After nine weeks of “WandaVision” — the boldest departure ever for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the opening of Marvel Studios’ second television adventure, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” felt like stepping inside a pair of comfortable shoes. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is over Tunisian airspace near the Libyan border, on a covert mission for the U.S. Air Force to rescue a colonel from terrorist captors. Using his Falcon wings, Sam boards a cargo plane, tussles with terrorists, leaps out of said plane, tussles with base diving terrorists, evades helicopter attacks and missile strikes, and manages to rescue the colonel right before crossing the border into Libya.
Sam’s high-flying, action packed escapade feels right at home within the MCU, evoking many of Sam’s past adventures in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Ant-Man,” “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”
But at the end of “Infinity War,” Thanos’ snap turned Sam to dust; after the Blip brought Sam back five years later in “Avengers: Endgame,” and Sam helped defeat Thanos for good, he found himself bequeathed the iconic Captain America shield by none other than an ancient-looking Steve Rogers.
When Marvel Studios announced “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” — or “FAWS,” the shorthand we’re all going to agree to for the rest of the season — there was an inherent promise that the show would explore how Sam took on the mantle of Captain America, and ended up partnered with Cap’s BFF Bucky “I Used To Be A Brainwashed Covert Assassin For Hydra Called The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan).
Instead, after Sam returns from his Tunisian expedition to Washington, D.C., we see him return Cap’s shield to the Smithsonian, declaring, “Thank you, Captain America, but this belongs to you.” Bucky, meanwhile, spends the episode struggling to make amends for his past sins; he and Sam never even cross paths.
After the daredevil shenanigans that launched the “FAWS” series premiere, the rest of “New World Order” settled into the real business at hand: Acquainting us with where Sam and Bucky are at in their lives, and how they fit into a world turned upside-down and back again. In doing so, the show presented us with some intriguing questions for where “FAWS” could be headed over its six-episode run. Let’s dive in.
Why Did Sam Really Set Down Cap’s Shield?
Yes, Don Cheadle did let it slip last month that he was going to be in “FAWS,” but it was still a pleasant surprise to see him pop up as Rhodey so early. His function? Ask Sam the question everyone else is also thinking: Why did you give up the chance to be Captain America?
Sam’s answer — repeating what he said to Steve, “It feels like it belongs to someone else” — felt wholly incomplete. Rhodey certainly didn’t seem to buy it; his parting words (“Be in touch”) felt like both a promise we’ll be seeing War Machine at some point down the line, and a provocation to Sam that he knows there’s something greater gnawing at him. (Something gnawing at me: Are Rhodey’s leg braces now so small that they fit underneath his pants?)
Sam is, after all, just a man, not an enhanced super-soldier. But I suspect Sam’s ambivalence about becoming a symbol of American strength and goodness is tied up in what’s happened to his family in Louisiana. Which brings me to…
Can Sam’s Sister Sarah Save The Family Business?
We have so rarely seen any extended family of the MCU’s superheroes, so it was a real treat to get to meet Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye), who has little patience for her brother’s tendency to swoop in to their family and try to fix problems she’s been grinding through every day while Sam’s off doing his Avenging. Oduye is such a skilled actor you can feel just through her posture her weariness at Sam’s optimism that his position as a national hero is enough to help them secure the loan they need to save their family’s fishing boat. She knows what’s coming, even if Sam refuses to see it himself.
The scene with them at the bank is when “FAWS” really announces one of its core themes: What it means to be a Black hero in today’s America. At first the scene is delightful, as the loan officer (Vince Pisani) peppers Sam with questions about being a superhero, including one that so many MCU fans have wondered: How do you make your money?
Sam’s answer is kind of shocking: “There’s a tremendous amount of goodwill, and because of that, people are inclined to help.” That’s another way of saying, we did it all for free, and as the loan officer says, you can’t really live off of goodwill.
And yet, it’s also clear that the loan officer would not be so fixated on this issue had Clint Barton or Hope van Dyne been the one sitting across from him. Instead, he just shrugs; happy to grab a selfie, but not to approve their loan.
After dealing with so many stories with such monumentally high stakes, it’s so refreshing that one of the main story arcs on “FAWS” is the financial security of Sam’s family. I do hope by the end of the series, Sam and Sarah have been able to get the funding they need.
