Within minutes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s series premiere, Sam Wilson is soaring past missiles and taking out military helicopters. While it took until the series finale for the recently concluded WandaVision to gravitate toward Marvel’s signature big-budget action scenes, it took only a matter of moments for the newest Disney+ series to dive right into them.
The premiere of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suggests that showrunner Malcolm Spellman’s new project will provide a much different viewing experience for MCU fans than one that began as a black-and-white domestic sitcom. Though it’s a familiar marketing refrain from TV shows, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier truly feels like it’s a bite-sized feature film, as the MCU repurposes its often generic superhero formula for its still nascent streaming home. But by highlighting two of Captain America’s longtime sidekicks in a way that gives them the space to explore issues of race and trauma, as well as by granting the spotlight to an actor who too often has had to play the role of a team player, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has the potential to take the MCU to new heights, just like WandaVision before it.
Every Friday, we’ll recap each of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s six episodes, with a follow-up on one of its major characters or topics arriving the following Wednesday. For the series premiere, “New World Order,” we’ll begin by focusing on the series’ titular duo as they carry their own story lines for the first time, before meeting the new Captain America and seeing where everything fits within the context of the greater MCU.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins with a reminder that will loom over the entire series: Captain America is gone. As Sam Wilson packs up the First Avenger’s iconic shield in a hotel room, he recalls the moment Steve Rogers entrusted him with carrying on the shield—and his legacy—near the end of Endgame. “How does it feel?” Steve asked him.
“Like it’s someone else’s.”
In the six intervening months since the Avengers defeated Thanos and brought half the universe’s population back to life, Sam has been keeping himself busy by working for the U.S. Air Force again. We get a little taste of this early in the episode, as Sam carries out a mission to rescue a military liaison and captain who has been captured by the criminal organization LAF. As Sam takes the skies to challenge helicopters and wingsuited soldiers—just a natural case of a Falcon going after some flying squirrels—he gets the opportunity to show off his aerial abilities like never before. Sam dodges missiles, deflects bullets with his EXO-7 Falcon suit, and handily neutralizes the LAF soldiers (including former UFC champion Georges St-Pierre, reprising his role as Georges Batroc, who narrowly escapes) to save the captain without the aid of another Avenger.
Beyond those high-flying exploits, though, the premiere spends much of its time on how Sam has been grappling with the burden of becoming the next Captain America, as well as the sacrifices that come with being a superhero. Picking up where the episode began in its cold open, Sam heads to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where he’s honoring Steve Rogers. Speaking before a small audience that includes James “War Machine” Rhodes, he says, “We need new heroes, ones suited for the times we’re in. Symbols are nothing without the women and men that give them meaning.”
Mid-speech, Sam picks up Cap’s shield from where it was resting against the podium. “This thing … I don’t know if there’s ever been a greater symbol,” Sam continues. “But it’s more about the man that propped it up—and he’s gone.”
Sam ultimately has decided that the Captain America mantle is not for him, and he’s donating the shield to the museum. Rhodey, for one, questions Sam’s decision to give it up. But Sam stays firm on his rationale, explaining that the shield—and the mantle—belongs only to Steve Rogers.
After the ceremony, Sam heads down to Delacroix, Louisiana, to be with his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) and her two kids. Due in large part to the five-year gap when, you know, half the world (including Sam) was turned to dust thanks to a certain purple alien’s attempt at population control, Sarah has been struggling to keep her business afloat. She plans to sell the boat that belonged to their parents, but against her better judgment, Sam eventually convinces her to wait.
Together, Sam and Sarah head to the bank with the hopes of getting a loan for their business. And while the bank clerk fanboys over the Falcon from the jump, the bank denies their request, citing the fact that the business didn’t generate any income during that five-year span when, again, billions of people simply didn’t exist. Despite saving the world on multiple occasions, including when Thanos nearly doubled down and tried to turn the universe into a blank canvas, this superhero can’t even get a little help from a bank. Dismayed by everything playing out exactly as she said it would, Sarah gives Sam a reality check about what life’s been like while he’s been flying around with the Avengers. “You don’t get to come back here and try to right your wrongs just because you couldn’t deal with what was going on here,” she yells at him. “You don’t know what happened these last five years.”
Back at their family home, after Sam gets a tip from his buddy Lieutenant Torres (Danny Ramirez) about the Flag-Smashers (a bit more on them later), Sarah gets him to turn on the news. They tune in just in time to witness the Department of Defense unveil the new Captain America. While Sam was busy struggling with legacies and symbolism, the U.S. government already had a new hero lined up to carry out its bidding. Now, Sam will have to find a way to reclaim the shield—and the mantle—that rightfully belongs to him.
When we first reunite with Bucky Barnes in the premiere, he’s in the midst of a nightmare. In what is later revealed to be a memory, Bucky finds himself as the Winter Soldier again, carrying out hits as Hydra’s brainwashed tool of destruction. He takes out his targets, telling the last man, “Hail Hydra” (unfortunately, he doesn’t whisper it). Before the nightmare comes to an end and he wakes up on the floor of his barren apartment, Bucky kills an innocent bystander who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the next scene, Bucky heads to therapy—a condition of his pardon. Through this dialogue with his very blunt military shrink, it’s evident how lonely a world it is for the century-old war veteran. Bucky has recently lost his only true friend—though who knows, maybe he and Joe Biden still hang out on random benches together every now and then—and for the first time in a very long time, he has no purpose; all he has is his guilt. Dating all the way back to World War II, Bucky really has been surrounded only by violence. “I had a little calm in Wakanda,” he tells his therapist. “And other than that, I just went from one fight to another for 90 years.”
