The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was supposed to be Marvel Studios' first foray into television, but the pandemic caused production to shut down, and WandaVision became the beginning of Marvel's new television chapter instead. At first, going second may have felt like a reprieve for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but WandaVision became a smashing success, keeping fans riveted to see how Wanda's (Elizabeth Olsen) grief over Vision's (Paul Bettany) death would unravel. While feelings vary on how WandaVision wrapped up its nine-episode arc, the ambitious sitcom-homage proved that Marvel can be more multifaceted than we've given the behemoth studio credit for being.
Now premiering only two weeks after WandaVision's conclusion, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is in the tricky position of having to prove itself capable of escaping the large shadow of its predecessor -- and that may be an even tougher task for The Falcon and the Winter Solider than if it had been the one to set the bar in the first place.
Can the show do it? It is definitely possible, however, only the premiere episode was screened for critics and a lot of questions are still lingering after the first 47 minutes. Here's what we do know: The action sequences expected from Marvel fare are present and every bit as awe-inspiring and explosive as the feature films -- the show's budget was not scrimped just because this is a streaming TV show instead of a box office endeavor. In a lot of ways, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is exactly what fans probably expected a Marvel series to be before WandaVision broke the mold. More intriguing for the series though is the possibility of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to go deeper and pack a more impactful punch than Marvel's previous films on topics that WandaVision couldn't touch.
The premiere episode is primarily a set-up exercise. The audience reunites with Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) post-blip and after the events of Avengers: Endgame. Steve (Chris Evans) has "retired," and both men are separately trying to move on with their lives. For Sam, that means reconnecting with his struggling family in New Orleans and trying to be there for them in a way that even a cool set of Stark Industry fighter wings won't help with. Bucky is in government-mandated therapy, attempting to make amends for his past crimes as The Winter Soldier, and as can be expected, it's not exactly a delightful trip down memory lane. However, the two don't share a single scene together in the first episode, meaning the audience won't get to see the acerbic one-liners we've come to expect from these two -- and that were teased in the multiple trailers leading up to the premiere -- which is one of the most highly-anticipated aspects of the series.
Meanwhile, new threats are emerging in a world that is trying to figure out how to put itself back together with half of the population returning after being snapped out of existence for five years. The premiere makes it clear that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will spend more time discussing how the world as a whole is coping in a post-Thanos (Josh Brolin) universe than WandaVision, which was narrowly focused on Wanda's experience and those in her immediate vicinity.
Sam and Bucky are grappling with Steve's absence in different ways and foes old and new will not only force Sam and Bucky to work together, but will hopefully also push the show to dig deeper into issues that the theatrical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn't had time to tackle between all the fights with megalomaniac aliens trying to take over the universe. The premiere makes initial promises on taking a deeper look at more difficult themes like PTSD and nationalism, but only on a surface level.
Even though we spent two Captain America films digging into Bucky's HYDRA past, there hasn't been time to sit with him and unpack the baggage of all of his trauma. And the series can have a more nuanced conversation about mental health and trauma in regards to Bucky and the people who feel unmoored by the blip. As for Sam, the first episode tells us more about him in the span of 45-plus minutes than we've learned about him over the course of six previous films. Additionally, the potential is there for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to explore the realities of what it is to be a Black hero in these times -- especially when it comes to possibly taking up the Captain America torch.
What made WandaVision so special was the way it grappled with Wanda's emotions and asked for a deeper conversation to be had about everything she had gone through since joining the Avengers. The same principle should be applied to The Falcon and Winter Soldier. The success of this show will depend on how well it says what it has to say rather than how impressive it looks. The first episode is a good start, but there's room to go further.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres Friday, March 19 on Disney+.