The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, My Rambling Review

Politics and super heroes is like peanut butter in my chocolate

Dave Gutteridge
My Rambling Reviews

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(Spoilers. This isn’t the kind of thing you read to decide if you should watch something. It’s more for when you’ve watched it and you’re wondering if everyone else had the same questions you did.)

Captain America is not a hero I can take very seriously because I think patriotism is stupid. At best, he can work when he’s used as a vehicle to explore the gap between America’s ideals of what it imagines itself to be versus the realities of what it is. The Captain America from the movies isn’t actually in this show, except by reference, but the show is a continuation of his legacy as a political symbol.

And that’s where this show has potential to carve a more interesting and richer identity than most of the other Marvel stories. By fully embracing the intrigue and ethical issues that would come from having super powers in a political world, this could be a potent mix of action and depth.

Surprise Therapy

In the first episode, we find out that former super powered political assassin Bucky is being required to see some kind of therapist. This is part of a deal that pardoned him from his past crimes, mainly murders and assassinations, when he went by the name Winter Soldier. Presumably he got this deal because he was one of the heroes who helped save the entire universe in Avengers: End Game. Fair enough, I guess. I’m not sure if the hows and whys of his deal are ever made explicitly clear, though.

Anyway, the therapy thing and Bucky’s arc of trying to find forgiveness in himself is fine. But, along the way, there’s a scene where Bucky and Sam, the Falcon, are forced by Bucky’s therapist to do a therapy session together, involving overly deliberate techniques to compel them to open up to each other.

It’s supposed to be funny and cute to see these two super tough guys have to be emotionally vulnerable. But it’s just forced and breaks my suspension of disbelief. It’s not clear at all why this therapist has any power to impose a session on Sam, it seems kind of obvious that therapy wouldn’t really work when pushed on people by surprise, and the whole thing is rushed so that the emotional honesty doesn’t feel earned.

Given enough care in the set up and with the right follow through, it might have been a fun comedic break in the action. But it isn’t. And unfortunately that’s how a lot of this show is in a general sense. Lot’s of really great premises both big and small, but not reaching a satisfying result.

OG Black Captain America

The first thing that happens is that Sam, who happens to be black, and who was hand picked by the original Captain America to take over his role, is replaced by another man, who is white. That could lead to some interesting allegories about America’s current racial politics.

In the same vein, we soon find out that around the era of the Korean War, there were experiments to try to recreate the super soldier serum that created the first Captain America. These experiments were done on black soldiers, many of whom suffered for it, and the only successful test case and survivor was imprisoned and treated very differently from his white predecessor. Interesting stuff.

But none of the potential is realized from these evocations of America’s complicated racial politics. When Sam meets the white Captain America who replaced him, the racial implications are overshadowed by the new Captain America being wrong for the position for other reasons related to his overall personality.

A historical footnote in bronze

The Korean War era Black Captain America, now an older man, and Sam have some discussions where Black Captain America expresses his disdain for the stars and stripes and what it represents to him as a result of how he was betrayed by his country. And that’s it. Just a little talking.

In the end, OG Black Captain America is supposed to get some vindication by being acknowledged in a museum. But, it’s a boring and sterile conclusion narratively, and the implication that this makes up for one man’s lifetime of suffering and all the associated problems of systematic racism that were the underlying causes, is just really dubious on an ethical level. I’d like to see OG Black Captain America actually do stuff to right what was wrong, which is what super heroes are all about.

A Damn Good Point

For contrast, take Baron Zemo, who was a clear villain in the movie Captain America: Civil War. He’s also in this show, and this time round he’s more compelling than just the shit disturber he was in the movie.

Here, he seems to be of the opinion that anyone with special powers or a desire to be more than human is a threat to humanity. In one scene he talks around the point that Nazis believed in Übermensch, and how far is that from believing in super heroes like Captain America? That’s a damn good question. I’m a big fan of antagonists who make good points (see: Killmonger in Black Panther).

When the opportunity comes up for Zemo to destroy the means to make more super soldiers, he takes it. So we can see his political stance in deeds, not just words, and it affects the plot. That’s the kind of impact OG Black Captain America deserves to make.

Tactless

The new, white, False Captain America, brutally murders a “terrorist” by beating him to death with the iconic shield. He does this in the middle of a plaza in Europe while bystanders catch it on their phones. The image of a Captain America standing above a body, with blood all over the shield, is a striking one, ripe for interpretation by your personal political lens.

A more honest Captain America

For me, I felt they didn’t explore the hypocrisies enough. After all, the original Captain America only ever used violence to solve all the problems he faced. At least in the current cinematic universe, I can’t recall a single scene in which he ever attempted to negotiate a peaceful solution with anyone he perceived as an enemy. So in that way, I think he makes for an accurate embodiment of the US, though I’m certain that’s not the intended symbolism.

Anyway, Original Captain America has definitely killed people, so… is False Captain White America’s real crime just being a little tactless about it? Are Original Captain America’s activities more forgivable simply because the blood of his adversaries never stuck to the shield when he used it? The show doesn’t hang around to explore any answers, it just kind of wanders away to other issues.

