Like WandaVision earlier than it, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier brings two Marvel supporting heroes to the fore. On one hand, The Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) debates taking on the Captain America mantle as a Black public determine, whereas on the opposite, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) seeks to make amends for his crimes as the scary murderer The Winter Soldier. The perform of each characters is to wrestle between actions and beliefs, a dilemma mirrored all through the collection by the villain Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), albeit in a politically muddled method. Nonetheless, a much more cogent embodiment of this theme is the present’s secondary antagonist: John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the government-appointed Captain America alternative.
Whereas the present’s haphazard finale does Walker few favors — his redemption arc, as an illustration, feels significantly rushed — he stays a extra clear-eyed examination of non-public and structural energy than both of the title characters. Whether or not accidentally or by design, this fake Captain America tells a extra dramatically satisfying story than of a few of the struggles confronted by Sam Wilson, and virtually the entire struggles confronted by Bucky Barnes.
The U.S. Agent and the Winter Soldier
John Walker has huge footwear to fill, each in-world and within the broader tradition. It’s clear from the outset that he’s no Steve Rogers; he is aware of this, and he responds poorly to the strain. His Captain America is brash, pompous, insecure and brimming with anger, and he solely grows extra risky when he takes the Tremendous Soldier Serum. He’s additionally one of many extra fascinating and nuanced characters within the MCU, a supposed battle hero haunted by his deeds and saddled with the burden of a whole nation’s expectations. The nexus between his violent actions and his conflicted navy outlook make him a significant a part of the present’s thematic puzzle.
The Winter Soldier, in the meantime, looks like an appendix to his personal collection. The fourth episode begins with a flashback to his time in Wakanda, a scene acted brilliantly by Sebastian Stan, as Barnes lastly reaches some extent the place HYDRA’s code phrases not have management over him. His teary-eyed reduction whereas seated by a cleaning hearth factors at a rigorous non secular wrestle, however one which has already occurred someplace off-screen.
Barnes’ most vital character moments since 2014 have all been hinted at briefly post-credit snippets: the brainwashed murderer’s rediscovery of his actual id (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), his determination to freeze himself till he could be cured (Captain America: Civil Struggle), and his journey in direction of therapeutic in Wakanda (Black Panther). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, subsequently, turned the proper alternative to lastly dig into Bucky Barnes, however aside from the primary episode, the present largely relegates him to window dressing.
In its premiere episode, the present paints a haunting image of Barnes’ frame of mind. He’s stricken by nightmares of the murders he was manipulated into committing, and in an effort to quiet his demons, he spends time with the aged Mr. Nakajima (Ken Takemoto), whose son was one in all his victims. He can’t deliver himself to confess this to Nakajima, although the previous man is in determined want of closure. This units up a doubtlessly highly effective arc about Barnes arriving at an emotional place the place he can, or maybe should, make this admission. Nonetheless, this arc is virtually nonexistent.
Barnes does ultimately inform Nakajima the reality within the season finale, however the present runs by way of this admission on quick ahead: He enters Nakajima’s condominium, makes his confession and leaves inside the span of a minute, with the core drama virtually excised. The edit refuses to linger on the scene’s most troublesome moments. Moreover, what leads him to lastly taking this step isn’t some realization or self-actualization over the course of six episodes, however fairly, a quick chat out of the blue, when Wilson makes this suggestion within the penultimate entry, and the present lastly remembers that The Winter Soldier is technically a co-lead and wishes some type of decision. He tells Karli Morgenthau of his nightmares within the finale, within the hopes of stopping her from killing, however the present hasn’t centered a lot on his precise psychology in about 4 hours by this level, so the alternate is extra plot perform than character beat.
Nonetheless, what is probably most uneven about the best way Barnes is dealt with is the best way the collection frames his actions. His aim is to make amends for the murders he dedicated, however his battle doesn’t intersect within the slightest with the concept that he’d been brainwashed and mind-controlled, to the purpose of forgetting his id. By ignoring this key ingredient of his character, the present skirts across the query of precisely how culpable he was within the first place, a complication that particularly ought to carry weight when in comparison with the story of John Walker, who leads to an identical place.
John Walker arrives at a spot the place the query of culpability turns into central, however the present misses the chance to dramatize contrasting responses from Walker and Barnes.
Barnes is probably not a mirrored image of any actual individual, or any real-world type of mind-control, however the removing of his company speaks to the important thing theme of culpability throughout his appearances within the military-minded Captain America sequels, and on this very present, all of which exist within the shadow of the trendy Ceaselessly Wars. Barnes is, or fairly must be, a illustration of a real-world query: How culpable are troopers for his or her particular person actions, when these actions are a results of bigger forces and state mechanics with their very own agendas?
It’s a query the MCU by no means actually touches on close to Barnes — past Tony Stark attempting to take revenge on him in Civil Struggle — and by refusing to take action, the present additionally begins with Barnes already in an emotional place the place he needn’t confront this complication. He seems to have already accepted his guilt. It’s not one thing he wrestles with over the course of the collection. All he wants is a light-weight nudge from Wilson, within the fifth episode, to make amends, which is a part of why he feels perfunctory as much as that time. He serves to maneuver the plot ahead, by liberating and teaming up with Zemo (Daniel Brühl), however he has no inside journey alongside the best way; Zemo taunts him about being a killer deep down, however there’s by no means a scene the place Barnes himself begins to imagine this, even for a second.
