“WandaVision” proved Marvel could turn two minor characters into compelling TV.
Now, it tries again with the six-episode miniseries “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which drops its first episode Friday on Disney+ for weekly installments through April 23.
Picking up after the events of “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), Sam Wilson a.k.a. Falcon and Bucky Barnes a.k.a. Winter Soldier team up to face a terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers, who believe life was better during the five-year “Blip” of Thanos’ snap.
Anthony Mackie famously never auditioned; Marvel just offered him the role of Falcon, joining Don Cheadle’s War Machine as rare Black superheroes before Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. In “Endgame,” Chris Evans memorably handed Mackie the Captain America shield saying, “How does it feel?” “Like it’s someone else’s.” “It’s not.”
This time, Mackie is reverential, donating Cap’s shield to the Smithsonian: “We need new heroes suited for the times we’re in. Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning. Today we honor Steve’s legacy, but we look to the future.” He’s even called “Uncle Sam” as Marvel strategically shifts to a Black Cap.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan has grown since he was first killed off as Bucky in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) before roaring back to life as a lethal threat in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014). The miniseries teases another heel turn as he says, “Hail HYDRA,” only to realize it’s a nightmare in therapy in New York City.
As Bucky adjusts to civilian life with a government pardon, the script lays out his rules of engagement: (1) He can’t do anything illegal, (2) Nobody gets hurt, and (3) He must make it clear that he’s Bucky not the Winter Soldier in an attempt to make amends.
Head writer Malcolm Spellman explores themes of grief after The Blip like HBO’s “The Leftovers” and COVID-19: “The world has been forever changed. A few months ago, billions of people reappeared after five years away, sending the world into turmoil.” That includes the economy, as a banker denies Sam a loan before requesting a selfie.
Don’t worry, it’s not all dire thematics. There’s also thrilling superhero action set to Henry Jackman’s rousing score. Marvel fans will love the opening sequence of The Falcon soaring for the U.S. Air Force, chasing a hijacked helicopter through the canyons like Will Smith outmaneuvering the aliens in “Independence Day” (1996).
Filming began in October 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, before moving to the Czech Republic in early March 2020. After a halt in production due to the pandemic, filming resumed in Atlanta in September 2020 and finished in the Czech Republic in October 2020. The result is a globetrotting rollercoaster ride from Tunisia to D.C., New York to Louisiana.
Canadian filmmaker Kari Skogland delivers shots like Mackie behind a reflection of Cap’s shield in museum glass or Stan sitting in front of a forest painting, proving her directing chops after “Boardwalk Empire” (2012), “The Walking Dead” (2015), “House of Cards” (2016), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017) and “The Punisher” (2017).
It all builds to a powerful cliffhanger that causes Mackie to close his eyes right as we cut to the end credits. Was this inspired by Regina King’s final shot of Malcolm X closing his eyes at the end of “One Night in Miami” (2021), or is this simply a case of great minds thinking alike? Either way, it makes us want to watch more next week.
I prefer these weekly installments (i.e. “WandaVision”) rather than dropping all episodes at once. That’s the goal of episodic television: to gin up excitement. Sadly, Cheadle is done (IMDB only lists him in one episode), but we’ll see more of Daniel Brühl as Zemo (5 episodes) and Emily VanCamp as Agent Carter (5 episodes).
It’s tricky to grade just one episode, but Phase 4 of the MCU is off to a good start.