WARNING: Contains spoilers for TFATWS finale.

It’s nobody’s fault that WandaVision pipped The Falcon And The Winter Soldier to the post. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes’s (Sebastian Stan) all-action outing was meant to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Disney+ series before pandemic delays put the reality-bending sitcom-thriller first – and when Wanda Maximoff’s journey through a lifetime of grief debuted, it hooked viewers with its tightly-scripted mysteries, franchise-best lead performances, and potent emotional core. Falcon And Winter Soldier arrived shortly after with very different aims – but while its dizzying aerial action sequence displayed blockbuster credentials, there was an inescapable sense right from the opening episode that the show as a whole wasn’t quite clicking. WandaVision set a mightily high bar that FAWS, even on its own terms, often struggled to fly over, with variable quality from scene-to-scene and episode-to-episode.

When the series worked, it really worked. If any story thread shone most clearly, it was the introduction of Wyatt Russell’s John Walker – the government-appointed new Captain America, whose personal trajectory from feelings of inadequacy, through America’s-asshole arrogance, to super-serumed sociopathy felt raw and real. The disparity between the system’s assumed ideal candidate for Steve Rogers’ legacy and Rogers’ own pick for the job cut right to the heart of the institutional racism the show took aim at, while also touching on notions of nationalism, colonialism, and military violence. The sight of Walker holding Cap’s bloodied shield, having just used it to bludgeon someone to death is one of the most shocking and resonant images the MCU has ever delivered.

The Falcon And The Winter Soldier

And, most importantly, it all connected back to Sam – an indirect consequence of his understandable choice to hand over a shield that he never intended to take up, an act of reverence to a personal friend and national icon he never expected to have to live up to. Wilson wanted the shield to be a museum piece, a historical artefact – and yet throughout the show it became clear that, in the right hands, that Vibranium disc held the potential to forge a better, more equal, future. Across the six episodes, not only did Walker show how disastrous that shield could be in the wrong hands, but Wilson also continually proved how much Rogers’ instincts were spot-on – the person who doesn’t want the shield, who isn’t attracted to the Captain America name or its potentially dangerous associations, is precisely the person who should have it. Like the Wilson family boat, Sam inherited something nearing obsoletion and faced a choice: resign it to history, or retool it in his own image. His eventual choice would be the making of the entire show.

Despite the titular double-billing, this really was Sam’s series more than it was Bucky’s – but it still served the Winter Soldier well. For one thing, Sebastian Stan proved just how much he could do with that extra screen-time, not only giving us GIF-friendly reaction-shots galore, but slowing down to examine a character with perhaps the wildest arc of the MCU. The guy is 100 years old, spent most of his life as a sleeper agent committing brutal murders, was framed for a major terrorist incident, snapped out of existence and then back into it again – and then had to say goodbye to the only person who always had his back. It’s a backstory that Stan bore with well-earned world-weariness. When Bucky lamented Sam’s decision to give up the shield in a therapy session, the psychological baggage of it all was appropriately painful: “If he was wrong about you, then he was wrong about me.” It was an exchange that felt more believable than any of the fun-but-forced banter between the two leads.

Seeing Mackie fling the shield and declare “I’m Captain America”, seven years after first becoming Steve Rogers’ wingman in The Winter Soldier, was a total triumph.

But among the series’ significant successes, much of it missed the mark in the way that Marvel rarely does. The central antagonist threat, the Karli Morgenthau-led Flag Smashers, never clicked into place – for all the narrative potential of a post-Blip world consumed by chaos, the aims and actions of that group never felt substantiated, all woolly motivations, ill-explained structural obstacles (why did we never see the Global Repatriation Council in action?) and on-the-nose exposition-heavy dialogue. Actor Erin Kellyman once again proved a talent to watch – having also made a major impression in Solo: A Star Wars Story – but the power and potency of the John Walker thread only went to show how thinly-drawn the Flag Smashers story felt in comparison. Rumours that a plot about a deadly virus were cut and patched around in the wake of the pandemic remain uncommented on for now, but would go some way to explaining why those scenes often felt so disconnected – as well as clarifying the dangling questions around Mama Donya’s death and a mention in early episodes of the Flag Smashers stealing vaccines.

Either way, what made it to the screen felt undercooked – and since it was entangled with much of the rest of the series’ storylines, including the return of Zemo, the introduction of Madripoor, and Sharon Carter 2.0, those elements also suffered as a result. That’s not to say there weren’t enjoyable moments in there – Daniel Brühl reviving Zemo as a droll, theatrical ally to our central duo might have been an almighty Civil War retcon but was a genuine surprise that gave the actor plenty to play with, and the arrival of Ayo and the Dora Milaje delivered a top-notch fight sequence while tying the whole series more believably into the rest of the MCU. Plus we got the one-hour dancing #ZemoCut, a meme sure to live on for years to come. (Has anyone made it so that he’s dancing to ‘Agatha All Along’ yet?)

Thankfully, the resolution of Sam’s story in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier’s finale made all those ups and downs worth it: finally seeing him adopt the mantle of Captain America, with his own suit inspired by the 2015 Captain America: Sam Wilson comics, still bearing the Falcon wings, but with that white star emblazoned across his chest. Seeing Mackie fling the shield and declare “I’m Captain America”, seven years after first becoming Steve Rogers’ wingman in The Winter Soldier, was a total triumph, fully paying off the promise of Endgame’s hero handover.

It’s all credit to Marvel for not immediately having Sam become Captain America – across this series, flaws and all, we got the time and space to explore how complex it is for him to take on the shield as a Black man in America, to understand why his Cap is going to be different to Steve’s while embodying the central moral tenets that any Captain America needs. That’s a story that deserves to be told in its own right, in its own way. And in tying in the tale of Isaiah Bradley – and having Sam be the one who makes sure the world eventually knows his story – the series was able to connect Wilson’s dilemma to America’s racist history in a way that no other MCU outing has touched. All credit to Carl Lumbly, who delivered an achingly emotional, fully-rounded turn across a mere handful of scenes.

The Falcon And The Winter Soldier

From beginning to end, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier wasn’t a resounding victory like WandaVision – but the series succeeded in giving Sam Wilson the launchpad he needed (and deserved) to become the MCU’s all-new Captain America. Now, let’s sit back and watch him soar.

READ MORE: How WandaVision Rewrote The MCU

READ MORE: Every MCU Movie Ranked

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