Review: Marvel’s The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is off to a decent start

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan's former sidekicks take the lead in Marvel Studios' latest TV project for Disney+

THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER (Malcolm Spellman). Six-episode miniseries, streaming weekly on Disney+ starting Friday (March 19). Rating: NNN

The swell thing about reviewing a miniseries you haven’t watched in its entirety is that you’re basically making an educated guess on the entire package. Will the scripts be complex or involving enough to fuel hours of television? Will the actors keep us engaged, and the pacing hold our interest? Will the showrunners deliver a satisfying conclusion? Who the hell knows?

Disney+ only supplied the first episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier to reviewers, which is so deliberate in setting up its master narrative that the eponymous characters aren’t even interacting yet – and two of the show’s core cast members are used so obliquely that the episode’s credits have to work around their absence.

On a practical level, I’ve watched the first 48 minutes of a five-hour movie and I’m supposed to have an opinion on it. That’s weird, right? But needs must, and Marvel projects are a very big deal these days, so here we go.

After the fantastical/satirical WandaVision, which spent nine episodes expanding the boundaries of what a Marvel project could be, The Falcon And The Winter Solder feels like it’s here to snap everything back to normal. Or at least what passes for normal in the master Marvel narrative, as laid over a decade of Captain America and Avengers movies: you know, with heavily militarized characters holding impassioned debates about the responsible use of force in the world before they realize they need to put their personal opinions aside and go smash a bad guy in the face. (I’m oversimplifying. But am I?)

Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) are usually on the periphery of those arguments, by virtue of having existed primarily as sidekicks to Captain America. Well, Bucky spent a few years as an antagonist, having been brainwashed into a perfect assassin by HYDRA before Cap took him to Wakanda where he was finally made whole; look, he’s fine now. He’s even doing his best to make amends for the damage he wrought.

Sam, on the other hand, has always been unambiguously decent – which is what drew Steve Rogers to him in the first place, and what made Steve trust Sam with his shield (and potentially his superhero identity) at the end of Avengers: Endgame. But he’s conflicted about that, and his hesitancy to accept the mantle of Captain America has led him to fall back into old patterns, working high-stakes counterterrorism operations with the Air Force and trying to reconnect to the family that spent five years mourning him.

So it’s six months later, and Sam and Bucky are both kind of stuck between who they were and what might come next. They need a mission to get them there, and that’s what The Falcon And The Winter Soldier looks to be about. There’s something going on in Europe – a sort of crowdsourced anarchist movement led by a masked figure who may or may not be Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo, the man who reactivated Bucky’s murder-man programming in Captain America: Civil War – and other stuff happening Stateside, involving the Department of Defense moving the Captain America thing forward without Sam.

When I said The Falcon And The Winter Soldier operates like a movie, that wasn’t facetious; unlike WandaVision, which integrated the requirements of episodic television into its narrative, this one’s structured like a feature, opening with a big action set piece to get the blood going before settling into a first act that re-establishes the characters and sets up the stakes for this adventure. The problem with releasing this one on a weekly basis is that I am very much aware that, 48 minutes in, the story hasn’t actually started yet. I didn’t mind spending time with these characters – Mackie’s always been a great fit for Sam, grounded and optimistic in the middle of all the digital mayhem, and Stan keeps finding ways to shade in the blankness of Bucky. We really haven’t spent that much time with the guy, and it’s nice to see him interact with people who aren’t Avengers or HYDRA agents.

Of course, these scenes – and the scenes of Sam trying to help his sister get the family seafood business back on its feet – would be reduced to a couple of lines of dialogue in a Marvel movie, the better to get to the next plot point or punch-up. If nothing else, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier uses the episodic format to spend a little downtime with these characters, even as it reassures us that we’re still watching a Marvel production.

Kari Skogland, who directed all six episodes, is careful to replicate the feature-film house style. The series looks and feels like a Captain America movie, with writer and showrunner Malcolm Spellman (Empire) even bringing back an incidental baddie from one of them – the gymnastically gifted Batroc, once again played by Georges St-Pierre – right off the top.

I don’t doubt that everyone knows what they’re doing; I just don’t know whether it’ll all work. I hope it does. Unlike a certain other four-hour superhero epic that’s just been released into the world, the first hour of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier didn’t make me question the decision to start it. (A sense of humour and confident pacing go a long, long way with these things.)

Let’s check back in April and see how we all feel. I’ll be here. Where else do I have to go?

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