The Falcon and The Winter Soldier: The Star-Spangled Man (Ep. 2) deepens the super soldier mythos while benefitting from the chemistry between its stars.
Last week, I talked about how I was concerned that, in the show’s efforts to introduce personal stakes to Sam and Bucky’s adventure, they ran the risk of undercutting each character’s own value, especially Sam’s. I appreciate the idea of engaging with race issues through the Sam Wilson character – especially considering what the near certain culmination of the miniseries will see Sam taking on the mantle of Captain America – but I thought the honorable effort to explore the treatment of black veterans and black entrepreneurs inadvertently served to undermine and minimize Sam’s own talent and ingenuity.
The Star-Spangled Man addressed some of my concerns… by simply moving past them. There’s not a mention of boat loans (or the young man Bucky once murdered) as the show pivots into a more comfortable gear that feels reminiscent of the mismatched partner banter of Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours. The show’s engagement with race has not evaporated, but it has pivoted. After an argument in the streets of Baltimore, a police car appears and the officers immediately assume Sam is causing Bucky a problem. The scene is not subtle, but it is effective. It is only when the police notice that this is “Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon” do the tensions ease.
Changing hearts and minds requires making these sort of stories the mainstream. It should not require a “Very Special Episode” or a “black movie” to engage with issues of race in popular entertainment. For a man of color in a poor section of Baltimore charged and fraught, police encounters remain a constant threat. It’s a good thing that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier chooses to put this sort of conflict into populist entertainment. The show is going to force an awful lot of viewers to engage with the treatment through the perspective of a long-loved superhero character. Perhaps the scene’s smartest, and subtlest, moment is when the officers realize there is an open warrant on Bucky. His arrest plays out with all the conflict of an Uber driver picking up a fare. The officers respectfully and deferentially ask him to come along. It’s clear – without the need to say it aloud – that the situation would not be the same for Sam.
As popcorn entertainment, this episode absolutely rocks. Bringing Sam and Bucky together this week appears to have opened the sense of humor and banter we have come to expect from our MCU superheroes. The riff about a big three “androids, aliens, and wizards” feels like precisely the sort of tongue-in-cheek joke that Steve Rogers and Tony Stark may have shared. When Bucky makes a quip about Gandalf in response, and corrects Sam on The Hobbit’s release date, it’s nice little homage to Steve’s “I understood that reference!” about The Wizard of Oz’s flying monkeys in The Avengers.
As performers, Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie have fantastic chemistry together. Their comedic timing is forever on point, and much of their banter, here, is genuinely funny. There remains an undercurrent of sexual tension, particularly in Sebastian Stan’s Bucky. Bucky certainly seemed more alive promising he’d be with Steve “till the end of the line” that he ever did flirting with his date as the 1943 Stark Expo. After the world’s most chaste date with the sushi restaurant girl in the series’ premiere, Stan seems more alive bantering with Mackie. The show is blatantly leaning into this feel – and perhaps internet fanfiction – with the “soul gaze” suggested by Bucky’s therapist and their interlocking legs. I assume the sexual tension will remain subtext, but it’s an interesting texture to Stan’s work.
So what actually happens in this episode? We get a lot of muddled machinations relating to the as-yet-ill-defined villainous organizations that make up the show’s plot. It’s not a criticism – The Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes a cue from many classic spy stories and muddy alliances are the coin of the realm. The benefit of a five-hour story is that we can give the show some faith these dynamics will become more clear. And, aside from giving us the fodder for the show’s second excellent action sequence, they’ve also forced our heroes to reach out to Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). The recasting of Zemo in a Hannibal Lector-esque role is a fun deployment of the character and I look forward to how it plays out next week.
The biggest story this week is, of course, the new Captain America, John Walker. In the comics, Walker occupies a role as a sort of extreme version of cap whose lack of moral clarity helps shine a light on Steve Rogers’ value. Here Walker seems to genuinely aspire for decency – though some very loaded exposition about how he can no longer punch his way out of his problems suggests that it is not long until his subtle antagonist of Sam and Bucky becomes overt. His public introduction, accompanied by a marching band rendition of “The Star-Spangled Man” from The First Avenger, is a savvy way to echo Steve Rogers’ war bonds arc for the new era. I have a few timeline questions here – such as how he became the world’s greatest shield throwing magician overnight – but it’s a solid introduction for Wyatt Russell’s Walker.
So, what sort of nerdy references have we got this week? John Walker, in comics lore, will eventually surrender the Captain America mantle and become a different mostly heroic figure called U.S. Agent. I’m not sure the MCU needs a budget Cap, but I would not be surprised if they intend to keep Russell around long term. In the comics, Lemar Hoskins, a.k.a. Battlestar, is cast as the John Walker Captain America’s Bucky. He remains a sort of low-level heroic figure. Karli Morgenthau is a gender-swap of a long time Captain American villain called – can you guess it? – Flag Smasher. The character, for reasons that seem to have little else to do than undercut the Reagan-era swell of American nationalist fervor and Cold War jingoism, is obsessed with obliterating global borders and nationalism. Reconstituting the character as something of a Thanos disciple is as savvy a way as I could imagine to update the Flag Smasher for the modern era.
Much of the success of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s second episode arises from the simple pivot into buddy comedy. The series’ fundamental appeal is seeing these two actors banter, and they’ve finally given us what we wanted. By adding an extra helping of the classic mismatched buddy dynamic (last focused on in the MCU in Iron Man 3, written and directed by Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black), the show has become truly fun popcorn entertainment. Here’s hoping they have a White Wolf in Wakanda flashback episode coming for us this season.
WATCH THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER: THE STAR-SPANGLED MAN
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