Bad Pacing, Bad Behaviors
Karli is a refugee Robin Hood, fighting the monolithic GRC to help people in need. She has an important message and she speaks truth to power. She is not easily dismissed as a supervillain. But after the death of a mother-figure to tuberculosis in a camp and the murder of one of her colleagues, Karli becomes more extreme, willing to murder anyone in her way. The series seems to depict the circumstances that can push a good person to such extremes, but that is never clear.
Karli seems interesting and complex when she is first introduced, but she is not developed clearly enough to make her extreme heel turn resonate. That heel turn just makes her an easier villain to kill. Fighting a refugee Robin Hood is morally difficult for a superhero, but fighting an undiscerning killer is much simpler. It removes any complexity or audience sympathy so that her defeat is a moral imperative. That is a disappointing turn for what could have been a more complex finalé.
Even more baffling is John Walker. This is a character who is overconfident, has a chip on his shoulder, and likes to throw his weight around. The audience knows he should not be Captain America, but there is no good reason for him not to be Captain America. Once again, this poses a nuanced antagonist. We want Sam to become Captain America, but what right does he have to push aside a reasonable substitute? The choice of Walker over Sam, who was personally given the shield by Steve Rogers, seems like a racially-motivated slight, but nothing is overt. It’s tricky, it’s complex, it’s dramatic.
But then Walker takes the super-soldier serum, and he decapitates a Flag Smasher with his shield in a rage as onlookers record him. When confronted, he attacks Sam, wild-eyed, choking him as he spits “I. Am. Captain America!” He has proven his unworthiness beyond the shadow of a doubt. Sam gets the shield by default, with minimal difficult choices. It is too easy a solution to a complicated set up.
Walker is recruited by Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (‘Val’) (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), a new character who seems to be recruiting lingering unsavoury superheroes to her own shadowy team. There is a commentary somewhere in here about a disgraced angry white man immediately being given another chance, but it’s not overly clear. Walker returns in the final episode to attack the Flag Smashers, pointedly fighting instead of rescuing hostages as he does so, to further muddle his character. He is still trying to be a hero, but selfishly, vengefully, and not up to the standards of Captain America. These developments all take interesting, complex set-ups and pay them off in the most simplistic ways. They reduce tricky, complex problems to something a superhero can just hit. And they do so while pulling focus from Sam and his struggles.
The pacing of the series does not help matters. The first two episodes, “New World Order” and “The Star-Spangled Man”, provide some excellent setup, but they drag quite a bit. Sam and Bucky do not meet again until episode 2, nor does Isaiah appear. These episodes could have been combined and streamlined for a much greater impact. They are followed by “Power Broker” and “The World Is Watching”, which get lost in the Zemo/super-soldier diversion, and lose focus on Sam and the overall theme.
Episode 5, “Truth”, is the best episode of the series, when every character is forced to confront their issues. These are largely issues that were established in the first act, and paused in the middle act, making the Zemo section seem even more superfluous. But, by the end of “Truth”, the pieces are in place for a rollicking final episode, “One World, One People”, which is the kind of satisfying action climax one comes to expect from a superhero story.
These are all well-directed episodes, with well-staged action and effects that one would expect from a decently-budgeted blockbuster. The opening action scene, featuring Sam flying between a plane and multiple helicopters chasing men in wingsuits, is lightyears beyond typical television action. The actors are all top-notch, led by Mackie who makes a tricky role look effortless. His chemistry with Stan as Bucky grows throughout the series as well, which is fun. Russell and Kellyman are both excellent in their antagonist roles but, as previously stated, the writing lets them down at the end. Spellman and his writing team can be forgiven for wedging characters like Zemo, Sharon and Val into the story due to a mandate. But they could have incorporated them in a more satisfying, thematically consistent way.
Ultimately, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a frustrating letdown. It raises a lot of very interesting ideas, but fails to play them out in a satisfying way. The directing and acting are all top-notch, and it is almost entertaining enough to overcome the shortcomings at its core. But this is one of the lower-quality MCU efforts. One of the slight positives of the pandemic for Marvel, however, was that this needed to be rescheduled after WandaVision. Falcon and the Winter Soldier was not particularly well-received or buzzed-about. Had it been the first to premiere, it would have cast doubt on the MCU Disney+ projects. By contrast, WandaVision was lauded and made people excited about future projects.
Speaking of the future, rumours began in April 2021 that a Anthony Mackie-led Captain America film was being developed by Marvel Studios. By August that was confirmed, with Spellman and Dalan Musson writing it. This is very exciting, as Mackie is so good in the role that he deserves a full-fledged Captain America project. Making it a film, hopefully with a theatrical release, cements his version of the character at the same level as Steve Rogers. And restricting Spellman to a feature-length, rather than series-length, may give the film a clearer focus on the ideas he wants to express through Sam. There’s a new Captain America, and I have every reason to believe he can live up to the first one.
The mid-credits scene depicts Sharon receiving her full pardon and an offer to rejoin the American Intelligence community. She makes some Power Broker plans around that.
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss appears as Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (Val, for short), recruiting John Walker for her shadowy team. Interesting note, Dreyfuss was meant to first appear as Val in the credit scene of Black Widow (Shortland, 2021) a month or so before her appearance here. But, pandemic-related rescheduling resulted in this being her first appearance.
Wyatt Russell appears as John Walker, now codenamed US Agent. Nothing has been announced, but I am confident he will appear in the MCU again.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order
Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes place six months after Endgame. There are several other Phase Four films/series that take place closer to Endgame, so they come first. Stay tuned for those articles in the coming months.
See previous articles for other phases
- Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Marvel’s third Disney+ series takes the MCU fully into the multiverse.