We are now a third of the way through The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Funny how time flies, huh? The longer these Disney+ Marvel shows go on, the easier it will be to just get used to them as a weekly installment of life.
This week's episode makes the right choice at the beginning, taking us a bit into the head of Wyatt Russell's John Walker, who emerged as the new Captain America in the final moments of last week's premiere to the shock of both characters in the show and real-life viewers. Here, he takes a victory lap by returning to his high school (which boasts an incredibly flexible marching band) to shake hands ahead of a football game and have a public TV interview. He seems relatively modest and humble despite his accomplishments (even before being given Cap's vibranium shield he apparently won the Medal of Honor multiple times), but he's also not going away anytime soon.
Shortly after this is the scene that played a lot in the trailers leading up to the show's premiere, banter between Sam and Bucky in which Sam names a "big three" of bad guy archetypes: Aliens, androids, and wizards. I think I have to side with Bucky in this argument, and not just because he makes a reference to The Hobbit. Unless I'm grievously mistaken, I really don't think wizards are going to be a problem in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. For one thing, we just went through WandaVision. For another, the antagonists of this show so far are alarmingly down to Earth.
With their masks, their dedication to "revolutionary violence," and their opposition to traditional power structures, the Flag-Smashers come off like the "antifa super-soldiers" of deranged conspiracy theories. But what thankfully stops this dynamic from being too close to real-life political dynamics is that the Flag-Smashers' main target is a thing that doesn't exist in our world: The Global Repatriation Council, which apparently came into being after the events of Avengers: Endgame to help restore international society to normal after the Blip. The way the Flag-Smasher see it, the GPC "cares more about the people who came back than the people who never left." Leader Karli Morgenthau declares the group's mission statement: "We can't let the assholes who were put back in power after the Blip win." You may recognize that actress as Erin Kellyman, who played Enfys Nest in Solo: A Star Wars Story, another character who seemed villainous until her sympathetic perspective as a forerunner of the Rebel Alliance was revealed.
This perspective from the Flag-Smashers picks up on what I always thought was one of the most interesting elements of Endgame: The idea that there were some benefits to Thanos' mass extinction event. I'm particularly haunted by the line in that movie where they mention coral reefs regenerating and the environment starting to heal a bit, so it makes sense that some people in this brave new world would want to bring back some elements of Blip society. I'm also tempted to sympathize with the Flag-Smashers because they remind me of the Red Lotus from Legend of Korra, the best villains in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe as far as I'm concerned. Like the Flag-Smashers, the Red Lotus also sought to erase borders between nations and were similarly more powerful than the heroes gave them credit for at first.
I was only kind of kidding with the "antifa super-soldiers" reference because the Flag-Smashers are literally super-soldiers! This episode's action setpiece involves a brawl with a bunch of them on top of two moving trucks. It's like something out of Stirling Archer's wildest dreams. The great thing about this fight is that it involves not just Sam and Bucky, but also John Walker and his buddy Lamar Hoskins when they arrive as back-up. It's not quite as impressive as the Sam sequence that kicked off the premiere, but obviously, they put a lot of effort into that one to start the show on a high note, so this one makes up for the difference in size and scale with more combatants.
Fake Captain America wields a pistol in addition to the shield, which I guess shouldn't surprise me since Marvel comics readers know Bucky also sported one during his time as Captain America, but it's still such an alarming visual (similarly shocking as seeing Batman shooting guns in Zack Snyder movies). But whatever one thinks of Captain America's gun, it doesn't really make a difference. All four of them get their butts kicked, and the Flag-Smashers get away.
How are there a bunch of super-soldiers running around that nobody knew about? It's a great question that leads to what is easily my favorite scene in the episode. Bucky takes Sam to visit an old enemy (which means he's a good guy, since we're talking about Bucky's HYDRA days). It's Isaiah Bradley, the Black super-soldier. He used to be one of HYDRA's greatest fears, the guy the U.S. military could send to take care of problems in that interregnum between Steve's disappearance and the rise of the modern Avengers. Apparently, he fought Bucky in the Korean War, and won: "I took half that metal arm in Goyang." But Isaiah was also Black in the '50s, which means he wasn't exactly rewarded for service to his country. Instead, he was imprisoned for decades and experimented on, with scientists constantly drawing his blood and hoping to replicate the super-soldier serum running through his veins. He can't even talk about it for too long without getting so mad he throws them out of the house.
