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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier balances cinematic action with Prestige TV patience

  • "Going by the first episode, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is—somewhat surprisingly—a quiet character drama about the painfully ordinary ramifications of living life as a superhero," says Brett White of the Disney+ Marvel series starring Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan. "Dating problems, money problems, mental health problems, family problems—so far, those are the real villains of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Head writer and series creator Malcolm Spellman is aware that he has the time to dig into some real themes, and he’s going for it. Of course this is part of the MCU, so there’s also a group of radicalized and mysteriously super strong terrorists called the Flag-Smashers organizing online and wreaking havoc. Yes, that sounds incredibly familiar and yes, the show knows how silly 'Flag-Smashers' sounds. What’re you gonna do? The comics are goofy sometimes. This is where Falcon and Winter Soldier is both hindered and helped by following WandaVision. The first episode essentially opens with two standout action scenes, each one a damn fine depiction of each hero’s whole vibe and right on par with what we watched in movie theaters back when that was a thing. Director Kari Skogland knows exactly what makes these characters special and she has them stunt immediately. And then… the episode continues. It’s an episode that sets up the board, but the game hasn’t started yet. Compared to WandaVision, which opened with a one-two punch of episodes that were genuinely funny, bizarre, and filled with head-scratching moments that got the internet going, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s debut episode feels way more like Netflix’s slow burn Marvel shows—except we have to wait a week for Episode 2. I’m a big proponent in weekly serialized television, but even I was left wishing we got more right now—partly because oh lord that cliffhanger, but also partly because I just was expecting more right away. … And this is why Falcon and Winter Soldier’s delayed release actually helps."


    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has "ruined" Marvel movies for the better: "One needn't look further than the ambition and reach of WandaVision to see that MCU superheroes thrive on the small screen," says Proma Khosla. "Disney+'s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier similarly luxuriates in emotional exploration, punctuating its sky-born battles not with exposition, but with wonderful, rich character development. It will be jarring indeed to go back to formulaic (if enjoyable) superhero fare after shows like these. Obviously, character depth in the MCU is not new. It is what makes the 12-years-and-counting franchise so resonant, from Tony's first moments in a cave to the broken Avengers navigating life after Thanos' snap in Endgame. But it was always a privilege afforded only to top-billed heroes because we had a story to move along, a saga to keep rolling. It simply wasn't feasible to spend the kind of personal time with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) that we did with Captain America, Iron Man, or Thor (and Hawkeye, that one time). In the Marvel TV universe, things couldn't be more different. Sam and Bucky spend the entire first hour of their six-episode team up completely apart, never mind that the show is literally named after their alliance."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier offers further proof that Marvel is treating its TV shows exactly the way it treats its films in terms of scope and ambition: "Whether The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has something meaningful to say from a political standpoint remains to be seen," says Jen Chaney. "What is clear, one episode in, is that Skogland directs with skill and polish and that Mackie and Stan are instantly comfortable sliding back into these roles they already know so well. In short, this series seems poised to keep Marvel fans engaged for exactly the amount of time it will take for the next Marvel tentpole to come along, just as the Lord of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, intends."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a far cry from WandaVision: "Whereas Wanda Maximoff was ensconced in her own world, TFATWS is very firmly in our own," says Allison Keene. "(It also presupposes a much deeper knowledge of the Marvel movies than Wanda did, with lots of casual references to them and a lack of introduction for anyone else.) Tonally it’s along the lines of The Winter Soldier and the start of Civil War, at least regarding political jockeying and America-centric military issues. That’s both good and bad. On the one hand, the series could delve into some very worthy considerations of what it means to serve, to come home, to feel unmoored by a world that has moved past you; it could even reach Wanda-levels of introspection and emotional resonance regarding consequence. On the other, it could devolve into more of how this first episode starts: Call of Duty-esque mumbo jumbo, murder, explosions. That vibe has its place (like, say, innumerable blockbusters and more than a handful of network TV shows). But six episodes is not a lot of time to spend time doing both, at least not well. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will need to pick a side: for America’s sake, I hope it’s the right one."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will leave you neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed: "To steal a line from 10 Things I Hate About You, it is the TV embodiment of 'whelmed' – a sturdy, functional and generally not-bad vehicle for a handful of the studio’s B-listers," says Adam White, adding: "WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, proved to be a word-of-mouth smash, captivating millions through the start of the year with its unique blend of self-referential wit and puzzle-box mystery. