After WandaVision‘s trippy descent into the emotional depths of loss and grief via a tour of sitcom history, Marvel Studios gets back closer to its meat and potatoes basics with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which picks up on what’s going on in Captain America’s corner of the MCU. But while this show trades androids and witches for spies and secret agents, Disney+ seems determined to maintain a more serious, grownup focus with these shows. One episode in and Falcon and the Winter Soldier is much more plaintive, quiet and surprising than you’d expect from a show with such a splashy name, lingering in the spaces where the Marvel movies tend to gloss over, tackling issues like PTSD and racial inequality in interesting ways.
In the first episode, most of the attention is on Sam Wilson, the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie with cocksure determination. He’s still running high-flying errands for SHIELD but after the events of Avengers: Endgame, has decided to give Steve Rogers’ shield to the Smithsonian. Here, the shield is treated as an almost sacred token of America’s highest ideals, and although Captain America himself bequeathed it to Sam, he’s not comfortable with the legacy and, well, it belongs in a museum. Besides, he’s got more important things to do than be the new Captain America, like help save the family shrimp boat down in Louisiana, where his sister and her two kids are struggling to make ends meet. Locals are excited to have their world saving hometown hero back, but the banks aren’t about to approve a loan just because someone is an Avenger. The show lightly hints towards racial disparity in the banking system here, hopefully in ways it will explore further in upcoming episodes.
Someone who’s not interested in exploring much more is Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Like his childhood best friend Captain America, Bucky is a relic from the 1940s still trying to figure out where he fits in modern America. Unlike Cap, Bucky is plagued with a seared conscience for the things he did while being mind controlled by Hydra. A lengthy scene with a state-mandated therapist (Amy Aquino, doing terrific work) reveals that Barnes is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and is attempting to find peace by righting the wrongs he committed over a half-century of being a covert assassin. Some of these things, like turning bad guys over to the feds, are easy enough. Others, as we see in a very poignant moment, are much harder.
This doesn’t leave much time for superheroics and outside of a spectacular opening sequence in the Middle East with Sam on a winged rescue mission, the first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t do much action. There are a few hints of what’s to come. A group of online radicals called the Flag Smashers who are led by a super strong mystery man, and some questions about just what the U.S. Government intends to do with Cap’s shield. But for the most part, the first episode lingers on the everyday complications of being an Avenger and, more to the point, living in the shadow of a legend. Captain America is forever, but his legacy must be secured by his friends.
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Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.