Sam’s ongoing struggles with Steve’s legacy are just one portion of the show, though. He is, after all, not Captain America, and so we also see plenty of The Falcon’s personal issues, too. This is all well packaged as part of his relationship with his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), who is struggling to keep her family supported. The scene in the bank, in which Sam and Sarah apply for a loan, is brilliantly multi-faceted. It provides light humour as the loan officer recognises and fawns over an Avenger, but the fun soon breaks as Sam answers long-wondered questions about how superheroes pay their bills. The gulf between the recently deceased Iron Man – with his mansions and towers and infinite wealth – and Falcon, who is taking on government contracts to attempt to make ends meet, is made painfully obvious. And as the loan officer rejects Sam and Sarah’s application, it’s clear that writer Malcolm Spellman is commenting on the racial divide inflicted by the system. Spellman has already stated that Sam being a Black man will be actively recognised by the show, and it’s wasted little time in doing so.
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This first episode is divided almost neatly into two storylines, that of Sam and Bucky, by virtue of them being separate for the entire duration. The exploration of The (former) Winter Soldier isn’t quite as rich as that of Falcon, but shows equally admirable ambition. Here, the focus is on Bucky’s recovery from decades of Hydra indoctrination, his attempts to make amends for his past actions, and his efforts to integrate into American civilian society. Safe to say, none of these tasks are proving easy.
A portion of Bucky’s story is told through the framework of a therapy session, demonstrating an understanding of the mental burden this all takes. The method of therapy he uses, which involves apologizing to those he’s hurt in his former life, parallels that of substance abuse recovery. This provides another angle on important societal issues, while acknowledging the multiple layers of his victim/perpetrator situation. His therapist unfortunately falls into the hard-ass counsellor cliché that I think slightly undermines its message of taking these issues seriously, but there is definitely a recognition that past trauma is haunting Bucky. He’s always been a moody and somewhat two-dimensional character, which hasn’t helped Sebastian Stan inject much life into him. That remains somewhat true here – he’s definitely the weaker of the pair in this episode – but exploring this difficult side of Bucky has at least begun to make his tortured personality more authentic.
Weight is added to this in how Bucky makes amends for his crimes. The gradual reveal that he has befriended the elderly Mr. Nakajima as a way of silently apologising for murdering his son years earlier is bittersweet. As sad as this is, though, Marvel does its magic by weaving this into an awkwardly funny date scenario. Seeing Bucky cope with this is gently amusing, although his Battleship beau not being given a name on-screen sadly suggests it likely won’t work out for our recovering assassin.Despite all this character work, this first episode still manages to cram in a thrilling aerial dog fight for Falcon. Set in the rocky canyons of Tunisia, there’s missiles, wing suits, and exploding helicopters aplenty, with some great stunt direction that recalls the more practical design of movies in the Nolan filmography. Falcon’s foe here is French terrorist Batroc, and I appreciate the symmetry that brings between this episode and the boat mission opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Later, we also get Bucky’s flashback to his assasination work in an opulent hotel, which once again recalls the Russo brothers’ thriller-style direction from their Captain America films. While overall this isn’t an action-packed opener, these sequences do promise that what is to come should have an appropriately gritty texture.
What doesn’t get much screen time is The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s bigger picture. Seeds are planted for an ongoing battle with antagonist group the Flag Smashers, and the beating that new supporting character Torres takes during their bank robbery in Switzerland shows they’re not to be messed with lightly. But so far, the actual ‘mission’ of the show has yet to demonstrate why it’s worth paying attention to. While I’m not against The Falcon and The Winter Soldier being almost entirely a character piece, I hope the story of the Flag Smashers proves a worthy ongoing hook in subsequent episodes, as right now it feels a little like background material.