O Captain, my Captain! How The Falcon and the Winter Soldier confronts the legacy of America's hero

After Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel world is holding out for a hero. Fortunately, two are coming in the next MCU event series.

It was March 2014 when the cast of Captain America: The Winter Soldier assembled in London for the U.K. leg of their international press tour. For some, namely Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson, this wasn't their first rodeo with Marvel Studios. They knew their talking points and how to regale reporters at the press conference by swapping war stories and feeding off each other's energy. Sebastian Stan, only on his second outing in the franchise, was more reserved. He offered warm smiles and laughed along with the group's jokes, but kept his own responses somewhat brief. When asked about any on-set injuries that might have incurred, he said. "I honestly wouldn't feel anything until I was in the car on the way home, when I couldn't get out of the seat. But I'm sure we hurt each other."

On his left, Anthony Mackie chimed in. "You didn't hurt me," he said in a soft, almost amorous tone as they locked eyes. This made the audience chuckle. Stan livened up, volleying back what Mackie served. "You?! This is the first time I'm seeing you," he joked.

Mackie had inadvertently solved a small problem for the Disney publicists managing that tour. "They were worried that I didn't talk a lot. I get very uncomfortable," Stan admits to EW, Zooming in from Vancouver for a chat with his New Orleans-based costar this past January. "They're like, 'Just put him in with Anthony, okay? They're going to talk.' And I was talking!" he says. "By the end, I was very lively, and it really is thanks to him."

Mackie agrees. "I'm the ketchup to Sebastian's French fries."

Stan can't help but smile. "Way to put a button on it, and then some!"

Whatever the special sauce, it's this playful dynamic between the actors that made Marvel want to center them in their own event series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Premiering this Friday on Disney+ following the successful debut of WandaVision, the show sees Captain America's two best mates — wise-cracking pararescue Sam Wilson (Mackie) and genetically enhanced super-soldier from World War II Bucky Barnes (Stan) — stomach each other long enough to face a global crisis involving a masked militia group and one Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the big bad from 2016's Captain America: Civil War. As it happens, head writer Malcolm Spellman points to a scene from that film as "the moment this show was born." Fans know it well: a cramped Bucky in the back of an old Volkswagen Beetle asking Sam, "Can you move your seat up?" Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, also looks to the duo's battle with Spider-Man later in Civil War, which offered an opportunity for more banter. "They're so funny," Feige says. "Those are the two moments that we [at Marvel Studios] would watch and go, 'I want to watch that! I want to watch them together more!'"

As production ramped up on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in Atlanta in October 2019, Stan needed reminding of that rapport. Again, he credits Mackie. "I think he had a much better handle on the temperature of the show than I did, because there are times where I was so scared and really trying to find the truth of everything," Stan says. "He had to pull me back and be like, 'Yo, just remember we're going to have some fun, too!'" And that's the show in a nutshell: a buddy comedy thrown in the middle of a high-stakes international thriller.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was once meant to be Marvel's first Disney+ series out the gate, a show of force in the TV space from the masterminds behind one of the most successful Hollywood franchises in history. Though a scheduling shuffle and a production delay due to COVID-19 now has this premiering after WandaVision, the course for the six-episode hourlong series — as well as the entire Phase 4 slate — remains the same. The show is meant to set up what the world of the MCU looks like after the events of Avengers: Endgame. More specifically, it establishes what it looks like without Captain America. Steve Rogers (Evans), aged from his time-traveling adventures, chose Sam as his successor at the end of Endgame, but the Falcon notably remarks that the shield feels "like it's someone else's." For Spellman, as a Black man, this was the essence of what he wanted the show to become.

"The idea of creating a series that features an African American superhero, and how he responded to that [moment], sparked a million ideas," he says. It's the thought "of exploring a decidedly Black, decidedly American hero in the current climate."

"The show is very honest and forthright and very unapologetic about dealing with the truth of what it means to be American, Captain America, Black Captain America — and if that's even a thing," Mackie elaborates. "I think picking up from where we left off at the end of Endgame, the show progresses extremely well by asking those questions and really explaining why Sam said the shield feels like it belongs to someone else."

Mackie doesn't believe there is "a defacto Captain America figure" here. At least, not in the beginning. "I think the more important thing is, how do we now define the Falcon and the Winter Soldier? When you've been defined so long as an Avenger or a superhero, when you're not that anymore, what are you?"

