Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode One Review

Hello, and welcome to your weekly recap of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. These are meant to be read after watching, so they will go deep into spoiler territory. You have been warned!

The Post-Blip Blues

To say the events of Avengers: Endgame took a toll on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes — and the pale blue dot they protect —would be an understatement. Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff sacrificed themselves to save the universe and reverse the Snap, resurrecting billions killed by Thanos and returning them to the same age and location they disappeared from five years earlier. With Thanos defeated, Steve Rogers traveled through time to return the Infinity Stones and Mjölnir to their proper places in the timeline. After completing his mission, the first Avenger chose to settle down in 1949 and live out the rest of his life with Peggy Carter in an alternate timeline. However, after his wife’s death, an elderly Rogers returned to 2023 (the post-Endgame timeline) to present Sam Wilson with the Captain America shield.

Enter The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the new Disney+ limited series created by Malcolm Spellman and directed by Kari Skogland. The Falcon (Sam, played by Anthony Mackie) and the Winter Soldier (Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan) are struggling in different ways to find their place in the world since returning from the Blip. Sam joins his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) in Louisiana in an effort to help save the family business while Bucky is a hero-turned-villain-turned-hero-again trying to make amends with those whose lives have been devastated by HYDRA’s Winter Soldier program.

Sam and the Shield

After a brief prologue, the episode thrusts into high-gear as Falcon, working for the United States Air Force, must swoop in and rescue Captain Vassant (Miles Brew) from a plane hijacked by Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), the French mercenary last seen in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Before Falcon can save the day, however, Batroc and his goons escape with Vassant via wingsuits, leading to an adrenaline-laced chase through a Tunisian canyon — a brilliantly choreographed sequence reminiscent of Will Smith’s alien dogfight in Independence Day. With the help of his combat and reconnaissance drone, Red Wing, and First Lieutenant Torres (Danny Ramirez), Sam is able to evade helicopters and lock-on missiles to recover the captain.

At a café in Tunisia, Torres — an intelligence officer who acts as Sam’s boots on the ground — briefs the Avenger on a new threat: the Flag Smashers. An anarchist, anti-patriotism group, the Flag Smashers believe the world was better during the Blip, to which Sam drops some serious knowledge on us: “Trust me, every time something gets better for one group, it gets worse for another.”

Back in Washington D.C., Sam decides to hand over Captain America’s shield to the Smithsonian as the crowning jewel of their Captain America exhibit. There, he gives a rousing speech about how there will never be another man like Steve Rogers. “We need new heroes,” he begins. “Ones suited for the times we’re in. Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning, and this thing — I don’t know if there’s ever been a greater symbol. But it’s more about the man that propped it up, and he’s gone. So today we honor Steve’s legacy but also we look to the future. Thank you, Captain America, but this belongs to you.”

After the event, a disappointed James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) pops up and asks Sam why he didn’t take up the mantle. Sam echoes his sentiments from Endgame: “First words I said were, ‘feels like it belongs to someone else.’ That someone else is Steve.” Rhodey tells us that the Blip has caused a lot of instability in the world. “Allies are now enemies. Alliances are all torn apart. The world’s broken. Everybody’s just lookin’ for somebody to fix it.” Before he leaves, Rhodey leaves a conflicted Sam with a wake-up call. “It’s a new day, brother.”

Sam believes that the shield is a representation of the country we live in. His hesitance in taking up the mantle seems to stem from how he, as a Black man, can represent a country that doesn’t represent him. Rhodey, who is essentially ‘Black Iron Man’ as War Machine, believes Sam is up to the task, but Sam isn’t sure if the world is ready for a Black Captain America, especially when the case can be made that the stars and stripes — a symbol of freedom to some— inherently represent oppression for others.

Everyone’s Favorite 106-Year-Old

Meanwhile, James “Bucky” Barnes is having nightmares again. His therapist Dr. Raynor (Amy Aquino) wants him to open up, but the former Winter Soldier doesn’t care to elaborate. We learn that, as a condition of his pardon, Bucky is trying to make peace with his past by making amends. He tells Dr. Raynor that he recently had a breakthrough. “I crossed a name off the list of my amends yesterday,” he says. “Senator Atwood. She was a HYDRA pawn for years. Helped her get into office when I was the Winter Soldier. After HYDRA disbanded, she continued to abuse the power I gave her.”

