In its first episode, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” showed glimmers of curiosity about the margins of its universe. No one could have been surprised that this series was largely concerned with the interplay between superheroes — it was made by Marvel as a streaming-television extension of their series of films. But there were, underneath the action, bits of incursion from the outside world: The way, for instance, that Sam Wilson, also known as the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), couldn’t get a loan despite his fame, suggesting that even people with the power of gods can’t always pay the bills, perhaps especially when they are Black (a category that may supersede heroics). There were also occasional gestures at melancholy and rootlessness of a world that had undergone the major upheaval of half its people disappearing, then suddenly coming back, embodied in part by Sam’s mixed feelings about how, and even whether, to carry on the legacy of Captain America.
This seemed, in the only episode made available to critics before the show’s launch, to promise a show that drew upon elements of the Marvel world to ground characters in a sort of earthy reality, just as the first episodes of “WandaVision” seemed to promise boundless radical experimentation. In both cases, that potential has been left largely unfulfilled. On “WandaVision,” which wrapped up in March, the early episodes’ remixing of television tropes gave way to the franchise’s latest grand battle between good and evil. It felt not only sapped by repetition but inconsequential in light of what the series had the chance to achieve. And on “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” an overheard reference on a news report to “these difficult times of international politics” was a jarring reminder that the series had once shown signs of having room for people other than superheroes in its world.
That full quote is about “the controversial Patch Act, which would move more than 20 million refugees back to their countries of origin. It’s coming during these difficult times of international politics.” Those last six words are unusually clumsy for a franchise that places a high premium on zippy dialogue. This suggests a show that is trying to write around how little it has to say about its own situation, one that elsewhere has nodded at times being hard without doing the work of showing us anything being different. Half the world vanished and then, years later, came back. How are international politics? Well, they’re difficult.
Similarly, the show seems to want to make a statement about what the Falcon has been through and the structural challenges he still faces — setting up both a storyline about his family’s financial difficulties and the history of Black Americans in the superhero movement. In both of these cases, able actors have been put to use (Adepero Oduye playing Falcon’s sister; Carl Lumbly a veteran he meets, to say nothing of Anthony Mackie as Falcon himself). But five episodes into a six-episode series, these remain in some ways ancillary to the show’s main action.
Lumbly’s character Isaiah Bradley, for instance, has been abused and used by forces far greater than himself to effectively create the supersoldier program that’s the show’s greatest threat. He would seem to lie very near the heart both of the show’s story and of the points it is trying to make about the ways in which Black and white heroes are treated, in Marvel’s world and in ours. In his struggle as a Black man subjected to biological experimentation lies a clear parallel to various incidents from real-world history. This story feels swallowed up, though, by the propulsiveness and vigor of the race to stop supersoldiers from doing very evil things. Whatever mixed feelings exist within the heart of Sam, too, still crop up but have not impeded the relentless forward momentum of his fate — to team with Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier and save the world, again. Sam’s ambivalence, here, is used as a sort of decoration on a story that knows exactly what it is, because it’s a story that’s been told before.
There are earnest-seeming attempts at giving something new a spin, in moments: As written and as played, Lumbly’s scenes suggest the capability of a comic-book story to allow in real complexity, even if the scenes that do that are small parts of a more chaotic and frenetic whole. So does the potent metaphor of Wyatt Russell’s blond, blue-eyed Übermensch John Walker replacing Captain America, all the more so when he defaults to hideous, gruesome violence beyond what Marvel can typically bear. And so do the instances of Oduye’s character appearing as a reminder of what Sam needs to fix once he stops another evil plot.
But a scene, mid-season, in which Oduye’s character’s calling Falcon hindered an operation felt illustrative: The show treats concerns outside the same old fate-of-the-world ones as, if relevant, lesser. They’re interruptions. This seems intuitive until the viewer hears a newscaster say little more than that times are difficult, and realizes that even if the world is, as we expect it will be, saved, we have no real idea what that world is like — what about it deserves saving and what about it a superhero, or a man with a family and a sense of the legacy in which he walks, might try to fix.
The show’s raising issues of race and family, and its nodding at the challenges of rebuilding a world, end up feeling rankling because of how little the show is willing to extend itself. As in the case of “WandaVision,” for instance, much of the late-run conversation about the series has landed upon a flashy performance by a villain character (in this case, Julia Louis-Dreyfus). This is fun casting, and what we have seen of Louis-Dreyfus is as great as anyone might expect. But Louis-Dreyfus’ appearance swallows up Russell’s guilt and recrimination for his actions into its starry gravity. It would take a truly special show to have room for the extended meditation on race and economic justice in America that aspects of the first episode suggested, the serious contemplation of aftermath of injustice and of carnage that Lumbly’s and Russell’s scenes did, and a badass villain whose celebrity aura takes up a fair amount of space. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is not that show, and its nods to other things it might have been about end up frustrating more than intriguing.
Marvel remains a dominant cultural force with the power to move the needle as few other entities can. That’s what makes it so exciting when shows like “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” seem to be doing something different, and why it’s a surprise when they don’t follow through. Seen from one angle, this should be the least noteworthy thing in the world: After success built on familiarity, a piece of Marvel’s hyper-valuable intellectual property reverting to the mean is what one would expect. But from another, it’s startling all the same. Given the guarantee of the world’s attention and enough interest in trying something new to at least raise the question, why wouldn’t the most powerful force in entertainment follow through?