In distinction, John Walker does, in reality, arrive at a spot the place this query of culpability turns into central, however the present misses the chance to dramatize contrasting responses from Walker and Barnes. After Walker murders a Flag Smasher in a really public, very grotesque method, he’s stripped of his rank and given a dishonorable discharge, at which level he tells his navy superiors: “I reside my life by your mandates… You constructed me.”
He’s not totally improper.
The Two Captain Americas
As a lot as Walker is a unfastened cannon with a fragile ego and a penchant for violence, he’s additionally a product of the U.S. navy, which imbued him with a violent mindset and educated him to kill. What makes him particularly alluring as a personality is that although he appears devoted to his nation, and to his new position as Captain America, he additionally questions his actions in Afghanistan and the best way his nation frames them. He might have three Medals of Honor, however in his scenes with Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett) he admits that the actions that gained him these medals “felt a good distance from being proper.”
This admission imbues even Walker’s ambitions and his lust for bodily may with a way of interiority. Russell performs the character with each a lurking ugliness and a haunted conscience, warring impulses he masks beneath a welcoming smile. It permits the present to take goal on the query of what the Captain America mantle even means, when the American navy and authorities valorize what might nicely have been Walker’s battle crimes. It’s the type of conflicted view of idealism — a discomfort with the celebs and stripes — that Sam Wilson’s story by no means actually approaches.
Wilson makes imprecise allusions to his causes for giving up the defend (“Are you able to settle for that I did what I assumed was proper?”), although these causes are by no means really dramatized. Like Barnes, whose key developments happen off-screen, Wilson begins the present having already made this determination. He ultimately vocalizes a dilemma between donning American symbols and the racial horrors these symbols can characterize for the likes of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) — whom he tells: “We constructed this nation. Bled for it. I’m not gonna let anyone inform me I can’t struggle for it” — however by the point he does so, he’s already taken up the mantle and saved the day.
Walker’s story is about American symbols and id being entwined with violence, whereas for Wilson, the mantle appears to exist independently of it. Wilson, earlier than accepting the defend, by no means has to reckon with the folks he kills whereas on Air Power missions, although his personal objection to the Flag Smashers is their use of deadly drive. And although he ultimately acknowledges the horrors dedicated within the defend’s title, his memorialization of these horrors, whereas a transferring gesture, locations them nicely previously. Not like Walker, Wilson’s battle over taking on the Captain America mantle doesn’t really feel speedy or rooted within the current.
The messy finale might velocity by way of Walker’s arc, however his story nonetheless makes emotional sense, regardless of the present not taking the time to let its influence absolutely land. It definitely brings up the query of who, in a narrative like this, is worthy of redemption within the first place — the narrative by no means gives Morgenthau and her pro-refugee comrades the chance, however affords it to an American soldier — though, within the bigger context of the MCU, through which lots of the heroes have killed sooner or later, it doesn’t really feel narratively out of step. When caught between vengeance and saving lives, Walker is compelled to make a split-second determination within the warmth of battle. We see him agonize over this alternative, albeit briefly, and he chooses to catch the falling van filled with hostages fairly than chase down Morgenthau. It’s a easy dilemma offered in visually and dramatically potent style, with Walker having to snap out of his vengeful fugue and select one in all two instructions through which to run.
It’s additionally the type of alternative Sam Wilson by no means has to make throughout the collection. Wilson involves possess the defend as a matter of plot comfort, after taking it away from a violent Walker, and he trains with it for a lot of the penultimate episode, as if his option to take up the mantle has been preordained. When he learns Isaiah Bradley’s story — in Episode 2, with a number of extra particulars fleshed out in Episode 5 — the present doesn’t current Wilson with something resembling a dramatic dilemma that might be impacted by Bradley’s story. When he’s really confronted with the prospect of placing on his new Captain America costume, it isn’t offered as a alternative over which he agonizes (and even mulls over), however fairly as a teaser second on the finish of an episode: He opens the case after it’s been mendacity round for a number of days, and he’s been too busy to get to it. There may be solely ever one consequence for Sam Wilson, and nothing appears to even vaguely threaten to stray him from that path, although Mackie performs the character with conflicted stares.
Finally, neither the Falcon nor the Winter Soldier are the celebs of their very own present, regardless of having the lion’s share of its display screen time. They’re merely cutouts who want to finish up in a selected place by the top of the season, with Wilson having change into Captain America the best way he does within the comics, and Barnes lastly shedding the stink of his villainous previous with out present process any emotional challenges on display screen. And whereas Walker additionally leads to a well-known place — he adopts his “U.S. Agent” moniker and black uniform from the comics — he’s, satirically, the one member of this Captain America trio who has something resembling a heroic arc, or perhaps a actually conflicted one.