Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 14, 2021

Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is what you’d expect, in all the wrong ways

By BINYAMIN NOVETSKY | March 28, 2021

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GAGE SKIDMORE/CC BY-SA 2.0

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, who play the titular stars of Marvel's The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

I never had particularly high hopes for Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the new series which debuted its first episode on Disney+ just this week. Every trailer, as far as I could tell, looked so... standard. I have seen a lifetime’s worth of jump-cut-filled action sequences and computer-generated explosions. For a long time, I loved them. Now, to be honest, I find them kind of boring. They just don’t inspire awe and fear in me the way that they once did.

For some people, that’s meant the appeal of Marvel as a whole has faded. I don’t feel that way myself, though. I love the way in which Marvel has begun to expand its franchises, how they’re exploring more unique stories that rely less upon the classic superhero action they built an empire with. Their recent series WandaVision was a perfect example of this, but the evolution has been visible since 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. Marvel has been evolving for years, and as a longtime fan, I’ve appreciated that immensely. That progress is what’s kept me coming back to their content.

It would be inaccurate to say that the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier lacks any of that creative innovation. It would be entirely accurate, though, to say that it relies far too heavily on the things that Marvel has up until this point been rightfully leaving behind.

The first episode, which is around 40 minutes long, has moments in it that truly shine. A conversation between the Winter Soldier and his therapist, while not at all an original concept, excels in execution. The show is also interested in addressing issues of race in America with some sophistication. While I have seen several articles which applaud the show way too much for the very little it’s done so far, the intent is absolutely laudable — and the implementation is encouraging as well. I’m excited to see how they further develop those themes.

That being said, there is so much bad in the first episode of this show. Much has been written about director Martin Scorsese’s comments about Marvel’s expectedness, and while I personally disagree with him in general, the first scene of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is predictable to the point of being disinteresting. Anthony Mackie, who puts in his usually solid performance playing the Falcon, never seems in genuine danger. In fact, there are several points in the scene where he gets hit or hurt, but they never feel remotely real. 

There is even a point where his jets are damaged, but by the end of the scene they magically and inexplicably “reroute” their power, and all is saved. How they did that is never explained — even though the show bizarrely wants you to think that it was somehow a great accomplishment on the Falcon’s part. This all serves to further cheapen the weightlessness of the action.

I don’t want to claim that all action is inherently bad, though. I love action movies, and I even love other action scenes in this same episode. A flashback scene of the Winter Soldier during an assassination mission is equal parts brutal and heart-wrenching.

In general, I think that the Winter Soldier’s storyline is significantly more compelling so far, and that may be why I was more impressed with the performance of Sebastian Stan, who has played the character since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Mackie joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe himself in 2014 with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Again, both actors do a good job in this episode, but the Falcon’s plotline is just wildly overcomplicated. He is battling the weight of being given Captain America’s shield, while trying to save his family’s business, while being a superhero, while trying to independently figure out some kind of online terrorist syndicate. It’s simply too busy, and with new characters crowding his storyline, it’s hard to motivate myself to care just yet. There is also significantly more time wasted on unnecessary and unhelpful backstory with the Falcon than with the Winter Soldier. Mackie is given far more screen time, but his narrative makes far less of an impact.

None of this is to say that the Winter Soldier’s story is perfectly executed. It has its fair share of weird non-sequiturs and slightly off dialogue. Still, it felt noticeably better. When following the Falcon, I could almost tangibly feel my hand being held by the writers. 

Only in the final scene of the episode is the audience trusted to understand what’s happening on their own. That final scene is actually tremendously well done, in particular because we are trusted to figure out what’s going on without any extra narration or explanation. It’s directed in exactly the opposite way than the show deals with themes of racial tension throughout the entirety of the episode, and it’s just so much better.

As for the Winter Soldier scenes, there’s precious little extra clarification, but that’s fine. The one scene where a flashback is used to explain what’s going on with him is the most emotionally impactful scene in the episode since it feels so well-utilized and earned. His plotline isn’t perfect, but it’s noticeably better than its counterpart.

Overall, though, I can’t help but feel after watching this episode that my initial doubts were justified. This show has not grabbed my attention in the way that I’d hoped it would. I am not at all convinced that this is special, must-see content the way that I felt with WandaVision just a couple of months ago.

Will I watch the next episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? Sure. It’s not so bad as to drop immediately. Will I finish the season? That I’m less certain of. Even if I do finish it, I worry that it won’t have earned my attention.

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