If there is one defining feature of the empire Marvel has built over the last 13 years it would be the homogeneity of their films. After 2008’s Iron Man launched the most popular franchise in the history of film, the MCU has understandably clung to the formula that spearheaded their success. Each installment features some variation of the same fights of good vs evil, the same hero archetype, the same fundamentally evil villain and a staunch avoidance of anything remotely controversial.
The tail end of phase 3 finally started diversifying the heroes, but aside from Black Panther, the internality of Marvel characters has generally gone unexplored on screen. Expansion into television seemed to be the perfect opportunity to probe into the minds of their deep roster of heroes. Longer runtimes open the door to more intimate storytelling. After the well-intentioned stumble of WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier finally delivers on that promise.
Picking up where Avengers Endgame left off, Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins with Captain America’s decision do entrust Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) with his shield. The series makes clear very quickly that it is more interested in its titular heroes than the battles they engage. After opening on a dynamically staged arial fight, Sam spends the first episode dueling more internal and systemic threats. He applies for a bank loan, only to find that his status as an Avenger has stripped away his privacy and anonymity but not granted any goodwill in return. From the very start this series centers the entanglement of race, identity and symbolism in a way that Marvel has never been willing to touch before.
In a similarly jarring reintroduction, Bucky (Sebastian Stan) begins his portion of the series in a therapy session, quite literally indicating that the bulk of Falcon and the Winter Soldier will explore the war each character wages within themselves. Bucky is trying to make right a past he can’t escape while Sam has to grapple with his duty to a country that so often can’t see beyond the color of his skin. Each journey is fraught in their own way but neither is a problem that a super-soldier can punch their way out of.
In that way alone Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a welcome departure from the bombast that defines the rest of the MCU, but the series subverts expectations in so many other ways. It’s no secret that compelling villains have long eluded Marvel Studios and here we get two fully formed adversaries in John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a hotheaded veteran chosen by the U.S. government to be Cap over Sam, and Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), a young idealist leading an insurgency against the post-blip government. Each is well intentioned yet ethically flexible and prone to aggression. For a franchise that has fastidiously delineated the good guys and bad guys, multiple characters in the murky middle is a real treat.
Even beyond the characters Falcon and the Winter Soldier undermines so much of what we have come to know about the Marvel ethos. It wasn’t so long ago that the US Air Force was using Captain Marvel as a recruiting tool and now a prominent MCU series is willing to portray Captain America — historically a symbol of American militarism and a literal proxy for the military in this show — as a bloodthirsty murderer. Just try to imagine any prior point in the last decade plus where Marvel would have been willing to even imply overt criticism of the United States by one of its characters as Isiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) does, let alone give him a searing speech about American racism.
In fact, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is so confident in its ideas that it almost feels out of place for characters that have appeared in multiple prior films. That isn’t even a knock on the show, it’s an indictment of everything preceding it. Of course Sam, a Black man in America, has contemplated his obligation to a country that has never seen him as equal. What a shame that it took eight Marvel appearances before even hinting at that. Perhaps doing the absolute basics of character building and thematic exploration shouldn’t be extolled, but for the MCU it’s revolutionary.
All this heavy discussion of themes may make Falcon and the Winter Soldier seem stuffy and pretentious, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Mackie and Stan have magnetic chemistry and watching the two of them ham it up together for six hours is an absolute joy. Lumbly’s Isiah Bradley provides a powerful, visceral emotional core to the show and Daniel Brühl’s return as Baron Zemo is a delightfully dry compliment to the main cast. Combine all this with a production team that managed to stave off set-ups and the most Marvel-y elements of the story until the final episode and the result is the best MCU property outside of Black Panther