The Big Problem With Marvel's 'The Falcon and The Winter Soldier'

YouTube trailer screenshot of Anthony Mackie as Falcon.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the film industry, but Disney Plus has capitalized on the switch to streaming by producing high-quality television. WandaVision and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier both proved engrossing and they built well on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Bad Batch has also been delightful, and Marvel fans await the Loki series (set to debut on June 9) with great anticipation.

Yet The Falcon and The Winter Soldier bit off far more than it could chew. If you haven’t seen the show, beware: spoilers abound in this article.

Seriously, go watch the show before reading on.

Have you seen it? Cool, let’s proceed.

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The Falcon and The Winter Soldier focuses on the title characters, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) a.k.a. “Falcon,” and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) a.k.a. “The Winter Soldier.” Fans long suspected that the series would focus on Sam Wilson taking up the mantle of Captain America, and they were not disappointed.

Sam Wilson showed his nobility early on by giving Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) shield to a museum, but the United States rejected Wilson’s move, appointing John Walker (Wyatt Russell) the new Captain America. Throughout the show, Walker demonstrated that he was unworthy to carry on Steve Rogers’ mantle and Wilson — often referred to as “Uncle Sam” by his nephews — demonstrated that he was worthy of it.

The show handled these issues fairly well, although it failed to develop the character of John Walker in a fully compelling manner. The show also developed Bucky Barnes, exploring the ways Barnes tried to redeem his past as the brainwashed assassin The Winter Soldier. It even developed Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), the villain in Captain America: Civil War, giving him some truly delightful scenes.

Yet The Falcon and The Winter Soldier tried to build these characters amid a confusing mess of a plot. The terrorist Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and her band of Flag Smashers clearly engaged in heinous murders, but the show suggested that they were redeemable and that their concerns traced back to the errors of the Global Repatriation Council (GRC), a nebulous body that deals with the effects of the Thanos “snap” that wiped out half of the human race for five years (the events of Avengers: Endgame).

The GRC’s errors are just as nebulous and undefined as the GRC itself. Somehow, the global body failed to treat everyone with equal dignity, but the show never bothers itself with explaining exactly how the GRC screwed things up so royally.

Sam Wilson’s heroism consists in de-escalating violence, foiling the Flag Smashers’ plot but also attempting to save Karli Morgenthau’s life and trying to redeem her before she dies. He then gives a rousing speech to the GRC, urging this global body to treat people with respect in order to prevent further Flag Smashers. If anything, Wilson seems too sympathetic to the terrorist-murderer, and far too harsh on the GRC.

The show faced numerous hiccups — it had been slated to be the first Marvel show on Disney Plus, but COVID-19 foiled the timeline. The writers reportedly abandoned a storyline, and that storyline may have helped flush out exactly what went wrong with the GRC.

Had the show taken the time to explain exactly what the GRC got wrong and how it applied to Morgenthau, Sam Wilson’s motivations in the speech and in his desire to redeem the terrorist may have worked better. In its current incarnation, however, Sam Wilson’s inspiring speech at the end largely falls flat — and that undermines the summit of his heroic character arc.

Thankfully, the show handled issues of race with delicate sensibility. Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a black man on whom the government ran inhumane tests (similar to the horrific Tuskegee experiments), suggested that the world would not be ready for a black man to pick up the Captain America mantle. Sam Wilson ultimately proved him wrong. Wilson also countered those who called him “black Falcon,” as though his race were just as important as his status as a hero.

Throughout the show, Sam Wilson demonstrated the humility, courage, and impressive competence that Steve Rogers had shown before him, more than earning the shield and the title of Captain America. Had the GRC/Karli Morgenthau storyline been fully developed, his heroic speech at the end could have been an impressive conclusion to a powerful story. Unfortunately, that climax turned out to be hollow.

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The Falcon and The Winter Soldier built up its main characters well and set the stage for the future of the MCU after the Thanos snap, but it failed to achieve the catharsis of the best Marvel films. The show really could have used another episode or two, or at least a few more scenes, just to flesh out the GRC’s errors and to give the Flag Smashers a comprehensible motivation.

Also, if the showrunners really wanted the audience to sympathize with Morgenthau and cheer on Sam Wilson’s attempts to save her, they shouldn’t have made her such a murderous terrorist.