It’s been a week since the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Disney+’s second MCU series, and I think it’s safe to conclude that while the show certainly had its bright spots (the Isiah Bradley storyline, dancing Zemo, the Dora Milaje kicking ass, Sebastian Stan not looking miserable all the time, Sarah Wilson), on the whole it was something of a mess. Unlike WandaVision, however, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t really lend itself to long-form analysis. Pretty much all the good writing I’ve seen about it has been in tweet form. So for this post, I’m going to collect what feel to me like the most pertinent observations, along with a bit of commentary of my own, and then open it up to you.
In a nutshell, I think The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s problems come down to trying to do four different, complicated things—Sam Wilson’s struggle with accepting the mantle of Captain America; Bucky Barnes’s halting efforts to rejoin the land of the living; John Walker’s disastrous tenure as the new Cap; and the Flag Smashers—in too little time. The last of these is, of course, the series’s most misguided aspect, but it’s also the one that most drives its story, so let’s talk about it first, and kick off our discussion with what might just be the series’s most lasting legacy, this already-classic tweet:
there’s always a point with modern superhero stories where the ‘villain’ starts looking so reasonable in comparison to the unfettered capitalist nationalism of our status quo that the writers have to shoehorn in a dissonant violent episode in case the audience changes sides— Oliver Darkshire 🌈 (@deathbybadger) April 2, 2021
To be fair, I think “MCU villains always have a point and the narrative has to force them into bad behavior to mask this”, as the narrative coalescing around the show has it, is a bit of an exaggeration. But there’s no denying that the Flag Smashers are sympathetic in both their political analysis and their aims. As I wrote in this rather long thread a month ago, it’s also a perspective that can’t help but resonate in the almost-post-pandemic world.
We just spent a year watching things that we’d been told were impossible and unsustainable become the backbone of our society. Working from home, eviction moratoriums, not prosecuting non-violent crimes, universal checks, increased unemployment insurance.— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) March 30, 2021
When I see the Flag Smashers talk about not wanting to go back, that’s what I think about. A massive crisis forcing capitalism to ease up on some of its supposedly ironclad rules, revealing that they were always just a way of making more money for the people at the top.— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) March 30, 2021
And yet you can’t even call the Flag Smashers a subversive or provocative idea, because their resort to violence is so stupid and obviously counterproductive.
As if their fucking dipshit "let's murder people and then magically the vote just stops, because the vote was only ever going to occur with these SPECIFIC people! As if my stupid-ass murder attempt won't cause EVEN MORE ANTI-REFUGEE SENTIMENT."— penitent admirer (@loudpenitent) April 23, 2021
It’s not so much that the Flag Smashers’ violence makes me not want to be on their side, as that it is so obviously contrived and pointless, it makes it clear that their entire purpose was to create the conditions in which Sam can save the day with an unconvincing speech. Whether you take it as the show intended, or try to read against the grain, it’s not a satisfying storyline.
Moving on, I think the John Walker storyline was easily the season’s best-handled, and maybe even its boldest (though I guess “Sam Wilson can’t get a loan” has ruffled a lot of people’s feathers). It doesn’t take much work to see Walker as representing the queasy reality to Steve Rogers’s rose-tinted fantasy, not because he’s a bad person, but because that’s what being Captain America in the 21st century would make of you. The scene where Walker gets spat on feels significant to me not because of his reaction, but because of the situation itself.
One of the things I’m really liking about the John Walker subplot is that it’s showing us what being Captain America would actually be like. And I’m a bit skeptical that Steve (or Sam) had a way of avoiding that, beyond writerly fiat. #TheFalconAndTheWinterSoldier— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) April 3, 2021
This is a really good thread about how Walker’s costume is designed to both evoke Steve’s, and subtly hint at a wrongness to him and his project. As with so many other Hollywood products, it feels as if The Falcon and the Winter Soldier expended much more energy on production details than on its the actual scripts.
Add in the black leather and the palette already feels more hostile. But there’s more to it than color choice, of course! Let’s talk about the first shot of Walker, compared to a bucket o’ Steves. What’s missing here?
Texture. pic.twitter.com/MfxJIz74Mn— Margaret Owen, Temporary Hermit (@what_eats_owls) April 10, 2021
But of course, all of that work is undermined by the bizarre conclusion to Walker’s storyline, in which Sam and Bucky happily fight side by side with him, and even swap Lincoln quotes, not long after they watched him decapitate a man with Steve’s shield. Sure, later on Walker is recruited by the obviously shady Val, but the fact that Sam and Bucky are apparently fine with him speaks louder.
Spend 5 episodes like “oooh this new captain America guy could be bad actually” then just say “nah sike he’s good and better than all the horrible violent bad guys who are right but wrong cause they’re violent???” just a real bad show— John Duncan (@Johntheduncan) April 25, 2021
Meanwhile, Bucky gets the show’s shortest shrift, which is a crying shame as we’ve been waiting for the poor guy to get a decent storyline about healing and coming to terms with his past since 2014. This is a good thread on why Bucky’s therapy scenes are terrible, unnecessarily confrontational and not doing anything to create a sense of safety and trust in a man who has survived a century of abuse. I was particularly intrigued by this observation, which suggests that the ultimate purpose of Bucky’s therapy isn’t to help him, but to get him field-ready.
They are making sure he’s ready to be an “asset” w/ mandated therapy, which he shouldn’t even be forced to do as part of his pardon because he shouldn’t have needed a pardon at all because he was a victim of horrific war crimes, brainwashing, and dehumanization for 70 years.— Al Elizabeth (@MadeOfAwsm) April 4, 2021
Which brings us to Sam, whose story is quite strong on paper—I think a series that was primarily about Sam taking up the shield, finding out about Isiah Bradley, getting pushed out in favor of John Walker, and having to reclaim the role on his own terms (with a supporting role for Bucky) could have been quite strong. But the character gets drowned out, not only by the wealth of other stories in the season, but by the simple fact that his dilemma just doesn’t feel that important against everything else going on.
Can’t stop thinking about the fact that in the world of #TheFalconAndTheWinterSoldier, a bunch of diplomats are about to render hundreds of millions of people stateless with the stroke of a pen, and the only people for whom preventing that is a top priority are the terrorists.— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) April 17, 2021
I can’t be expected to care about the fact that Sarah Wilson might lose her boat, or that Sam isn’t sure whether he wants to be Captain America, in the face of threatened ethnic cleansing. And yet none of the show’s heroes seem particularly bothered by this looming threat until the people who actually oppose it break out into violence. Which, as many people have pointed out, means that Karli Morgenthau had a more concrete effect on the future of her world than Sam Wilson—if it weren’t for her violence, would he even have bothered to show up in New York? If it weren’t for her death, would he have made a speech whose most salient point is “if you do this, you’ll get a lot more terrorists”? Instead of a story about a black man reckoning with his complicated feelings towards America, and the question of whether he wants to embody an idealized version of it that has never existed, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier becomes a story about how terrorism works, actually. Pretty sure that’s not what was intended.
Oh well. Bring on Loki.