It’s here we learn that there are three ground rules for Bucky’s atonement tour:

Rule #1: Bucky can’t do anything illegal.

Rule #2: Nobody gets hurt.

Rule #3: Bucky must demonstrate his new way of life in recovery by stating, “I’m no longer The Winter Soldier. I’m James “Bucky” Barnes and you’re part of my efforts to make amends.”

Of course, Bucky is struggling with the first two rules, especially when it comes to ex-HYDRA associates. We see a flashback to what really happened with Senator Atwood (Rebecca Lines) and it’s a nice bit of levity in the midst of some pretty heavy stuff. Bucky uses spy tech to take control of Atwood’s car before introducing himself, knocking her bodyguard out with his gun, and making good on Rule #3.

Back at the therapist’s office, we learn that Bucky has trust issues. Dr. Raynor notes that he has fewer than 10 numbers in his phone. He’s been ignoring texts from Sam. “You’re alone. You’re 100 years old. You have no history, no family,” she says.

“I had a little calm in Wakanda and other than that, I just went from one fight to another for 90 years,” he replies.

“If you are alone, that is the quietest, most personal hell, and James, it is very hard to escape,” offers Dr. Raynor. “Look, I know that you have been through a lot, but you’ve got your mind back. You are being pardoned. These are good things. You’re free.”

But free to do what? That’s the question at the heart of Spellman’s limited series. Sam and Bucky were happy to be Steve Rogers’ wingmen, following in the footsteps of Captain America, but now there’s no one to follow. Each man is searching for identity and coping with trauma in their own ways — who are they now that they’re back from the Blip? They’ve come home to a very different world, but one that still desperately needs them, they just can’t see it yet.

Later, we find out that Mr. Yori Nakajima (Ken Takemoto), an elderly man with whom Bucky has struck up a friendship, is the father of a young man the Winter Soldier killed years ago. His son wasn’t the target — he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s clear that Bucky cares about Yori and is having a hard time figuring out how to break the news to him, that he’s responsible for so much pain and loss in Yori’s life. Bucky can’t cross this name off his list of amends just yet.

The United States of America Has a New Hero

At the end of the episode, we’re treated to a breaking news segment in which a government official stands at a podium and delivers a rousing speech of his own:

“Unrest in the wake of recent events has left us vulnerable. Every day Americans feel it. While we love heroes who put their lives on the line to defend Earth, we also need a hero to defend this country. We need a real person who embodies American’s greatest values. We need someone to inspire us again. Someone who can be a symbol for all of us. So, on behalf of the Department of Defense and our Commander in Chief, it is with great honor that we announce here today that the United States of America has a new hero. Join me in welcoming your new Captain America.”

A figure steps out, wearing the iconic Captain America uniform and carrying the shield Sam willfully surrendered to the government. It’s Wyatt Russell as John F. Walker. So, who is John Walker? The character made its debut in 1986’s Captain America #323 as Super-Patriot, a vigilante with all of Captain America’s patriotism but without his strong moral compass. When a disillusioned Steve Rogers abandoned the Captain America mantle, Walker was chosen by the U.S. government as his replacement. Basically, imagine Batman in Superman’s tights and you’ve got an idea of who Walker was in the comics.

In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, we don’t know if Walker has the same mean streak his comics counterpart does. Here, it feels more like an insidious public relations stunt —  the U.S. government’s way of getting the shield out of a Black man’s hands and placing it in the custody of “someone who can be a symbol for all of us,” which seems to be code for ‘white man.’ I’m very, very excited to see how this storyline plays out over the next five episodes.

Final Thoughts

My biggest takeaway from this first episode is that it’s immensely refreshing to see Sam and Bucky interacting with regular everyday people: soldiers, waitresses, therapists, loan officers — it feels like the old CBS series The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982) in which the hero travels across the country under assumed names, putting himself in positions to help others in need. In 47 minutes, there’s more character development for Sam and Bucky than the previous 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies combined. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan’s performances are fantastic —there are layers of subtlety being peeled back and explored, and I have a feeling that, like WandaVision, the co-leads of this series will soon become fan favorites, even for casual viewers who weren’t that invested in the characters previously.

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