The Falcon and the Winter Soldier review: Grappling with big questions in a propulsive action thriller

If the first three episodes of WandaVision really threw you for a curve, wondering whether Marvel Studios was having an identity crisis with its vastly different TV series, then The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will feel like a return home.

At least for a spell. Because as much as the tone of the series, starting tonight on Disney+ at 6pm AEDT, feels more familiar as essentially a spin-off from the Captain America movies, it’s still forging its own path.

Which means you’re going to see some moments you may not have expected from a series whose extended opening sequence involves the kind of propulsive aerial acrobatics you won’t have to wait for the Top Gun sequel to see.

And the return of a former villain suggests that the big budget The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is hitching to the legacy of Captain America and the first MCU saga.

But, based on the first episode made available in advance to critics, what’s most interesting about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is not what it’s saying about the past but the questions it’s asking about the present and the future. It’s more thoughtful than the traditional action thriller teased in the trailers.

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Created by Malcolm Spellman and directed by Kari Skogland, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier picks up after the events of Avengers: Endgame which saw Steve Rogers pass his iconic shield to Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

We find Sam grappling with those questions of what it means to be the kind of hero Steve Rogers represented, a symbol of unyielding good. For better or worse, the shield is a physical manifestation of that responsibility.

These are the moments in which The Falcon and the Winter Soldier really stakes its purpose – a quiet conversation between Sam and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) or scenes of Sam back home in the American south with his sister and his nephews.

You don’t often get to go home with superheroes. You don’t get to see them away from the job and Sam is someone whose backstory was never really shared on screen.

By grounding him with his family and the everyday problems they have that they don’t involve invading aliens, it not only makes him more relatable, it gives him a history and a more fleshed out identity.

And that’s essential to the series’ core question – is someone who looks like Sam allowed to be seen as an American hero, or even the American hero?

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Elsewhere, Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is on a redemption arc, haunted by the memories of his life as the HYDRA assassin Winter Soldier. Making amends for the past is also a classic hero quest and it’s intriguing that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has these two characters on a similar path but with very different challenges.

The scene with Sam and Bucky griping at each other in the car in Captain America: Civil War is often cited as the dynamic that will fuel their team-up in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and it was clear from that side-eye and two-line exchange five years ago that there was great chemistry to mine.

They have little in common but what connects them is their love for Steve – a man now gone – and a post-blip world in which people are reckoning with whether the great loss and the great return means they should accept the world that was before it all went tits up.

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was in production before the COVID pandemic and the most recent Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s engaging with many of the questions people the world over have been asking themselves these past 12 months.

It’s a promising start for a series that could have just delivered another handsomely mounted kicking, punching and pyrotechnics action thriller thanks to its reported almost $200 million budget. Its willingness to engage with bigger ideas makes it a series worth sticking around for.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier starts Friday, March 19 at 6pm AEDT on Disney+

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