The promise of the Marvel television shows — first “WandaVision” and now “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” — is that they will do something fundamentally different, stylistically and substantively, from what the Marvel colossus has done before. “WandaVision,” at least in its early going, played compellingly with genre while telling a story about grief. And “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” in its first episode, telegraphs an ambition to do something similar. It is harder-edged than previous Marvel outings, and it, too, looks at the aftermath of the very bad things superheroes must endure.
“Falcon,” like “WandaVision,” places us once again in the wake of the events depicted in the 2019 film “Avengers: Endgame.” In “WandaVision,” loss had driven Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) into a sort of prison within her own mind. Here, Falcon’s inner turmoil seems to bear less collateral damage; it’s all on him. As played by Anthony Mackie, the superhero, also known as Sam Wilson, retreats within when confronted with, say, the loss of Captain America, or the expectations placed upon him, or even the realities of his family’s tenuous finances, as explored in scenes with his sister (a wonderful Adepero Oduye). He turns down the opportunity to publicly carry on Captain America’s mission and hoist his shield — leaving a vacuum in the role at precisely the moment the nation needs it most — and recedes from questions about Steve Rogers, or about his own future. Meanwhile, onetime villainous supersoldier James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is in a sort of comic-book-character therapy. He’s attempting to build a structure and a set of rules that might help govern his need for revenge on those who controlled him. We see Barnes in treatment, and see, too, that he is something less than rigorously honest in his claim that renouncing violence is part of his therapeutic process. The one episode Disney Plus provided cannot give a sense of the ways in which these two stories will intersect (or how they’ll deal with certain other key characters who are part of the marketing materials, unseen for now). But the pilot does lend a crystalline sense of character on both counts.
The episode is shot through with a tone that cannot be called naturalism but that feels unburdened by the everything-for-everyone expectations that have weighed down the Marvel films. That suits a story anchored by two people who are trying to shrug off their superpowered pasts. Mackie made his first Marvel appearance as Falcon in the 2014 film “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a film which flashed its few nods to the 1970s paranoid-thriller genre gaudily (aided by a press campaign that relentlessly insisted upon the comparison). The brief instances of borrowed tone there made the overall studio-enforced flatness all the more irritating. Under Kari Skogland’s direction, the “Falcon” pilot features action that feels lighter and more fluid than the dirgey relentlessness of “Avengers” megabattles as well as a certain curiosity about what it is to be a superhero that somehow has been missing from these films.
To wit: In three hours, “Avengers: Endgame” never found time to meaningfully wonder how life would have changed in a world where half the population had evaporated, or what the ramifications of a return of that population would be. (Its curiosity extended exactly as far as observing that Thor was sad, and, in his sadness, became fat.) Society never entered the equation but as the people, somewhere out there, whom our heroes had to save. The concerns in “Falcon” can feel needlessly lofty at times: “The world’s a crazy place right now,” Don Cheadle tells Mackie, in a moment of generic Marvel-ese. “The world’s broken. Everybody’s just looking for somebody to fix it.” But acknowledging that the world was meaningfully changed for all its inhabitants by the cosmic play of heroes and villains is, at least, something new here. Similarly, a bank officer asking a loan-seeking Falcon what it is superheroes do for money prompts the jarring realization that we’ve never really faced this question before, beyond our knowledge that Tony Stark was an arms manufacturer, but the good kind. Mackie’s weary resignation suggests that we haven’t been thinking about it, but that he has.
Marvel is never going to fully de-Marvelize, and probably shouldn’t; the very nature of stories about all-powerful beings can’t really coexist with true realism, and DC’s attempt to strip away comic-book trappings from an iconic character to tell a story of social ills was the vacuous “Joker.” More serious examinations of the role superhero stories play in our society, like HBO’s “Watchmen,” are best conducted by those whose stake in the business of those same superhero stories isn’t quite so heavily leveraged. And yet credit goes to writer Malcolm Spellman: I wouldn’t have expected an episode of TV that featured its central character conducting an aerial mission with his giant mechanical wing suit to also feature that character dealing with a reluctant loan officer, or evincing a sense that life passed him by while he’d been missing for five years. While “Falcon” does not promise to approach the problems of grief and confusion of “The Leftovers” — the show that could be said to have kick-started a conversation about trauma across the medium — it does at least nod to them. That the expectations here are low seems like a fair response to more than a decade of movies that tend to treat situations as divorced from ramifications; to acknowledge that the story here is exceeding those expectations is fair, too.
Stan and especially Mackie help the show’s case. If Stan’s Bucky Barnes has not consistently felt precisely like what he is — he’s too modern to credibly be a cryogenically frozen soldier from the 1940s, if such a thing can “credibly” be achieved at all — his expressive angst lends itself well to a story taking place in the wake of destruction. What felt at moments in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” like a put-on attitude, a way to lend showy darkness to a sunny picture, seems, in a show built to take his concerns a bit more seriously, like a real performance. And while probing the mind of the reluctant superhero is hardly new for the medium, Mackie brings to the role an intriguing refusal to treat his own refusal as the stuff of great drama. He’s a hero for whom stepping away from what’s expected of him is not a grand renunciation; to treat it as anything other than a choice is to do exactly the sort of self-aggrandizement that’s not in the character’s nature.
For Mackie — a prolific character actor many first noticed in his role in “Half Nelson” fifteen years ago — this is an overdue moment in the sun. Mackie’s work in the Marvel films has been consistently strong but somewhat underwritten, given the magnitude of his talent. What is striking about his presence here is that he is permitted to embody complexity. A Black Captain America, following in the footsteps of the late Chadwick Boseman’s character in “Black Panther,” would be notable in itself. (And perhaps by the end of the series we may yet see Mackie taking up the shield.) But Mackie being allowed to choose not to, to work out what it means to be a symbol and opt, for now, to leave the heroics to others grants him agency on par with any of the Avengers, white or Black, who’ve preceded him. One roots for him not to be the new Captain, but instead to find amidst the chaos a way to fight as and for himself.
This is a manner of dealing with trauma that announces itself less extravagantly than did “WandaVision,” but that may end up counting for more as the series wears on. “WandaVision” stayed aloft for a while before running aground on the house style, a disappointment without recent parallel for a critic who’d genuinely admired the show’s early going. It’s worth hoping that “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” develops the tone it’s established, rather than reverting to explosions and terse statements of morality: For one thing, Mackie deserves more. And so does an audience for whom Marvel-branded properties make up a large and growing share of available inventory across, now, the media of film and television. If their having made the biggest-grossing film in history doesn’t liberate them to carry out something inventive, what ever will?
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” debuts on Disney Plus March 19.