m hoping their journey comes to the forefront as the rest of phase four unfolds; otherwise there’s not much to take away from TFTWS.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of us are calling out some of the same issues—namely, that TFTWS bit off way more than it could chew in just six episodes. Or that, as a result, it ended up being essentially one-fourth of a good TV show, soaring like Sam when it narrowed the focus to the two lead heroes, and succumbing to bloat any time it strayed too far afield with awkwardly unresolved or papered-over storylines. (Walker may as well have not publicly decapitated someone, given how completely shunted aside that beat was in the finale.)
So instead, I’ll express my appreciation for how the Marvel series did its best to incorporate the uneven fun of reading comics on a monthly basis into its weekly installments. As a kid, when you’d get into a new comic, you didn’t always know who all the heroes and villains were, so when an issue ended with the reveal of some returning nemesis or surprise guest, it often felt like you were being invited to the party at the exact time the party was happening, confused and exhilarated all at once. The Falcon And The Winter Soldier often came across like that: bringing in old names or faces, familiar from a movie here and there, solely for the purpose of nudging viewers with an “Eh? Eh?” and then quickly resolving their appearance with a scattershot and unfocused “Tune in next time!” It’s not satisfying, exactly, but it did what it was supposed to—keep you on the hook, even if you didn’t always love being there. So in that sense, it actually felt quite a bit like reading a Marvel comic, just not one of the better ones.
Like Alex, I didn’t mind waiting for clarity about where everyone’s allegiances lie—after all, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier drew a lot from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which had some serious double-crossing. But as others have also noted, kicking the can down the narrative road has once again worked against the reborn small-screen MCU.
I appreciate everything Sulagna Misra was able to take away from the ending, and I try my best to judge the show that exists instead of the show I wish existed, but TFTWS was as ambivalent as Sam Wilson about what it wanted to be. At times, it seemed to want to reckon with the psychological toll of the MCU, from the heroics to the Blip (which I still contend is a misnomer for a five-year period in time. It also makes the term “post-Blip” really confusing.). In other moments, we could see how Spellman tried to challenge the franchise’s patriotic notions, particularly in the story of Isaiah Bradley. The Falcon And The Winter Soldier even teased the buddy (maybe more) comedy that many viewers would have been happy to watch. The show never committed to one path, so the six episodes remain just elements of a story that never came together. There were certainly more efficient ways to set up a Captain and the Winter Soldier story, but, if I may be the optimistic one, maybe this means season two (or season one?) will come out more fully formed.