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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: A Failure in Story Telling

I want to preface this blog by letting you all know that I’m a liker. I like most things and no one who knows me well would describe me as a hater. I have done some film school courses but generally the pretension that I was presented with on a daily basis had me shift my career path. I have a positive disposition and I honestly love a ton of terrible movies that Rotten Tomatoes has termed as failures. I’ve learned that at times there are great movies (from a film making perspective) that are just not fun to watch. Conversely, there are films that are utterly enjoyable but aren’t particularly well made.

This may be somewhat of an unpopular opinion but I believe Disney +’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (henceforth abbreviated as TFWS) is in that latter category. The show is fun, Sebastian Stan is charming as ever in reprising his role as the Winter Soldier. Anthony Mackie has successfully made me care about a character I never really enjoyed in the Falcon. They’re great actors who definitely pull their weight in the series.  The problem comes from a development standpoint.  The show simply doesn’t do anything, characters are more akin to script props than fully fleshed characters. TFWS promises to touch on social issues and barely scrapes the surface. The show fancies itself as a bridge to explore post-Infinity War Marvel lore, but doesn’t really do that. Additionally, it takes a run at trying to make us rethink our positions on how different actions can be interpreted by different people who are equally affected. It also doesn’t do that.

So while the show was entertaining it was absolutely a failure from the perspective of story telling.  Disney + had the opposite experienced with the massive success: Wandavision. Wandavision was exciting and small in scope thus making a single season offering sufficient to tell it’s story. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier failed to do that completely.  The problems were too large, there were too many of them and nothing was earned.  This is true from the opening action sequence. While exciting and visually brilliant, you scarcely know or care why it is that the paired duo need to stop Georges St.Pierre’s Georges Batroc. I know, I’m supposed to remember his character development from a movie I saw half a decade ago that represents something like 8% of Marvel’s releases.  I don’t. Lots of people don’t. Nobody wants overstated exposition but at least let us know why we’re supposed to care. The real secret, we aren’t not for another 5 or so episodes where he makes a momentary return to engage in a fight I was supposed to care about but didn’t. Wandavision literally took place in a bubble and allowed for character growth. TFWS promise to handle, social justice, marvel mythos, introduce new villains and it fails on all fronts.

Ok so my fellow Quebecer was more mini-boss than big bad.  That’s ok but then who is the big bad?  Well for a while the show seems to set up that John F. Walker would be the main bad guy.  He replaces Steve Rogers as Captain America and it’s made quite clear that he isn’t trusted by our lead protagonists. The Winter soldier goes so far as to warn us that he has crazy in his eyes.  The writers develop that there is a downside to the supersoldier serum.  While in his role as Captain America, Walker steals a vial of the serum, takes it and in a fit of rage, kills a man in public and that moment is streamed for all the world to see. He is summarily relieved of his role and responsibility. He’s clearly going to comeback as a bad guy right? Well no, he comes back with a knock off of the Captain America shield that he clearly ordered on Wish. It gets dented in 8 seconds and after committing one selfless act the audience is expected to see his story arc as redemptive. You’re going to read this a lot in this review: it was unearned.

So I think the villain is supposed to be the leader of the Flag Smashers. If you don’t know who the Flag Smashers are or didn’t really understand their relevance, don’t worry, no one actually did. Anyone who says otherwise is simply a liar.  Introduced early in the second episode of the series in an off-hand comment, the Flag Smashers are a team of nationalists who oppose nationalism and do not believe that the world should be divided by nations, countries etc. Karli Morgenthau, the teenage leader of this rebellion, is seen stealing vaccines, a plot that is all but abandoned almost immediately in the series. The reason she’s stealing said vaccines is to deliver them to people who, after having established lives after half the population disappeared when Thanos snapped his fingers (known in Marvel lore as the Blip), are forced out of their new lives 5 years later when the affected population returns. There probably wasn’t a ton of reason to change this plot line given that it helps the viewer understand the world the show takes place in. My guess is Disney acted cowardly in a world where vaccinations are now seen to be politically polarizing.  To which I ask Mickey, “aren’t you supposed to be the big bad mouse with all the F-you money?” But of course, I digress.

