There will be spoilers for the whole series below.
When Steve Rogers’ Captain America passed the shield to Sam Wilson’s Falcon at the end of “Avengers: Endgame,” it marked the start of a new era for the star-spangled symbol.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” follows Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) struggling to take up the mantle of Captain America. Along for the ride is Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who is going through his own issues from his past life as the brainwashed assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
Together, the two battle a radicalized group of super soldiers known as the Flag Smashers, the new-faux Captain America John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), the methodical villain who tore the Avengers apart in “Captain America: Civil War.” Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) returns as the former S.H.I.E.L.D. and CIA agent hiding in exile as the mysterious Power Broker. Oh, and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss makes an appearance here.
There is a lot happening in this show.
For the most part, the show works. Certain elements get more room to breathe here. That is the benefit of this being a six-episode series on Disney+ as opposed to a two-hour theatrical film.
The strongest element is something that the show could not afford to mess up: the story of Sam taking up the shield. He is constantly thrown into one situation after another that he has to navigate, and every time he proves why Steve chose him.
It goes back to what 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” established: the idea of Captain America not just being the perfect soldier, but also a good man. Sam is a good man and it shows through his ability to handle situations humanely and fight against injustice. When he first flew into battle with the shield, I was cheering from my couch.
Sam’s story becomes intertwined with Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a Black soldier who the U.S. government experimented on and wrongfully imprisoned after World War II. He understandably has a lot of contempt for America. In some emotionally gripping scenes with Sam, Isaiah does not shy away from calling out America’s unjust treatment of Black Americans, both past and present.
In a country where stories of injustice against Black Americans come out every other day, it is refreshing to see Marvel use its far-reaching platform to shed light on these issues. Sam acknowledges the past and present, which motivates him to rally America to do better.
Bucky aids Sam in his fight, but is clearly going through a fight of his own. Sebastian Stan delivers a great performance as Bucky suffers from the PTSD of his past sins and wants to make amends for it. His arc of finding his place in the world becomes another great emotional element for the show. However, it breezes past an important cathartic moment with a character he wronged. It felt like things were wrapping up too quickly when more needed to happen.
Wyatt Russell shines as the woefully unlikeable John Walker, the Captain America the government trotted out as their poster boy after Steve Rogers stepped down. For the first five episodes, Walker slowly buckles under the pressure of being the symbol for America, culminating in him committing a cold-blooded murder in front of civilians. It was fascinating to watch, but like Bucky, the end of his arc feels rushed.
He goes into the final confrontation, having fun banter with Bucky like they are friends. It seems like the show skipped a scene, because the last time the characters saw each other was when Bucky and Sam fought Walker for the shield. It was awkward and a complete digression from his character’s trajectory.
The main antagonists, the Flag Smashers, a group of super soldiers run amok, come across as one-dimensional villains with good intentions, and they could have used a little more meat to their story.
A few of the returning characters, like Zemo and Sharon Carter, seemed like Marvel was trying to stuff more connective tissue into this property. Zemo added some fun to the series, but still felt like he did not have to be there. Carter’s inclusion does not really pay off and just adds another complicated layer to a show that was already packed with plenty of story.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” bungled certain story beats but allowed the characters of Sam and Bucky to shine and tell a timely tale in the ever-changing Marvel Universe.