The Falcon and the Winter Soldier review: Marvel's latest is a strong blend of action and personal drama
Captain America's best buds are stepping into the spotlight for a grounded and exciting action-comedy – which also packs some powerful dramatic moments.
It's not difficult to understand why Marvel Studios originally intended for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to be their first ever Disney Plus series. In stark contrast to WandaVision, which devoted its opening three episodes to experimental vintage sitcom homages, this series throws you straight into the action with an ambitious aerial combat sequence starring Anthony Mackie's winged Avenger.
One has to wonder if some fans would have been more patient with WandaVision in those early days had The Falcon and the Winter Soldier already stepped up to provide their fix of Marvel's typical wide-screen thrills. Alas, we will never know for sure. But suffice to say, if you were one of the people left unconvinced by the MCU's first foray into Disney Plus programming, this strong opener should have no trouble restoring your faith.
The show picks up after the events of Avengers: Endgame, with the world still piecing itself back together after half of its population suddenly reappeared following a five-year absence. Sam Wilson (Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) were among the billions of people snapped out of existence, but they're also coping with the loss of a shared bestie in Steve Rogers – also known as Captain America.
This first episode never explicitly states whether Steve is dead (and of course, some fans are already predicting a Mephisto-style cameo from superstar Chris Evans), but he's certainly not around and that has left some big shoes to fill. In the final moments of Endgame, the star-spangled Avenger picked Sam to be his official replacement, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier powerfully demonstrates that life isn't that simple in the modern world.
Instead, the veteran holds onto his Falcon persona while acting as an operative for the US Armed Forces, which is where we find him in the aforementioned opening sting. Producer Kevin Feige has always promised that these streaming shows won't sacrifice the spectacle that has made the MCU such a popular franchise and that's certainly true here, providing an epic showcase for Sam's specific set of skills that feels ripped straight out of the Captain America big-screen trilogy.
As Falcon soars through the air, it's hard to resist the temptation to scrutinise the CGI – particularly after some critics felt there was a slight lack of polish in WandaVision's series finale. But while you could perhaps find some nitpicks if you analyse every frame, the visual effects are strong enough that you should have no problem believing a man can fly (not that that's anything new at this point).
This opening set piece might be the hook for this series, but the intimate character work that follows will be what actually reels you in. After all, this is the first time we're seeing the eponymous heroes outside of a Captain America or Avengers story, so it was of vital importance to establish them as fully realised individuals in their own right. Head writer Malcolm Spellman and his team succeed by focusing in on two key relationships.
Sam spends a significant portion of this episode with his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), as they attempt to get their family business back on track in the aftermath of the "blip". Mackie and Oduye have great chemistry with one another, developing a tested sibling dynamic that is both believable and highly compelling. Bucky is on an altogether darker path, a lost soul drifting through the modern world and struggling to grasp onto anything along the way, with his only meaningful bond harbouring a dark secret. Director Kari Skogland is able to shine in these quieter moments, creating a world for these characters that feels grounded in reality.
This works in tandem with Spellman's script, which doesn't shy away from issues facing the African-American community today. They are present throughout Sam's story but are brought forcefully to the surface as the episode concludes, with a scene that will undoubtedly leave many viewers shaken. It's likely this particular moment will shift the main plot into high gear next episode, as this chapter feels more like set-up for bigger things to come.
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On that note, what this opener lacks is interaction between the title characters themselves, while supporting players Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) are also notable by their absence. Much has been said about the buddy cop energy this series has, inspired by the likes of Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, so I trust that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier won't dawdle over bringing its heroes together in the same way Netflix's The Defenders did. However, those excited for that particular element should be aware that it's still at least a week away.
Nevertheless, Marvel's second Disney Plus series is off to a very promising start, finding a healthy balance between the blockbuster thrills fans love and the personal drama that gives them meaning. It's still anybody's guess as to where this story will go next, but you shouldn't have any hesitation about going along for the ride.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is streaming exclusively on Disney Plus. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now. Take a look at the rest of our Sci-fi and Fantasy coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.