So this group is essentially a terrorist group who’s cause is actually quite nuanced. This has the opportunity to grow to become one of Marvel’s most captivating villainous groups in the way that Scott Snyder’s Court of Owls became the most intriguing bad guys in Batman legend since they introduced the Joker.  Instead, by the end The Falcon (what at that point is Captain America), delivers an admittedly impassioned speech about why labelling this cause as terrorism is dangerous and why complex issues can’t be treated with easy solutions indicates that the show runner wanted us to feel compassion for Karli as somewhat of a misunderstood antihero.  That never occurs because we don’t really EVER see the squalor that the people they represented were living in. We never truly see there struggles and as such, once again, it was unearned.  Way to screw up your chance to actually have an interesting-real world villain.

The only reason I even knew most of the backstory of the Flag Smashers is because I spend way to much on twitter and so does my Hot Sauce Compatriot Kristian Johnston-Galvez who was equally flummoxed by this show.  It would have been cool to spend a whole season through the lens of The Leftovers-style of plot development to help us feel for those who were effected by the Blip. Instead, it only comes up as haphazardly as the cause seems to as the remaining leaders of the movement are blown up by Zemo’s butler Oeznick who only exists in the role to tie up that specific lose end.  Talk about lazy writing.

This is not the only time where there is a missed opportunity. Sure the angriest among us complain about virtual signaling and politics in their comic books but who cares about them. Generally people want a good story and don’t care if the show shares the exact moralities as the viewers do.  Some great comic book properties deal with social justice and others don’t have real world ties. Whether they do or don’t doesn’t change my enjoyment. What does change my level of enjoyment is when it is done poorly.  Once again, Wandavision took place in a bubble and was largely not affected by real world events.  This show seems to really want to touch on the black experience in America.  It rarely does.

Built in early on is the concept that “they won’t let a black man be captain America”.  It’s clear that the show is paving the way for Anthony Mackie to become the first live-action Black Captain America.  However, after first turning down the shield (hero’s journey, thank you Joseph Campbell), he eventually sees himself thrust into the role.  This takes an encounter with the first black super soldier (Isaiah Bradley) who was subjected to imprisonment and testing.  This story line was interesting but never is fully developed.  In the end Bradley is honored with a statue which of course is the bare minimum that can be done for him after what he lived through.  Any growth is personal to Bradley or The new Captain America and doesn’t seem to indicate any movement for societal change.  Also, when dawning a new uniform, Anthony Mackie’s character doesn’t mention it’s because his America looks different from Steve Rogers.  When Bucky tells Sam Wilson that the shield representing something important to him, Mackie just stares in silence instead of addressing that it does not represent the same things for him.  Wilson’s relationship in itself with Wakanda even seems transactional.  So if this show was trying to act as a tome in the tale of privilege and social justice, it fails to do so.

Still, the failing that bothered me the most is that this show just felt like another generic superhero property. They very clearly want to set-up the buddy cop dynamic between Sam and Bucky yet, it’s not clear why they’re friends, the friendship is just supposed and then never grows. They introduce several elements of the trope and never really delve into it.  Bucky hits on Sam’s sister and other than a verbal finger wag, nothing comes of it.  The whole time while watching the show I was screaming “Bro…have you never watched lethal weapon?!?!?!?!  Have you not seen Bad Boys?!?!?!?!” The 80’s and 90’s wrote the book on buddy cop comedies.  I really thought this was an opportunity to see that dynamic take place with a combination of silly moments, quippy dialogue and badass action. We never get it however, because, as everything else in the show is, the friendship is unearned.

The show is fine. It’s fairly mindless entertainment.  The only benefit the show actually offers is for parents who are scared that their kids will go to film school, they can use this as an example of how you clearly don’t learn how to make a movie or a show in film school. From a film making standpoint, this is an abject failure. Loading it up to watch kind of feels like going to the gym.  The hardest part is actually getting yourself to go there and then eventually it’s alright. More than anything I’m annoyed at the several missed opportunities and seeing Malcom Spellman try to take on way too much and fail to deliver on anything.  If you haven’t seen it and decide to, it’s fine, if you don’t you’ll have saved several hours and the rest of your life will remain unchanged.

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