Marvel executive producer Nate Moore and co-executive producer Zoie Nagelhout met with multiple writers in search of a lead for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Spellman, who wrote 2010's Our Family Wedding and episodes of Fox's Empire, rose to the top of the list. He had "one foot in what would be required for a fun action series," Feige says, "but also, being a Black man working in this industry, [he had] very specific points of view that are required to tell the type of story we wanted to tell for, specifically, Sam Wilson."

The mandate, Spellman recalls of pitching the show, was "this cannot be TV." Instead, he decided with director Kari Skogland and the writers' room to make each episode "feel like an event, not just as far as the spectacle on the screen, but the way you tell the story." Skogland says, "Everybody went into this saying we're making a six-hour feature. We'll break it up so ultimately it will look like television, but it will feel like a six-hour feature." Feige did note on the virtual Television Critics Association press tour in February that these "shows are not inexpensive. The per-episode cost is very high."

Mackie had some reservations, let's say, about this approach when he met separately with Marvel months after Endgame. "I was horrified," he says of "being a guinea pig for the first [TV] spin-off of a Marvel movie." He continues, "You're in this amazing franchise and everything works. The last thing you want to do is be the lead of the first thing that does not work, 'cause that's 100 percent you. I don't want to be the guy that destroys an entire Marvel franchise."

He felt a bit more at ease when Feige caught up with him before the start of filming. "I won't let you suck," he promised his star. But it was watching the finished episodes and what Marvel did with WandaVision that boosted Mackie's confidence. Now, the actor feels like "Marvel has revolutionized the game of cinema" by bringing "the scope and magnitude" of the big screen to the small one. "If Kevin says it won't be s---, I would bank on that," he says.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier EW portraits
Credit: Chip Carey for EW

An International Affair

On location in Prague, where production on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier moved in early 2020, Mackie and Stan were in the lobby of their hotel when they noticed a German camera crew with about 20 actors nearby. They couldn't tell what it was for, only that this troupe certainly recognized their costar Brühl. "He knows all of them!" Mackie recalls. "He's speaking French and Spanish and German, and then he turns to me and he goes, 'Ex Machina, I am a big deal.'"

Stan laughs at Brühl's nickname for Mackie. "He was like, 'Where is Ex Machina?' Oh my God, that was so funny."

"I had the best time with these two," Brühl remembers of those days on set. "We were really a very special triangle, I have to say." Meanwhile, in the context of the show itself, Brühl finds himself more at odds with his costars.

Spellman and Skogland were greatly informed by Civil War in shaping the arc of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. It's the movie that plays with the Sam and Bucky dynamic, Emily VanCamp's Sharon Carter, and Brühl's Zemo — all of which feature prominently in the series. Zemo was last being carted away to a German prison over a plot to pit the Avengers against each other as recompense for his family who died in Sokovia. "He's had a lot of time in that prison cell to read a lot, to think a lot. So, you can be sure that he's up to no good," Brühl promises.

"Think about what Zemo's been through and what motivates him," Spellman adds. "Now imagine you have six episodes to dig and allow him to feel the way a person would feel if someone had destroyed his country and his family."

Brühl was in Budapest shooting season 2 of The Alienist in 2019 when he received an unexpected guest. It was Skogland. She flew all the way from Canada with a special suitcase. Bruhl remembers sitting in his apartment, watching the director unzip this mystery package. It was like a ceremony, full of tantalizing pomp and circumstance. When the suitcase finally opened, a purple mask lay inside — Baron Zemo's signature mask from the comic books made real. "That was a very special, exciting moment for me," he says. "We would see Zemo now finally in that iconic outfit."

The mask alone changed Bruhl's performance. In Civil War, Zemo was pulling the strings off in the periphery. His new costume, complete with a dramatic collared coat, now hints towards the character's "aristocratic background," the actor says. "I felt like I'm a baron."

While Bruhl can't reveal too much about the villain's next plot, there are some clues. "Superheroes should not be allowed to exist," Zemo declares in the trailers for the Marvel show. Spellman promises that "is not a fleeting line."

