This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Daybreaker’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
After Marvel’s WandaVision left me disappointed, I was left with low expectations going into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I expected more of the same. A collection of poor pacing, loads of exposition, a seemingly intelligent plot, weak or predictable villains. However, to my surprise, I found myself enjoying The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I was intrigued by the characters and the journey they were on. That was, until the final episode. Much like WandaVision’s finale, this show’s climactic ending left me unimpressed. Only this time, my entire perception of the show before it was brought into question. I started to wonder if I was over appreciating factors that were never really present in the first place. I knew I couldn’t formulate a clear opinion of the show at this point. So, I opted to rewatch it, examining the aspects I had brought into question, that way I could collect a concise opinion on the show.
My rewatch was telling. Perhaps the biggest thing I noticed was how dull The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is. I was able to get enjoy the weekly episodes, but going back and rewatching the show was a drag to get through. It isn’t until the fourth episode that things feel as if they’re picking up, and by the start of the fifth episode the story is already slowing itself back down as it wraps things up. The sixth episode, which is set up to be an action-packed finale of epic proportions falls completely flat. A majority of the episode is a set of bland action scenes dosed in shaky editing. The lighting is very poor, either dark and colourless or completely tinted red. The fights leave little impact. In fact, most fights are super-soldiers throwing weighted punches at other super-soldiers.
The only interesting fight choreography-wise is between Sam, who has become Captain America, and Batroc. However, this fight barely gets screentime. The episode allows the audience a few seconds to enjoy the duel before it cuts away to other, less interesting events. Even when the fight is given the time of day, it feels empty. Batroc is merely implanted in this episode for the sake of this fight. He’s a tool Marvel uses when they need an unimportant antagonist the main hero can battle (refer to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Episode 1). While it might be the most interesting fight in the episode, there’s no reason for the audience to care. These are just a few of the things that hurt the finale’s quality, but if we’re to understand the greater picture, we must first go to the beginning.
When I originally watched it, the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier felt like a breath of fresh air. It was a window into the everyday life of our heroes, something Marvel has rarely done across their plethora of projects. Aside from the cliche opening action sequence (which is essentially Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s but in the air instead of on a boat), the episode is really grounded. It’s in this episode that Sam introduces the theme of the show, stating "We need new heroes. Ones suited for the times we're in." As he says this, he commemorates Captain America’s shield to the Smithsonian (which makes it especially odd that characters ridicule him for “giving up” the shield as if he tossed it out).
It’s in this premiere episode that our first character arcs are established. Unfortunately for Bucky, this will be his only character arc. Bucky is struggling with his past, as his times being the Winter Soldier haunt him. He copes by making amends with a list of names, whether that be corrupt politicians he’s helped into office or a father of a victim he killed. Sadly, this character arc practically disappears once the first episode ends, and it doesn’t reappear until the final episode. While I wish I could appreciate this arc, because it has all the potential to build a strong character out of Bucky, the payoff is an extremely short scene between Bucky and the father. Very few lines are exchanged as Bucky confesses his actions before the camera cuts away. I want to give The Falcon and the Winter Soldier the benefit of the doubt but it often misses the mark.
My rewatch of the first episode was even more problematic. While I liked the grounded take before, it made for such a tiring second viewing. Perhaps I was so mindblown that Marvel was taking time to further examine their characters that I completely gleamed over how slow the episode was, which won’t be the first time I over appreciate Marvel’s steps into new territory without properly understanding what’s been done.
The second episode is the most frustrating of the series. Not because of any specific moment, but rather, the fact that nothing happens. Aside from one or two scenes, nothing in the second episode feels like it matters. It completely abandons the grounded storylines established in the first episode and substitutes them with flat humour. Sure, the dynamic between Sam and Bucky works well, we knew that from previous entries in the MCU, but the humour implemented in the second episode harshly contrasts the serious tone of the show’s first hour. That said, the humour, while it definitely doesn’t always land, is a much-needed uplift to the brutality of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s dullness. It just should’ve been implemented in full force right away, rather than partway through the second episode.