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, now arriving a few weeks after WandaVision concluded, suddenly seems comparatively less ambitious. It’s a show, based on the single episode supplied to critics at least, driven by bang-bang shoot-outs and brooding."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks promising, especially with star Anthony Mackie: "It’s a sturdy start, strongly anchored by Mackie who’s deserved something of his own for too long now, singlehandedly lifting subpar Netflix action movies without breaking a sweat, biding time until he’s now been granted the spotlight," says Benjamin Lee. "His inherent movie star charisma keeps us engaged throughout even when the many parts around him don’t move with quite the same ease and I’ll be curious to see how Spellman’s promised buddy comedy dynamic plays out between him and Stan, who ably performs his more limited side of the first episode. Part of WandaVision’s appeal was in how it directly confronted the incongruity of seeing superheroes in a domestic setting, how very bizarre it would be to see characters go from engaging in epic world-saving battles to the humdrum of suburbia, mirroring the great leap from the silver screen to the more modest world of TV. As The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is more squarely a straightforward Avengers extension without any such narrative trickery, it’s a more difficult, if not impossible, small-screen gambit to nail, extending a traditionally two-hour story over six, fitting in more of the day-to-day minutiae of the lives of characters we typically see only in their most thrilling moments. The balance isn’t quite figured out yet but there’s enough here to suggest that it’ll get there, a show that’s flying low but could ultimately soar."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is quite literally about Falcon and the Winter Soldier: "There will be no mistaking The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for the stylish puzzle box that was WandaVision, Marvel’s first Disney+ show and the subject of much discussion and debate," says Alex Abad-Santos. "Everything about it is more straightforward. There’s no meta conceit, there are no elaborate costumes, there’s no real sense of magical hijinks. Of course, it’s still a Marvel series, so there’s no guarantee nothing supernatural is going on. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks quite literally to be a story about Falcon and the Winter Soldier." He adds: "The most fascinating stuff in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s first episode is its world-building. Though we’ve seen glimpses of the post-Endgame reality in Spider-Man: Far From Home and WandaVision, neither has given us a substantial taste of how Thanos’s Snap and Iron Man’s subsequent snapback changed life on Earth. People were blipped out of existence for five years — and when they came back, those who remained may have moved on without them. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier toys with the idea of what this would look like for regular folks. Banks don’t want to give out loans to people who were affected by the Snap because they hadn’t earned income during its five-year duration. Those same people also don’t have jobs to come back to, and their relationships with friends and loved ones have been dramatically affected, if they’re still intact at all. Imagine coming back to find that your spouse has remarried. Imagine going on a date with someone who didn’t exist for the last five years. Imagine finding a place to live or applying for health insurance."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a fascinating look at the inner lives of these heroes, one that simply wasn’t on offer in the films: "Their elevation to the main attraction in this series (while losing none of the Marvel movie magic and special effects) is a welcome opportunity to delve deeper into who they are, and how they’re perceived within the wider MCU landscape," says Zaki Hasan, adding: "But it says something about the sturdy foundation of character and concept The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has built within its debut installment that, even as it’s largely setting up for what lies ahead, it never feels like treading water. Instead, we get a clear sense of who these men are and what their mission will require. A journey we’re ready to go on."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier shows that WandaVision was no blip: "Marvel has seemingly cracked the code for its streaming efforts, seizing on underdeveloped threads and relationships from its blockbuster movies and giving them room (OK, about six hours) to breathe on Disney+. After the risk-taking format of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels more conventional based strictly on its muscular premiere, while offering a welcome showcase for Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan. Captain America: Civil War seemingly stumbled upon the chemistry between the two as a squabbling odd couple. The conceit here is what happens to them post-Avengers: Endgame, without the red, white and blue icon that connected them."
    • If only the rest of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was as good as the opening scene: "Whatever else there is to say about the premiere, it is one of the most exciting action sequences I’ve ever seen in a TV show," says Kevin Fallon, adding: "The thing about it is how realistic it looks, rare in the Marvel universe for resembling practical stunts and special effects more than bland CGI, which strips the stakes out of so many of the cinematic universe’s battle scenes. And again… in the sky! The real sky!"
