The caustic, the clumsy, and the commendable collide in Marvel’s second – and second eerily prescient – TV series.
It seems each Marvel series is its own style and genre, diving right into unexpected themes, and dragging the kids into grown-up territory, if not always gracefully. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (FATWS) boldly pokes at ideas and issues which would be challenging in any film or TV series. They’re topics beyond the scope of anything the MCU has even touched prior to Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther (2018), the latter of which series creator Malcolm Spellman and director Kari Skogland referenced directly and explicitly. Sadly, FATWS is unable to hold its weighty subject matter, and ultimately collapses into a confusing clash of messaging, with some outstanding moments couched in themes and storytelling presented at odds with eachother in baffling ways.
Things Aren’t Black And White… Are They?
For a story supposedly interested in complicating the “good vs evil” dichotomy, the visuals are often deliberately about stark contrast – black vs white, light vs dark – which is, by definition, devoid of grey areas. This makes less sense as a response to the material than as an aesthetic choice for its own sake.
The contrast isn’t even coded consistently: the characters and objects which are most illuminated are often (but not always) “right” or “good”, and are often (but not always) merely characters with the most certitude or objects which hold the most power over people… (but not always):
Contrast is also a big part of the dialogue – meaning is inverted, from one scene, sometimes even one shot, to the next:
While the show’s chiaroscuro gives us perhaps the most stylish and charged visuals in an MCU property to date (aside from the first few episodes of WandaVision), the real and unfortunate contrast which emerges in FATWS is between the visual storytelling and the written story’s stated objectives – a contrast which, as the show progresses, only grows more harsh and less nuanced.
If the MCU is structurally able to support an exploration of these kinds of ideas with the nuance and sophistication they deserve, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does not prove it.
What We’re Told vs What We’re Shown
Wyatt Russell so solidly portrays a character so toxic and tormented, and whose possible redemption can at best only ever be complicated, that it’s hard to understand how Sam & Bucky can so quickly go from breaking John Walker’s arm to wrest from him the shield he bloodied, to trading quips and nods with this same unhinged murderer. Perhaps most confusingly: of all the characters, Walker is most flattered by P.J. Dillon‘s stunning cinematography. Even at his most menacing, John Walker is framed reverentially or lit beatifically (not to mention, his final US Agent costume is far more flattering than Sam’s final Captain America outfit, which… yeesh):
For a show with such meticulous composition, lighting, and art direction, its editing and pacing are baffling. Some ideas, like what life was like between The Snap and The Blip – the thing the Flag Smashers will literally kill for – we never even see; others, like Zemo’s (Daniel Brühl) Turkish delights, get so much visual attention, one should be forgiven for expecting them to turn out to be more… explosive?
Meanwhile, Karli (Erin Kellyman) and Sarah’s (Adepero Oduye) conversation is full of huge lines – but they’re given no breathing room, no time to react, and hence no gravity. Why?
Zemo and Karli
I don’t mind that the Zemo of FATWS is essentially a completely different character from the one we met in Captain America: Civil War (2016) – aside from being fun, if ultimately baffling in his usefulness in this story, at least he feels like a character, and moves the action forward. Karli, on the other hand, is a non-character in a thematically crucial role.
In a story which is (or at least purports to be, even if its own optics don’t always support it) about revealing seemingly black-and-white social and political issues to be more complicated than they seem, Karli is the leader of a human rights revolution, populated with people of colour, whose cause is painted as terrorist by conservative / regressive authorities, and whose character is portrayed by a mixed-race actor in a cast of largely black and white performers.
Yet look at what that character is given: a heel turn without the buildup to make it effective; dialogue devoid of the art or charisma of a leader as inspiring as the story tells us she is; and a first-year drama-school portrayal lacking power or cohesion. Perhaps Karli is supposed to look and sound out of her depth to us, but how has she compelled a global movement within the world of the story? It feels particularly irresponsible, given both the show’s themes of speaking truth to power and the supposed nuance which, again, it only tells us are inherent in its social justice issues, that Karli so quickly becomes exactly the terrorist that Sam ultimately tells the GRC senators she and her kind should not be labelled as. Ironically, while the show is ostensibly about Sam being right about certain things, presumably including Karli, the show’s text actually supports villain Zemo’s uncompromising advice to Sam: “You’re seeing something in her that isn’t there.”
While FATWS raises issues it isn’t ultimately able to handle or resolve, I’d rather it take those big swings, however disappointing the misses, than not. Without them, we don’t get moments like those with Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley, the erased Captain America, and the beating heart – the open wound – of TFAWTS. Given that they clearly aged-up the actor, I’d believe that they shot a flashback sequence, but ultimately ditched it for this devastating performance. If so, that’s a huge relief: a flashback would have only given us visuals of black bodies being abused which, given how at-odds-with-itself the show’s stated themes, aesthetic choices and depictions get, I don’t trust not to have been disastrously fumbled. FATWS manages to give us this heartbreaking scene – a miracle in itself:
Holy wow. Any hope i had of objectivity flew out the window with the arrival of Ayo (Florence Kasumba). Every thrilling second with her that followed did not disappoint. I now await the next Marvel series, Law & Order: Dora Milaje.
How It Should Have Ended
That finale, tho – what a mess. From unearned heel and hero turns (I haven’t bothered getting into the Sharon Carter of it all, because the show gives us nothing coherent or compelling with her), to Sam’s speech (spot-on in substance, cringe in execution), to the suggestion that a statue would make all the difference to Isaiah Bradley for 30 years of torture, FATWS seems to think it’s doing a The Wire finale, but those threads were (a) tied up (b) in ways that made sense and (c) felt earned (d) after as many seasons as this had episodes (hell, FATWS even comes through Baltimore one last time). If the MCU is structurally able to support an exploration of these kinds of ideas with the nuance and sophistication they deserve, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does not prove it.
Ok, my pitch for the finale (and no, it’s not just that Sam gets a Wakanda-made Vibranium version of his original, better-looking black suit). Bucky confesses to Mr Nakajima, who does not forgive him. Dejected, Bucky comes home to find Sarah. Or Nakajima’s daughter. Or both? Cue the title card for Season 2: The Boat, The Battleship, And The White Wolf.
Also in Season 2: big sis Ayo keeps dropping by to give Bucky relationship advice for his throuple with Sarah and Nakajima’s daughter. Bucky tells Ayo, “It’s none of your business,” to which Ayo replies:
“As a result of the Tuskegee experiment, many African Americans developed a lingering, deep mistrust of public health officials and vaccines.” Yeah, no shit. In another MCU TV show writing moment as startlingly prescient as WandaVision‘s TV-as-trauma-treatment timeliness, produced as it was before Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and airing during 2021’s international COVID vaccine rollout, the story of Isaiah Bradley is based on the horrifying true history of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (via The History Channel), summarised below (via Black History in Two Minutes or so):
The character of Isiah Bradley was created by the late Robert Morales. Ironically, Morales’s creation & career were also swept under the rug by Marvel (via The Hollywood Reporter). How does a big corporation benefit from implicating itself and, by virtue of complicity, its audience? If this isn’t merely performative, how does that corporation ultimately profit from raising questions its customer base has been happy to ignore?
Sage Hyden from Just Write analyzes how the show’s initial critique of American foreign policy falls apart by the series end: