We gave up a lot of things in 2020 and that sucked. One thing that maybe actually needed a break was the superhero genre, which has dominated cinemas for more than a decade now. Last year, only DC managed to release anything (Birds of Prey and WW84) unless you count the final season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, which was probably only watched by me. Well, now it’s 2021 and we’re coming back and we’re all super depressed. Over the next few… however long this takes me, I’m going to review all the sad new superhero shows and movies of 2021 leading up to Black Widow‘s release in July. Come wallow with me!
What does it mean to be “Captain America” after World War II? Outside of war propaganda, it’s pretty weird to cover yourself in the stars and stripes. The comics have been wrestling with this issue since the character was revived during the Vietnam era, sometimes with embarrassing results. In the MCU, Steve Rogers ultimately gave up his alter ego, sidestepping the issue until he made the surprising choice to pass the mantle on to Sam Wilson. Then he disappeared into another timeline(?) and left his two sidekicks to pick up the pieces. Sounds like a funny buddy flick right? But it’s 2021, so let’s make sure to have some real bummer stuff in there too.
Like Spider-Man: Far From Home and WandaVision before it, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier offers some tantalizing details about the post-Blip world without making it totally clear what the new status quo is. People aren’t sure if Captain America is dead or not, I guess some people think he’s on the moon. It seems like the Avengers are disbanded… But maybe that’s just because their campus was destroyed by Thanos’ army? What this show makes really clear is that the world is struggling to get back to normal. While it was mostly played for laughs in Spider-Man, it turns out it was hugely traumatic for half the people in the world to disappear for five years. Those left behind by the Snap had time to grieve and move on. Those who disappeared lost those years and maybe more: in that time spouses remarried, new tenants moved into homes, desirable jobs were filled. So, obviously, a giant, unfeeling, multinational organization was needed to help people resettle.
The Global Repatriation Council (GRC) was founded to put the world back together. That might sound great to a lot of Blipped people, but there are many others who feel their lives today are better than they were five years ago. This sentiment has led to the foundation of a movement called the Flag Smashers, a group who want to stop refugees from being deported. The only problem with that is they’ve become increasingly radicalized, especially after several members of the group acquire knock-off super soldier serum. This sounds like a job for Captain America, except we don’t have one right now. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is still calling himself The Falcon and staying busy helping the government hunt super villains. And he’s got his own problems too: his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) has money troubles and is going to lose the family home and boat because it turns out Tony Stark didn’t pay the Avengers and being on the run and then Snapped is terrible for your credit.
Meanwhile, Rogers’ other natural successor, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), has his own fish to fry. I guess he got some sort of amnesty deal that requires him to go to therapy, so that’s no fun. On top of that, he’s made a list of all the people who were hurt by his actions as The Winter Solder and is slowly trying to make amends where he can. So, with no one willing to pick up the shield, Sam donates it to the new Captain America museum at the Smithsonian. But that doesn’t last very long, pretty much the next day the government decides to make their own new Captain America, a former Ranger named John Walker (Wyatt Russell). And so we have a bunch of people with a bunch of reasons to butt heads. And since this is a show, there’s a half dozen other storylines thrown in there too.
One other thing The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has in common with WandaVision is that, despite being ostensibly about two super heroes, the name that comes first is more important. We knew since Endgame‘s last moments that Sam was destined to become the new Captain America and Bucky was forever going to be the sidekick. And the best parts of this show focus on Sam deciding to step into that role. The MCU is mostly apolitical, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is somehow even less subtle than Luke Cage about the contemporary issues it’s trying to deal with, but altogether Sam’s arc is satisfying to watch. And that suit looks good.
What doesn’t work are the villains. The Flag Smashers are led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman, who was also a masked revolutionary in Solo) who seems to be intended to be a representation of a good person who has lost her way. But the show kinda botches in and it makes her story ending pretty weak. Especially since John Walker is offered his own redemption despite being way, way less likable. I don’t mean that as a knock against Wyatt Russell, who is great. Also the show has a few other villains that don’t matter to the plot enough for me to write about them, which is something I wish the show’s creators had also done.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was planned to be the first MCU show and it’s obvious why: unlike the more experimental WandaVision, this feels like a movie that was stretched out to be six episodes long. It has a few really great action sequences and an amazing cast… it just gets lost in the weeds of making that transition between mediums. It’s probably better now, since you can watch it all in a weekend, than it was following along at one hour per week. But I was thrilled to hear that the followup to this will be a movie. Not only does it suit the types of stories these characters keep finding themselves in, if the shield really is being passed on, we deserve to see Anthony Mackie as Captain America on the big screen.