"It is true that Zemo in the past, and possibly also in the present, is strictly against super-soldiers, because he has seen the danger that this can cause," Bruhl says. "That is why he has lost his whole family in the Sokovian war. This is something that bothers Zemo and makes him think a lot."

Speaking of masked menaces, actress Erin Kellyman has been spotted in preview footage sporting a black mask displaying a handprint among dozens of likewise adorned allies. This organization, which fans may have already correctly guessed, seems to display similar super-soldier abilities. "Erin's going to be completely different than anyone's expecting," Spellman teases. "I can't go into it, but that'll be fun because people think they know, and they don't."

Skogland elaborates a bit further. "We are embracing the whole notion that it's a slippery slope and that villains don't always look like villains," she says. "You sometimes don't even know you're a villain until it hits you in the face."

These adversaries are "rooted in legitimate human motivations," as well as "where our world is going, both good and bad," Spellman says. He calls Zemo "a foil of the times," in that "it is his opinions on the things that are happening that are going to make people draw connections to the real world."

VanCamp agrees The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels "relevant" in our current moment. Her character, Sharon, has been on the run from the government since restoring Cap's shield in Civil War, and Spellman promises we'll discover where she's been all this time. "Sharon really gets to… I'll use the term 'grow up,'" he says, "not because of age. Sharon emerges as a grown-up now because her life is being brought to bear through the character."

For the first time, VanCamp had the opportunity to workshop Sharon's fighting style. She had a brief tussle with brainwashed Bucky in Civil War, but now her character is in "a very different scenario than being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent," she says. "We talked about it at length. There were many different versions filmed and submitted. For me, all that physical stuff is great fun."

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (along with WandaVision) is among the first new entries into the MCU since Disney's highly publicized purchase of 20th Century Fox properties in 2019. The buy returned the rights to popular Marvel characters like the X-Men and Fantastic Four to Marvel Studios proper. This makes the sandbox in which the MCU now plays much bigger.

We heard Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) referred to by her traditional comic book alias Scarlet Witch in WandaVision, and Lovecraft Country star Jonathan Majors was cast as Kang the Conqueror in the next Ant-Man movie. Feige confirms to EW that those specific details were "already free and clear" for them to use before the acquisition, but there are certain things coming in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that will reflect that larger sandbox. He doesn't want to set expectations too high, but teases, "There's a setting in particular that people have already glimpsed in some of the trailers that is a setting from the Marvel Comics that was not previously available to us, but it's more of an Easter egg in and of itself."

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier EW portraits
Credit: Pawel Pogorzelski for EW

Changing Times

The cast and crew touched down in Prague for about five days in March 2020 when the call they were hoping to avoid came in. Stan says he was out celebrating Bucky's 106-year-old birthday around the time they were told to pack up and go home. (March 10 is Bucky's official birthday in the MCU.) He and a friend went to "the most authentic Eastern European" restaurant they could find where waiters sang happy birthday to the Winter Soldier and brought out a cake. "And then, 10 minutes later, we got a call that we're going home," Stan says. "That in itself felt very strange. I felt like we were in the ending of Argo. 'Just pack and get home!'" So, on March 11, they did. "I got back to Atlanta and I kept thinking that somehow maybe we were going to pick it back up [there], and obviously we didn't. But it all felt very scary and unknown."

Feige feels lucky that the pandemic didn't end up completely altering the plan for Marvel's Phase 4. The man behind Marvel's curtain had just gone up on San Diego Comic-Con's grand Hall H stage in the summer of 2019 to announce an ambitious lineup. Initially, Feige says, the plan was to release The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+ after Black Widow in theaters with the same big-budget production value "to prove we're not playing." "And then," he continues, "we were going to pull the rug out from everybody and do a black-and-white sitcom with WandaVision. It's fun that it's been the reverse." While that plan had to change, the story arc in place across the films and shows held steady since "a number of them are relatively standalone or connect back to Endgame."

Skogland wasn't alone in thinking lockdowns would last for a few weeks at most. Then the reality set in that they would be out of commission for a few months. "But we very quickly got back on our feet," she says. Filming resumed in Prague by September, and production officially wrapped that October.

For Stan, the pandemic, and the events surrounding it, added more significance to the story at the heart of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. "That actually tapped very much into the experience we all have had in various different ways in 2020," he says. "I felt that we were doing something that was much more important, actually, than when we started off. It wasn't just these characters continuing on their journey, but it was also a way to explore a lot of themes that are very relatable to what has happened and what we've seen."

