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'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier' 1.01 Review: It's Sam and Bucky's humanity that makes them heroes

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s first episode takes its time showing us where these boys have been since their return from the Blip and the loss of their best friend.

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson in 'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.'
(Image: © Disney+)

Our Verdict

A strong introduction into a more action-focused Marvel series that's just missing one key connection.

For

  • 💥Sam's speech in Steve's honor is very good.
  • 💥Love to see hints of the old Bucky Barnes coming back.
  • 💥This show is immediately focusing on these men as humans first.
  • 💥Put. More. Superheroes. In. Therapy.

Against

  • 💥Delaying Sam and Bucky coming together feels like a weird narrative choice.

This post contains major spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Read our spoiler-free review here

Alright, you’ve had our spoiler free review. Now it’s time to dive into the meat of things. Rather than drop us in the middle of their narrative with no idea as to what’s going on ala WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s first episode takes its time showing us where these boys have been since their return from the Blip and the loss of their best friend. Sam’s contracting for the Air Force as Falcon, working on secret ops that the U.S. can’t necessarily get caught in. Meanwhile, Bucky’s just trying to make it through therapy. Neither one of them is having a tremendous time.

While in Tunisia on assignment, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is introduced to the radical group known as the Flag Smashers by his eyes on the ground, Agent Torres (not yet credited). The terrorist cell believes that the world was better during the Blip, and they’re not thrilled to see things returned to “normal”. Torres attempts to get eyes-on throughout the episode, but the poor lamb essentially gets curb stomped for his trouble. These guys will play a much larger role in the series future, but for now they’re just some boogey men operating out of North Africa. The action shown in these opening sequences were solid and have received well-earned praise from critics across the board. But they're also far from the strongest part of the premiere.

It’s when these boys are allowed to be human that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier truly shines. As I mentioned in my spoiler-free review, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been a weapon all of his life, regardless of the government he was answering to. A similar thing can be said for Sam, even if he was in control of his facilities the whole time. Getting the opportunity to meet who these men are when they’re not being shot at is exactly allowing these MCU television series to truly shine.

MORE: How to watch all the Marvel movies in order
Also: Disney+ on Apple TV

Early on, we see Sam Wilson choose to relinquish the shield to what we assume is the Smithsonian or something similar. The audience knows it’s a bad move, Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) knows it’s a bad move. But it’s the move Sam believes in in his heart of hearts at this moment. As will become apparent later on, there ain’t a thing in the world that will distract Sam when he believes that he’s right.

“We need new heroes. Ones suited for the times we’re in. Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning. And this thing… I don’t know if there’s ever been a greater symbol. But it’s more about the man who propped it up. And he’s gone. So today we honor Steve’s legacy, but also? We look to the future. Thank you, Captain America. This belongs to you.”

Sam outlining that the symbol belongs to Cap will come into play at the very end of the premiere, but for now its primary function is highlighting that he doesn’t believe he’s the right man to carry the shield. Rhodey knows that’s nonsense, but he also knows that Sam has to come to that conclusion on his own. Their conversation in the exhibit might be brief, but it’s a strong moment between a seasoned vet and one of the “younger” heroes. The age gap between Rhodey and Sam isn’t actually that big, but showcasing Rhodes as an unexpected and yet somehow completely obvious role model is a very strong narrative move. They might have fought on different sides of the Civil War, but there are aspects of this life that Sam and Rhodey understand that none of the other Avengers — even the people of Wakanda — simply can’t.

The rest of Sam’s portion of the episode is centered around his family. His sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye) and her two boys (currently uncredited) work on the family’s fishing boat. But times are tough. Her husband died before the Blip, and when half the world disappeared — her brother included — she had to do it all on her own with half the demand she’d had previously. In response to hard times, Sarah’s ready to sell their dilapidated family boat and move on with her life. Sam, on the other hand, isn’t having any of that.

