The six-episode Disney+ Marvel series "was not the thoughtful treatise on race it positioned itself to be, nor was it a compelling interstitial between big-screen Marvel movies," says Allegra Frank. "The entire show landed with a thud, rudderless and overly long and ultimately, disappointingly, forgettable. The series was presaged with promises of challenging material unlike any Marvel product before it. Created by Malcolm Spellman, whose previous credits include Black-led series like Empire, the show was framed as one that would be overtly concerned with race. There were Black people on the creative side; how Sam’s Blackness complicates his relationship to heroism would be acknowledged; so too would economic and social inequalities that all Black people face in this country. And these things did appear in the series to some degree, like with a subplot featuring Sam’s sister and her business struggles, compounded by the 'Blip' that saw half the population disappear for years after Avengers: Infinity War. The introduction of a comic book character whose history is explicitly tied up in anti-Black racism—Isaiah Bradley, who was once in the running for Captain America himself—also lent credence to the idea that Falcon and the Winter Soldier would be the most overtly Black Marvel project since Black Panther. (There’s even a cameo from the Wakandan soldier Ayo.) But these themes hardly register as any more weighty or important than all the other things that the show is concerned with. Boy, are there are lot of other things: Sam and his new bestie Bucky travel to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and both the South and the East Coast in order to do superhero-y things. They wax poetic about why they shall not kill, all while blowing up tons of fighter jets and smashing dudes’ faces in. Meanwhile, the show spends a ton of time giving some boring characterization to John Walker, the newly anointed Captain America and misguided, ambiguously evil dude that Sam will eventually take over for. And don’t get me started on how much space was allotted to the drama between the U.S. and the anti-nationalist Flag Smashers, fronted by the ultra-boring villain Karli Morgenthau. What all of this amounts to is a middling Marvel movie stretched out three times the length it needs to be." Frank points out that while WandaVision also ended on a flat note, that Marvel show "at least played around with the TV medium in intriguing ways. Plus, that show used its time more wisely: WandaVision’s episodes never went past the 40-minute mark, unlike its follow-up’s regularly TV drama-length runtimes. And WandaVision was keenly aware that it was a TV show, at least in the pastiches that defined its most interesting episodes. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is very clearly a miniseries meant to bridge a gap and shoehorned onto TV because there’s no room (or budget) for it in theaters."
The finale makes The Falcon and the Winter Soldier a mess in every way: "For its first five episodes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier kept hovering around mediocrity," says Alan Sepinwall. "Sometimes, like Sam’s conversation with Isaiah last week, it was much better than that. At others, like those forgettable (save for Zemo) middle chapters, it was a bit worse. But the series as a whole seemed fine: less audacious than WandaVision, but a competent enough extension of the MCU to keep the franchise aloft until the Loki premiere. With this finale, though, Falcon crashes and burns. It’s a mess in nearly every way, with even the parts that work feeling rushed and unearned, carried largely by the performers rather than the storytelling."
The finale feels especially poignant coming at the end of this week: "At a time when average people are risking their safety to protest police brutality, putting so much on the line for the belief that America can be made better by the hard work of earnest people, that kind of speech feels like a rallying cry," says Eric Deggans. "In the comic books, Marvel's storytellers realized a long time ago that Captain America had the most impact when he challenged and resisted the nation's exceptionalist propaganda, rather than reflecting it. So it was particularly satisfying to see this series create a Captain America for a new age – when so much of the nation's systemic racism is directly challenged."
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier's commitment to the overarching theme of American heroes and the dangers of exceptionalism has been unwavering: The Marvel series "always knew what it wanted to say," says Sophie Gilbert. "From the first episode, in which Sam’s bank manager tried to place where he knew this telegenic Black man from ('Did you used to play for LSU?'), to the end, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has wrestled with an idea: Who are superheroes for? And can a nationalist symbol be reclaimed by someone whom that nation has consistently and historically rejected?...The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may have struggled with defining its tone, relying on frantic set pieces and budgetary excess to pad its six-hour running time. But its commitment to the overarching theme of American heroes and the dangers of exceptionalism has been unwavering. At the end of Avengers: Endgame, Steve passed his shield to Sam, a symbolic handing-down of a legacy that seemed uncomfortable to its recipient from the beginning. The shield, Sam told Cap, felt like it was 'someone else’s,' a statement that was easy to interpret at the time as simple jitters, but that came, over the new series, to stand for something else...America has its egregious failings; so, too, does Marvel. (Consider the minstrelsy character Whitewash Jones for evidence.) Sam’s ultimate decision, though, was based not on his clear-eyed analysis of what America is and has been, but on a more personal interrogation of how he might try to change it."
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier proves Marvel’s villain problem was also a woman problem: "At the dawn of the MCU, women were love interests, plain and simple," says Proma Khosla. "The films' depictions of women have mostly held up — an impressive feat for media dating back to 2008 — but the casts were still overwhelmingly male. It was a deliberate move by Marvel brass: a way to point at Natasha or Peggy or Pepper and say 'but look, we have great female characters' while still ordering Shane Black to rewrite Iron Man 3 without Maya as the chief antagonist. And over time there emerged a Villain Problem, now ubiquitous as part of MCU criticism. A handful of MCU baddies are truly great — the fact evidenced no better than by Loki's repeated resurrections and loopholes, see you on June 11 — but too many out of a 20-plus movie franchise are fine and forgettable if not just plain bad. As it happens, one of the greats is Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela, which means the MCU was batting 1000 from the start with female villains. If Phase 4 television is any indication, Marvel villains may achieve gender equity yet. WandaVision showed us the possibilities for Wanda as one of the MCU's most powerful characters, someone whom the movies never had time to focus on and whose pain, anger, and unimaginable power made many (including herself) wonder if she was truly a villain. Kathryn Hahn, already stealing scenes as the nosy neighbor, turned out to be Agatha, a formidable foe with a killer theme song and one of the most charismatic performances — evil or otherwise — in the MCU. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a show mostly about two boys beating up other boys, ended up introducing not one but three compelling female antagonists."
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ends the season with a muddled, overstuffed finale: "While WandaVision started out strong and culminated in a rather lackluster finale (not a story that should’ve ended with a CGI fight scene), The Falcon and the Winter Soldier really found its feet in episode 5," says Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. "Unfortunately this left us with only one episode to wrap things up, and the finale was predictably uneven. On the one hand, we got some interesting elements .... On the other hand, there’s no escaping the show’s clumsy politics. And the finale really emphasized the overstuffed cast of supporting characters and clashing subplots."