We do see False Captain White America be stripped of his rank, but we don’t really see the public backlash, and it doesn’t seem to have any long term impact on the idea of having a super person designated as a symbol of America.

When Sam shows up later on as a New Legitimate Captain America, everyone just seems to be like, “Oh great, we have a new Captain America,” and not have any uncertainties about what a Captain America is really for. It’s not like anyone in a crowd knows Sam personally, so why would they just assume that he’s any less likely to commit extra-judicial executions with extreme violence? Does anyone even know if Captain America acts independently or under orders?

For Real Though

The main villains of the show, a “terrorist” group known as “The Flag Smashers”, have a very compelling cause. In the movie Avengers: End Game, half the world population disappeared for five years. In that time, global politics and economies were drastically shifted, and, it seems, borders became more porous as people migrated around looking for work and stability. Now, everyone who had disappeared is back, and it’s not so easy to reassimilate them. To address this problem, there is an international agency called the Global Repatriation Council that intends to return everyone to where they were before. There’s an implication, though, that their goals are not just about repatriating refugees, but about restoring old power structures.

I like their logo and branding, too

The Flag Smashers oppose this repatriation project. We don’t get shown a clear manifesto or anything, but it seems to be that at least part of the goal of the Flag Smashers is to do away with all international borders entirely. Their call to arms is to say, “One world, one people.”

I don’t need some science fiction, super hero based reality to provide special circumstances that lead to that conclusion. I firmly believe it in the here and now in our actual world. International borders are stupid and should be phased out. One world, one people.

I don’t know where you stand on that, but I’m pretty sure the writers of this show must have worried at one point that the Flag Smashers might be too compelling for the heroes of the show to oppose. Especially since we get one scene of the Flag Smashers stealing from a bank, and later providing aid to people in refugee camps. I’m down with all of that. The Flag Smashers seem like good people to me.

So, out of nowhere and without any believable context, the leader of the Flag Smashers abruptly decides, around episode two or three, that they need to use a car bomb to murder a bunch of people in a building where the Global Repatriation Council has some relief workers. It’s supposed to position the Flag Smashers as being well meaning but too extreme. For me, it just felt like the writers were afraid of having too much grey area in the central conflict, whereas all I want are shades of grey because that’s way more interesting.

Politics Aside

Ultimately, the show fizzles out not just in terms of politics, but in narrative as well. The big climactic show down between the heroes, Bucky and Falcon, and the Flag Smashers, with a few other people involved as well, is a fuzzy mess of chases and fights that don’t ever add up to a whole.

The Flag Smashers interrupt a meeting of the Global Repatriation Council to take them hostage… maybe? They force all the GRC members out of the building to take them away, but it’s all done right in front of the press and security, so it seems insane that they could think they would be able to actually make it to any kind of secure location without being followed and harassed constantly. Seems they could have accomplished everything they wanted by just leaving a bomb in the room with the GRC and not having to drive them anywhere. Would have been way easier.

Some of the hostages are taken into two trucks, and another group is taken away by helicopter, and it seems really obvious that the helicopter is there just to give Sam some flying to do. He ends up chasing it around, but it’s just not very exciting. Partly because there’s no character of significance in the helicopter, so it feels a like a side quest, not the main mission. It doesn’t deserve the length of screen time it gets.

There are moments where a car might fall off a ledge, but doesn’t, and some people are trapped in a burning vehicle, but are saved. There are fight scenes between different people, and everyone running here and there. Somehow every time people change locations, everyone can anticipate where the next location will be, or figure it out very quickly. There are multiple points where the action builds up, but then they get resolved without too much trouble before going to the next small thing. There’s no single sufficiently climactic moment, even when Sam faces off against the leader of the Flag Smashers. It was just a long string of, “hey, we’ve fought against this backdrop for a bit, let’s go fight over in another area now.”

“Do Better”

In the end, the leader of the Flag Smasher’s is defeated, and Sam, now publicly declaring himself in front of the media to be the New Legitimate Captain America in a rather ridiculous looking suit, has a moment where he lectures the government agency on what they should be doing.

Less sensible protection than your average person on a bicycle

Seriously, that suit is really over worked. Previous Captain America suits in the movies had an eye to looking like something actually worn in combat, as much as you could without losing sight of the fact that it’s a super hero costume with symbolism. This thing Sam’s wearing looks like cosplay of a bird themed hero from an anime adventure for kids. Who would wear that much white into combat? And why is every part of his body protected except the top of his head? You know, where his brain is? Maybe the one part that should be protected most?

Anyway, in the big post fight speech scene, it’s supposed to be the kind of moment where the hero cuts through all the bullshit and tells it like it is to the powers that be who need to hear it. He has the moral authority in the moment of not only having saved the politician hostages, so the least they can do is listen to him, but he’s also expressing empathy for the people he’s just defeated, which makes him seem even handed.

He starts out with a very important point, which is that people tend to dismiss terrorists without ever asking why those terrorists are doing what they do. That’s a concept with such deep implications it’s almost subversive. Terrorists don’t just “hate our freedoms,” they’re applying immoral solutions to what may, or may not, be valid grievances.

Great start, but it devolves into minutes of rambling, and it isn’t very convincing of anything. It left me feeling that the writers were like first year philosophy students, having only recently been exposed to big ethical questions, but not having had the time to develop any meaningful perspectives. At the end of his speech, Sam just vaguely and dismissively says, “do better.” It was as if Sam was frustrated by his own inability to articulate a point.

Loose Ends

After the main conflict is resolved, the show spends a full half episode tying up loose ends and setting up future scenarios, and for the most part doesn’t do either in any satisfying or enticing way.

Bucky finally confesses his responsibility for the death of the son of someone he’s been trying to work up the courage to speak to. We build up to the harsh recrimination he deserves from the man who’s been missing his son, which would have been dramatic and interesting. But, nope. Instead, we just cut from Bucky starting to explain, to him walking out the door.

Which is unsatisfying enough, but then, weirdly, soon after, we see a scene of that father smiling and laughing in a restaurant, as if Bucky’s confession has made everything okay. I think if a friend of yours solved the mystery of what happened to your son by confessing that he was the one to kill him, it might enable you to move on. But I don’t feel like the message here should be that it makes everything okay and you can enjoy life again. Which probably wasn’t even the intended message, but there’s not enough clarity of any message, so whatever.

Called out of his retirement for one last job?

We see other flag smashers in custody who are killed at the hands of some guy who looks a thousand years old. He’s so distinctly old that it seems a strange casting choice if he’s just supposed to be a random hit man carrying out someone else’s orders. Maybe he’s a character from the comics that die hard fans will recognize? I got the feeling he’s a ham fisted portrayal of the patriarchy keeping the people down…? Maybe? I don’t know. Again, it’s just not clear enough for me to be sure that the message I got was the message that was sent.

I feel like Julia Louis-Dreyfus might take the character in a different direction than the comic version

By far the most interesting set up is with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who brings a lot of potential to be the kind of villain who is disturbingly funny. She’s playing a named character from the comics universe, so she has a whole backstory and everything, but it’s not clear how close the show will follow the source material. All we know in the context of this show is that she’s from some shadowy organization that has decided to recruit Disgraced Captain White America, rebranding him with the code name “US Agent”. He’s possibly being positioned as a sort of dark side to what Captain America is supposed to be. Maybe US Agent will be the guy the US will send in to do covert operations that they don’t make public.

Will the show be bold enough to dive into the issues of human rights abuses perpetrated by the US abroad in the name of security? If this season is any indication, they’ll continue to run up to cliffs without jumping off. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for from a show that’s ultimately a product of Disney.

Actually, It’s Pretty Good

Having said all that, it sounds like I’m saying this show doesn’t work. But that’s not the case. Even though I felt that they never offered satisfying answers, I appreciated them raising interesting questions. Beyond that, in spite of its high concept misses, as entertainment, it’s a pretty fun ride to go on. I actually quite liked it.

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan are both really compelling in their roles as the titular characters. Mackie just fits like a glove into the role of a super hero, being action ready and noble one moment, then comedically fallible the next, like in a scene when he couldn’t leverage his fame in order to secure a bank loan.

This is actually a super important scene in terms of how we conceive of super heroes. I mean, talking to your enemy first to try and have a peaceful settlement? Crazy.

Also, it should be noted that at one point Mackie’s character, Sam, made an attempt to peacefully negotiate a solution with the Flag Smashers. Of course, everything went wrong for reasons outside his control, otherwise we wouldn’t get the action adventure we want to see. But, I think it’s a good trend to show heroes being heroic in more ways than just using brute force to solve every problem. It’s more than original Captain America ever seems to have done, so that’s progress I’m down for.

I’m actually kind of surprised at how much I liked the Bucky character. It would be too easy for a character like him to be misanthropic to the point of just being a tiresome downer all the time. But we get enough range to see that he can smile or be funny now and again without losing sight of the fact that he’s carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders.

False Captain White America, now US Agent, was also quite good. He could have easily been cartoonishly dislikable given his position as the end result of systematic racism. But he was believable as a flawed person who was trying, but failing, to live up to being a super hero.

Most, if not all, of the characters in this show were compelling. Sharon Carter, if you remember who she is, is in this movie, and she has a secret so obvious you’ll guess it the moment you see her, but she’s interesting to watch. The all female Wakandan guard pop in for a visit, and they’re always kind of fun, with their overly serious disposition. The Flag Smashers don’t get quite enough breathing room to be fully dimensionalized, but they’re conflicted and human enough to empathize with. There’s also a French dude who has fun catch phrases said in subtitles.

Good characters go a long way to make up for the narrative shortcomings. And the wide variety of international settings and political contexts makes for a nice world to play in. I’m on board for season two. I would hope for tighter storytelling, and a little more courage to embrace the grey areas, but I won’t expect it. Maybe at least just give Sam a helmet?

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Dave Gutteridge
My Rambling Reviews

I don't post often because I think about what I write. Topics include ethics, relationships, and philosophy.