Sam is shocked. Unlike Bucky, he had no idea that a Black super-soldier existed. Maybe that was part of his reluctance to take up the shield: He couldn't wrap his head around the idea of a Black super-soldier. Yet there's a living legacy that he can inherit. The question is, why would he want to? Look how they treated Isaiah. When Sam and Bucky get into one of their trademark arguments on the way out, they're stopped by a cop who doesn't recognize Sam and gets too confrontational. What is the point of dedicating your life to a system that constantly treats you like dirt? Maybe the Flag-Smashers have a point.
Okay, time to nerd out for a second. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier clearly isn't as much of a puzzle box as WandaVision was, so I won't be plying you all with nearly as many insane theories. But that young man standing next to Isaiah and letting his guests in and out of the house is obviously his grandson, Eli Bradley. In Marvel comics, Eli Bradley is Patriot, a founding member of the Young Avengers. Who else are founding members of the Young Avengers, you ask? Well, there's Kate Bishop, who will be played by Hailee Steinfeld in the upcoming Hawkeye show. There's Billy Kaplan, who we just met in WandaVision (and who we know is still out there somewhere). There's Cassie Lang, who exists in the Ant-Man movies. America Chavez may not have been a founding member of the Young Avengers, but she's certainly an integral one, and she'll be arriving soon in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. If the upcoming Loki show ends with Loki getting de-aged to being a kid or teenager I will lose my mind. I can't wait for the Young Avengers to form!
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh right, the rest of this episode. There's a bit of a clever reversal to that scene with Bucky, Sam, and the cop. Though at first, it seems like the cop's energy is directed entirely at Sam, the scene ends with Bucky being arrested for missing one of his court-mandated therapy sessions. This therapist is no joke! She takes on both Bucky and Sam at once in a new session, and after it's done they decide to go meet with someone even worse: Zemo. As much fun I've had in the first two hours of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, they have been decidedly lacking in Daniel Bruhl. Interested to see what he brings to the proceedings. Grade: B
Chancellor's Take: For me, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier's series premiere conjured up unfavorable comparisons to the Marvel-Netflix shows because it shared their sluggish, "six-hour movie" pacing. This week's "The Star-Spangled Man," however, reminded me of those super-shows of yesteryear in a great way.
Like Christian, I thought the Isaiah Bradley scene was the highlight of the episode. Hearing about how Isaiah's government-endorsed heroism was rewarded with his imprisonment and inhumane Tuskegee-like experimentations was truly heartbreaking. That entire exchange, though, immediately made me think of The Punisher season 1, which used a traumatized veteran to criticize how the U.S. government turns men into killers, sends them off to fight in wars abroad, and then cast them aside once they return home and have understandable trouble readjusting to civilian life. Of course, that vicious cycle was even worse for a Black man, because Black people's humanity is almost always in question in this country. On top of that, casting Carl Lumbly, who portrayed both manipulated spy Marcus Dixon on Alias and lonely alien refugee Martian Manhunter on Justice League Unlimited, added another layer to an already powerful scene. Through both of those performances, Lumbly showed he knew how to play someone scarred by the things he did as a government soldier during a war. (The Isaiah scene also reminded me of how Black Lightning handled Gravedigger, a Black World War II super-soldier who defected from America after the war because of racism.)
Beyond that, though, I'm just glad this episode didn't waste any time throwing Sam and Bucky together. As you may recall, Mackie and Stan not sharing scenes was my biggest complaint about the premiere, but "The Star-Spangled Man" more than makes up for the lack. In any show like this, there's always the risk that competitive banter can sound overwritten and unnatural, but that's not the case with these two actors whose chemistry feels absolutely effortless. Their salty back-and-forths made me laugh so much that there were times when I stopped feeling uncomfortable about the show's military propaganda aspects of the show. I think my favorite one was Bucky telling Sam about his time in Wakanda:
Sam: Look at you all stealthy. A little time in Wakanda and you come out White Panther.
Bucky: It's actually White Wolf.