“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” flies steady but lacks heat

The Falcon & the Winter Soldier Anthony Mackie & Sebastian Stan in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier (Disney)

It remains to be seen if Marvel’s latest TV spinoff can capture audiences’ attention as well as its predecessor.

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WandaVision may have spoiled us. The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t bad. It’s a solid dose of meat-and-potatoes superhero storytelling with a big screen feel. But it’s also very traditional, in a way that the first Marvel Studios show to hit our television screens simply wasn’t. That leaves the newcomer feeling a little disappointing by comparison.

Appropriately enough, the show’s first outing borrows heavily from Captain America: the Winter Soldier. In the opening sequence, Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) saves a generic military dude from some stock bad guys in much the same fashion Captain America did in the beginning of his film. It’s still a nicely-crafted action set piece, one that shows off Sam’s “not a sidekick anymore” bona fides. But for better or worse, outside of some mildly amusing, flying squirrel-like antics, these scenes feel like they could have been cut and pasted from any Captain America or Iron Man flick.

Likewise, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and his efforts to recover, take stock, and find his place in the world play like the negative image of Steve Rogers in Winter Soldier. There’s the same sense of a man out of time trying to acclimate to a very different time and place, right down to having a notepad list to cross things off of.

The catch is that, in the shadow of his past, Bucky has a much tougher and darker road to getting back to normal. Beyond waking up to a new world, he has to make peace with the decades of brainwashing and blood on his hands. And his pardon and newfound ability to direct his own life leave him free but directionless. It’s the most compelling element of the series’ opening salvo.

It’s a solid dose of meat-and-potatoes superhero storytelling with a big screen feel.

To be frank, deconstructing superheroic trauma like this has grown a little stale by now, but it’s still a creditable hook for Bucky’s story. His desire for revenge on the people who took advantage of him, his guilt over the innocent folks he hurt in the process, and his loneliness after being in various kinds of stasis for the better part of a century are all potent psychological throughlines for the character.

In the same way, Sam’s internal struggles are more compelling than his superhero theatrics here. There’s a strong central notion of Sam trying to support his family and help make a living, while recognizing that being a superhero doesn’t pay the bills. The post-Endgame stories in the MCU continue to grapple with the aftereffects of “The Blip” — how it’s messed up society, and the individuals within it, to suddenly watch half the world come back from the dead, with some bearing the brunt more harshly than others.

But there’s a lot of exceedingly generic material that emerges from such an interesting pair of premises. Bucky goes on a clichéd date after being goaded into it by the typical curmudgeonly neighbor with a heart of gold. He has a shopworn chat with a therapist about his rocky recovery. The thread of his trauma through these events is compelling enough, but the writing and framing of these scenes feels totally off-the-shelf.

The same goes for Falcon’s interactions with his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye) and her family. There’s a lot of hoary “We gotta save the farm for ma and pa” beats to his efforts to preserve the family home and boat despite their financial challenges. That sense of staleness extends to Sam’s “You weren’t there!” back-and-forths with Sarah, which lack the shorthand and air of familiar tensions that would make that relationship seem more lived-in. Even the bank scene, with a mugging executive who wants Avenger selfies but won’t issue them a loan, plays as much more broad than real.

But these moments can’t hold a candle to the introduction of the villain plot here, which seems as though it could be from any other superhero movie (most likely The Dark Knight). A flash mob-stoking baddie in a black mask stomps a barely-sketched supporting character while fomenting a vague yet malevolent plot to return the world to how it was during The Blip. OK? I guess? There’s room for the show to make this antagonist and his whole deal more interesting, but it scans as profoundly stock from the jump, with an indifferently-costumed brute knocking around chumps in a bog standard heist.

Anthony Mackie & Sebastian Stan in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier (Disney)

The episode’s kicker, however, manages to elevate it a bit. Beyond the typical family drama, there’s an interesting thread of Sam grappling with Steve Rogers’ legacy. Falcon’s choice to donate Cap’s shield to the Smithsonian, his sense of not feeling worthy to take on his friend’s mantle, is freighted with the meaning accumulated from past adventures.

It’s a particularly canny choice to bring in James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to step in as a fellow soldier/Avenger and try to tell Falcon he’s wrong on that account. The viewer can see both sides of it: Rhodey knowing that Falcon’s more than earned the right to hold Steve’s former title, and Sam having complicated emotions about what assuming that role would mean, especially in the shadows of the man who carried it for so long.

But the show goes a step further, adding a compelling racial undertone to Sam’s dilemma, when it was anything but certain the MCU would have the stones to go there. It’s striking, to say the least, when the Department of Defense bigwig, who seemingly influenced Sam to hand over his shield, then turns it over to a lily white “new hero” who’s been handed Cap’s title in addition to his wardrobe.

Beyond the typical family drama, there’s an interesting thread of Sam grappling with Steve Rogers’ legacy.

There’s a betrayal in that, and a troubling implication in the optics, which gives Falcon a reason to want to step up and make things right. The show hints at the undercurrent of prejudice — both here and in the loan denial scene — more than it actually explores them here, but there’s still time to delve deeper.

The series just doesn’t offer the most novel or exciting execution of these worthwhile ideas in its first at-bat. As it stands now, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a replacement-level MCU offering. That’s not to damn it with faint praise. Everything showrunner Marcus Spellman offers is thoroughly solid, character-focused, and centered on the consequences from prior events in the cinematic universe. That’s what these Disney+ series should be doing: giving characters who are not household names the chance to step into the spotlight and using the opportunity to dig into their circumstances and psyches.

The problem is that, in this first episode at least, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier never really finds a second gear, or seizes on a unique aspect to differentiate it from the raft of superhero media past and future. That can still come with time, and there’s plenty of room to explore these heroes and their burdens as their paths inevitably cross over the ensuing seven episodes. But despite the title, the show’s first installment glides more than it soars, and feels much more lukewarm than cool.

The Falcon & the Winter Soldier premieres on Disney+ March 19th.

The Falcon & the Winter Soldier Trailer:

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