The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: 1.01 New World Order
The first two Disney+ series from Marvel Studios couldn’t be more different. Within two short weeks we jump from wacky sitcom pastiche to buddy-comedy action. Headlined by Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie and directed by Kari Skogland, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks to be a conspiracy thriller emulating the tone of the second and third Captain America films.
In their previous MCU appearances, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes had their moments – the snarky back-and-forth of Captain America: Civil War comes to mind – but ultimately the pair have served as parts of larger whole, notably as allies of Steve Rogers in his tussle with Tony Stark or as fodder for Thanos when wiping out half the population and triggering collective global trauma for the next five years. Arguably, the film that served Sam the best was his very first, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Bucky hasn’t had that much to do since Civil War beyond shoot things (and look fabulous doing it). The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, puts its two leads front and centre and is better off because of it.
New World Order picks up six months after Avengers: Endgame and quickly introduces the central thematic tension of the series: the legacy of Captain America’s shield. Sam, believing himself unworthy of the mantle, despite what Steve intended, has passed the shield back to the American government and is now living with his sister Sarah in Louisiana. After half a dozen film appearances without viewers knowing anything about his family, the scenes between Sam and Sarah are refreshingly domestic and grounded – Sam’s gone from facing down enemies and aliens to repairing his family’s fishing trawler and being rejected for a bank loan.
Meanwhile, a nightmare-ridden Bucky struggles to fit in as a civilian after decades as a brainwashed killer. He attends therapy, dabbles in the world of online dating and attempts to make amends by visiting relatives of past victims. He doesn’t yet know what he wants from his new life – though one imagines that by the end of the series, he’ll have found some kind of solace, just as Sam will likely become ready to embrace the Captain America mantle.
We’ve had glimpses of life in a post-Blip world in Spider-Man: Far From Home and WandaVision, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier presents our first proper snapshot of the ‘current’ MCU and the repercussions on broader society. The sudden reappearance of billions of people after five years could only have a massive impact on global power systems, and it turns out a portion of the population preferred things as they were before. Anti-patriotism group the Flag-Smashers are introduced as seeking a more unified world – one “without borders” – and a return to life as it was during the Blip. It’s still unclear what this actually entails, but their presence taps into the landscape of terror and ambiguity of the strange new world in which Sam and Bucky find themselves.
The production values are as top-notch as they were on WandaVision, and a lot of cash has been put into making the visual effects pop. Director Kari Skogland does a great job keeping the action tight and we develop a surprisingly clear sense of what’s happening within a given scene, despite the obligatory shaky cam. The opening sequence – which depicts Falcon jumping out of a plane into a dangerous hostage situation and facing off against the mercenary Georges Batroc – is a clearly intentional callback to an identical sequence at the start of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; it’s also a chance to see how Falcon’s suit has been heavily upgraded to become more Iron Man-like than ever. And in a further call-back, composer Henry Jackman returns to score this series, retaining the leitmotifs for both Falcon and the Winter Soldier to create a pleasing musical continuity.
This being the first of six episodes, New World Order is mostly concerned with setting up where the characters are and giving an inkling of where they’re going next. We haven’t seen Helmut Zemo or Sharon Carter yet, and only at the very end of this episode are we introduced to John Walker, the government’s choice to take on the Captain America mantle. But we do get a cameo from Don Cheadle as Rhodey at Steve’s memorial service, who shares a touching moment with Sam discussing the shield’s legacy. (With his promise to “be in touch”, it’s possible Rhodey will pop up again later in the series, potentially suited up as War Machine.)
Steve Rogers had a complex relationship with the government and its penchant for oversight and militarism; Captain America was initially created as an uber-patriotic tool of the military before Steve cut those ties and went solo in later life, espousing a staunch belief in self-determination and individual freedom. As sad as it is to definitively know that Steve has now passed away, it’s the right decision when it comes to pushing Sam’s arc forward. From the looks of promotional material and this opening episode, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier appears to be leaning into this regulation vs rebellion debate that elevated Winter Soldier and Civil War from simple action superhero films into the territory of a complex moral thriller.