As part of his plan to reacclimate to society and deal with his guilt, Bucky is trying to make amends with those who suffered at the hands of the Winter Soldier—as well as tie up any loose ends from his time as Hydra’s hitman. And there are many; he even has a list written out in a journal, which spans multiple pages. (Among them is “H. Zemo,” for whom Bucky will surely break his new rule of nonviolence whenever they cross paths again.)
Bucky’s therapist (rather rudely) points out the fact that he has no friends or points of contact; the only one who’s trying to keep in touch with him is Sam, but Bucky has been avoiding his texts. Other than his therapist, Bucky’s only current connection is his neighbor, an eldery Japanese man named Yori (Ken Takemoto). The two of them hit the sushi bar across the street every Wednesday, and Yori turns out to be a fantastic wingman; on Bucky’s behalf, Yori asks out the server (Miki Ishikawa), who has clearly gotten to know the odd pair’s weekly routine. But the scene quickly turns somber: a piece of mochi reminds Yori of his son, who was killed while he was working abroad. Based on Bucky’s facial response as Yori recounts this, it’s clear that he’s hiding something.
The following night, Bucky heads back to the sushi bar for his date. Aside from the fact that Bucky is incapable of normal conversation, the date starts off pretty well, and the two enjoy some beers over a game of Battleship. (Apologies to Miki for referring to her here as only “she” or the “woman,” but the character literally doesn’t have a name in the premiere. I mean come on, writing team, what is this, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? I’ll give you all the benefit of the doubt for now and assume her name is just being hidden at the moment.) Eventually, though, the conversation turns to Yori. She tells Bucky how he’s doing a great thing by spending time with him, explaining that Yori has never been the same since the loss of his son, and how the mysterious nature of his death still haunts him. After she mentions this, Bucky walks out of the date like an absolute dick, leaving without any explanation. (In fairness to Bucky, who hasn’t rage-quit a game of Battleship before?) Bucky heads straight to Yori’s apartment, and when he opens the door, he peers in to see that Yori has lit incense in front of a photo of his son. A closer look reveals the son to be the witness that Bucky had killed in his nightmare. Standing in the doorway, Bucky can’t bring himself to tell Yori. The old man’s name remains uncrossed at the top of Bucky’s list.
After being either solemnly silent, deep in cryosleep, fighting, or some combination of the three for the bulk of his MCU appearances, Bucky’s past—and the guilt that comes with it—is catching up to him. As his brutally honest therapist keeps telling him, he won’t be able to traverse this new century he’s finally living in alone, and soon he’ll have to begrudgingly turn to his former coworker to help him move on from his brainwashed Hydra days. Bucky’s got a long list of names to cross off. Before all that, though, my guy definitely owes a certain sushi bar server a big apology.
The New Captain America
Sam’s decision to give up the vibranium shield that Steve Rogers trusted him with immediately backfires, as the Smithsonian dedication was apparently nothing more than a ruse to get it back into the hands of the Department of Defense. Instead of the world being reintroduced to Sam Wilson as the new Captain America, out walks this random dude with the squarest jaw I’ve seen since the Crimson Chin. (No disrespect to Wyatt Russell, but this helmet and chin-strap look is not doing Bootleg Captain America any favors.)
The man being ushered in as America’s next symbol is John Walker, a character from the comics better known as U.S. Agent. Like both Steve and Bucky in the MCU, Walker gained super strength in the comics through a series of experiments, though it remains to be seen how his character and his traits will translate to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Assuming he has some superhuman abilities, it’s possible that the U.S. government managed to replicate either the super-soldier serum used to transform Steve Rogers; Arnim Zola’s version of it that turned Bucky into the Winter Soldier; or they’ve found a new method to enhance his strength altogether.
Walker is not a villain in the comics, but his crime-fighting methods are brutal, and the pressure of being Captain America eventually grows to be too much for him. As he steps into the MCU for the first time, Walker is taking over the job that was meant for Sam Wilson, but he’s doing it as essentially a tool of the U.S. government. (Remember that Captain America, too, began as a mere propaganda machine.) With the world still on the mend after five years of both chaos and emptiness, it’ll be interesting to see what the government has planned for him.
Speaking of that five-year stretch that keeps coming up, through one episode, it’s clear that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will be heavily indebted to the events of Endgame and the MCU films that came before it. This makes sense given the fact that the series was originally supposed to launch the MCU’s transition to the world of television before being delayed by the pandemic, as it serves as a reintroduction to a world only months removed from the Blip. As such, Don Cheadle is quickly popping in for cameos as Colonel James Rhodes, saying things like, “The world’s broken, and everybody’s just looking for somebody to fix it.” Strangers in foreign countries are approaching Sam to thank him for returning their loved ones; people are theorizing that Captain America is hanging out on the moon; annoying accountants are giving condolences to Sam about Tony Stark. And anarchist groups like the Flag-Smashers, who Torres warns Sam about before he’s later demolished by one of its seemingly superpowered members, believe that things were better during the Blip, when the world was less populated and banded together by a universal tragedy.
As everyone seems to be saying in the early going, it’s a new world, and a new day for the MCU. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is here to show what that looks like.