Like an angry text message, the drama in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s first episode was all Cap’s – or at least, the new Captain America revealed in the final moments of the Disney Plus series opener, who looked sure to clash with original flavour Cap’s ex-sidekicks Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan).
And episode two doesn’t take long to introduce us to this new Sentinel of Liberty, aka John Walker, an ex-football player and decorated soldier who was drafted in last minute to take on this rather unusual gig. Episode two begins with an extended introduction to Walker, and at least initially he’s not quite as nefarious as his sneaky introduction would have suggested.
In fact, by contrast Walker seems like… a pretty nice guy! He has a nice best friend, a nice girlfriend and seems more or less like an ordinary guy (albeit an ordinary guy whose physiology was studied by MIT) keen to “be the best Captain America I can be,” as he puts it. On-screen, this plays out as Walker parading around a football field and signing autographs and action figures to a remixed version of the song “Star-spangled man” (also the episode title) introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger as a theme for Steve Rogers during his USO days.
It’s a telling song choice. One of the most intriguing parts of The First Avenger which was largely dropped later on was the theme of Captain America as a PR exercise, largely useful to sell war bonds and engage with staged foes rather than a useful agent in his own right. Here, we get a hint of that again as Walker delivers a Good Morning America interview full of platitudes (“Even though I never met him, he feels like a brother,” he says of Steve Rogers), and notes that like the original Cap, he has the guts to see him through.
Outside of the PR angle, it’s interesting to compare Walker to Steve Rogers more generally, and the series definitely wants us to. Certainly, there are parallels – Walker’s friend Lemar notes that he “can’t punch [his] way out of problems anymore,” which directly echoes something Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow said to Steve in Captain America: Civil War – and he knows how to handle the shield, but there are also some key differences.
Back in The First Avenger, Dr Erskine’s (Stanley Tucci) big gamble was to use the super-soldier serum on a small, asthmatic man rather than the athletic soldiers he was offered. His reasoning? “Because a strong man, who has known power all his life, will lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows compassion.” Clearly, Walker has been strong all his life – and as much as he’s not yet a villain, we do see the first stirrings of his arrogance and entitlement in this episode, keen as he is to enlist Bucky and Sam to his cause largely for the optics of having Steve’s “wingmen” on side.
Of course, currently the “wingmen” barely have each other’s backs, let alone anyone else’s. Fresh from the revelations of Walker’s new role, Bucky tracks down Sam to have it out. After an episode that needlessly kept them apart last week, it’s odd that the show so perfunctorily throws them together, especially when Bucky then just… decides to help Sam with his government work for no reason.
Still, at least they’re now teaming up to take on the Flag-smashers, who Bucky wants to fight immediately while Sam urges caution (“We’re not assassins,” Sam tells him slightly hypocritically, considering he blew up about eight people in the last episode, but whatever). Eventually they do battle these strange new foes, but are largely overpowered by what Sam and Bucky now recognise as “super-soldiers,” like Steve was and Bucky still (sort of) is until Walker and his sidekick Battlestar (aka his friend Lemar) show up.
Unusual as it is to see someone else use the shield, it’s not a bad first showing for Walker in combat – he certainly holds his own better than Sam and Bucky, who are suckered by Erin Kellyman’s flag-smasher leader Karli (apparently the true leader of the group, being threatened by a mysterious outside figure). But Sam and Bucky still aren’t willing to accept him as the new Cap, and instead head to track down another lead.
Said lead will be of great interest to Marvel fans, as it introduces a classic Marvel character to the fold – Carl Lumbly’s Isaiah Bradley, known as the “black Captain America.” In the comics, he was presented as part of an attempt to recreate the super-soldier serum after Steve’s creation, briefly taking a costume and shield meant for Steve for a mission in an act that had him known as a bit of an urban legend.
However, unlike Steve, Isaiah’s story didn’t have a happy ending. Leaving aside the ethics of being experimented on, Isaiah was treated poorly by the US military, later being captured by Nazis and court-martialled when he did manage to go home. Later in life he also suffered mental and physical decline thanks to the effects of the subpar serum that had been used on him, and became childlike in his later years.
It seems like at least some of this story is being replicated in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (and fans may note Elijah Richardson’s small role as Isaiah’s grandson Eli, who becomes another superhero called Patriot in the comics), though so far it seems the detail of Bradley being a version of Captain America has been scrapped as opposed to him just being a super-soldier.
Either way, we don’t find out Bradley’s role just yet. Still angered by his years experimented on despite his heroism, and unwilling to trust Bucky thanks to his years as the Winter Solider, Isaiah throws Falcon and Bucky out, delivering them to some police officers who, after racially profiling Falcon, arrest Bucky for missing his court-mandated treatment. Honestly, some men will literally go to jail instead of going to therapy.
John Walker returns to get them out, leading to a genuinely pretty funny joint therapy session of Falcon and Bucky that raises some issues between them (Bucky’s insecurity about his redemption looks set to be a key theme). However, despite Walker’s slightly cocky assertion that Bucky will now be working with him, the titular duo would still rather take on the Flag-smashers alone.
“Word of advice, then… stay the hell out of my way,” Walker replies, with some slightly sinister music. OK, maybe he’s not so nice after all.
Elsewhere, the Flag-smashers are chased by the mysterious Power Broker but manage to escape, raising new questions about who this unknown figure really is, and how he was able to bestow these super-soldier powers on random freedom fighters. But perhaps Bucky has a lead on someone who could help… a man with connections to HYDRA, the evil organisation that Isaiah had hinted could be behind all this.
“OK then…we’re gonna go see Zemo,” Sam agrees. It’s a Captain America: The Winter Soldier reunion! Fingers crossed Robert Redford joins Mackie, Stan and Daniel Brühl in a future week somehow (yes, I know he’s dead. Time travel!). Either way, it’s exciting to see Daniel Brühl join the fray as Baron Zemo, and hopefully build on his earlier performance to create a new take on his old villainous character.
Altogether this was an episode high on significance, laying out key storylines of the series while also dropping some of the quieter threads (Sam’s money issues, Bucky’s love life) from the first episode. Is it always the most elegant storytelling? Well, no – I’m still not sure why Sam investigating the Flag-smashers for the government is different to Walker doing it, and I have no idea why Bucky has decided to get personally involved instead of just carrying on with his life – but the mix of action, Captain America Easter eggs and intrigue is just about pulling me through.
Next week: a heartbreaking funeral for Redwing the drone by a lakeside cabin! Or maybe just more fights on top of moving vehicles.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier releases new episodes on Disney Plus on Fridays. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year.