Arriving with almost indecent haste following the conclusion of WandaVision just a fortnight ago – and barely giving Marvel fans the chance to change their logo-emblazoned T-shirts – The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks set, on the evidence of its deceptively-contemplative first episode, to give the audience what they might have been expecting from Disney+’s raft of series exploring the murkier corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. WandaVision was a dazzlingly inventive and iconoclastic puzzlebox story that ultimately morphed – disappointingly for some, satisfyingly for others – into a traditional miasma of costumed characters flying through the sky throwing bolts of coloured light at each other. Falcon and the Winter Soldier (we’re friends; can we just call it FAWS?) wilfully treads more familiar ground, tantalisingly making the most of its six-episode span to add some light and shade to what we might broadly describe as second or even third tier MCU heroes, characters who haven’t enjoyed the time in the sun afforded to the likes of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and the bloke with the big hammer. In realistic terms, we were never likely to get, for example, a Doctor Strange series starring Benedict Cumberbatch (because, well… Benedict Cumberbatch) but the MCU has now become so generously populated that it can afford to bestow its beneficence upon some of those less front-of-house characters, giving us the chance to see what makes them tick and how they live their lives and deal with their anguish when the world isn’t under attack by big scary things from Outer Space.
FAWS starts as it doesn’t mean to go on – at least in its first episode. Sam Wilson (The Falcon) is still operating in full-on Avenger mode in a thrilling, dazzling action set piece that evokes the classic James Bond pre-titles sequence in their more ambitious days, conducting a dizzying airborne rescue that invoices fistfights, close shaves, explosions and a guest reappearance from one of the MCU’s more incidental bad guys. This is great stuff; it’s probably what we signed up to Disney+ for (apart from The Mandalorian) and we feel on familiar ground in a series that clearly isn’t going to ask us to open up our craniums and rearrange our brain-furniture in an attempt to make sense of its WandaVision style complexities and mysteries. We are, it seems, back in the whizz-bang-boom world of the MCU and it feels good to be home.
Except, of course, that’s not where we are at all – at least, not yet. Following this reassuring mission statement adrenalized action scene, the brakes are applied and episode one deposits us back in a ‘real world’, post-Blip - the seismic after effects of the return of half the world’s population after a five-year absence hang around the show’s shoulders like a cloak. Shorn of his “bird costume” Sam Wilson is still struggling to come to terms with the death of his friend Steve Rogers and has realised that the vibranium star-spangled shield bequeathed to him at the end of Avengers: Endgame belongs behind glass in a museum and not in the hands of some lesser mortal. Elsewhere Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), formerly Hydra-controller super-assassin The Winter Soldier, has gone to ground. His past life is haunting him in vivid dreams and his therapy sessions don’t seem to be healing his mental wounds. ‘New World Order’ largely concerns itself with Sam and Bucky – they don’t meet up in this first episode - as men trying to find their place in a massively changed world where they have done, respectively, extraordinary and terrible things. But as Sam observes at one point, the world needs new heroes. He busies himself reconnecting with his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) as she tries to salvage the family’s fishing business; this involves the mundanity of Sam joining Sarah in applying to the bank for a consolidation loan. But here all Sam’s aerial gymnastics count for nothing; despite the Bank Manager’s awe at being in the presence of an Avenger (and being more concerned with getting a selfie) it seems that even a winged superhero can fall on hard times and Sam and Sarah’s request falls on deaf ears. Meanwhile Bucky is trying to reconnect and make amends for his previous life but he’s finding that making and trusting new friends is even harder than he might have anticipated.
‘New World Order’ is concerned with setting out its stall and moving its key characters - and remember, we haven’t even met them all yet – into place and making clear the state of mind they find themselves in. The world is still reeling from its five years standing still and no-one quite know what’s around the corner. Lurking in the background is the threat from the wonderfully named Flag Smashers who advocate a world without national borders and the episode delivers a bombshell ending that has the potential to send the series spiralling off into directions we might not have been expecting. But it’s a sturdy, measured start, albeit one that might frustrate an audience demanding a bit more Marvel pizzazz and that might be feeling short-changed after the bravura opening salvo. Yet it’s great to see the talented Mackie given the chance to turn Sam into more than just Captain America’s wise-cracking sidekick and nobody can brood quite like Sebastian Stan and already the show has added some much-needed nuance to characters more recently lost in the clamour of CGI finales and the completion of story arcs for many of the MCU’s big hitters. Trailers released for FAWS have promised a return to the ‘buddy’ partnership we’ve seen in earlier movies and plenty more action. For now we have to trust that showrunner Malcolm Spellman is banking on his audience allowing him to set up his story and manoeuvre its key players into position without becoming impatient with this relatively quiet and low-key debut episode that, as its title suggests, is all about life in a brave new world facing bold and dangerous new threats. Bursting with the wit, brio and imagination we have come to expect from the MCU but not yet the air-punching spectacle, FAWS looks set to fly high for the next five weeks.