Friday, June 21, 2024

I’m Glad The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Did Not Debut MCU TV

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The original plan for the start of the MCU on Disney+ was for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to be the first show released. Due to filming delays, that show ended up being WandaVision, and I have written extensively about why WandaVision was a great choice to not only premiere Marvel’s TV universe but reintroduce the world to Marvel stories post-Endgame. Whatever you may think of the ending, WandaVision was something new and interesting that reinvigorated my excitement for the MCU.

However, since The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was supposed to be the first of these shows, I was curious to watch and see why. From almost the first scene, I could see why it was meant to be the first. Through two episodes, Falcon and the Winter Soldier has more directly tackled what the post-Endgame world is and what it will be like moving forward. Where WandaVision was explicitly about refusing to face this future, Sam and Bucky dove headfirst into what it means.

So yes, I see why it was supposed to be the first show. I am grateful that it was not.

falcon and the winter soldier sam steve

Two episodes are obviously not enough to cast judgment on an entire season, but they have been enough to create a general sense of where a season will go. This is especially true when Falcon and The Winter Soldier came flying out of the gate with a formula ripped straight from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. You have super soldiers hunting down super soldiers and conspiracies threatening the world order. Everything feels familiar, from the action scenes to the directing choices to the dialogue and storytelling.

This is not necessarily a bad thing or a reason why the show is bad in any way. Falcon and The Winter Soldier is kind of impressive to watch. The action scenes have been remarkable and easily on par with MCU movies. It is a high budget production that continues to prove how movies and television can be indistinguishable from each other.

I can see where Falcon and The Winter Soldier is trying to move the story in interesting directions. The plot revolves around the appearance of large groups of super soldiers who threaten the stability of the world, as well as a new Captain America who makes both Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes confront Steve’s absence from their lives.

Both Sam and Bucky deserve this kind of starring role, and both Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan look like they are having fun. The characters and actors have fun chemistry and play off each other well. I like most of the individual components. Falcon and The Winter Soldier has a strong framework to build around, and the talent to do so. It is good for many of the reasons the entire MCU is good.

The problem is that it carries the same negative trappings that plague the MCU as well. I also have serious questions about the judgments the show is passing on this new post-Endgame world.

The first two episodes revolve around a group called the Flag Smashers, who apparently felt the world was a more united place during the 5 years after Thanos used the Infinity Stones and are resisting the return to normalcy taking place after everyone’s return. Falcon and The Winter Soldier created more room for ambiguity with its second episode. The Flag Smasher Super Soldiers seem to be looking for ways to empower people who have become increasingly powerless in a world so rife with superpowered heroes and villains that there is a Big 3 joke about androids, aliens, and wizards. They also seem to oppose a less-united world where national conflicts are reestablished as borders are set back in place.

There is plenty of room for a genuinely interesting conversation here, and for Marvel to consider a drastic change to its world state. After all, the MCU has already dealt with two alien invasions, one that eliminated half the life on Earth, and will have multiple others in the future. Shouldn’t the idea of one united Earth against all these threats be a serious conversation considering what Thanos did?

I find myself skeptical that the MCU will do any such thing, though, because Falcon and The Winter Soldier is falling back into the same America-centric military propaganda that it often defaults to its stories.

In the end, Marvel has always accidentally made American government look like the villains without acknowledging that they are villains. The closest they ever came was with Winter Soldier, and there they just pawned the problem off on HYDRA infecting the government and just being bad apples to purge. WandaVision had a chance with SWORD but settled on one corrupt bad guy that the FBI takes down.

Marvel always backs off before they truly approach the subject of the system itself being the villain. It is always bad actors to take down instead. This threatens to undermine the interesting conflicts Falcon and The Winter Soldier has established through two episodes.

For example, while I am sure John Walker’s Captain America will turn out to be a villain doused eyeballs deep in stolen soldier serum, will any real blame be placed on the American government for immediately coopting Steve Rogers’s identity? Or will the blame be solely placed on Walker for being a bad actor who the people in charge are faultless for unleashing? We all know the likely answer.

How about Flag Smashers, a vaguely “European” villain whose mission is to…have a more united world without artificial borders because that is how they survived the Blip? Who feel left behind with the return of those killed by Thanos? And are apparently stealing and using super soldier serum to presumably be less powerless in a world filled with superpowers and alien invasions?

