And we're back! WandaVision, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first Disney+ show, concluded exactly two weeks ago and it's already time to dive into the next adventure because The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is here. At one point in the series premiere, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) laments that he's spent the past 90 years fighting and only got a brief respite while he was in Wakanda after the events of Captain America: Civil War. And I could relate to that sentiment in the sense that these past 14 days were my Wakanda, a break from the Marvel Content Machine. But, now it's time to get back to work and fight Thanos (recap: tackle The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). As was the case with WandaVision, I'll be recapping Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan-led drama with my (extreme Thor voice) Friend From Work Christian Holub – because a buddy cop show deserves a buddy cop plan of attack. Anyway, let's skydive into the series premiere! 

"New World Order," The Falcon and the Winter Soldier's opener, begins with a quiet moment: Sam getting dressed and packing up Captain America's shield as his final conversation with Steve Rogers replays in his head. Sure, some time has passed since Steve passed the mantle to him at the end of Avengers: Endgame, but Sam still doesn't feel like he's worthy. We don't linger too long in this moment because it's time to get to the action! 

Sam jets off to Tunisia to rescue a military asset that was kidnapped by a terrorist group run by the acrobatic guy from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Even though I should be used to this now, I still feel really queasy seeing Sam operate as a contractor for the United States military; they requested his help because the U.S. Army isn't really supposed to be there. But ignoring those qualms, the high-flying action sequence accomplishes what it was meant to do: Prove to audiences that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will have the same production values you've come to expect from a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. It's very clear they didn't spare any expense here. 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
| Credit: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Interestingly enough, the premiere is rather light on the action. Instead, it's more interested in establishing where its protagonist's minds are following their best friend's retirement and returning from the Blip. "New World Order" depicts Sam and Bucky as two men adrift in a broken world, one that superficially looks the same as the one they left in the Blip, but definitely isn't, and adjusting to this new reality is difficult for both of them. This was probably the strongest aspect of the episode because, like WandaVision did for Wanda Maximoff, it gave both actors more complex material to play than they ever got in the movies. 

Beyond grappling with Captain America's legacy, Sam is to readjust to the world after the Blip and make amends for failures in his past. After handing the shield over to the Smithsonian, Sam heads down to visit his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye), who is drowning under loans she took out to support the family's struggling business. By this point, Sarah wants to sell the family's boat, but Sam insists on holding onto it and figuring out a way to make it profitable, both because he's not ready to say goodbye to this part of their history and he views this as his way for not being there for Sarah and her kids in the past. Sam convinces Sarah that they should apply for one more loan to help them turn the business around. Unfortunately, the loan officer denies their request, because even the fame that comes with being an Avenger has its limits. 

I enjoyed the entire loan application saga for a couple reasons. First, it presented Sam with an interesting obstacle. This is a guy who can help save the world, but he struggles with mundane problems like keeping the family business afloat. Second, it nodded to one of the harsh realities about being Black in America: It's well-documented that people of color have a harder time securing bank loans than white people. And that's why Sarah says, "Funny how things always tighten up around us," after the loan officer says he can't approve their application because the bank is "tightening" things up after everyone returned from the Blip. With that scene, Falcon and the Winter Soldier becomes the second new superhero show this year to have a scene where superheroes have serious and detailed discussions about loans; something similar happened in the series premiere of Superman & Lois. Sure, we need one more instance of this to call it a trend, but it's still interesting to see two superhero shows that deal with classic American iconography engage with real world economic issues like this. 

On the other side of the premiere, we have Bucky, who is having an even harder time adjusting to life post-Endgame. He's riddled with guilt from everything in his past, and the only human interaction he has is with his therapist and Mr. Nakajima, the father of an innocent man he killed when he was the Winter Soldier. Like Oliver Queen and Santa Claus, Bucky has a list, except it's a list of amends he needs to take. While it's easy for him to get retribution on a HYDRA crony/senator, he has a hard time coming clean to Mr. Nakajima even though they spend so much time together. Up until now, I haven't had any strong feelings about Bucky one way or another, but Stan did really a good job of making me feel for his ongoing struggles here. Plus, it was hilarious watching Bucky go on a date. 

