A couple episodes into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes develop an in-joke. Sam suspects that the emergent terrorist group the Flag-Smashers “might be part of the big three.” Taking the bait, Bucky asks Sam, “What big three?” For over a minute, the pair bickers over androids, aliens, and wizards, expanding Sam’s little quip into full-on sketch comedy. “I read The Hobbit in 1937 when it first came out,” Bucky says. Sam’s response? “A sorcerer is a wizard without a hat.”
These jokes, and the banter-driven humor of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, suggest friendship. Sam and Bucky aren’t yet friends—they’re bound by their loyalty to the fallen Captain America, Steve Rogers, but distrustful of each other. But the early episodes suggest a rough but durable friendship in the making. Unfortunately, so far it consists entirely of such wisecracks.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always cultivated a certain jokiness among its superheroes. Both the original Spider-Man trilogy and The Avengers director Joss Whedon transformed every other superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the Upright Citizens Brigade. Even Captain America: Civil War, a movie about the Avengers turning on one another in bitter violence, punctuates the titular conflict with so many goofy one-liners as if to reassure viewers that none of these movies, not even the one subtitled “Civil War,” will ever prioritize character drama over improv comedy. “We’re still friends, right?” Black Widow asks Hawkeye mere seconds before kicking him in the face. Ultimately, the problem with these story lines isn’t the jokiness in the writing so much as it is the friendliness in the characterizations.
A couple of weeks ago, WarnerMedia released Zack Snyder’s final cut of Justice League on HBO Max. The Snyder Cut is a dramatically different approach to portraying superhero friendship on the screen. It’s an overhauled version of the Justice League movie completed by Whedon, who stepped in after Snyder left during postproduction for family reasons. The resulting mishmash of directing styles was released to widespread ridicule four years ago. Whedon had achieved enormous success with The Avengers, so he was brought in by Warner Bros. to help rehabilitate the DC Extended Universe after a series of critical failures: Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. He made a goofy, incongruous movie which seems to betray its heroes at every turn. Years later, the new Snyder Cut takes a much sterner approach to character development.
In the Snyder Cut, Batman recruits Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg to resurrect Superman and repel an intergalactic invasion led by the pitiless god Steppenwolf. Though the heroes must work together to confront the urgent world-ending threat, this version of Justice League never conflates teamwork and friendship. Cyborg seems to despise the Flash. He doesn’t hate him in some ironic fashion. He’s not playing hard to get. He just can’t stand him. He rolls his eyes in response to everything the Flash says.
The Flash banters under the impression that he’s starring in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s written to annoy the viewer. He’s written to annoy Cyborg. He’s written to reinforce the bleary, antisocial bent to the DC Extended Universe. There are traces of romance in Bruce Wayne’s conversations with Diana Prince. There are traces of grudging camaraderie between Victor Stone and Barry Allen. But these people aren’t friends. Superman beats Cyborg and Wonder Woman into the ground, and there are no witticisms to relieve the injuries to the competing egos at the scene. The Justice League is only in hard-earned harmony when at last they manage to decapitate Steppenwolf at the end of the film. Snyder makes his heroes out to be irritable loners who, lacking peers in day-to-day experience before Batman assembles them to confront Steppenwolf, struggle to develop any sort of accountability—emotional, professional, political—to anyone. It’s much more interesting to watch the Justice League struggle to rely on one another than to watch the Avengers struggle to accept vague oversight from the United Nations.
Why can’t the Avengers break up without more or less reconciling by the end of Civil War? Why must Sam and Bucky become friends? Like Kingdom Hearts or Sex and the City, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems determined to be a story about the power of friendship. This was, I suppose, inevitable. In Civil War, Sam and Bucky—once hostile strangers—share a few, small moments which prove charming in so few words. Sitting in the back of a car, Bucky asks Sam, “Can you move your seat up?” Sam bluntly says no. Then there’s Sam telling Bucky, “I hate you,” once they’ve fought Spider-Man to a draw in an airport terminal. These are quips, too, but they’re sparing and efficient in sparking some chemistry between Sam and Bucky. These are in fact some of the best moments in Civil War, and it’s no wonder the studio thought to develop this character dynamic into the six-episode TV series now dedicated to turning these quips into a credible friendship.
I’m never quite hoping for more of these stories to be more realistic. If anything, Snyder’s Justice League excels in its total, unrivaled senselessness. We’re watching superheroes fight “androids, aliens, and wizards”—and then also each other—after all. But the power of friendship tends to flatten and cheapen so much conflict in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the second episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam and Bucky track the Flag-Smashers to a remote warehouse where they’re loading stolen medical supplies into a caravan. Sam and Bucky insist on sneaking through the warehouse only to discover that it’s empty; a small group of Flag-Smashers is standing outside the opposite end of the building, loading the massive pallets onto trucks with superhuman strength. So of course Sam and Bucky stand around the empty warehouse and crack jokes about proper stealth to each other, as the villains—and the plot—slip away from them.