As much as I don’t enjoy the second episode, it does set up the two strongest arcs of the show. The first is Isaiah Bradley, a black super-soldier who was experimented on by the U.S. Government in their attempts to replicate the super-soldier serum. His story is intriguing, and while it will go unmentioned again until the fourth episode, it adds a compelling dynamic to Sam’s character. The other arc is that of John Walker, a soldier selected to become the new Captain America. The show opens with Walker, as he presents the core of his arc, stating: “Everybody in the world expects me to be something, and I don't want to fail them.” Throughout the show, he is challenged by the legacy of Steve Rodgers. He doesn’t want to be in Steve’s shadow. However, like before, the show will completely abandon the interesting things it sets up come the next episode.
On my first watch, the third episode was originally my least favourite. Not much has changed. It’s definitely not the worst of the bunch, but it is a very weak entry. In summary, this episode completely sidelines Sam, a stark contrast to the first two and final two episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that highlight Sam as the heart of the show. It’s as if Sam is forgotten about. However, the biggest anomaly of this episode is Zemo.
I, and many others, have come to the realization that Zemo carries the show. His charisma and wit pulls the audience in and offers the entertainment this show desperately needs. Yet, despite all this, he still stands out as one of my biggest issues with the show. Zemo’s character completely contradicts who he was in Captain America: Civil War. When we first met Zemo he was a working-class man that fell victim to the recklessness of the Avengers, a group of privileged elites. This characterization made Zemo someone that the audience could relate to and empathize with. Cut to his appearance in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and suddenly Zemo is… a privileged elite? We learn that Zemo is actually Baron Zemo, not only extremely rich, but extremely rich through inheritance. Not only that, but he has a ton of connections in the criminal underworld AND he’s pretty damn good at fighting. It may add comic accuracy but it takes away from in-universe consistency.
Even after acknowledging this, Zemo feels like the anchor the show requires. Zemo is the only character with a firm stance that the showrunners don’t feel the need to obstruct. He’s an entry point for the audience into the world of Marvel. We end up romanticizing Zemo, a character that tortured people, murdered innocent civilians, and bombed the UN. It all sounds so wrong, but I can’t deny how much more endurable the show was when Zemo was on screen. That’s a testament to how dull the show is or how great Zemo’s character became.
However, and there is always a “however” when something enjoyable exists in this show, Zemo is completely useless. He offers very little to the plot. Aside from taking the protagonists to Madripoor, Zemo could be removed from the show and there wouldn’t be a difference (plot-wise). In fact, the pointless Dora Milaje subplot that consumed screentime could be removed if Zemo wasn’t thrown into this show. Although I’m glad Zemo made his return. It’s just unfortunate that he was used so poorly.
Another character reintroduced in the third episode is Sharon Carter. Just like Zemo, Sharon is also a far cry from the character she used to be. Sharon is now a pretentious criminal art collector with stacks of money and power, and… and she’s evil now? Why? Unfortunately, the show never explains that to us, because just like Zemo, Sharon is completely useless to the show’s plot. Sharon’s role in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier can be summed up as a cliche predictable twist villain that sets up springboard projects. That’s right, her presence in this show served one purpose: to set up a sequel. Once again, a beloved character with so much potential is unrealized.
All this aside, the third episode is fun. It introduces Madripoor, a crime-ridden neon city that feels like Night City was stripped of its futuristic charm. It’s pure fiction, pure comic book, which is all really cool. If only it wasn’t a jarring change in tone from the serious greyness of the first two episodes. Episode three feels like a glimpse into what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could’ve been had the showrunners opted for pure enjoyment over a grounded approach. Neither are bad on their own, but when the third episode is the only episode going for this style it ends up sticking out like a sore thumb.
