12:00 pm EDT, March 18, 2021

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ review: Getting there on a wing and a prayer

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier soars onto Disney+ Friday, March 19. What’s in store for fans of these disparate heroes?

Okay, let’s start with the real talk; this isn’t exactly a proper The Falcon and the Winter Soldier review.

Only one episode of Disney+’s premiere-turned-runner-up Marvel TV series (shifted behind the weird and wildfire WandaVision due to COVID constraints) has been made available for critics. That means that this will be less an assessment of the series and more a speculative evaluation of its potential.

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ review

With that out of the way though, the pilot episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at least offers quite a lot of grist for that particular mill. Though it begins in the standard fashion — the pilot kicks off with a classic Marvel action set piece that clocks in at nearly ten solid minutes — the rest of the episode is unexpectedly ruminatory and surprisingly understated.

Oh, we’re certainly not in Westview anymore… but we’re not as thematically distant from serialized therapy as you might expect.

Grief was the prevailing theme of WandaVision, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier pilot makes it clear that neither Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are strangers to that struggle. Tragedy, both personal and global, is already an evident theme in the premiere, the absence of Steve Rogers immediately standing in for a wide and painful spectrum of loss.

falcon and the winter soldier

What’s more, regret — a partner to grief that WandaVision elided somewhat — plays even more directly into Sam and Bucky’s experiences. Wanda’s agony was, at the very least, specific. For the Falcon and the former Winter Soldier, their list of regrets is diverse, ominously dense, and growing by the hour.

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A magnet for attention and the public eye, Sam Wilson grapples with the regret of a choice he didn’t make, and the global expectations that accompany it. Steve Rogers’ decision to bestow Captain America’s shield upon him was, after all, nothing that Sam had asked for. The empty mantel of Captain America lurks at the corner of his vision, threatening to swallow his own life if he lets it.

But Sam struggles too with a world and a family that has changed radically since his return. Unmoored (quite literally) from the solid ground of his life, even Sam’s heroics prove to be an unreliable currency in his new slate of struggles.

Bucky Barnes meanwhile, is less phased by the loss of five years of his life. (This is, understandably, not as pressing of a concern for a young man living on the far side of 100.) But anonymous and lonely, he is for the first time in almost a century mostly without guidance. Having left behind the murderous identity of the Winter Soldier, Barnes’ struggle is a dark reflection of Captain America’s.

The perennial soldier “pretending he can live without a war” has also woken in a shattered world — but unlike Steve, Bucky has broken much of it himself.

falcon and the winter soldier bucky barnes

Weighing out the minutes between its dual heroes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiere spends most of its time exposing Bucky and Sam two men experiencing a very similar kind of pain — but with wildly different ways of dealing with it.

That distinction is important, as the differences between Sam and Bucky have traditionally been played for comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And with good reason — Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan make for a charmingly wry and reliably snarky odd couple, easily punctuating pitched battles and low-key dialogue with engaging sparks of high contrast.

Related: Disney+ unveils epic first trailer for ‘Falcon and the Winter Soldier’

But the premiere episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is more concerned with the real and personal significance of these differences. This is not the hour of two cantankerous heroes squabbling for their bestest friend Captain America’s attention. It’s time for a hopefully-nuanced conflict between two people with a connection they resent, several shared problems, and extremely divergent solutions.

falcon and the winter soldier sam shield

True to his moniker, Sam’s response to his troubles is to move so fast that they simply can’t catch him. It’s not exactly avoidance as much as it is a game and understandable attempt at distractive multitasking.

In the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam is a ceaseless whirlwind of movement, ducking and weaving through international crises, domestic power-games, and hometown responsibilities. It’s an instantly more nuanced picture of Sam, whose bright smile remains, even if his attitude has gained a few shadows; and it portends a compelling fallout should the Falcon find something unshakable on his tail.

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

In counterpoint to Sam’s kinetic energy, Bucky is stuck in stasis. With Steve Rogers having exited stage right, Bucky’s only real connection to the 21st century has disappeared, leaving him with mostly bad memories for company. Like Sam, Bucky isn’t intentionally burrowing away from his problems; he’s just so deep in the pit of the Winter Soldier’s deeds that it’s easier to dig down than forge a way up and out.

falcon and the winter soldier bucky sneak

With all of this psychological context to slot in place, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiere acts more like a prologue than an opening act. The story lays out several key pieces in careful positions, while holding (many) others back for later use. It’s an unusually reserved opening for a series projected at only six episodes, but (apart from a few rashes of intensely clunky dialogue and the occasional baffling hyper-closeup) all of the gears in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier pilot chug along quite effectively.

Yes, the opening fight scene might overstay its welcome somewhat, but it is exhilarating to watch, and a well-deserved solo turn for the grace, fluidity, and power of the Falcon. Throughout the hour minor characters spark with immediate effectiveness, Sam’s sister Sarah Wilson (Adepero Oduye) and one very professional therapist (Amy Aquino) making particular impressions.

And threatening shapes resolve gradually from the shadows, promising looming political, emotional, and super-extremely-physical conflict soon to come.

falcon and the winter soldier bucky sam

Being a fairly understated enterprise, the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier leaves the series’ thematic intentions remain fairly vague. Some references in the premiere suggest that the series might morph into acidic social cynicism; others portend unity across differences, or unattainable change, or the rosy necessity of heroes.

By the end of the hour though, it is at least clear that the troubled heads of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are at least as important to showrunner Malcom Spellman as the strength of their metal arms and wings. There will certainly be spectacle and flash-bangs to come; but if the pilot is any indication, it will be well-grounded in two people whose extraordinary circumstances only leaves them more essentially human.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres on Disney+ on Friday, March 19.

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