As the end credits ensued, me and my flatmate finally turned to each other after 49 minutes. We’d gone into this episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier with high hopes; the pilot had offered a sturdy start with nothing overly spectacular, but the foundations had been there to build on. Our looks spoke a thousand words.
This went way past disappointing; it bordered on being painful to watch. If this wasn’t a Marvel series which I’ll need to continue watching in order to understand various plot points in future films and shows, I’d stop forcing myself to digest this immediately. It was that poor.
I might sound as though I’m being overly harsh (going by the majority of the online responses I’ve seen so far, this episode went down fairly well). However, I really struggled to find anything I honestly enjoyed. There were a variety of reasons behind this.
The fact that the show has made one half of their lead character duo genuinely unlikeable didn’t help things whatsoever. Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson didn’t get off to a strong start in the pilot (I discussed his sub-par acting last week) but we at least sympathised with the character. We cared about what he was going through. We felt his pain.
Cue The Star-Spangled Man, and those feelings went straight out the window. The web behind this feat was vast, and Mackie’s poor acting was right at the centre of it. Once again, his delivery of lines was significantly lacking (not helped by the cheap dialogue on offer), almost sounding robotic when acting on what should have been important scenes.
Then comes his strange character development. Having never been afforded much depth in the MCU’s blockbuster movies, the opener of this series painted Sam as a slightly arrogant figure who has the best interests of other characters at heart. Bucky Barnes’ therapist even claimed he had been trying to get in contact with the ex-Winter Soldier.
Now, however, that’s all out the window. The apparent texts and calls to Bucky, which we presumed were to check up on how Steve Rogers’ other best friend was doing? It would appear not, with the Falcon belittling and teasing him as soon as they appear on screen together. This continued throughout the episode (not that Bucky was any better, of course. But that at least ties in with his character).
It was all bad enough before the counselling session between the two characters took place. Finally, we got some really strong emotional depth to a character; Bucky lets his guard down and confesses to Sam that if Steve (Captain America) was wrong about Sam, then he might have been wrong about him too. This was brilliant acting from Sebastian Stan, and it seemed that the episode might be able to salvage itself.
Alas, Sam’s reaction destroyed those chances. Did he mull over Bucky’s concerns, taking them into account before replying? Did he accept them before maturely counteracting them with his own struggles? No. Instead, he responded with a scorning: “You finished?”
I can’t put into words how infuriating that response is. After weeks of being taught about the true power of grief through WandaVision, with its stress on the importance of not bottling up our emotions, Sam quashes any hopes Bucky has of opening up.
As though to further enforce the feelings of growing dislike we felt bubbling inside ourselves, Sam proceeds to forcefully pat Bucky’s shoulder – a classic bullying technique, and one which we are accustomed to seeing ‘bad guys’ utilise. This episode couldn’t have made Sam more dislikeable if it tried.
Of course, this is mainly down to what has so far been very sub-par writing from the team at Marvel. We have to look back at the first episode to evaluate this properly.
What really was the point in this pilot? We watch as Sam reconnects with his sister and tries to save the family business, while Bucky embarks on a journey of self-recovery by trying to right the wrongs of his violent past. In Episode Two, neither of these plot points are mentioned whatsoever. It was as though they’d been forgotten completely.
As mentioned above, the supposed attempts from Sam to connect with Bucky? That idea was tossed out the window, left to collect dust.
And what of our intrigue as to how the two titular characters would actually cross paths? Would they both end up investigating the same villains coincidentally, and meet by accident? Or would one phone the other in need of assistance? There had been no link between them established, so we were curious.
The answer? A lazy writing technique; the episode starts, and Bucky just happens to have flown halfway across the country, gained access to a military base and flown off on a mission with Sam. That’s it. Curiosity dispelled, and not in a satisfying way.
The overall plot of this episode proceeds to jump around all too frequently. Our characters cover way too much ground for under an hour of runtime, often with little to no explanation of how they do so. Ideas are introduced and then skipped over. Things need to improve in the coming weeks.
The new Captain America, John Walker, has struggled from a poor writing job as well. He was introduced at the end of Episode One to invoke annoyance in viewers, before being humanised at the start of this episode and turned into a helpful side character, before being turned back into an antagonist of sorts by the end when he tells Sam and Bucky to stay out of his way. These inconsistencies add to the inadequacies.
On top of that, things must be clearer. At this point (two episodes into a six episode series) we still lack a clear villain, a clear villain motivation and a real reason to dislike the villain(s).
Our antagonists at this stage are supposedly the ‘Flagsmashers’; a group of super-soldiers who want to disestablish borders across the world. The problem is that they aren’t that dislikeable. In fact, it’s easy to sympathise with them – they spent this episode trying to deliver vaccines to refugee camps. What is it they’re doing wrong, except throwing punches when physically confronted by our heroes? Our heroes who, by the way, don’t actually seem to know what’s wrong with the villains either – so why are they hunting them down?
Helmut Zemo was finally shown in the closing stages, but we still don’t know what his motivations and ties to the story are. By the time those are explained, we may be halfway through the series before a proper villain is established.
We knew that the exploration of racism was coming in this season, and we welcomed that. Marvel has a good track record of exploring prominent issues in society, with WandaVision’s look at depression and Captain Marvel’s examination of sexism boosting their credentials (the latter in a slightly in-your-face fashion). This episode, however, offered a template on how not to approach these topics.
WandaVision did things perfectly; it showed and didn’t tell. It didn’t make any cringey jokes on the subject. It didn’t openly talk about it to begin with. It let the wonderful acting of Elizabeth Olsen take us a journey of acceptance. So far, Falcon and the Winter Soldier has been nowhere near the same standard in this regard.
The way racism was discussed in this episode was far too overly manufactured. Both the dialogue used to bring up the subject (a young boy calling Sam the ‘Black Falcon’, which he proceeds to laugh off) and the scenarios used (police cars conveniently on hand to question Sam despite he and Bucky having been on the streets for less than a minute) were too favourably fabricated.
It bordered on being cringey. We don’t want to be spoon-fed these issues in scenarios which can’t be backed up with good acting. We want to have the ideas presented to us in realistic fashion, allowing us to pick up on them ourselves and formulate our own opinions. Episode One did this well when Sam and his sister tried to get a loan: we weren’t told their rejection had racial undertones, but we knew it. That’s why it worked.
The good intentions are obviously there. Racism is a massive problem and should be explored in mass media, but not in this way. Falcon and the Winter Soldier has to do more to incorporate it in natural ways so we can relate it to real life experiences. Don’t shoehorn it into unrealistic scenes.
If you enjoyed this episode, then fair enough. Personally, I thought it completely disregarded its predecessor, incorporated lazy writing, failed to adequately explore racism, fell victim to poor acting and made its main character the most unlikeable in the show so far.
Four episodes remain and Falcon and the Winter Soldier has a lot of ground to make up. It might be too little too late. Hopefully by the time me and my flatmate meet each other’s gaze after next week’s episode, our eyes will be filled with excitement and anticipation rather than disappointment.