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Disney+'s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Struggles to Get Off the Ground

With “WandaVision” having hit its season finale, the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues its expanse into TV with “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” a series that intends to spotlight previously supporting Avengers as major TV characters. Disney has only provided the first episode for review, so there isn’t a whole lot of new story to chew on. But the action—which I bet will define this series overall—leaves one hoping the show's later episodes are treated with more imagination and ambition. 

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” picks up months after the events of “Avengers: Endgame,” in which Chris Evans’ Captain America handed over his shield to Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), essentially passing on the title to him. But as we see early in this episode, Sam does not want that role, and instead donates it to the Smithsonian. He’d rather focus on his family, namely the boat that his parents owned and ran a business with for years; his sister Sarah (a scene-stealing Adepero Oduye), on the other hand, wants to sell the boat because of the expenses, and the financial devastation that came in from five years of “The Blip,” as the vanishing events from "Avengers: Infinity War" are now called. As the story establishes more of Sam’s personal side, it uses these family elements to humanize him while showing that it’s not like Avengers are salaried.

Elsewhere in the United States, James "Bucky" Barnes aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is dealing with some PTSD from his days of working for the evil Hydra, who brainwashed him before the people of Wakanda helped free his brain. We’ve seen all types of Bucky in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and this episode shows him in a fairly isolated but sardonic state; he doesn’t have many friends (except for a kind old man), he struggles with therapy, and he is still very much an outsider, reminded every so often that he’s actually 106 years old. The big moment for him in this episode is that he gets a date with a bartender (Miki Ishikawa), who challenges him to a drinking game of Battleship and starts to peel away  his layers. 

The evil brewing underneath this episode is of course a great mystery, but it is successfully intriguing. The world has a budding terrorist group in the Flag Smashers, who, according to Falcon’s charming army friend Torres (Danny Ramirez), are fans of “The Blip” and what it achieved for the world. “They want a world that’s unified without borders,” says Torres, who has been tracking them on message boards. A fringe group sounds like a compelling grounded foe for these post-Blip times, especially if they execute more crimes like the one that happens later in the episode. 

I came to this series (or this episode really), excited to check out the action. After all, both Winter Soldier and Falcon have been a big part of some of Marvel’s best action sequences in movies like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War.” And since so many arcs are just starting to develop here in the first episode, this seems like the best way to actually judge an episode—like how you can engage musical numbers on their own. And after all, Kevin Feige said himself that the series “really starts off with a bang,” so let’s dig into it. 

The first big sequence this series has to offer is a big TV display of Falcon’s high-flying abilities, to swoop in and around rocks and explosions, chasing after bad guys who have hijacked a plane and later glide below to helicopters. It’s best taken as a fast-paced reminder of Falcon's advantages—the way his robotic wings can shield bullets, or that he has a few hand-to-hand combat moves for a swift beatdown. As a sequence meant to raise the stakes on what we’ll see from the show, it’s a let-down, namely that it starts with some exciting POV shots of real parachuting and gliding, thousands of feet in the sky, before a CGI version of Falcon completely (and understandably) takes over when it's flying time. Suddenly the urgency of real gravity is lost, and the sequence makes up for its complete fallback on CGI by going for short, swooping shots that muddle images of Falcon zipping around, except for when Falcon takes a rest to briefly hijack a helicopter. Only rarely does it feel like our high-flying hero is in the type of danger that could make us squirm on our couches; everything happens so frantically that there's little time to soak in a cool explosion, some mixed-in punches, and Falcon's acrobatics. 

Winter Soldier doesn’t get a lot of time to kick butt in this episode, but he is introduced with one sequence meant to show him in ruthless mode, a memory from his dark Hydra days that still bobble around in his brain. The sequence is brief but it too shows that there’s plenty of room for the action to improve, the way that its camera turns his shooting of some innocent guys as a flat call-and-response, and uses a disorienting whip of a camera to show a thrown knife's journey before going back to Bucky’s cold-blooded gaze. As if that weren't clunky enough, it then takes four shots just for Bucky to strong-arm a doomed sap through a closed door. For a slam-bang sequence that’s meant to embody its character’s Terminator-like confidence and force, he's more of a weary Xerox machine. So far, the Disney+ series readily places itself alongside regular action filmmaking, and that isn’t an exciting attribute. 

Again, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is only at the re-introduction stage, presenting these cinematic heroes in the new expansive play space of 45-minute episodes. But here’s hoping that the series takes more chances as it goes along, especially as it inevitably piles on explosions and leads to longer fight sequences. The series has so much inherent potential to be a breakthrough moment for action storytelling, so long as it leans more into the unique skills of its nimble characters, and not just what makes them flashy in short bursts. 

One episode screened for review. "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" begins on Disney+ on March 19.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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