▶︎ The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (six episodes) is streaming on Disney+, with a new episode every Friday.

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After the reality-bending WandaVision, Marvel’s second series created for the Disney+ streaming service posts a ‘back to normal’ notice. Staying away from the meta stuff, New World Order – the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – smoothly continues the serialised superheroics-with-soap format of earlier MCU TV efforts, the network series Agent Carter and Agents of SHIELD, and Netflix skeins with ‘street-level’ characters like Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

An extended opening finds Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), aka the Falcon, using robot-wings in Bond-style action (distantly evoking flying hero serials like King of the Rocket Men) against an as-yet-nebulous bad guy organisation whose USP bizarrely chimes with the UK Twitterstorm of the week (they’re the Flag Smashers, and hate all patriotic symbols). Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the Winter Soldier, is in therapy, working on personal reparations for the harm he did when brainwashed as a Soviet assassin (it’s a long backstory). Conveniently, he spends the couch session on a flashback that shows off his action chops.

In this first episode, the title characters never meet – but they triangulate on the not-exactly-dead Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, who is a big absence in this fictional world and their lives. Bucky was Steve’s pal in World War II and now inherits the man-out-of-time theme, while Sam befriended the defrosted Captain America in Captain America The Winter Soldier.

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)

As in WandaVision, this series gives supporting actors who’ve tended to get lost in melées – Bucky was a plot point rather than much of a presence in Captain America Civil War – a shot at something more nuanced. It may be a calculated payoff for the studio’s policy of casting overqualified performers. If talent signing on as mid-list characters get a platform down the line as strong as that afforded Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, it’s worth putting up with green screen, a wire harness and upstaging by Spider-Man. Mackie and Stan show some range, but so far their roles feel constrained – especially since a Disney+ series seems unlikely to address the particular elephant in this particular room.

Recently, Marvel Comics earned wokeness points by declaring that a new character will be the first openly gay Captain America – though cynics note this announcement retrospectively shoves Steve Rogers in a closet to straightwash The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which could easily be interpreted as a fractious team-up of Steve’s two ex-boyfriends. It’s implicit that Sam or Bucky could both wield the shield (as they have, at various times, in the comics) but the cast list also includes Wyatt Russell – barely-glimpsed in this episode – as John Walker, aka the Cap-styled US Agent (created in comics as the first openly Republican Captain America, since Steve is by implication an FDR Democrat). It seems likely drama will develop around superheroic succession, though a lot of time is spent establishing that Sam’s sister is struggling to keep the family’s small fishing business afloat – suggesting a B- or C-story that’ll root the conflicts in real-world problems.

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson / Falcon, Amy Aquino as the therapist and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier

So far, the mission of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is to deliver a Cap-less Captain America series with cinematic action and conspiracy-theory plot complications. To this end, it’s handy that the Flag Smashers have recruited savate-specialist Batroc, with kickboxer Georges St-Pierre returning from The Winter Soldier, to provide the Falcon with a worthy opponent in fight scenes (a rarity in Marvel projects, where heroes more often fight each other).

It’s a risk to build a pop-appeal series around characters who feel they can’t measure up to an absent ideal – embedding the inferiority complex serialised TV has in the shadow of the cinema into the actual plot. But, at Marvel, the weaker, more troubled heroes often make for the strongest drama.

Further reading

WandaVision presents a bold, old-school spin on Marvel stalwarts

By Kim Newman

WandaVision presents a bold, old-school spin on Marvel stalwarts

Jessica Jones: the antihero we need

By Charlotte Richardson Andrews

Jessica Jones: the antihero we need

Zack Snyder’s Justice League reloads for the streaming wars

By Tim Hayes

Zack Snyder’s Justice League reloads for the streaming wars

The Mandalorian Season 2 seeks hope in a bruised and battered galaxy

By Rebecca Harrison

The Mandalorian Season 2 seeks hope in a bruised and battered galaxy

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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