Legacy of the shield.
Coming hot off the heels of Wandavision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier swoops in as Marvel's next big MCU series. But where Wandavision gave fans something remarkably unique, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier can't ever decide what it's trying to do, resulting in a series that often struggles to land on its feet.
Taking place six months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier follows Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as they navigate life after Steve Rogers' retirement as Captian America. Reluctant to don the shield given to him by Cap, Sam turns in the shield to the government, who promptly give it and the title of Captain America away to former marine, John Walker (Wyatt Russell). However, the general plot of the series sees Bucky and Sam reluctantly team up to take on a growing terrorist organisation known as the Flagsmashers, who aren't so keen on the world going back to normal post-snap. However, when the duo realise that the terrorists have super soldier abilities they must venture to dangerous locations, and work with the unlikeliest of allies to find the source of these super soldiers and stop them before things get out of hand.
If you couldn't tell from that synopsis, there's a fair amount going on within the series. On one hand, it attempts to explore the legacy of Captain America and Sam's role in that, and on the other, there's this whole super soldier terrorist dilemma at play. The issue with both of these plots running parallel is that neither feels more important than the other; and not in a good way. The result is that the series feels like two side plots fighting for attention across the span of its six episodes, making me wish that at least one was given more weight and emphasis to better keep me engaged throughout.
With regards to the legacy plot, it gets off to a good start. The introduction of John Walker instantly feels like a gut punch for many reasons, as we've just watched Sam turn in Cap's shield in the knowledge that he and nobody else would be Captain America; only for the US government to crown another white boy as the star-spangled superhero. It's this key point that gives the reveal so much weight, as you don't need to be a genius to notice the racist undertones in the government's decision to make John Walker, not Sam Wilson, Captain America. As such, the series attempts to explore the issue of racism through Sam's reluctance to wear the stars and stripes, however, its does so rather dubiously. The biggest problem I have with it is that as much as the issue of racism plays a big role in Sam's reluctance to become Captain America, it's never given the significance it deserves. There's never a point in the series where he appears to genuinely struggle with the idea of becoming Cap, despite how well the series provides an impactful reveal that should feel more influential on Sam's inner struggle with the choice he has to make. Aside from the occasional encounters and conversations with a certain character, it's never too clear why Sam is apprehensive about becoming the new Cap, and even when it is, it doesn't feel as authentic as it should be.
It feels strange how lightly the series treads around the issue itself and feels like it picks and chooses when it feels it's relevant, despite how much it wants you to think it's a big part of the series. While it does produce some impactful scenes highlighting the significance of racism, even within the realm of the MCU, the actual issue itself feels secondary to the central plot. There's just something that doesn't feel right about that and the fact that Sam Wilson himself only brings it up when the plot needs him to. While the series at large does offer some good real-world and MCU specific commentary on racism, the fact that it never feels like the focus of the series feels like a missed opportunity to give it far greater narrative depth and weight; resulting in a series that could've ended up being far more impactful than it turned out to be.
In talking about the larger plot, i.e the Flagsmashers, I'll say that it works to a certain extent. The Flagsmashers, led by young Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), seek to ensure that the world stays as it was in the five years half of all life disappeared. This brings in some very interesting political context when it comes to the series' antagonists, bringing into play the idea of anti-nationalism and the notion of terrorism vs freedom fighting. For a politics geek like me, the series even opens up some interesting discussion around its unique ethical dilemma surrounding post-snap policy regarding rebuilding the world and its nations. Overalanlasying aside, as much as the Flagsmashers lend the series some interesting talking points, as villains they really aren't all that interesting themselves. Like some other MCU villains, the Flagsmashers are supposed to be a group that isn't evil by any means but are just going about doing the right thing the wrong way. Though, unlike Thanos and Killmonger who's goals feel somewhat relatable given their ties to real-world issues, the plight of Karli and her Flagsmashers feels too localised within the fictional world of the MCU for the average viewer to appropriately engage and sympathise with their cause. There is a clear link between the Flagsmashers and the real-world refugee crisis, but much like the series' handling of racism, it doesn't provide enough substance to make this clear to the audience and thus removes any audience engagement with the deeper issues it's trying to convey.
Additionally, the pacing of the series is never quite perfect. Fans of the MCU's superpowered action sequences won't be disappointed, as there are numerous fight scenes that are intense and exciting, even if some of them feel a little drawn out. However, outside of its action sequences, it slows down rather considerably with mundane montages and moments of dialogue that feel flat. Not all of its slower scenes feel dull, but it lacks consistency, leaving certain episodes feeling awfully paced and undemanding of your attention.
What I will say is that the cast does extremely well throughout the series, and the series does well at elevating its cast of characters to new heights. The dynamic between Bucky and Sam works wonders for them early on, with moments that make them feel like a classic buddy cop duo who really don't get along; making for some lighthearted and funny moments. There's even a point where they become a trio alongside a surprising ally, making for some of the series best and most engaging moments. Wyatt Russell especially does well in his role as John Walker, fitting perfectly into his role as a deeply flawed character seeking validation and trying to prove himself at being something he's not. As such, I found I could really sympathise with John Walker at various points in the story, easily making him one of the series biggest highlights. Even Emily Van Camp's Sharon Carter returns from the Captain America movies and becomes a far more interesting and developed character, with some surprising twists that lend her greater narrative significance going forward in the MCU. Just the small fact that The Falcon and The Winter Soldier gives these characters a chance to shine is amazing, making them more enticing and exciting for an audience who has only ever seen them as sidekicks to the MCU's former frontrunners. While it may struggle in various other departments, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier sends its fantastic cast of characters sky high with some standout performances and more room for development.
Bringing this all together, it would be unfair to compare Marvel's next attempt at an MCU series to Wandavision, but even without the comparison, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier struggles to keep you engaged even at the best of times. While it may elevate the status of its various characters and feature some classic MCU goodness, its pros pale in comparison to its cons. With its inconsistent social commentary, awkward pacing, and unsatisfactory conclusion, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier feels like a half-baked amalgamation of competing ideas that result in a series that fails to capitalise on its narrative potential; ensuring that it never gets too far off the ground.