Falcon and The Winter Soldier presents this group as the villain threatening world order, having the heroes work alongside the American military while invading other countries to stop them. The heroes are “defending” national borders while simultaneously invalidating them at will. It makes the conflict look like America protecting its global interests, not superheroes protecting the world from terrorists, but the story presents itself as saving the world rather than American power.

This is the formula that worries me. My least favorite type of MCU story are the ones that try to ground themselves in modern reality. Even Winter Soldier, which I really love, has an element of that which has not aged great over time. SHIELD, SWORD, and organizations like them have always been problematic representations of a vast surveillance state that the MCU presented as a good thing, with its America-centric leadership as the good guys.

The second episode gives the Flag Smashers a more sympathetic face, but does so by suggesting the group is being manipulated by some powerful benefactor that undermines the mission of the group. It is ultimately the same problem.

I’m left thinking I know exactly what kind of story will be told throughout Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and it is not one that will capture my interest the way WandaVision did. I know this will be just like Winter Soldier, Civil War, Iron Man, Ultron, or really any MCU story heavily involving government agencies. An unironic military gloryfest just is not that interesting in comparison to the stories Marvel is capable of telling, just like SHIELD or the DEO or any similar agencies just are not that interesting compared to better comic arcs.

Now this does not mean Falcon and The Winter Soldier is or will be bad, by any means.

Sam and Bucky alone are probably enough to enjoy the show despite its flaws. Even if they never follow through on the fanfic dreams suggested by episode 2’s rolling field rescues and literal couples counseling, I like both characters enough to have fun. I am excited to see Sharon Carter enter the scene and to see how exactly the table will be set for the MCU after the season ends.

This is our first direct look at the future of the MCU and I want to know more. The Blip clearly isn’t being ignored and is causing tensions all throughout the world. Superheroes are being left in difficult positions they need to navigate. The number of powered people is only increasing. There must be multiple groups like the Flag Smashers who, after struggling for 5 years to deal with half the population vanishing, are now having to reverse course and readjust to a world trying to return to normal. It’s like if the 2% returned during The Leftovers and everyone had to figure out how to deal with that.

While WandaVision gave us a glimpse of the more multiverse-y, sorcery future of the MCU, Falcon and The Winter Soldier is showing us the more practical side on Earth and how the larger global community is dealing with life now.

I am also interested to see the heavy focus on the experiences and history of black heroes in the MCU. While it may not make the most logistical sense for someone like Sam Wilson to worry about money, one of the highlights of the first episode was his scenes with his family and his determination to protect their business. Isaiah Bradley’s introduction in the second episode opens up possibilities for a new history of black superheroes forgotten or deliberately excluded from history.

Plus, it should mean something when the first thing America does after Sam turns down the shield is hand it over to a blonde white guy. Considering what race meant to the first two episodes, hopefully Falcon and The Winter Soldier will follow through. When more than half of the writer’s room consists of black writers, obviously they will know how to handle this better than I ever could.

There are certainly interesting aspects contained within show that I am eager to see play out. I just hope they don’t take too much of a backseat to the more generic, overplayed aspects of the MCU that we have seen play out in so many its movies. The racial aspect, especially, could lead to a major surprise in how this story plays out.

Much of this will come down to preference, of course, but I find it hard to believe that Falcon and The Winter Soldier would have reignited interest in Marvel the way WandaVision did. There is already so much conversation about superhero fatigue, and Falcon and The Winter Soldier is not looking like the kind of show to challenge the aspects of the MCU responsible for that fatigue.

It will be fine, and I will like it, but the MCU needed something attention-grabbing.

WandaVision may have eventually settled into familiar territory, but along the way it tried new things and jumped around different genres in fun ways we had not seen before. It was also a massive theoryhead kind of show, where you spend the entire week after an episode talking about what happened and what will happen next. WandaVision generated so much conversation all the time and made people immediately reengage with some of the worst parts of the MCU.

After the first real break from the MCU since Iron Man first hit theaters, Marvel needed to make sure that the first thing to bring the IP back would be something immediately engaging and interesting to the largest possible audience. It needed to be an immediate hit that injected the Marvel brain slugs back in our heads. WandaVision was that hit and then some.

Would Falcon and The Winter Soldier have done the same if it released first? Maybe, but I doubt it. They have a few episodes to prove me wrong.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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