Warning: this Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 2 review contains spoilers. If you have not watched the Disney Plus show yet, then bookmark this page and come back when you're all caught up...
Can a Marvel show be prestige television? That’s a question both WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier have been reckoning with.
Let’s start with the former: WandaVision began as an impeccable spoof of sitcoms past and slowly morphed into a heartfelt analysis of a woman suffering from severe grief. That sounds more like an early noughties HBO series, yet, by the show’s finale, the CGI action threatened to drown out the deeper meaning. The writers were pulling WandaVision in two different directions, wanting to deal with serious issues yet also shaping the show into the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The results were still good, but there’s a sense that, unburdened by the need for a colossal climax, the series could have been astounding.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier has already begun showing signs of the same issue. The second episode makes clear the issues showrunner Malcolm Spellman, creator of Empire, wants to tackle. Sam Wilson faces racist attitudes from both the police and the new Captain America, who sidelines Falcon as merely a wingman. There’s also the introduction of Isaiah Bradley. The look on Sam’s face says everything during Isaiah’s scene – the world could have had a Black Captain America all this time, someone a young Sam Wilson could have looked up to, but the world put him in prison. There are no words that can capture the complexity of Sam’s feelings.
Then there’s Bucky, who contends with his own PTSD, and the Flag-Smashers, currently the series’ villains, but who have a slogan – “one world, one people” – that’s ripped from a real-world charitable organization. These are topics that have typically been reserved for prestige TV shows. Even the passing of Captain America’s shield, and the succession of that name, has the hallmarks of great television: The Sopranos saw Tony contend with his father’s legacy, while Empire centers on a record company boss grooming his sons to take over the family business. The passing of the torch has always been a wonderful way to cause conflict in fiction.
As with WandaVision, though, Falcon and the Winter Soldier has to deal with the realities of its own existence: that this is a Marvel show. When Bucky and Falcon meet for the first time in this series, the jokes start flowing, with the pair arguing over wizards, ribbing each other over failed superhero landings, and running an already tired gag about Bucky’s long stare into the ground. It’s a tough gig for the show’s writers, juggling real-world issues with light relief – and no-one’s expecting Marvel to deliver a show that’s entirely serious – but there’s an inescapable whiplash going from Bucky, sat on the floor, staring at a TV screen, watching the new Cap’s inauguration interview, to making funnies about Gandalf. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan have enough chemistry to keep things held together, but there’s a sense that the show could be biting off more than it can chew.
Still, despite the tonal inconsistencies, the episode does a good job of getting the action going. Where the premiere was more reflective and place-setting, now there’s a new Captain America sauntering about the place – a man who seemingly wants to do good, but also has a whiff of villainry about him. How far will he go to protect his country? Too far, I suspect. The antagonistic relationship between him and our heroes looks set to be a standout storyline. Meanwhile, the Flag-Smashers have shades of being rightfully angry, though their methods certainly seem bad. That’s another story arc that will no doubt be full of surprises. And Zemo’s return next episode should unlock a few things: the manipulator will inevitably cause more trouble for Falcon and Bucky.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier, therefore, seems intent on being a TV show that deals with the bigger issues, but comes wrapped in the expected Marvel casing, whether that’s the usual superb action sequences, or the humor installed in the series by Joss Whedon’s Avengers all those years ago. Can the show fully stitch together its two sides to become something truly special? I’m probably asking for too much. This is, after all, a superhero series that does a good job of bringing more serious issues into the mainstream, and we can be grateful for that.