*sighs in long-suffering Marvel fan*
Hello, fellow kids.
We need to talk about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I have Thoughts, and I’m afraid most of them aren’t positive.
I didn’t want to write this post. (*voice from the peanut gallery* “No one said you HAD to write it!”) But seriously. I didn’t want to critique The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I wanted the show to be good! I hate it when people trash a show because it’s “cool” to hate on popular stuff, or because they can gain followers by stirring up controversy. That’s just clickbait, not honest, thoughtful commentary.
But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier–henceforth referred to as FatWS for the sake of brevity–was, honestly, not very good. As a Marvel fan, I’m disappointed. As a writer, I’m surprised, given how skillfully WandaVision was handled. You’d think the creative team would have taken a similar approach and displayed a similar skill. But alas, they did not.
Let’s talk about it.
Like Wandavision, FatWS tells the story of a world thrown into chaos by the Blip. (Thanos made half the globe’s population disappear; five years later, the Avengers brought them back.) The people who survived the Blip are now treated as illegal aliens, forced out of their homes to make room for those returning. Meanwhile, a terrorist organization called the Flag Smashers protests these injustices through acts of violence and murder. Heavy political themes, for sure.
On a more personal level, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are both missing their best friend, Steve Rogers. Sam doesn’t feel ready to take up the Captain America mantle Steve left him. He turns Cap’s shield over to the government, assuming (naively) they’ll keep it in a museum. They don’t. They anoint a “new Cap,” some white boy from Texas with PTSD and a boatload of aggression issues. Not exactly the guy you want handling one of the world’s most powerful objects.
So, the stage is set for some spicy drama. But FatWS doesn’t live up to the spiciness of its premise. Much of it ultimately feels messy, confusing, and above all, boring. How do you make a show about JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES boring????? I SHALL NOT FORGIVE THIS INJURY, MARVEL. I shall lie in wait and extract my revenge. 😛
How do you make Bucky Barnes boring? You lose him in an alphabet soup of antagonists, secondary antagonists, and potential antagonists so thick that your audience has no idea what’s going on.
This show has no villain. It has a bunch of villainous candidates whom the writers are flirting with, but they’re afraid to commit to any one. They’re afraid to make any of these characters truly “evil.” I don’t mean they’re not making them violent enough (on the contrary, there’s some pretty graphic violence in FatWS). But every time one of our antagonists does something cruel or violent, the writers rush to reassure us “they’re not really bad, they’re just misunderstood.” Without fail. Every time.
It gets old, y’all. It gets old.
For example, let’s talk about Karli Morgenthau, the leader of the Flag Smashers. I cannot believe how much time and energy the writers wasted trying to make this girl sympathetic. They tried everything! They gave her a ridiculous number of POV scenes. They played sad music whenever she talked. They gave her a cute boyfriend making puppy dog eyes at her or whatever. They gave her a Kind Mentor Figure tragically dying of cancer. They let her grab the spotlight whenever she wanted to spout vague platitudes about “one world, one people” and “today’s heroes can’t afford to keep their hands clean.” (yes, really. that was an actual line in this show. do you understand why I am angry. :P) And yet NONE of it, absolutely NONE of it, cancels out the fact that she CHAINED A BUNCH OF INNOCENT PEOPLE TO THE FLOOR AND THEN BLEW UP THE BUILDING THEY WERE IN.
ON PURPOSE. SHE KILLED THEM ON PURPOSE.
So you’ll forgive me if Karli’s Tragic Death Scene, where she whispers “I’m so sorry” before Sam Wilson bridal-carries her dead body into the streets for the populace to Mourn over, failed to invoke any emotional response except “huh?”
If I had a nickel for every time this show told me (note: telling, not showing) that I was supposed to feel sorry for Karli Morgenthau, I’d be rich. We were also told, not shown, that Karli is a powerful leader with thousands of followers across the globe willing to carry out her lightest order. This was never explained, and never seems plausible. She’s a teenager! And it’s only been six months since the Blip ended! Are you telling me this eighteen-year-old built a powerhouse organization from the ground up in six months???
“But Katie,” you may be thinking, “maybe this girl was never intended to be the real villain of the story. Maybe you should be looking at a different antagonist.” That’s the problem, though. Which one? There’s no single antagonist who can plausibly replace her. The majority of Sam and Bucky’s time is spent fighting Karli. The biggest threat in the series finale comes from Karli. If she’s not a villain, why are we fighting her?
(Also, Karli, uhhhhhhhhhhhh, called Sam’s sister and threatened to murder her two children, so jot THAT fun fact down.)
I said there was no single antagonist who could plausibly challenge Karli, and there isn’t. That’s because there are MULTIPLE antagonists competing for scattered narrative attention. John Walker, the Captain America wannabe I mentioned earlier, has a surprisingly strong character arc where he loses his best friend, injects himself with super-soldier serum and goes on a murderous rampage, literally decapitating a helpless man with Cap’s shield. When I saw that, I thought for sure Walker would be the series’ ultimate villain, and I would’ve applauded that choice. Who hasn’t wondered what an “evil Cap” would look like, after all?
