The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Sleeper Agent

Four episodes into The Falcon and the Winter Solider, and it’s finally won me over

I had pretty low expectations for The Falcon and the Winter Solider — it was being marketed as a buddy action comedy set in the MCU, and it seemed to be a little too familiar to be super compelling. It seemed like it was going to be a genre series, even before WandaVision came along and spent a couple of months chewing up multiple genres and spitting them back out in the form of an extended grief metaphor/blockbuster film prequel.

It’s a little unfair, since the show’s been really good from the start. Good performances, a great action sequence to start with, pretty good pacing, smart and understated dialogue, and a tone that manages to be serious without being humorless, grounded without being mundane. The whole “odd couple buddy comedy” aspect does make up much of one episode, but then it’s mercifully relegated to the background.

I felt like I had a handle on the show by the end of the first episode, and the best example of that was the culmination of Bucky’s story in that episode. It seemed like the show wanted the “reveal” of Yori’s son to be a big deal, but I thought it was weird they were stretching out that scene, since I’d thought they’d made it all but explicit up to that point. But I also wasn’t that bothered by it — it wasn’t a huge, Shyamalan-esque “Oh my God did we just blow your ever-lovin’ mind?!” scene, but instead a weighty character moment that worked okay even if you weren’t that surprised.

So that was my overall impression of the series — it might not be blowing me away with its surprises or innovations, but it’s all entertaining and well-executed. That lasted until midway through the fourth episode, when I realized this series had gotten its hooks into me. And although it initially comes across as formulaic, I think it’s subverting the Marvel superhero formula more subtly and intelligently than some projects explicitly questioning the genre.

Technically, it’s a continuation from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War, but those movies seemed to use moral ambiguity as an aesthetic more than an actual theme. The Winter Soldier did an amazing job of recreating the paranoia of 1970s spy movies, but it wasn’t really about corruptibility, since the morality was as simple as “Hydra is the bad guys.” Civil War is ostensibly entirely about the need for super-heroes, but it really just drives the plot. It would be tough to make a convincing case that the heroes should be held responsible for all the damage of aliens, supervillains, and out-of-control AIs, so it ends up feeling like the conflict is driven by nothing more than guilt and Baron Zemo.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems committed to flipping or undermining audience sympathies as much as it can: former villains are now allies, new heroes are murderers, terrorists are presented with sympathy and understanding, existing heroes are beaten down and manipulated by the system, and the question that drives the entirety of this super-hero series is: should there even be super-heroes in the first place?

As somebody who’s been a fan of the MCU but largely unimpressed by their attempts to shoehorn moral ambiguity into stories that have none, I’m very pleasantly surprised by how much this series has committed to it. Much of it is still told in shorthand, which is inevitable. But the most recent episode got so much out of Bucky’s concession at the beginning, assuring the Dora Milaje that Zemo was “a means to an end.” It then spent the next 45 minutes showing almost every character in the series chipping away at their own integrity, telling themselves that the concessions they were making were just a means to an end, and the showing the disastrous consequences of those concessions.

There’s a video on “Nando vs Movies” suggesting that a main plotline of the series was hastily rewritten: he talks about rumors that the Flag Smashers were originally going to be supplying vaccines for a global pandemic, a plotline that had to be rewritten once the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

I don’t know enough about the behind-the-scenes of these series to believe or disbelieve the rumors. But I do completely disagree with the idea that it would’ve been better, or that the series is missing something by losing the idea of an in-universe pandemic. For one thing, it would’ve been completely superfluous: the MCU has already had a global disaster with the Thanos snap, and the implications of that are far more relevant to the series.

In fact, I think the entire premise of the video is an unintentional illustration of the main conflict of the Flag Smashers in the series. The bulk of the audience of this series associates a truck carrying “vaccines” with the COVID-19 pandemic because otherwise, we take the availability of vaccines for granted. (Even to the point where there are unimaginably over-privileged assholes who refuse vaccines). We have the luxury of thinking “tuberculosis” must’ve been a stand-in for some more serious disease, because we live in places where tuberculosis is easily treatable. This makes the series’s conflict driven by the concepts of artificial scarcity and wealth inequality, instead of any one villain.

It also sets up a situation where just about every character can rationalize what they’re doing as necessary to accomplish The Right Thing. In particular, Wyatt Russell’s performance as John Walker is amazing: he’s just completely unlikeable from the start, and it’s not his fault. But each decision he makes gets worse and worse, and it plays more like a tragedy than like a supervillain story.

Meanwhile, Daniel Bruhl as Baron Zemo is turning the supervillain into the charming and funny sidekick; here he seems to be having all the fun he wasn’t allowed to have in Civil War. I’ve heard that in the comics, this character starts a Suicide Squad-style team of anti-heroes called The Thunderbolts; I would be all for this development. Just as long as they avoid any of the comics stories that have him getting disfigured or permanently wearing the mask — I’m glad to see the MCU getting into more nuanced discussions of psychological and political issues, but they should never forget their primary goal of letting me watch astonishingly good-looking people do cool things. Let him keep doing that weird head tilt, and I’m on board.