The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is now five episodes into its six episode run on Disney+ and it’s been … fine, I guess. There’s nothing outright terrible about the show, but it’s oddly generic, even for a franchise that has gone out of its way to make each entry as similar in tone as possible. I had my complaints about its Disney+ MCU predecessor WandaVision, but at the very least WandaVision tried to make the most of its franchise-imposed creative constraints—well, initially. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier makes no such attempts and the result is a bland, if inoffensive, action miniseries.
The show follows the two titular characters, Sam Wilson, aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) as they investigate and combat a terrorist group that’s gotten its hands on a strength-enhancing super soldier serum: the Flag-Smashers, an anti-nationalist group led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman). Along the way, the two butt heads with the new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and his partner Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett), and begrudgingly enlist the help Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who framed Bucky for a U.N. bombing in Captain America: Civil War.
The actors do a fairly good job—Mackie and Stan make an excellent odd-couple duo and Brühl gives a standout performance as Zemo, getting more screen time and character development than he received in Captain America: Civil War. Russell, too, does a phenomenal job bringing the angsty, unsure, and ultimately unhinged Walker to life. And Carl Lumbly plays a small but pivotal, and brilliantly acted, role as Isaiah Bradley, a black man whom the U.S. government turned into a super soldier in the Korean War and who is now, understandably, cynical about how he was used by the government. But despite the cast’s best efforts, the show never reaches its full potential thanks to a meandering plot.
It feels rather like a movie that was stretched to miniseries length, then stuffed with extra content to try to pad the runtime. The basic plotline is about the legacy of Captain America: Steve Rogers had left his shield to Wilson, who thought it should be retired. He turned it over to the government, who promptly named the war hero Walker to take over. Such could have made for an interesting two hour or so long film with most of the show’s best elements—Wilson and Barnes trying to adjust to life without the original Captain America around and trying to live up to his example; Walker struggling in his new role; the American government’s shady past in using black Americans as test subjects to try to recreate the super-soldier serum.
But with all the extra space to work in, the plot gets bogged down in tryings to stretch out the story. The Flag-Smashers are the prime example. They’re a group of terrorists fighting to return the world to the condition it was in after half the population was snapped out of existence by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. (All the missing people were restored in Avengers: Endgame, and the confusion and chaos that caused has been partially explored in this and the other Marvel properties that followed.)
The Flag-Smashers’ cause—and who they are fighting—is barely explained. We’re told it’s the Global Repatriation Council, whose activities remain largely unexplored—and how the Flag-Smashers hope to achieve their goals is a mystery. All we really see them do is steal supplies—for what, we don’t know—and traipse around Europe, occasionally killing people and fighting the protagonists in the process. Falcon denounces the Flag-Smashers’ methods but is vaguely sympathetic to their cause for … reasons.
The only good thing to come from the need to fill a longer runtime is the reintroduction of Baron Helmut Zemo. Brühl clearly has fun playing the role of the anti-super soldier baron, who makes for a far more compelling sympathetic villain than the Flag-Smashers. He comes across as a toned-down comic book version of Hannibal Lecter: a consultant villain who is very posh, very competent, but, fortunately, doesn’t eat people. The odd little trio Zemo forms with Wilson and Barnes may work even better than just the two heroes’ dynamic on their own.
Even with everything going on, with Zemo and the Flag-Smashers, with Wilson and Barnes, with Walker, in the middle of it all, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is still basically about characters struggling to find out what they’re supposed to be. That struggle is a little too real for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which doesn’t quite seem to know what it should be either.