“The world is broken,” someone says early on in the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. “Everybody’s just looking for somebody to fix it.” That line, more than any other, sets the tone for the show and establishes the odd relevance that Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this line refers to the MCU Earth in the wake of “the Blip” and how the return of all the people Thanos wished out of existence has changed things, it could just as easily be about our world today.
When you get right down to it, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about how we cope with disaster and how we allow it to change us. Do we restore the status quo and try to put things back as they were before? Do we risk making things worse by trying to build something better? And how do bad agents exploit the desire for both normalcy and progress to suit their own ends, claiming that only they can fix things? Despite being about these ideas, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t spend a lot of time on philosophical discussion. Instead, we see these ideas play out as two very different men, linked only by their friendship to Steve Rogers, try and rebuild their lives.
For Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) the challenge is holding on to what he has and trying to stay inert in a world that requires him to keep moving. As the episode opens, he’s still employed by the USAF and enjoying some public recognition as an Avenger, even as he struggles with the burden of being Captain America’s chosen successor. Sam is more concerned, however, with saving his family’s business and mending fences with his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye) than trying to fill Captain America’s shoes.
James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has the opposite problem; he’s already in Steve Rogers’ shoes as a man out of time and is struggling to find a new direction. While Bucky was granted a full pardon for the crimes he committed as the Winter Soldier, freedom has become its own prison for a man who lived his life moving from conflict to conflict even before he became a brainwashed assassin for the better part of a century. To put it mildly, he’s having trouble adapting to civilian life and opening up to his court-appointed counselor (Amy Aquino) and can’t seem to escape his past, no matter what he does to bring the bad people who benefited from his actions to justice.
Despite this introspective focus on how to process tragedy, there is ample action, lest anyone forget this is a superhero show. Roughly the first quarter of the episode is devoted to Falcon’s efforts to rescue an in-flight hostage and we get a vivid flashback to one of the Winter Soldier’s missions in the form of one of Bucky’s PTSD nightmares. The script by Malcolm Spellman balances these moments and the character development that establishes Sam and Bucky and the supporting players around them. The performances are all solid and director Kari Skogland keeps the tone consistent throughout, despite the different levels.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is surprisingly thoughtful and sure to please fans of the Captain America films. It’s not likely to win over anyone who isn’t already invested in the MCU. That being said, this first episode sets a solid foundation for continuing to explore the world of espionage and more real-world menaces within the setting.