The entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is often reduced to what’s next. Marvel Studios has done an exceptional job at selling their audiences on a sprawling plan, making announcements detailing nearly half-a-decade’s worth of projects—all in one go. Its understandable audiences are now conditioned to think about how this piece of interconnected storytelling fits within a larger whole or moves the story forward. But in the wake of Endgame, the MCU seems intentionally focused on its past—and how those ramifications may shape its future.
This tension lies at the core of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. While WandaVision dove deep into the grief that surrounded Wanda in the wake of Vision’s death, Falcon and The Winter Soldier is about legacy and identity. When last we saw Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) the mantle of Captain America was seemingly passed to Sam, as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) had become an aged man, having traveled back in time to live out his life alongside his love. The moment seemingly confirmed Sam as the next Captain America but the Disney+ series—without giving much away—shows it’s not as simple as it may seem.
Showrunner Malcolm Spellman (Empire, Hip Hop Uncovered) makes his intentions clear from the onset: As a Black creator working on an MCU series with one of its leading Black characters, Falcon and The Winter Soldier is inherently interested in engaging with what it means for a Black man to take over as Captain America. The legacy and weight of this mantle are far more complicated for Sam than they are for Steve Rogers—and Spellman dives headfirst into exploring it. Even just from these first 44 minutes, it’s clear this will be the primary arc for Sam; not only is it exhilarating to see Marvel tackle something like this head-on, but it gives the series a tangible weight in a way that’s atypical for the majority of MCU fare.
Bucky’s story, at least in the premiere, is more focused on how he moves forward. Just because he’s no longer capable of glitching out and going all Jason Bourne at the drop of some code words doesn’t mean Bucky is anywhere close to being free of the Winter Soldier; his past actions haunt both his waking hours and his dreams as he struggles to figure out what’s next. An enteral soldier, Bucky is now struggling with how to proceed now that the fighting has stopped. The conflict is far closer to a question than it is an answer.
Unlike WandaVision, there’s less work to be done with regards to the audience’s understanding of who Sam and Bucky are, which allows us to hit the ground running. The show doesn’t waste a moment in establishing its scope and scale; the opening is an absolutely thrilling and kinetic set piece that feels directly pulled from an MCU movie which only further blurs the line between series and a movie stretched out over several hours. Falcon and the Winter Soldier certainly feels like the latter, but the added breathing room allows for serene day-to-day moments like Sam reconnecting with his family in Lousiana or Bucky’s attempts to adapt to modern life—including a legitimately funny bit about dating apps. Like most Phase 4 projects so far, the show is leveraging the narrative impact of the blip for further character depth; here it allows for further exploration and introspection around just who Sam and Bucky are when they aren’t saving the world. You can see the show fleshing out these elements, but never in a way that’s boring or uninteresting—especially if you’re invested in the duo. Fortunately, Mackie and Stan have a great sense of what makes these characters compelling. Mackie’s underrated comedic timing is fully on display, while Stan’s sardonic wit also has plenty of opportunities to shine. I can’t wait to see how the two will fully interact with one another, especially as the plot really starts to get rolling along.
The premiere of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is very much a table-setter. That’s the inherent function of these premieres, but even as the show begins to tease out its narrative, there’s plenty to gravitate toward. It’s going to feel a lot different coming off of WandaVision; there doesn’t seem to be grand theories or mystery boxes to be solved—not yet at least. Instead, it’s much more of a grounded character study than otherwise anticipated. My concern is that once the action really gets going, the show might abandon the weighty topics it seems keen on addressing. If Spellman can find a way to balance those two aspects, well … the ramifications of what this series could mean for the next chapter of storytelling in the MCU might be really, really special.