There’s not much I can say about the fourth episode that hasn’t already been said. Zemo is abandoned, there’s a pointless Dora Milaje fight scene, Sam and Bucky get little depth, and it’s pretty bland. However, John Walker takes the spotlight in this episode as his struggle in the shadow of Steve’s legacy is further escalated. Walker thinks people want him to be as good as Steve was, and he realizes he’s not getting that same respect. He believes the lack of the super-soldier serum is holding him back, which pushes him to take the serum when he gets his hands on it. Walker’s fall from grace is the most realized aspect of the show and without a doubt the key element of the fourth episode.
Keeping on the positive note, the fifth episode is easily the strongest of the show. Although, as stated before, by this point things are slowing down as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier approaches its finale. The fifth episode brings back the grounded character arcs established in the first episode, as well as the Isaiah Bradley arc. It’s here that Sam and Bucky’s dynamic is at its strongest. Not drowned in flat humour, but curated in friendship. With one conversation they share in Sam’s yard, you could swear the show was saved. Sam’s journey to becoming Captain America in this episode is fantastic. The entire thing is a glimpse of light that shows me what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could’ve been had it achieved all of its potential.
Before I get back into the tough criticisms, there are even elements I quite liked in the final episode. Sam’s Captain America suit is great, and it’s really awesome seeing Sam Wilson as Captain America. On top of that, Sam’s speech is amazing. It is, like the fifth episode, a glimpse at the show’s potential. The speech implements another factor of the show that I’ve been dancing around: social commentary. This is it. This is the moment I realized I had misinterpreted the entire show. The reason I decided I had to rewatch it before collecting my thoughts. This show is charged with social commentary… or so I thought. Rather, I came to realize that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an unrefined calamity of inept politics.
Analyzing the show’s politics, three distinct schools of radicalism can be singled out. The Flag Smashers, Isaiah Bradley, and John Walker. All three of these are tied to the show’s central figure, Sam Wilson. One might consider Zemo a practitioner of radical thought, and that would be true. However, due to his insignificant impact on the plot, he will not be examined.
Radical One: the Flag Smashers. I have gone the entire review without mentioning the Flag Smashers, mostly due to the fact that everything I have to say about them has to do with their impact on the politics of the show. The Flag Smashers are a group of people who “want a world unified without borders.” As we see throughout the show, their Robin Hood-esque fight inspires the public, garnering support and becoming a movement. It is revealed in the second episode that they stole medicine to give to the sick, and in the fourth episode, we learn they took the serum, not for violence, but rather to lift boxes full of resources for those in need. In many ways, the Flag Smashers represent leftist/socialist values. Their fight is compassionate and ethical.
However, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, much like WandaVision, fails to blur the lines. God forbid the audience be capable of sympathizing with the antagonists. Multiple times in the show, Karli, the Flag Smasher primarily focused on, is subjected to extreme out-of-character actions. For absolutely no reason, Karli blows up innocent people at the end of the third episode. In the fourth episode, Karli threatens Sam’s family moments after the two share a civil conversation. In the sixth episode, Karli opts to kill the hostages for no reason. Her character is written to be a representative of those in need. She loses her close friend in the show. There is absolutely no reason for her to jump to such violent measures. Even her fellow Flag Smashers agree, reacting surprisingly every time she takes a violent turn. However, the show never develops why she makes these leaps.
Sam’s speech in the finale makes it clear that the showrunners wanted to offer commentary on how those in power paint terrorism. It’s a great point, and an intelligent examination on the use of the term “terrorism” to justify the actions of global superpowers and other regimes. Yet, the show throws away its opportunity to back that examination when it pointlessly turns Karli to out-of-character violence.
Radical Two: Isaiah Bradley. This is a tough one because I’d imagine everyone sympathizes with Isaiah’s character. How could he be radical? Radicalism is merely something that relates to the “fundamental nature of something” in a “far-reaching or thorough” manner. While we can understand where he’s coming from, Isaiah’s dismissal of the stars and stripes is considered radical to the story of the show. While the rest of the characters (even Zemo) are stuck in the shadow of Steve’s perfect legacy, Isaiah is an outlier.
