On paper, Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seemed like an automatic slam dunk. A show featuring two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most popular sidekicks, in which they would—at long last—get the focus the larger franchise had denied them? An obvious no-brainer, it’s the sort of story that practically writes itself and something every MCU fan would instantly want to see. After all, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) both play major roles in the comics this onscreen universe is based on, but both were regulated to supporting parts alongside Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. Now, with Steve officially a senior citizen in retirement, it’s the perfect moment for these characters to step into the spotlight on their own terms.
Unfortunately, that’s not at all what appears to be happening on the show we’re actually watching. Rather than the in-depth character study we were all hoping for, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a convoluted mash-up of about three different shows, none of which are actually about Sam or Bucky. From the rise of the hamfisted revolutionaries known as the Flag Smashers and the Wal-Mart brand replacement Captain America named John Walker (Wyatt Russell), to the return of a much more charming but still equally murderous Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), there’s entirely too much going on for a series that’s only six episodes long to develop any kind of coherent narrative. As a result, most of these plotlines are overstuffed and directionless, and both Sam and Bucky often feel like spectators in the series that bears their names.
Sam, at least, gets a few moments here and there to wrestle with larger philosophical questions like what it means to be a Black superhero and whether desirable ends justify terrible means to achieve. Granted, those scenes last approximately five minutes each, and those who tuned into this series expecting a deep dive into Sam’s character are likely a similar flavor of deeply disappointed. But truly, Bucky gets… almost nothing. By the end of the series’ fourth episode, we’ve seen a couple of emotional moments (the flashback sequence in which Dora Milaje member Ayo proves he’s no longer under the sway of the code words that once controlled him is particularly moving), but there’s literally nothing here that could charitably be called a character arc. John Walker has had more of a legitimate story so far this season than Bucky has.
Sure, Bucky has a complex relationship with Steve Rogers’ legacy and is struggling to make amends for the things he did when he was the Winter Soldier. He openly despises the man who took up his BFF’s shield, and is angry with Sam for rejecting Steve’s wishes about the symbol and its legacy. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems strangely loath to look too closely at why Bucky feels any of the things he does, or ask what he wants out of his second chance at life. (I mean, the man appears to sleep in a blanket nest on the floor of his home. Could we maybe… find out why that is?)
After WandaVision and its thoughtful exploration of a major MCU figure who was too often left to languish on the sidelines of other characters’ stories, expectations were high that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could do the same for Bucky. Like Wanda before him, the titular Winter Soldier has appeared in four feature films but has almost no defining characteristics of his own, outside of his relationship with Captain America and the way that friendship impacted Steve’s choices. Bucky has also experienced extensive and lasting trauma, of the scale that might lead him to mind control a New Jersey town if he had magical powers, but which the MCU has never been terribly interested in unpacking.
For the bulk of his time in the films, Bucky is more of an idea than a character, both a symbol of all that Steve lost and the animating principal that helps define the reasons he keeps fighting. Part brainwashed murderer and part damsel in distress, Bucky largely exists as a handsome cipher that viewers are generally free to project their own thoughts and feelings upon. We know he experiences horrific guilt over the years he spent indiscriminately murdering people on HYDRA’s orders. But we have almost zero idea of how Bucky feels about anything else, from his decision to go into hiding in Wakanda to his reaction to Steve’s choice to travel back to the past (and leave him behind in an unfamiliar future) in Avengers: Endgame.
These are the sort of basic character beats one might assume a show like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was made to delve into. Unfortunately, the series that purports to be at least partially about him doesn’t seem to be any more curious about what makes Bucky tick than the films themselves where. Does Bucky feel betrayed by the fact that it’s Sam that Steve chose to carry on his legacy? How does learning to live again in a world that looks nothing like he remembers it affect him? (Offhand jokes about dating apps don’t count!) Is he lonely? Scared? Secretly eating his feelings at home alone every night?
No one has any idea what the answers to any of these questions are, because The Falcon and the Winter Soldier hasn’t bothered to tell us. (And actually, doesn’t seem to really care about one way or another, if we’re honest.) Despite starring a character with weapons-grade PTSD and fairly epic depression—alongside a man who used to be a therapist, don’t forget!—The Falcon and the Winter Soldier depicts mental health treatment like a joke or a prison sentence, depending on which episode you’re watching, and can’t even seem to give Bucky a consistent personality from one episode to the next.
Need someone to break Zemo out of jail? Bucky can do it, even though there’s little chance a man this traumatized would actually be fine with hanging out and cracking jokes alongside the supervillain who tried to mind control him and kill his friends. Want a cool action fight sequence? Bucky can totally pretend to be the Winter Soldier one more time and suffer almost no lasting emotional consequences from putting that identity back on. It’s fine. He’s fine. All of this is fine. Except, it’s really not fine by any definition of proper storytelling.
Granted, we all likely understood that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would probably not reach the heights of character introspection shown in WandaVision. It’s clearly an action series and its goals and narrative style are obviously very different from the weirdo sitcom story about witches and grief. But four episodes in, it feels as though The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has abandoned character work entirely for a punch-happy commentary on justice that seems afraid to actually say anything significant. And, as a result, Bucky is once again left to languish on the sidelines—of a story that was supposed to be about him. What does the poor guy have to do, Marvel?
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier airs Fridays on Disney+
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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