One of the most underrated talents of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who helmed the last two Captain America movies and the final (for now) Avengers team-ups, is time management. In the vast, otherwise unwieldy Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame, it was essential to not only deliver high-intensity action to inspire heroic fervor, but also quiet character moments that gave fans an emotional rush. But the kind of crafting that made those elements combine so well in the movies is something The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, despite its expanded TV format, utterly lacked. Even if you appreciated the ultimate story being told (Sam’s embrace of the Captain America banner), it is impossible to justify the baffling miscalculations regarding its plotting and runtime.
What the finale, “One World, One People,” really showed was that buried somewhere in the mess of this season was probably a decent movie. Or, if you want to really give it a chance to do something interesting with the characters it introduced—including its leads—then a much longer TV show. Six episodes requires tight, focused storytelling and a clear sense of what the show is and where it’s going. FAWS never had that. From start to finish, it was a muddled, often contradictory mess that, when given the opportunity to do something bold or make a statement about Big Issues, went in so heavy-handed it knocked you back or—more often—whiffed it entirely.
“But the rumored cut bioterrorism storyline!” I can already hear some of you yelling into my mentions. Not an excuse. It makes sense for why the Flag Smashers plot was so ineffectual, but it doesn’t answer why Bucky and Sam were mostly bystanders in their own story. It also doesn’t make up for the fact that the characters with the most potential (especially Zemo, Lemar, and John Walker) were ultimately sidelined without having accomplished anything.
If the point of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was to get us to where we could really be excited for Falcon as the next Captain America, to get to know his character better and see his struggle against the institutional racism that buried heroes like Isaiah, there’s a movie that could be recut from this season. But even then, Sam’s trajectory is frustrating. He starts, essentially, as a merc—one who taunts an ally over therapy despite being a former therapist himself. There’s a tease where we might have seen Sam’s struggles as a veteran living without the support of the government he fought for, and what that would mean for him especially as a Black man. But instead it’s dispensed of almost immediately to go on a world tour with Zemo. When the show comes back to those bayou moments in the penultimate episode with Sam as a changed man, it’s jarring. Even the training sequences felt out of order. As much as I love Zemo, so much of those middle episodes felt like filler in a show that could not afford to have it.
As for Bucky, well, our own Lacy Baugher wrote about how the show failed the former Winter Soldier, and it wasn’t made up for those few bookended moments in the premiere and finale that tried really hard to suggest a complete arc of healing. Don’t get me started on Sharon Carter as the Power Broker either, I’m still recovering from that woeful decision.
Unlike WandaVision which was designed as a one-off, Falcon and Winter Soldier seems destined for another season. That might be why the writers felt they could leave so much hanging in these episodes, as if for the last six weeks we’ve been watching a kind of extended prologue to the real story (that being Captain America and the Winter Soldier, Part 2). And like the Marvel movies, it’s ok to leave some things unexplained that will be picked up later in this extended, connected universe. But you do actually have to present an ending that establishes something worth following, first.
From the start, arguments pitting Wanda and Falcon against one another were inevitable, but these shows are very different, and even though they’re smoothed out somewhat in the mandated four-quadrant appeal of any major Marvel property, they are not going to hit everyone the same way. But the main issue with Falcon and Winter Soldier, surely even for those who enjoyed it as it stands, is that it’s so clear there was a better show or a better movie that should have come out of this story. It’s frustrating how much potential it set up and how it willfully chose, over and over again, to not capitalize on it. A real connection to these characters and to this story can’t be manufactured in a rushed finale.
The invitation of Disney+’s Marvel TV series is time: time to explore these characters in more depth; time to do interesting and intricate plotting; time to really immerse us in a world that the movies could only hint at with their limited runtimes. But Falcon and Winter Soldier never embraced this. It had a movie mindset stretched unnaturally into a TV show, never taking advantage of what actually being a TV show could really offer.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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