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A Guide to ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’

Here’s everything you need to know before the next MCU series hits Disney+ on Friday

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just two weeks after the conclusion of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is set to continue the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s expansion into television.

Once slated as the MCU’s inaugural Disney+ series, the upcoming show starring Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan was reshuffled in the lineup due to scheduling delays forced by the pandemic. Given WandaVision’s billing as being “half classic sitcom, half MCU spectacular,” the more traditional The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seemed to be the safer opener: With the same blend of action, drama, and superhero banter that Marvel crafted on the big screen, the show would jump-start Marvel’s Phase 4 as the studio transitions into its new model of cross-pollinating the events of its films with their TV counterparts. But things didn’t pan out that way, and WandaVision’s ode to the sitcoms of the past and the golden age of television ended up serving as the perfect introduction. Now, backed by showrunner Jac Schaeffer’s huge hit, Marvel’s new show is arriving with a ton of momentum.

More so than its streaming predecessor, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is primed to explore a world still recovering after Thanos snapped away half of life in the universe during Infinity War, as well as the five-year gap for those who weren’t turned to dust before the Avengers brought everyone back in Endgame. Like Peter Parker learning to live with the loss of his father figure and mentor in Tony Stark in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes will have to find a way to move on without Captain America and carry on his legacy.

With The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiering on Friday, here are the major characters and things you need to know.

Carrying on Captain America’s Legacy

Screenshots via Disney+

When Captain America prepared for a time jump into the past to return the Infinity Stones at the conclusion of Endgame, he was joined by Smart Hulk and longtime sidekicks Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. Though they didn’t know it at the moment, this would be the last time that they would ever see Steve Rogers as the friend and ally that they had fought beside for years.

Only a matter of seconds pass for the trio in the present day, but decades go by for Steve as he returns each of the magical stones to their respective timelines and worlds. A suddenly wrinkly Chris Evans appears, casually waiting for Sam on a nearby bench, finally at peace after living out his stolen past with the love of his life, Peggy Carter. Without so much as even looking back at his century-old buddy from Brooklyn, Steve greets Sam as he approaches, and before long presents him with the patriotic vibranium shield that Howard Stark designed for Captain America back in World War II. Steve tells him to try it on, and when he asks how the shield feels in his hand, Sam simply replies, “Like it’s someone else’s.”

After glancing over at Bucky to receive his blessing, Sam reluctantly accepts the shield from Steve, and with it, the mantle of being the next Captain America.

The scene marks the end of an era for the MCU, with Marvel’s first Avenger stepping aside for new heroes to face the inevitable threats that await them in the future. Both Sam and Bucky have carried the title of Captain America at various points in the comic books, and yet here, Steve chose his former jogging partner as his successor despite knowing him for a fraction of the time that he’s known his childhood friend. (Again, he couldn’t have just, like, given a wave back to Bucky at least? A little nod of acknowledgment?) But considering Bucky’s harrowed past (as well as his very poor public image), the decision appears to have been a calculated one on Steve’s part, and it will surely play into the events of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Aside from the grief-stricken star of WandaVision, there is perhaps no character in the MCU who’s experienced more trauma than Bucky Barnes. Following Hydra’s experiments and a near-death experience, Bucky was unwillingly transformed into the lethal Winter Soldier, forced into carrying out the hits of the evil Nazi-like organization across generations. He’s taken dozens of innocent lives—including the lives of Tony Stark’s parents—and now has to live with the guilt as he tries to acclimate to a new century and a world without his best friend. Meanwhile, Sam, the former Air Force pararescue airman who had all but retired before being pulled into the superhero business by Steve Rogers, is tasked with carrying a monumental burden he never asked for.

Together, the unlikely duo—who are bringing big buddy-cop vibes with them as they share the spotlight—will now have to help mend a world still reeling from the universe-altering events of Endgame.

Familiar Faces From the MCU

Zemo

After appearing in just one film in the Infinity Saga, Daniel Brühl will reprise his role as Baron Helmut Zemo in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And since he is one of four Falcon and Winter Soldier characters highlighted in Marvel’s Legends recap series on Disney+ (along with the two titular heroes and Sharon Carter), Zemo will likely play a crucial role in the events to come.

