You kept on glimpsing the great show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could have been. Without the other Avengers around, Sam Wilson turned out to be very much like Anthony Mackie: a genial New Orleans guy with a wry smile and an awesome boat. A Black man carrying a star-spangled shield suggested new depths of personal politics, especially when Sam met Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a super soldier terrorized by our government into genetic slavery and wrongful imprisonment. Lumby starred in the one-season wonder M.A.N.T.I.S. back in the mid-90s, playing a paralyzed scientist with a high-tech exo-suit. That was also the era of Meteor Man, Spawn, and Blade. Big budgets arrived for superhero cinema right alongside overwhelming whiteness, so Lumbly's haunted gravity evoked the double erasures of American political history and onscreen genre history. Sam and Isaiah: Two good men, two different generations, two different perspectives. Throw in John Walker (Wyatt Russell) as a lethal new Captain America, a pale imitation with a chip on his shoulder and a willingness to break all the rules for his definition of justice.
That is a show. But this unmarvelous Disney+ quagmire buried its best instincts underneath uninspired cameos, geopolitical stupidity, and spin-off teases. Creator Malcolm Spellman struggled to keep Sam in the foreground, but the sprawling tale lost focus. The Flag Smashers were your worst uncle's notion of Antifa, masked anti-everything flash-mobbers taking commands from their smartphones. ("The app says it's this way!" said one Flag Smasher, walking right into the Uber version of a trap.) Madripoor looked like a whole city based on the night club scene from X-Men: Apocalypse. Zemo (Daniel Brühl) returned from Captain America: Civil War as a different (briefly fun!) character, and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) returned as a different (boring) character. It was a kick to see Ayo (Florence Kasumba) swing by. It was not a kick to see Julia Lous-Dreyfus hamming it up as Contessa Whatever.
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios
But what does Bucky think about racism? is, I'll admit, not a question I've ever asked myself. Kindly un-handcuff the ever-charming Sebastian Stan from this dull character. Every Winter Soldier scene depends on a fundamental flaw in motivation. He is sorry for decades of brainwashed murder. But: He was brainwashed, like sci-fi brainwashed, with no control over his actions. It's not his fault Iron Man's parents died. It's not his fault he killed the bystander son of Yori (Ken Takemoto). The tougher interpretation of a character like this would necessitate a sharper view the 20th century. It would require that this eternal warrior always thought he was doing the right thing, like so many predatory CIA agents and war-hawk presidents who made the world "safer" one napalm burst at a time. Bucky no longer even reads like a Brooklyn dude from the 1940s, with a dangerously grandparent-ish notion of race relations. The show used him as the onscreen White Guy Learning Lessons, styled hilariously like the '90s Ghost Rider in a leather jacket and nice jeans.
I don't blame The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for not keeping track of history. It couldn't even keep track of itself. The first episode established Sam as a post-Blip government contractor, basically a one-man private army. Google Blackwater's earnings, and roll your eyes at the simultaneous suggestion that Sam had no money to save the family boat. I loved that boat, though, and kept waiting for the show to get back to it. How would the Wilson kids save their legacy? It was a relatable, financial drama. Turns out all they had to do was call family friends. If it was that easy, we'd all have boats.
I don't know who decided that Sam and Bucky should squabble precisely like Hobbs and Shaw, complete with a requisite Don't flirt with my sister! joke. Their buddy act foregrounded limp action storytelling. Sam kept his cellphone on during a meeting with a dangerous crimelord. Bucky climbed into a truck full of smuggled vaccines, and the truck behind him just kept moving, as if the driver couldn't clearly see a cyborg-armed ultra-man checking out all those stolen goods. The finale needed one kidnapped diplomat in a helicopter to be a Philippine Air Force vet with flight training. This is lazy plotting, as unforgivable as assuming we didn't immediately know who the Power Broker was.
You can put quote marks around bad writing and pretend it's all a laugh. Marvel is the kind of universe where a random barfly on Crime Island jokes about Bucky's new haircut. Viewers freaked out about one and a half seconds of Zemo dancing. Sam's Captain America outfit looked so so uncool, but ridiculousness isn't always a bad thing. It could have been worse, another Dark Knighty conglomeration of kevlar. Those ski goggles, though....
Were you moved by the new Cap's big speech to the Global Repatriation Council? Personally, I was still reeling from the show's utter inability to see a monster in its midst. John Walker was not a good guy. He killed a man in cold blood in front of cameras, in front of the world. This week of all weeks, that's a potent storyline: Law enforcement run amok. I thought the first five episodes clearly realized he was an unwieldy vehicle for what Captain America represented. But you could feel a strong Disney influence towards back-pedaling moderation, and then outright retrograde behavior. Wasn't he justified? And can't we forgive our renegade guardsmen their occasional excesses? Walker wound up cheekily quoting Abraham Lincoln as a bit of heroic banter. Go to hell, U.S. Agent, and take the 1980s with you.
The outline of this series suggested sky-high ambitions: An investigation into a symbol as old as mainstream comic books, itself a reflection of our country's founding myth. Chris Evans' First Avenger loomed large over all. "The danger with people like him, America's super-soldiers, is that we put them on pedestals," Zemo said. "They become symbols, icons, and then we start to forget about their flaws." Of course, it was Zemo saying it, such an obvious bad guy that he put on his purple mask from the comics just for a trailer moment. Complicated heroes are not Marvel's bag. "Steve didn't put you in jail!" Sam told Isaiah. Did Steve Rogers ever do anything wrong? Nobody could think of anything. After all, he did save the universe.
The irony, of course, is that Steve did do something wrong. For a spin-off that huffed so many Civil War fumes, it's striking how nobody ever mentioned the one time Captain America kissed his first love's great-niece. Sorry, sorry: His wife's great-niece, whooo, time travel! That wild romantic mishap sure shows something a bit off in the Boy Scout act. Material like that is halfway to Vertigo, and could've offered some vital (if bananas) texture to Sharon's turn to amorality.
But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was more interested in retreading the megafranchise's greatest hits. Zemo mourned at the Sokovia monument, so much bad CGI that I was waiting for one of the faces to wink. Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) was back, who cares. There were squirrel suits, and I know squirrel suits are so dangerous, but they always look dumb. Bucky told Yori he killed his son, and then the scene ended right when it should have started. The closing scenes revealed a soldier is a secret Flag Smasher, not be confused with all the secret Skrulls, or whatever version of a S.H.I.E.L.D. thing the Contessa represents. And Sam is the new Captain America, which means a random government guy in a suit can walk up to him in the street and ask him to get the last Flag Smasher from the Hudson.
I want to believe this dire six-part action movie was just an unnecessary origin story, a very long prologue to an actual new kind of adventure about the first Black Captain America's difficult journey through a difficult world. But right here, at a moment of triumph, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier showed all its cards. Who has the real power: The icon the public adores — or all those faceless government guys in their suits? Heroes and symbols can be flawed. But maybe the real problem is the pedestal, which gives the rubes something to worship while the real power brokers fly free. D
NOTE: An early version of this review mentioned a nightclub scene in X-Men: The Last Stand. That sequence is actually set in a broken church, where everyone just sort of looks dressed for a nightclub. The actual nightclub scene was in X-Men: Apocalypse. I've never regretted an error more.