Television

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Wasn’t as Groundbreaking as It Thought It Was

We were promised a show with something to say. We got iffy fight scenes and empty speeches.

Sam Wilson holds Captain America's shield.
Oh Captain, my Captain. Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

In the sixth and final episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the expected happens: Sam Wilson becomes Captain America. His transition from the Falcon, former Captain America Steve Rogers’ right-hand man, into Cap himself was predestined. Ever since Steve handed his famous shield to Sam at the end of Avengers: Endgame, it seemed obvious that only he could carry on the hero’s legacy.

I wish I could call this conclusion satisfying. In a sense, it is—we have a Black Captain America! For a Black man to now embody one of Marvel’s marquee heroes is a significant direction for the slowly diversifying Cinematic Universe to take. But Sam assumes the role only after nearly six plodding, aimless hours of Marvel movie-lite action and tepidly explored, sometimes conflicting themes. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (or Captain America and the Winter Soldier, as it’s renamed at the end) was not the thoughtful treatise on race it positioned itself to be, nor was it a compelling interstitial between big-screen Marvel movies. The entire show landed with a thud, rudderless and overly long and ultimately, disappointingly, forgettable.

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The series was presaged with promises of challenging material unlike any Marvel product before it. Created by Malcolm Spellman, whose previous credits include Black-led series like Empire, the show was framed as one that would be overtly concerned with race. There were Black people on the creative side; how Sam’s Blackness complicates his relationship to heroism would be acknowledged; so too would economic and social inequalities that all Black people face in this country. And these things did appear in the series to some degree, like with a subplot featuring Sam’s sister and her business struggles, compounded by the “Blip” that saw half the population disappear for years after Avengers: Infinity War. The introduction of a comic book character whose history is explicitly tied up in anti-Black racism—Isaiah Bradley, who was once in the running for Captain America himself—also lent credence to the idea that Falcon and the Winter Soldier would be the most overtly Black Marvel project since Black Panther. (There’s even a cameo from the Wakandan soldier Ayo.)

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But these themes hardly register as any more weighty or important than all the other things that the show is concerned with. Boy, are there are lot of other things: Sam and his new bestie Bucky travel to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and both the South and the East Coast in order to do superhero-y things. They wax poetic about why they shall not kill, all while blowing up tons of fighter jets and smashing dudes’ faces in. Meanwhile, the show spends a ton of time giving some boring characterization to John Walker, the newly anointed Captain America and misguided, ambiguously evil dude that Sam will eventually take over for. And don’t get me started on how much space was allotted to the drama between the U.S. and the anti-nationalist Flag Smashers, fronted by the ultra-boring villain Karli Morgenthau.

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What all of this amounts to is a middling Marvel movie stretched out three times the length it needs to be. With all of these ideas and characters and plotlines to juggle, the show’s journey to the presumed end goal of introducing Sam Wilson as the new Captain America is a zig-zagging mess. The series’ importance to the Marvel canon is irrefutable, but its place within it is disappointing: A gripping, fun, provocative adventure, this is not.

Perhaps the sting of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s wan run is compounded by the existence of WandaVision, the preceding Marvel miniseries that ended on a similarly flat note but at least played around with the TV medium in intriguing ways. Plus, that show used its time more wisely: WandaVision’s episodes never went past the 40-minute mark, unlike its follow-up’s regularly TV drama-length runtimes. And WandaVision was keenly aware that it was a TV show, at least in the pastiches that defined its most interesting episodes. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is very clearly a miniseries meant to bridge a gap and shoehorned onto TV because there’s no room (or budget) for it in theaters. By stuffing it onto Disney Plus, Marvel can just cut to the chase next time it uses Sam on the big screen. That seems to be the point with all of these Marvel shows; it’s what ended up ruining WandaVision in the end, too, when its true allegiance to the MCU release calendar and format—basically laying the track for the Scarlet Witch to turn up in the Doctor Strange sequel and the possible return of the still-dead Vision—became blatant. Both series ended up wasting their potential, coming across as ill-conceived TV shows when they could have been slightly more successful as TV movies.

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s bigger fault, though, is how badly it squandered its potential to be meaningful to people who aren’t obsessed with Marvel lore. Intertwining the reality of race into the superhero genre is an admirable goal, and one that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier teased in its more intriguing moments. It just never had the attention span or sincere interest in exploring what it means to be a Black man with influence in a predominantly white, exclusionary, dangerous world. Ultimately, this Marvel series cared mostly about one thing: How to make it to the next Marvel series.

A message from Slate culture editor Forrest Wickman: In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! 

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