Despite enjoying how "New World Order" pulled back the curtain back on Sam and Bucky's psychologies, I still found the episode frustrating because the slow pacing makes it feel like the show is already in a holding pattern like one of the Marvel Netflix shows. In my colleague Nick Romano's excellent digital cover story, director Kari Skogland said, "Everybody went into this saying we're making a six-hour feature" — a phrase that most TV journalists probably find triggering at this point — "We'll break it up so ultimately it will look like television, but it will feel like a six-hour feature." You could definitely feel that in the show was prioritizing the season over the episode in the premiere, and not in a good way. Just look at how The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was inspired by Mackie and Stan's crackling chemistry, yet they don't share a single scene together here, which seems like a major missed opportunity for an episode whose main purpose should be convincing audiences to stick with the show beyond brand recognition. Please, just give me Common Law-with-superheroes already, because we only have six episodes and thus no time to waste.

That being said, the hour does end on an intriguing enough development: The U.S. government announces that they've found a new Captain America, presumably Wyatt Russell's John Walker, because this post-Endgame world needs "someone to inspire us again." Based on the worried look on Sam's face, it seems as though he's rethinking not picking up the mantle himself. I'm very interested in seeing how the introduction of this new Captain America dovetails with the show's other looming threat: a terrorist organization called the Flag-Smashers, a group that believes the world was better during the Blip years and want a world unified without borders. Looking forward to seeing how Sam and Bucky team up to defend the Westphalian state system.  Grade: B

Christian's Take: From minute one, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier lets us know exactly how it will differ from WandaVision. The first Disney+ Marvel show immediately placed us in the middle of a pop culture pastiche the likes of which we'd never seen before in the MCU, with an interesting premise to untangle. Over the course of our WandaVision recaps we went a little overboard with theorizing and guessing, which was part of the fun of that show. But when it comes to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, clearly we'll be getting our kicks in other ways. This premise is fairly straightforward, and the show begins with a globe-trotting action scene similar to the ones that kicked off the titular characters' first two appearances in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War

I must say, I really enjoyed the action scene. As Chancellor pointed out, clearly the team put a lot of effort into this sequence to convince viewers they will be getting an MCU-level cinematic experience with this show. It paid off I think! I was locked in the whole time. I loved the fun machinations of Sam using his wings as a shield, coordinating with Redwing the drone, and tackling a guy out of a plane. Maybe I'm crazy but I even got some anime vibes from this sequence? The soldier watching it all with binoculars from below and whooping every time Sam scored a hit reminded me of how every fight in Naruto makes sure to have a character or two observing and commentating in the background, and the rocky desert setting was straight out of Dragon Ball Z. My dad and I used to watch DBZ and chuckle about how every big fight took place in just such an inhospitable location, so that viewers didn't have to worry about any collateral damage. As Chancellor pointed out, these characters' hearty embrace of the military could get problematic down the line, and putting this sequence here feels like an easy sidestep of typical pitfalls. Don't worry, no innocents were harmed by all these explosions and gunfire! We'll see how it goes from here I guess. 

After that invigorating, adrenaline-pumping opening, I was less engaged with the quiet character stuff through the rest of the episode, but I definitely prefer Sam on his own to Bucky on his own. Bookending the episode, I was almost as tense with the final sequence as I was watching the opening. The military's arrogant response to Sam's humility hit me hard. He refused to take the easy path and declare himself the new Captain America, and in return is getting brushed aside for some military goon who never even met Steve Rogers. Add in the fact that Sam is a Black man whose status as the designated heir of America's fighting symbol is getting gleefully ignored by the white establishment, and this show has some ingredients to cook up a meaty story. I love regret, and the possibility of redemption! Most of all I love having a heel to hate, and Wyatt Russell was born for that kind of role.

Mission Debrief:

  • Two very cute scenes: Mr. Nakajima asking the sushi waitress out for Bucky, and Bucky and his date playing Battleship. (Chancellor)
  • But in all seriousness, I did find Bucky's line about 90 years of fighting with no break genuinely moving because it made truly consider the weight of everything he's experienced in the movies leading up to this. (Chancellor)

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