During their conversation in the fifth episode, Isaiah opposes the idea of Sam becoming Captain America. To him, that would Sam has signed his life away to a country that will never be there for him. Sam offers to help Isaiah, but Isaiah holds the belief that times are the same as they used to be, that nothing can be done. As their conversation wraps up, Isaiah states that “no self-respecting black man would ever wanna be [Captain America].”
Radical Three: John Walker. As the show plays out, we see John’s dedication to his missions. He will complete his assignments for his country. Sometimes that includes acting in unethical ways. However, John is able to acknowledge the grimness of his missions, even criticizing the three medals of honour he’s been given. John’s experience in counter-terrorism pits him against the Flag Smashers. He doesn’t see their ideology and he doesn’t see their genuinity. John Walker only sees terrorists.
As the show goes on, John falls in the weight of the Captain America mantle. He demands respect, expecting the shield he carries to sway foreign citizens into submitting to American soldiers. By the end of episode four, John is bent with rage after his longtime friend Lemar Hoskins is accidentally killed by Karli. This drives John to decapitate a different Flag Smasher begging for his life. Even once this blind rage has ended, John still reinforces his actions, stating he did what he had to do, defending himself before a tribunal, and promising Lemar’s family he will get vengeance.
The show presents these three radicals and then goes on to label all three as wrong. Sure, some of the ethically questionable actions may be wrong, but the idea that radical beliefs as a whole are incorrect undermines some of history’s most important social movements. Rather, the show presents a mediator. All three of these radicals are connected by Sam, the great observer. Sam tries to reason with each of the radicals. In episode four, Sam and Karli have a conversation. During this conversation, Sam states that he agrees with Karli’s fight, just not the way she’s going about fighting it (all things aside, this is a super out-of-touch thing to say and wouldn’t be an issue if the show didn’t force Karli into out-of-character violence). Sam, as mentioned before, offers to help Isaiah get justice. Finally, during their confrontation at the start of the fifth episode, Sam ensures John that “it was the heat of the battle” and his record would be considered.
So, why is it that after radical beliefs are turned down by the show in favour of unfocused centrism, only two of the three radicals are condemned? Karli and the Flag Smashers, as mentioned many times by now, are villainized and killed as a result of their radical beliefs. The show refuses to give them the light of day, instead doubling down in the finale and making sure the audience does not care for them. Isaiah Bradley, while not outright condemned, caves into Sam’s centrist perspective, giving up the radical beliefs he held. The only radical that isn’t condemned by the show is John Walker, who gets a rushed redemption arc in the final episode. Not only that, but one of the showrunners has since stated they hope the audience likes John Walker, as that was their intention. Why is John Walker the exception? Why do the black man and the socialist get the short end of the sticks?
Furthermore, there’s this concept that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier criticized the government. How so? Every time the government might be to blame for something, the show uses a character billed as “Government Official” as the scapegoat. He is at the Smithsonian in episode one to reassure Sam he made the right decision donating the shield. He introduces John Walker as Captain America at the end of the first episode. He gives John Walker a slap on the wrist in the fifth episode. He leads the Global Repatriation Council in the sixth episode and is the target of Sam’s speech. At no point is the government directly blamed, but rather one senator the show couldn’t even put the effort into naming. Also, who’s to forget the excessive militarism in the opening scene of the show’s first episode?
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a political mess, trying to make a statement but ultimately falling victim to an unclear stance. I can appreciate Marvel’s strive for social commentary, and in many ways, I think it almost makes the show one of the best things Marvel has ever done. If it hadn’t missed the mark, if the show hadn’t played it safe, if Marvel wasn’t too afraid to choose a side and offer thoughtful commentary on an aspect of society, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would’ve been amazing. It just didn’t. All of this said, and there has been a lot, I liked the show. I liked seeing Sam as Captain America. I liked seeing how Steve’s legacy impacted different characters. I liked seeing the everyday life of our heroes. I just wish the show was more coherent in every aspect.