There’s a clever narrative choice in this premiere in that the writers make a point to highlight Sam’s optimism. His demeanor makes it clear that he’s been knocked down just as many times as the rest of the Black community, but he still believes that there’s hope for his family’s future. Sarah might know better, but she’s kind of forced along for the ride. As you’ve now likely seen, that ride didn’t go very well. The banker has no interest in the fact that Sam's family needs money, or that he saved the world, or that he has a very clear source of income through the Air Force. Sam had no money or history the five years he was gone, so his family is ineligible for any kind of bank assistance.

Said banker’s more than willing to ask for a few selfies, though.

This moment perfectly highlights white indifference to the inequity of Black communities. Sam isn’t a man. He’s a token. He’s a couple hundred likes on a Instagram post that this dweeb can pull out at parties so he can say he met the Falcon once. Helping the man behind the armor was never even in question to this desk drone. If there’s one thing that this premiere makes clear, it’s that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has every intention in calling out said inequities, too. Leaning into such commentary would be both a surprising and welcome shift for Disney and, while it seems silly to do so, I hope they go harder. Maybe Sam’s optimism is contagious.

Things don’t go much better for Bucky, either. After returning from the Blip and receiving a full pardon — presumably because of his involvement in killing the dude who wiped out half of existence — James Buchanan Barnes is forced to go to therapy. Even “worse”? His therapist knows when he’s deflecting. 

Obviously, the former H.Y.D.R.A. tool is suffering from a nasty case of PTSD. When we first meet him in his portion of the episode, he’s woken up from a nightmare on the patch of floor in his living room that he’s chosen for his bed. Later, we’ll learn that the boy he had nightmares of killing is the son of one of his only friends — the nice man who lives below him who he often gets lunch with. Another condition of Bucky’s pardon is making amends with those who he hurt, but how do you make amends for killing a man’s son under mysterious circumstances?

The standout portions from Buck’s half of the episode are when he just gets to be himself. This man hardly remembers how to be human, and he needs everyone who’s constantly hounding him to just give him on damn second to have a thought. He says as much — albeit more politely — to his therapist when he reminds here that the only moment he’s had to breath in 80 years was the time he spent in rehabilitation in Wakanda. Dude’s in therapy and clearly outlining his needs? What’s happening here? Are we actually highlighting healthy male behavior in mainstream media?

Ok, maybe that’s getting ahead of ourselves. He’s still Bucky Barnes after all.

Though his half of the episode is less involved than Sam’s, Buck still gets plenty of moments to shine. When his friend forces him on a date, we start to see shades of the old man from the 40s come out to play. Then, appropriately, he gets overwhelmed and bails. Falcon might not be ready to be Cap yet, but Winter Soldier has to re-learn how to be James Buchanan Barnes and what that means for him in the context of today’s society. Once again, we’re seeing grief and loss get the opportunity to shine in ways that the MCU films simply haven’t had time to highlight.

For all the things The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does right, it’s completely nonsensical that it chooses to keep its title characters apart for the entirety of its first of only six episodes. The idea of wanting to highlight them on their own makes sense, it just feels like a strange decision to close out the episode without so much as a plan to meet up in the future. We know that Sam’s been trying to call Bucky, but that’s not going to do much if the dude’s not going to answer his phone. The action in the beginning serves a purpose in setting the tone of the show, but perhaps we could have cut it a little bit in order to close out the first chapter with some kind of signal toward what will bring this unlikely duo together. There’s also the fact that this is a streaming show and they get to make the rules on episode length, but that feels like splitting hairs. 

Watching Captain America battle with his hope is never easy. Sam might not be in the mantle just yet, but even he can’t argue that he fits into that portion of the role with ease. Before things close out, the government gives a press conference. In it, they plagiarize part of Sam’s speech and introduce a new Captain America: John Walker, the US Agent. If you don’t have full context on that just yet, just know that Walker coming within feet of that symbol should fill you with a white hot rage. He’s Captain America, alright. The Captain of all the things that are systemically broken in this country.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see Sam rip the shield out of his hands.