Who is Captain America now? What is Captain America now?
That's one of many questions left dangling at the end of Marvel's 2019 ultra-team-up film "Avengers: Endgame," after Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) goes back in time and decides to stay there. And it's the central question underpinning Marvel's latest Disney+ series, "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," (streaming Fridays, ★★½ out of four) a six-episode miniseries about two of Steve's best friends.
Also known as Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), respectively, the pair played second fiddle to Steve on the big screen, appearing mostly in the "Captain America" films (Bucky was introduced in 2011's "The First Avenger" and Sam in 2014's "The Winter Soldier"). This Disney+ series is their chance to shine, and more importantly for the big business of Marvel, a chance to launch a new version of Cap (both Falcon and Winter Solider had a run at the mantle in the comic books).
But do two lesser-known Avengers and roughly six hours of screen time make a good TV show? Or is it just another overlong, disorganized film, like Disney+'s first original Marvel series, "WandaVision"?
It's difficult to offer a full assessment of "Falcon" based on the single episode Disney+ made available for review. Full of big action set pieces that fans of the "Captain America" films will love, "Falcon" also manages a surprising amount of quiet introspection, including ruminations on guilt and family. The premiere shows promise, even if it is slow and plodding.
Although we're able to go more deeply into Sam and Bucky's lives than ever before – meeting Sam's sister, seeing Bucky on a date – we still lack a true understanding of these men. The superficial insight offered thus far is almost worse than keeping big, broad heroes as ciphers. At least when they're larger than life, the picture is pleasingly fuzzy. Once the first "Falcon" episode starts to dig into their psyches, the gaps in the characters' storylines stand out. Whether subsequent episodes can develop Sam and Bucky beyond surface level remains to be seen.
The series opens with Sam, to whom Cap gifted his famous shield at the end of "Endgame," wielding it in a not-so-subtle passing of the torch. Only Sam hasn't taken it quite so literally. Feeling like it's not rightfully his, Sam is still out doing hero work, running covert ops missions for the Air Force, but he's just wearing his Falcon gear.
His bigger fight is at home in Louisiana, where his sister and her sons spent five years without him during the "blip," in which half the characters in the Marvel universe were magically erased by the villain Thanos, only to be just as magically brought back at the end of "Endgame." As Sam tries to help his sister cling to her flailing family business, we see a side of him that is less swagger and more insecure (and the series asks the question of whether superheroes have salaries, which is surely on everyone's minds).
Bucky, meanwhile, is in therapy, a condition of his pardon, seemingly granted for his many decades working as a mind-controlled assassin for the terrorist organization Hydra. He is trying to make amends, and while his doctor insists he does so without violence, he is less than gentle when he arranges the arrest of a corrupt politician he once served. His life is pretty quiet, though, and he spends his days eating lunch with an old man and playing Battleship on a date. But it's also clear that he's still haunted by what he's done, even if he had no control over himself.
Those expecting something trippy, twisty and bright like "WandaVision" have come to the wrong corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. "Falcon" is a much darker, more by-the-book superpower tale. But what "Falcon" shares with "WandaVision" is a love of cliffhangers and a lazy sense of pacing. Despite two genuinely exciting action sequences, the "Falcon" premiere feels slow, treading water before the story can actually begin. Sam and Bucky don't even meet up in the episode.
For those who love the punchy, kicky, international espionage Marvel movies, "Falcon" will likely check all the boxes. But after watching one episode, I can't help but want more, and it's unclear whether the series will go deeper.
But maybe I'll be surprised.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier' review: It's no 'Captain America'