Credit: Marvel Studios

Captain America's shield felt, to Skogland, like a weighty metaphor. As Sam himself says in the series: "The legacy of that shield is complicated." The legacy of America is equally messy. "[Sam] has to decide what carrying the shield is going to be, and he very much has feelings about what that future of the shield is, as does Bucky," she says.

The U.S. government has its own set of feelings on the shield, particularly how it pertains to one John Walker. Wyatt Russell enters the MCU in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as the character known as U.S. Agent in the comics. According to Marvel lore, he's the government's pick to succeed Steve as Captain America. "He's a complicated character. That's what drew me to him," Russell says of the role. "It'll be fun seeing how all three of these guys interact in terms of what their identity is. I think that I can safely say that it's a show about identity and what it means to each specific person."

"That character from the books, what he represents is extremely relevant," Spellman remarks. "We shifted away from the books a little bit, so we added some very, very different dimensions, especially once Wyatt got involved and started really inhabiting the character. But the spirit, all you've got to do is read Marvel comics and then imagine that we didn't do half of what's in the books. That's my way of saying I can't talk about Wyatt."

It's more than a question of what does the symbol of Captain America mean in today's world. It's about, more simply, what is a hero?

"Traditionally, a hero has been painted as being a warrior or a soldier of some kind, and now a hero embraces a whole other layer of responsible citizen, which is first responder, and more so than ever in our today's international story," Skogland says. "Frontline first responders, which is also what Sam is, become very much an integrated part of our exploration of what is a hero."

The answers to these questions will have drastic impacts on the MCU moving forward. Similar to how WandaVision leads directly into the film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Spellman says he can think of three projects off the top of his head that tie into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that he's "not allowed to talk about." Feige confirmed that Marvel is indeed planning multiple seasons for some of the Disney+ shows, but whether that pertains to this one in particular veers into "the spoiler realm," he says. "We have a future charted for characters post-Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but I don't want to say much more than that."

Mackie is more interested to see how viewers will respond to seeing the smaller moments of the lives of Cap's right-hand men. "You really get to see [Sam] as just a regular guy," he says. "You get to see him sitting at home watching TV, you get to see him in all facets of his personality. I think when you see the two characters together and just how drastically different they are, it works on so many different levels." This goes back to that element of fun he once pointed out to Stan.

"What happens when the Winter Soldier can't find his favorite cereal?" Mackie ponders.

Stan already worked it out. "It's usually an inner dialogue that he's got to get through and say to himself, 'Today is not the day.'"

— Additional reporting by Devan Coggan.

Sebastian Stan shoot: Director/DP: Pawel Pogorzelski; Producer/B-Roll: Tom Jones; Editing/Post-Production: Roger; Styling: Michael Fisher/The Wall Group; Styling Assistant: Box Grant; Makeup: Rebeccah Delchambre; Hair: Danna Rutherford; AC: Christian Eggenberger; DIT: Adriene Wyse; Grip: Adam Payne; Gaffer: James Jackson; Sound: Matthew Porteous. Pink jacket look: Jacket: John Elliott; Henley, Shirt: Richer Poorer; Pants: Basic Rights; Sunglasses: Garrett Leight; Shoes: Nike. Teal outfit look: Jacket, Shirts, Sweater, Pants: Stone Island; Shoes: Everlane.

Anthony Mackie shoot: Pawel Pogorzelski; Production: Five to Sixty; Editing/Post-Production: Roger; Styling: Ali McNally; Grooming: Se'Anne Simon; DP: Chip Carey; AC: Noell Dominick; DIT: Paul Rahfield; Gaffer: Dorian Celestain; Grip: Lucas Porterfield; Playback: Dominic Rivera; Girp/Driver: Frank DiMarco; B-Roll: Chris Scheurich; Sound: Jonah Carmena. Blue jacket look: Jacket: Corridor; Shirt, Pants: Eleventy; Shoes: Good Man Brand. Red polo look: Polo: Paul Smith; Pants: Billy Reid; Shoes: Good Man Brand.

Additional post-production by Iyin Landry/Two Twelve Productions.

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