After the mind-bending hijinks of much of WandaVision, Marvel fans and casual viewers alike were undoubtedly expecting rather more traditional fare from follow-up series Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Certainly the pre-release trailers focused on MCU-style action and spectacle, punch-ups, and comic strip derring-do. Two episodes in and it’s now becoming clear that there’s quite a bit more to FAWS (as we have agreed to refer to it) than we might have expected as the series is still slowly dealing out its cards before properly showing its hand. Episode Two also suggests that viewers might want to bone up on arcane Marvel Comics lore (or at least be willing to press ‘pause’ and do a quick Google search) as characters as ‘obscure’ as Battlestar and the Power Broker are dropped into the series’ slowly-unfurling narrative.
The Star-Spangled Man does, however, suggest that Marvel hasn’t quite come to terms yet with the intricacies of telling a cinematic story across multiple episodes of a TV series. Where a feature film has two hours to tell its story – and Marvel has mastered the big screen art of combining character development and action to create a satisfying cinematic experience – these new TV series have a broader and longer palette upon which to paint their pictures. WandaVision papered over its crack by its sheer weirdness and its underlying mystery, but FAWS has over four hours to tell its story and Episode Two suffers from some pacing issues and some undeniable padding that suggests either that there isn’t quite enough meat on the story being told to really justify six episodes or that the longer running time is allowing for a little self-indulgence. The Star-Spangled Man does a couple off odd things that we might not have expected. It abandons the ‘personal life’ stuff carefully set up in Episode One – no mention of Sam and his sister’s financial woes, no references to Bucky’s romantic aspirations – and focuses much more on the ramifications of Episode One’s curveball cliffhanger that introduced John Walker (Wyatt Russell) as the new un-superpowered Captain America. The opening scene where he voices his uncertainty at his suitability for the role is undermined somewhat by later sequences, which show him to be arrogant, patronising, over-confident, and a bit of a star-spangled arse. Kept apart in the first episode, Bucky and Sam are reunited a bit too matter-of-factly, Bucky just appearing and confronting Sam about the new Cap, leading to a bit of amusing banter between the two, which seems at odds with the slightly po-faced nature of the first episode, although it does allow for some MCU name-dropping that is clearly going to be a feature of the TV series that can’t stretch to guest appearances by the Big Guns but can quite merrily remind us of their existence.
Despite Sam’s protestations, Bucky joins him on a mission to intercept a convoy of Flag Smashers, leading to the episode’s action set piece atop a couple of speeding trucks. But it’s a slightly clumsy sequence, mainly because Sam and Bucky have underestimated their enemies who are clearly ‘super soldiers’ like the original Cap and they have their backsides handed to them quite squarely despite the surprise arrival of the ‘new’ Captain America and his Bucky-figure sidekick Lemar (known as Battlestar for reasons never properly explained). The new Cap tries to enlist Sam and Bucky in their fight against a common enemy but our heroes prefer to go their own way and Bucky reveals the existence of another ‘super soldier’ he locked horns with in the early 1950s and a meeting with Isaiah (Carl Lumbly) – another character lifted from comic chronology – sets the pair off on a course that will lead them to a reunion with an old enemy. That’s Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) from Captain America: Civil War in case you missed the memo.
There’s a lot of good stuff in The Star-Spangled Man not least the early sports stadium PR stunt sequence, which revisits the titular song from Captain America: The First Avenger in a more modern style as the new Cap participates in a slightly cringey interview with a fawning TV presenter and the scene where the Police descend on Sam and Bucky in the street and assume that the former is bothering the latter is a subtle acknowledgement of the ongoing racial tensions and prejudices that bedevil the heightened reality world of superheroes as much as they do the real world, the twist here, of course, being that it’s Bucky who gets arrested for missing one of his therapy sessions. This leads to an amusing but frankly unnecessary sequence that stops the action dead in its track as Sam and Bucky are marshalled into therapy and forced to face each other in a stare-out that could come straight from an episode of the BBC’s 1990s sketch show Big Train.
It’s hard at this stage to decide whether FAWS has too much story or too little. Certainly the arrival of the new (and surely temporary) Captain America is a twist we didn’t foresee and it has so far slightly unbalanced the show because there’s a risk that the audience might be more interested in him than Sam and Bucky. It’s a fun, breezy, entertaining, and effortlessly-watchable show with a promisingly-dark underbelly but the first two episodes have been a little haphazard both tonally and from a storytelling perspective making for a slightly schizophrenic experience so far. Let’s see how things develop next week when Sam and Bucky lock horns with the perfidious Zemo again….