Will Bucky Ever Confess to Poor Yori? What About The Other Names In His Book?
While Sam was focusing on helping his family, we followed Bucky’s struggle to understand who he even is anymore. Helping to defeat Thanos led to a pardon for Bucky’s crimes as the Winter Soldier, and his shrink, Dr. Raynor (Amy Aquino), has helped him create three rules so he can begin to make amends.
Rule #1: Don’t do anything illegal — which we see Bucky violate when he takes over the car of the Hydra-stooge senator he helped get elected.
Rule #2: Don’t hurt anyone — which we see Bucky violate when he punches out the man sitting in the Hydra-stooge senator’s car.
Rule #3: Say these words to the person he’s making amends to: “I am no longer the Winter Soldier. I am James ‘Bucky’ Barnes and you are part of my efforts to make amends” — which Bucky follows to the letter.
Really, though, all Bucky’s known for 90 years is violence, usually by his own hand (pun intended). He’s a man displaced from his own time with no sense of purpose beyond atoning for actions that were not really in his control. Which makes his friendship with the elderly Yori Nakasima (Ken Takemoto) — i.e. the father of the man Bucky killed as the Winter Soldier, merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time — all the more poignant and sad. All Yori wants is to know why his son died, but so far, Bucky cannot bring himself to break the man’s heart all over again.
You just know Bucky is going to have to do it. But then there are all the other names tucked into his book of regret. Some of those names — like “Rostov” and “H. Hauser” — reference Marvel Comics characters who’ve crossed paths with Bucky or Sam. But one in particular jumped out: H. Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the man who used Bucky as a pawn to pit Steve and Tony Stark against each other in “Civil War.” Anyone who’s seen the trailers, or just looked at the “FAWS” IMDb page, knows that Zemo plays a major role on the show. The question now is when Bucky realizes that, too.
Who Are the Flagsmashers?
Percolating underneath the character stories for Sam and Bucky was the emergence of the Flagsmashers, a group that believes the world was better during the blip, and want to create a unified planet without national borders.
In the comics, the Flag-Smasher is a regular nemesis for Captain America. The son of a Swiss banker, his real name is Karl Morgenthau; on “FAWS,” it appears that character is now Karli Morgenthau, as played by Erin Kellyman (“Solo: A Star Wars Story”) — she’s the one who handed Torres (Danny Ramirez) that mask outside the Swiss bank. But Karli is not the person with superhuman strength who threw Torres to the ground and stomped on his face.
So who is that person, and how did they get so strong? It wasn’t Zemo — Brühl’s name isn’t on this episode’s credits. Perhaps John Walker (Wyatt Russell) might know something about it…
Who Is the New Captain America?
OK, yes, I’ve already answered this question: In the comics, John Walker becomes the new Captain America — sometimes called U.S. Agent — after he gains super-strength from a shady figure known as the Power Broker. At first, John pays for his new abilities by joining the pro-wrestling circuit and taking on the persona of the Super-Patriot. That may or may not happen in “FAWS,” but you know the old saying, if you see one person showing off sudden super strength, there’s bound to be more around the corner.
Really, though, whoever this John Walker ends up becoming on the show will say a lot about where “FAWS” intends to go with the plot twist that the U.S. government lied to Sam Wilson in order to give Cap’s shield to a white man instead. If Steve Rogers was alive, you know for sure he’d have something to say about this. Actually, wait…
Is Steve Rogers Alive?
If “WandaVision” taught us anything, its that wildly speculating about the future plot developments of a Marvel Studios’ show is just begging to be disappointed, so I don’t want to get too crazy with the idea that Chris Evans may show up on “FAWS” wearing a Joe Biden Snapchat filter. But I don’t think we’re meant to ignore Torres’ pointed questions to Sam about what actually did happen to Steve, either. It’s not terribly likely that Steve really is on a moon base, but if he had died after “Endgame,” you’d think there would’ve been a massive funeral for him. Then again, if Steve was alive, wouldn’t Bucky far prefer to drink sake with his oldest, dearest friend?
Guess we’ll just have to keep watching to find out.