But … Walker “turns good” again in the finale after listening to Sam Wilson talk about Humanity and Brotherhood for two minutes, so pour one out for another dropped story thread, lads.
Oh, and we mustn’t forget: Baron Zemo from Captain America: Civil War makes an appearance in FatWS! I don’t really have any complaints about Zemo’s character: he was entertaining to watch, and the writers didn’t force us to sympathize with him. But Zemo adds yet another face to an already crowded story, and he doesn’t have much reason for being here except by leading us to another shadowy villain … the Power Broker.
The Power Broker runs a crime city in Indonesia (I think it was Indonesia?? don’t quote me on that, there’s a ton of location-hopping in this show and it’s confusing). Until the last episode, we never see the Power Broker, and know nothing about them except they paid for the development of the super-soldier serum which Karli Morgenthau stole. They’re quite ticked about this theft, by the way. They’re so ticked, they send TWO WHOLE TEXT MESSAGES to our dear Karli, threatening to do something bad to her. Much scary. Such intimidate. Wow.
(I told you this show’s villain game is weak.)
Anywayyyyyyyyyy, in the last episode, the Power Broker is revealed to be–drumroll, please!–Peggy Carter’s niece Sharon.
Remember her? The nice, inoffensive, never-particularly-well-fleshed-out love interest from the Captain America movies?
Yeah, she’s a supervillain now.
“But maybe it’s a misunderstanding,” you think. “Maybe Sharon isn’t the BAD kind of power-broker-criminal-mastermind. Maybe she’s just trying to right some wrongs and get some stuff done without worrying about the red tape for once–”
Nope. She tries to kill Sam. Sharon literally pays a guy to murder Sam Wilson. Sam Wilson, our hero … and her former friend.
Even worse? We never get a true exploration of Sharon’s motives for her newfound villainy. We get one (1) scene where she talks about her motivations, but this scene doesn’t explain why Sharon is the Power Broker, because it comes well before the audience suspects her of being the Power Broker. Instead, Sharon is posing as a small-time art thief, and when Sam and Bucky ask her for help, she’s like, “nah, fam, the last time I helped you guys (ie, in Civil War), I was branded an outlaw by the U.S. government and I’ve never been given a pardon. So I steal paintings now.” Which is all fine and dandy, as an explanation for why this character might be cynical and apathetic and not interested in saving the world. It emphatically does NOT explain why she’s actively aiming for world domination and ruthlessly targeting anybody who stands in her way, INCLUDING HER OWN FRIENDS.
Small-time criminal? Sure. Supervillain? Nope. It’s too jarring a change with too little character work to support it.
Nevertheless, the writers seem to believe they can sell Sharon Carter as one of the “next big baddies” of the MCU. Since they killed Karli and let John Walker’s arc peter out, Sharon is the last villain left standing at the end of FatWS. She’s the only real development to come out of this show. She’s the only major change to the status quo. If she’s supposed to be so important, the writing team should have focused on her. Scratch Karli and John Walker, and let Sharon Carter be the sole antagonist. Establish the Power Broker as a genuine threat, not just a shadowy figure sending vague text messages. Establish Sharon herself as a character who could believably make such dark, cruel choices. Put in the work, guys.
I’m focusing on the antagonists in this post because the show itself focuses so heavily on them, flitting between its various villain candidates to the point of exhaustion … and leaving relatively little time to develop our heroes, Sam and Bucky. Karli Morgenthau and John Walker eat up enormous amounts of screentime between them. Their protracted angst casts a pall over the whole story. The fact that much of it is shot under cloudy skies with a weird greenish filter doesn’t help, either. (Seriously, Marvel? We all know green filters are DC’s thing!)
Was it too much to ask for a simple buddy-cop show starring Sam and Bucky, with witty banter and fast-paced adventures every week, plus an unapologetically evil, properly intimidating villain to be quashed in satisfying fashion in the series finale?
That’s the thing. Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie thrive on banter. They thrive on fun, jaunty action sequences. You cannot throw them into a Deep (TM) political drama stuffed to the gills with murky angst and expect them to shine.
I’m not going to get into the political themes here, because I don’t feel up to a lengthy discussion of them. I will say that Isaiah Bradley’s story, as a Black supersoldier from the Korean War who endured unjust imprisonment and medical experimentation at the hands of the U.S. government, was deeply important, and I’m glad it was included. However, I was uncomfortable with the way the narrative treated Isaiah, especially in Episode Five, as an “obstacle” to be “proven wrong.” (Based on his own experiences, Isaiah thinks the United States is too deeply and systemically racist to accept a Black man as Captain America … but his testimony is included for the sole purpose of being knocked down by Sam, and just … yeah. It felt problematic to me.)
There were good moments in FatWS, to be sure. Bucky’s flashback to his de-programming in Wakanda tops that list. A truly memorable performance. And of course, the “couples therapy” in Episode Two was iconic. But ultimately, this story mired itself in messy writing, heavy-handed preachiness, and weak villains, to the degree that I just found it depressing overall.
Here’s hoping Loki (out June 11) will be better.
What did you think of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier?
Chat with me!