Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are gone, and the former’s best buddies, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), are grappling with what their places are in this post-Blip world. There are fresh problems for them, too: a group of masked marauders known as the Flag Smashers, and a new superhero wearing a familiar suit.
Episodes seen: 2
So here we go. Marvel’s TV kick-off, to make you forget all about those quasi-legit Netflix shows (Iron Fist? Forget it — here’s Vibranium Fist…). A mission statement, proving that epic superhero adventures can work just as well sprawling across six hours on a small screen as they can across two on a big one, porting across immense production values to your local flatscreen. Except, thanks to Covid, the game plan changed, with WandaVision ending up first off the grid. And so soon after the high-voltage, VFX-stuffed spectacle of that series’ finale, plus its surprising emotional punch, the first two episodes of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier end up feeling just a little underwhelming. What’s here is good — and each instalment boasts a mahoosive, budget-busting combat sequence — but this is meat-and-potatoes Marvel storytelling, slowly drawing its plot elements into place but unlikely to get you rushing to your nearest digital watercooler.
Though, it must be said, the show starts with a showstopper. An opening action set-piece clearly intended to show that whatever big-screen Avengers can do, small-screen Avengers can do just as well. And in that it succeeds. Unfolding in Tunisian airspace, it finds Anthony Mackie’s Falcon having an Indiana Jones kinda day, stuck in a pilot-less plane that’s plummeting towards the desert below. Of course, Indy didn’t have military-designed mechanical wings with collapsible machine pistols and a falcon-shaped drone (or if he did, he kept them stashed in that big warehouse), and the subsequent breathless eight minutes is a virtuoso aerial combat sequence that takes in squirrel-suit goons, multiple attack helicopters, heat-seeking missiles and more.
After that, the series slows down (how could it not?) and starts to feel a lot less cinematic as we dig into the titular characters’ specific woes. Falcon/Sam goes to a bank, and we discover that being an Avenger isn’t exactly a route to financial security — not least, the scene strongly implies, if you are a superhero who is Black and asking an institution for help. He’s despondent for another reason, too, having recently turned down Captain America’s shield and suit, shunning the opportunity to shoulder his mentor’s mighty legacy. Winter Soldier/Bucky, meanwhile, is in therapy, grappling with decades of guilt for the many people he’s slaughtered since the 1940s, and being a wise-ass to his S.H.I.E.L.D.-approved shrink.
It’s hard to claim that it matches the breathless grandeur of Marvel epics such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The two don’t cross paths at all in the first episode, a bold choice by Marvel but one that means the show is slow to pick up momentum. That’s something quickly corrected in the second one, the pair bumping into each other in an aircraft hangar and immediately getting down to superhero super-banter. There’s a Tolkien joke, insults, liberal use of the word “shit”, and, before long, nicknames (guess which one gets stuck with ‘Freaky Magoo’). It’s fun stuff, if fairly routine — in fact, it could only be more Lethal Weapon if there were sax riffs and someone sighing, “I’m too old for this shit.” And given Bucky is 104 years old, that last one is surely only a matter of time.
From there it all zips along briskly and efficiently enough, but it’s still hard to claim that it matches either the breathless grandeur of Marvel epics such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or the immaculate storytelling and world-building of fellow Disney+ show The Mandalorian (not to mention that a truck-top battle in episode two is very reminiscent of a convoy set-piece in the latter’s last season, and sadly much more Wonderful World of Greenscreen). The plot remains slightly jumbled — the Flag-Smashers, the presumed villains whose trail Bucky and Sam are on, seem like an obvious bit of misdirection, while references to vaccines and racial profiling by police provide some topicality but are quickly glided past en route to the next quip.
While the suspense levels remain fairly low, the most intriguing aspect so far is the new owner of that red-white-and-blue shield. John Walker (Wyatt Russell), possessor of the most American name possible, has been recruited as the new Captain America, to the great disgruntlement of the real deal’s old sidekicks. But whether Walker’s on the side of right or a Homelander-from-The-Boys-style super-douche remains to be seen. Russell plays the character with a finely balanced mix of earnestness and smarm, though the fact he utters the most un-Cap-like of phrases, “Stay the hell out of my way”, implies he might not be the saint he’s presented as by the US government. Will he turn out to be an ally? Or end up tussling with Freaky Magoo? So far, learning the answer to that is the main reason to keep tuning in.
A slow-burning re-introduction to the world of the Avengers, now post-Blip and swirling with uncertainty. Once it gets its heroes together it starts to feel more confident, and interesting issues are touched upon, but so far it’s just a little routine.