    • The Falcon and The Winter Soldier avoids America's tougher realities: "The new Disney+ Marvel Cinematic Universe series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is about the legacy of Captain America. Inevitably, it’s also about the legacy of America," says Noah Berlatsky. "This isn’t new ground for the superhero genre on television; HBO’s Watchmen and Amazon’s The Boys have both used costumed adventurers to critically examine the United States’ history of racism and colonialism and how that historical record impacts its place in the world. But based on the first episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (the only of the series’ six made available for review), the MCU’s approach looks likely to be less serious, and less thoughtful, than its predecessors."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels like this-is-fine entertainment to tide you over until some bigger Marvel project comes along: "The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten so massive that you have to appreciate a modest television series that knows its place in this bigger, more interesting world," says Tim Grierson, adding: "Unlike the Star Wars spin-off movies — which I liked, even though Lucasfilm didn’t always have the most confidence in them — Marvel seems very comfortable letting its myriad TV/streaming series (like some of the solo superhero films) be their own thing. A Doctor Strange film is different from an Iron Man film, and WandaVision is nothing like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This new show has the potential to be a fun slow burn, laying out its story deliberately while occasionally springing surprises on us."
    • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is exactly what you'd expect it to be: "Disney and Marvel may have broken from their proven formula for the WandaVision one-off, but it would be foolish to think they were done using it," says Ben Travers. "(Falcon and Winter Soldier was actually scheduled to premiere first, which makes a lot more sense if the studio’s focus was to ensure a safe, comfortable transition from movies to TV.) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and — aside from those of us growing somewhat bored with a barrage of quick cuts leading to big booms — the Marvel formula still works. Those worn out or won over by WandaVision should know this is the opposite in almost every way. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is totally in color, glimmering with that sunny MCU reflection; it’s made of hourlong episodes, rather than half-hours; it’s stocked with action scenes, instead of sitcom homages, and while twists and turns will certainly be a part of the six-episode rollout, this isn’t a mystery box show. It’s a buddy flick, mostly running on autopilot."
    • Director Kari Skogland on becoming the first solo woman director of a Marvel Studios property: “It’s a big milestone. Not just for me, but for such a muscular project — for them to not even blink at the fact that I am of the female gender. Everybody just went on the body of work, and didn’t get into whether I could or couldn’t direct this level of action.”
    • Skogland likes the flexibility of a "six-part movie": "Well, that’s one of the beauties of working in a six-part movie is that we were able to spend a little more time, and we’re able to get to know the characters on a more intimate basis," she says. "So, we were also not in quite the same pressure cooker of the two-hour movie when we would have to get to the ending and you can’t wander. So we were able to find out more about Sam’s world and find out more about Bucky and what his issues are with his identity. He’s having a crisis of who he is. How does he go forward? And where does he fit in? Nobody lives in a vacuum. So you are influenced by your surroundings and those pressures and how Sam is dealing with his family pressures. On top of just the returning from the blip. And being in a position where he has certain skills that are going to be called upon to help in extraordinary situations. So, I think it’s a marvelous space for the MCU. The doors are opening up for all of us to get to know these characters so differently."
    • Creator Malcolm Spellman emphasizes he was given a lot of creative freedom: "Almost everyone I’ve sat with thinks that (Marvel is) control freaks—and they’re not, because they know you’re working side by side with their creative team and they just want to get the conversation going," he says. "They want you to do the best you could do. So there was no ending. Like, there were definitely ideas. There was definitely a menu of characters. There were different arenas to play in. And then they make it clear that you’re free to change it. And of course, as we worked on this thing, it changed a million times. It is not preconceived notions. They want this stuff to be inspired and born from a truly fair and pure creative space, not from Marvel mandates on checking boxes."
    • How Black Lives Matter impacted the show: "With me there and with over half our writing staff being Black and with our Marvel exec in the room being Black, that was a requirement that if you’re going to tell an honest story, Sam is a decidedly Black character," says Spellman. "We were aware when you put Sam and Rhodey on screen together, we are aware of this is Marvel’s, too. They’re not African, they’re not from Wakanda. These are Marvel’s two African American heroes on screen together and how much they could do in moments of silence. None of that’s by accident."
    • Sebastian Stan says it was inevitable that viewers would see parallels to recent crises like the Jan. 6 Capitol attack in the series: “Watching the things that were happening to the Capitol were incredibly disturbing,” he said, “and they were also particularly disturbing for us because in some way they mirrored things that are happening in the show. You can’t do a show like this and not talk about those things.”
    • Anthony Mackie was initially confused and frightened by the prospect of starring in a Marvel TV show: “I didn’t think we could do on the television what we’d been doing on the big screen," he says. "I didn’t want to be the face of the first Marvel franchise to fail. Like, ‘See? We cast the Black dude, and now this sh*t is awful.’ That was a huge fear of mine, and also a huge responsibility with playing a Marvel character."

    TOPICS: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Disney+, Anthony Mackie, Kari Skogland, Malcolm Spellman, Sebastian Stan, Marvel, Marvel Cinematic Universe

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