Next one up.
With seven series and five films (!) on tap for 2021, it’s fair to say that Marvel wants to keep their schedule moving along. As a result, even though we’re only two weeks out from the finale of WandaVision (don’t you kind of miss Agatha already?), the House that Stan Lee Built has already moved on to their latest Disney+ entry with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a series which explores what it means to be a hero when you’re stuck living in the shadow of another legend.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier picks up shortly after the events of Avengers: Endgame. (With no direct ties to WandaVision, there’s no obvious indication from the series where they fall in the timeline with one another.) Living from military contract to contract, Sam ‘The Falcon’ Wilson (Antony Mackie) has passed on the opportunity to take on the mantle of Captain America, opting instead to go home and help his sister deal with their family’s fishing business. Meanwhile, Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) continues to live a life of solitude as he attempts to make amends for his past crimes. However, as a new evil lurks in the shadows, Sam and Bucky must work together to expose their plan and save the world once again.
With the global success of WandaVision and today’s release of the first episode of Falcon, Marvel (and Disney) have seamlessly moved from an (almost) exclusively MCU to the M-TV-U. But, so far at least, the most unexpected element has been the quality of the series thus far.
In some ways, it should not a shock that the Marvel product has been translating so well onto the small screen. While the MCU is known for its big budget special effects and larger than life battle sequence, the material has never forgotten its roots in comic books and long-form storytelling. (Besides, what is the Marvel Cinematic Universe if not the modern equivalent of the Saturday morning serials with a larger budget?)
Even so, it does come as a bit startling how patient Marvel has been with their storytelling with this new venture into television. For example, in WandaVision, it wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th episode before the Marvel connections really began to take shape. With Falcon, Marvel again shows their confidence in their storytelling (and their fan base) by adopting this patient approach. Though this series will ultimately be only six episodes long, the introduction to the series primarily focuses on the challenges in the lives of our two protagonists. (Seriously, when did you ever think you’d see an Avenger struggle to get a bank loan? Doesn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. take care of their own?) While the series opens with a solid action scene, the rest of the episode focuses almost exclusively on character development, grappling with issues of PTSD and systemic racism.
It instantly impressed me.
Marvel has always been at its most interesting when they take risks. Whereas WandaVision leaned in exclusively into television history, Falcon (so far) seems committed to telling a story that focuses on what happens when the war [seems to be] over. With Sam working from contract to contract and Bucky grappling with the sins of his past, the two men are attempting to reintegrate their lives with everyone else. Though known as heroes for their time with the Avengers, they are now struggling to get by. Whether it’s trying to pay the bills or simply living with extreme anxiety, both Sam and Bucky are coming to grips with life after the shield.
Now, of course, we know that the story is not going to end there. Teases of a new evil organization point to a more traditional MCU series of large-scale military battles on the horizon. But, for now at least, their greatest battle is understanding the legacy they leave behind. In this way, Sam’s story feels the most relevant. After having passed on the mantle of Captain America, he’s wrestling with his own worthiness as a hero and the missed opportunity to follow in the footsteps of an American icon. Sam understands that the world ‘needs a new hero [that’s] suited for the times we’re in.’ But he doesn’t believe that he can be that person…yet, anyways. (Certainly, the prospect of an African American lead taking on the role of Captain America would be an important opportunity that Disney needs to take—but that remains to be seen at this time.) For Sam (and Bucky as well), the mantle of ‘hero’ simply feels overwhelming. They know who they are and what they’ve done and, because of it, the standard of heroism simply feels too high for them to apply.
While I’m certain that, eventually, the men will reconcile their past with their role as heroes, it is always interesting when Marvel challenges their characters emotionally. In Falcon and the Winter Soldier, there is a recognition that the mantle of responsibility must be taken seriously. At the same time though, the series also hints at the fact that all leaders are imperfect at some level, meaning true worthiness stems from some other aspect of their character.
But we’ll have to wait for the show to unravel to tell us what that is.
The first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier is available to stream on Disney+ on Friday, March 18th, 2021, with new episodes every Friday.