Zemo’s lone appearance came in Captain America: Civil War, when the former Sokovian Armed Forces colonel divided the Avengers and turned them against each other. Following the deaths of his entire family during the destruction of Sokovia in Age of Ultron, Zemo sought vengeance on Tony Stark and Co., and knew he wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight against those with godlike abilities. Instead, he capitalized on the world’s growing distrust in unsanctioned superheroes, and framed Bucky for an attack on the United Nations where T’Chaka, the King of Wakanda, was killed along with many others during the signing of the Sokovia Accords. In the end, Zemo was captured by the Black Panther, but not before he used Bucky to find and kill the other living subjects in the Winter Soldier program, who were asleep in cryostasis in Siberia, and orchestrated the MCU’s messiest breakup ever between Iron Man and Captain America.

Now, somehow freed from his imprisonment, Zemo is picking up in Falcon and the Winter Soldier right where he left off. “Superheroes cannot be allowed to exist,” he says in the show’s first trailer. “I have no intention of leaving my work unfinished.”

While we see only glimpses of Zemo in the trailers, in one shot he’s notably carrying his trademark purple mask from the comics. A longtime antagonist to Captain America and the Avengers, Zemo first appeared back in 1973, and has led groups like the Masters of Evil, Hydra, and the Thunderbolts over the subsequent years. The villain took after his father, who fought against Captain America and his Howling Commandos in World War II, and followed in his footsteps to wear the purple mask and face off against the likes of Captain America and the Avengers. With him now donning this look in the series, Zemo seems set to do a lot more than just pull the strings behind the scenes.

Sharon Carter

Like Sam Wilson, Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) made her big-screen debut in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier—but she was first introduced as Steve Rogers’s unassuming neighbor Kate. It was only after Nick Fury was shot in Cap’s apartment that she revealed herself to be Agent 13, an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. operative whom director Fury assigned to look after Rogers. And following the death of her great aunt Peggy, Sharon was properly reintroduced as the great niece of one of the founding members of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Though Carter only appears in Winter Soldier and Civil War, in each film, she plays a crucial role in assisting Captain America as the agencies she works for turn against him and dissolve into corruption. She stood against Hydra’s forces as they infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside, and after S.H.I.E.L.D. crumbled and she joined the CIA, Sharon again went against her organization to help Steve when he was brought in for attempting to help the wanted Bucky. The last time we see her in Civil War, Sharon is secretly meeting up with Captain America, as he, Sam, and Bucky flee the government together. She returns Cap’s shield and Sam’s Falcon tech, and also shares a belated kiss with Steve before going on the run herself. (Here’s where I have to just say, in hindsight, it’s a little off-putting that Steve is out here making out with Peggy’s great niece. If the internet is producing headlines like “Captain America’s Sharon Carter Kiss ISN’T Problematic,” you know something weird is at play.)

After being snapped away by Thanos, Sharon Carter will return to help out Steve’s old friends in Falcon and the Winter Soldier after being missing for years. Not much has been said of her whereabouts in the MCU since Civil War, but it’s likely that she’s been a fugitive after betraying the CIA to assist unregistered superheroes who never signed the Sokovia Accords. (But given, you know, everything that has happened since, including that time Thanos led an alien invasion of Earth, does anybody even care about that stuff?)

Sharon Carter also has a long history in the comics, dating back to the 1960s, where she once served as the first female director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now back in the MCU again, here’s hoping she’ll take on a bigger role.

The MCU After Endgame

While WandaVision largely limited our view of the post-Endgame world to the confines of Westview, New Jersey, Falcon and the Winter Soldier will provide a greater look at how society is readjusting after the Blip brought the other half back to life. The new series will follow Sam and Bucky around the world as they take on Zemo, as well as an anarchist group known as the Flag-Smashers, who share a name with a supervillain that Captain America often fought in the comics. And as the trailers reveal, beyond Sam and Bucky, there will be a new version of Captain America coming into play, as John Walker (Wyatt Russell) steps into the role as U.S. Agent, though it remains to be seen where he’ll fit in among the heroes’ allies and antagonists.

With the first of the series’ six episodes arriving on Friday, we’ll soon find out whether Falcon and the Winter Soldier can live up to the success of WandaVision, or whether the more straightforward series will struggle to follow a show that often stepped outside of traditional MCU conventions. Either way, those who were left hungry for more superhero action after a year without it will have to wait only a few more days for the infinite Marvel-content train to keep rolling ahead.