What They Say:
After being handed the mantle of Captain America at the end of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Sam Wilson teams up with Bucky Barnes in a worldwide adventure that puts their abilities to the test as they fight the anti-patriotism group the Flag-Smashers.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
After a couple of rocky episodes, Falcon and the Winter Soldier starts to find its stride, and it’s largely thanks to the inclusion of Baron Helmut Zemo and the chemistry Daniel Brühl brings to the role and brings out of Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan.
Sam and Buck have hit a brick wall with their investigation into the super soldiers behind the Flag Smashers. Someone has somehow been able to reverse engineer the Erskine serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America, and the threat it represents to Western Democracy cannot be overstated. Working as freelance operatives, Sam and Buck are able to go places and do things that John Walker—the new Captain America—cannot. For example, Walker couldn’t just waltz into the high security German prison where Zemo is being held and break him out.
Of course, just because you can do a thing doesn’t meant that you should. Sam and Buck originally went to shake down info on Hydra agents and operations from Zemo, figuring that might lead to the source of the new super soldier serum. It’s Buck who breaks Zemo out, and Sam’s none too happy about it, to his credit.
Zemo takes the boys to most wretched hive of scum and villainy in Marvel comics—Madripoor—and through some spycraft they discover that The Power Broker is the one behind the new serum, and that the Flag Smashers stole it from him/her. Also, while in Madripoor, the gang reunites with Sharon Carter, who has been on the run ever since she helped steal Cap’s shield and Sam’s wings. She definitely works on a grayer side of the law now, but there are hints that things aren’t exactly what they appear.
While the boys are doing that, Walker and Battlestar try to shake down civilians who run safe houses for the Flag Smashers, and it goes about as well as you would think. Walker decides that the best course of action is to shadow Sam and Buck while they do their investigation, and then sweep in and take all the credit, which is a very John Walker thing to do.
Episode three isn’t perfect, but, like I said, it feels like it’s starting to find its way. As Chris reminded me not too long ago, the production was cut short because of Covid, and you can see the effects of that in how busy the show is. We’re at the halfway mark and there are so many balls in the air at the moment. The show tries its best to juggle them all, but there’s a frantic pace to it that undermines narrative tension and even story logic.
For example: Buck breaking Zemo out of prison felt very forced to me. It felt more like it was done because that’s what the plot demanded and not because that was what the character would actually do. At least not at first. This feels like a last-ditch effort made before other, smarter options were tried. It would work better if there were a ticking clock element, some deadline or something that adds a sense of urgency to the situation, but there isn’t, so it’s more difficult for me to justify Buck’s decision here, or Sam’s later on.
Two other issues are the Flag Smasher’s motivation and goal. We’re told that they want the world to go back the way it was before the Blip. The problem is that we don’t really have a good idea of what that world looked like or why they would want to. There was maybe twenty minutes of Endgame devoted to the post-snap world, and most of that centered on the despair of the people who survived. The only positive I can think of that was hinted at in the movie was the whale population increasing because the decrease in commercial traffic overseas. The show gives some vague ideas about unity and allocation of resources, but we’re being told about it, and not shown. And even the telling isn’t that great. I don’t have any real concrete specifics to latch onto to help understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.
That leads me to the goal: what would the world look like if the Flag Smashers achieve their goal? I have no idea. Would it be like in that Simpson’s Tree House of Horror where Lisa wished for world peace and everyone threw away their guns and ICBM missile silos were turned into flower beds? I don’t know, and I get the feeling the Flash Smashers don’t know, either. Perhaps that’s part of the point: they have no clear goal, and therefore are doomed to fail. That’s me extrapolating, though, it’s not actually in the text.
I think the show is trying to do the Killmonger thing here by presenting a villain (or in this case villains) who are empathetic. The issue is that, unlike Killmonger, we don’t get a clear idea of where they came from, why they want to change the world, and what the world would look like if they did. Killmonger possessed a clear history, a clear point of view, and a clear goal. What made him so extraordinary was that his goal was good and noble, but his methods were monstrous. We knew the goal he pictured, but we also knew how it would turn out because you can’t grow something strong and wonderful in the poisoned ground.
These are storytelling issues at the writing level. Thankfully, they aren’t huge enough to take away completely from my enjoyment of the show. As often happens with Marvel properties, the strength of the cast makes up for quite a bit. As much as I think they let the Zemo out of the bag too quickly, I have to say that Daniel Brühl adds an x factor to the Sam/Bucky dyad that pushes them. There already existed friction between the two characters, but Zemo adds a different sort of grit, perhaps one that will help hone and polish the heroes into a true team.
I’ve enjoyed Brühl as an actor for some time now. My only issue with his Zemo lies, again, in the writing. He’s never felt like the Zemo from the comics. Part of that lies in his motivations being very different. In the comics, Zemo believes with all his heart that he is superior. There’s an odd, twisted version of noblesse oblige at the center of his character that justifies, in his mind, his cruelty and lust for power. Zemo in the MCU hates superheroes because of what happened in Sokovia. These are very different motivations that lead to very different character actions.
I think, though, that the show is trying to align him more with the comics, much like WandaVision did with The Scarlet Witch. I hope that’s true, because Brühl definitely has the chops to play a more comic-accurate Baron Zemo.
Although there are issues with the writing, the actors are just so damn good at what they do in this series that I can look past it. Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a bit of a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one that might well stick the landing at the end. Here’s hoping it will.