The MCU gets even more episodic

In some ways, moving to television (or at least, episodic content, as what qualifies as a “television” show anymore is a bit headache-inducing) makes a lot of sense for the Marvel Cinematic Universe machine. Afterall, the great magic trick of the MCU in total is to take individual films and treat them as smaller chunks of a much larger story; they even break them up into helpful “Phases”, which could just as easily be considered seasons. So to loop back around to making actual episodic content, you have to create something that leans into the format fairly dramatically.

In one of the strangest turns of the COVID pandemic affecting popular culture, Marvel Studios was actually able to put forward a distinctive vision of what would set apart their official television offerings from either their related films, or previous television series that have been under the MCU banner. It’s called WandaVision, and as you might have noticed, it kind of took over the pop cultural conversation for about two months.

This Friday, what was originally designated as the debut of Disney+’s original Marvel slate arrives, when The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuts. And after watching just one episode of the new series, it is fairly clear that whereas WandaVision was a bold genre exercise that developed into a complex depiction of trauma and mourning, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is more immediately interested in telling the continuing stories of two under-served MCU characters in a style that will be immediately familiar to long-time viewers of the ongoing saga.

That isn’t exactly a problem, but it will take some adjusting; while WandaVision’s first episode was surrounded in a mist of mystery and subtle dread, Falcon and Winter Soldier is quite literally what it says on the tin. The interesting differentiation is that the pacing of the TV show allows more focus on the people beneath the masks; the debut episode opens with a Marvel-approved impressive action sequence, but spends the bulk of its center focused on the personal lives of the heroes, specifically as they deal with the aftermath of the events of Infinity War and Endgame.

A few months following Endgame, where Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie, getting the chance to finally take center stage) both found himself resurrected by the actions of the Avengers, and proceeded to be handed Captain America’s shield, he is back to working with the US Air Force, taking on terrorist cells and generally acting the role of the hero. But definitively not as Captain America; Sam Wilson rejects that title, partially out of respect for the man who held it before, but not just slightly due to being uncertain of his own ability to carry it. Besides, he is distracted by doing the hard work of saving his family’s failing fishing business.

Meanwhile, James “Bucky/Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is looking to make amends for his brainwashed, bloody past. Sometimes that means exposing those assets he knows still have ties to what remains of HYDRA, and sometimes that is more complicated, sifting through the ashes of his past actions. He also is going to therapy, though that mostly seems to be built upon mutual animosity between himself and his therapist (played by Amy Aquino with acidic intensity).

Beyond these personal dynamics, Falcon and Winter Soldier doesn’t make a lot of movement in its opening moments. There is something of a mystery introduced, as well as a threat of anarcho-terrorists obsessed with the chaos surrounding borders after “the blip”. In fact, much of this opening episode mostly functions as an exploration of the larger impacts of the Blip, and subsequent return, and how the short pause in billions of lives is having significant impacts, both personal and global. This commitment to world building is what the MCU was built upon, but this time around works especially well as it takes seriously an inherently broad, comic-book premise.

Director Amy Aquino provides a distinctive style to many of those more interpersonal moments; Bucky’s therapy session especially plays with space to create claustrophobic tightness so subtly that when it wraps up you wonder how precisely we got there. Compared to the crisp, workmanlike style of directors like the Russo Brothers, who arguably defined the MCU house style with the film that introduced both the Winter Solider and Falcon, Aquino is playful, experimental, but never in such a way that you feel pulled out of the moment. Equally impressive is Malcolm Spellman’s script, which approaches commentary on issues ranging from PTSD to systemic racism without ever losing sight of the superhero grounding. And the two titular stars are clearly in the pocket of these characters by now, especially Stan who has perfected Barnes to a haunted, glowering shell. Anthony Mackie’s pure charismatic magnetism is hard to deny as well, and it is great to see these performers finally get a chance to take center stage.

Ultimately, Falcon and Winter Soldier won’t win any fans over to the MCU style of storytelling, as it certainly fits the mold much more tightly than WandaVison did with its unabashed genre smashing. But for fans who have been starved for new MCU content, even after WandaVision, you could do much worse. The pacing for this episode felt slightly sluggish, but it is table dressing; Mackie and Stan never even share a moment of screen time. Still, there is a promise of things to come that serve as a welcome reminder of why these movies-made-like-television will operate in the format of television-made-like-movies.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuts exclusively on Disney+ on March 19th.

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