SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!
It’s no coincidence that the best and by far the most outrageously entertaining episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier yet happens to also be the longest, at fifty-three minutes: still not quite an hour, but close, so close. And those additional few minutes make all the difference, allowing ever major plot beat (and reader, there are several) the space they need to breathe while making the slower character moments feel more organic and earned…resulting in several characters finally realizing their full potential.
This is the first episode of either The Falcon And The Winter Soldier or WandaVision that I’ve watched where I haven’t felt rushed for time, constantly checking the progress bar at the bottom of the screen to try and frantically calculate how much of the remaining runtime is actual story, and how much is credits. But whereas WandaVision sometimes felt like it needed more of the former to counterbalance the length of the latter, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is perfectly balanced…as all things should be (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist).
If it’s story and substance you seek, you will not be disappointed this week: everything involving the escape of Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is gotten out of the way in the first few minutes, freeing up the rest of the episode to take us to the Indonesian pirate kingdom of Madripoor, for some awesome fight scenes, a tense reunion with Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and a few major developments in the Super-Soldier Serum storyline, before returning to Eastern Europe for a confrontation with the Flag-Smashers – which gets delayed to next week, but only because another entity intervenes at the last minute that demands our immediate attention, and gives us the kind of surprise cliffhanger ending that should please many fans.
But it’s Zemo who made it into the top three trends on Twitter this morning, and who serves as the best entry point into the breakdown – or should I say, Baron Zemo, since the criminal mastermind is revealed to have been a descendant of Sokovian royalty before the brutal deaths of his entire family and the destruction of his homeland in the aftermath of Age Of Ultron: which I suppose I should have guessed, given how many trips around the world he was able to take while spending money on hotels, large weaponry, and elaborate disguises. What’s a private plane, a collection of vintage cars, and a creepily devoted elderly butler (who’s just been waiting at the airfield for his master’s return for over five years, I guess?) compared to all that?
The only thing that confuses me slightly is why Zemo just happened to have his iconic comic-accurate purple face-mask just lying in the backseat of one of his old and unused cars. A popular theory suggested he might design it to resemble Thanos, to mock the surviving Avengers with the memory of their greatest failure…but that’s clearly not the case, and in the MCU, in the absence of any better origin story for this singularly bizarre piece of brightly-colored headgear, I’m just gonna assume it’s a rich guy thing and roll with it. A weird family heirloom or some high-end fetish-wear, perhaps.
With Daniel Brühl turning in his most deviously charismatic and seductive performance as the villain to date, it doesn’t take long for Zemo to escape his maximum-security prison with help from Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan): but, crucially, on the latter’s terms. Zemo tries his little brainwashing game again, of course, but the code-words meant to activate Bucky’s Winter Soldier persona no longer work as well as they used to, although Zemo guesses that they still trigger some response from deep within Bucky – who grows more and more violent over the course of the episode, as if his HYDRA programming is overwhelming his senses with every moment he spends by the side of his one-time handler.
But, toxic influence on others aside, Zemo does appear to be genuine in his offer of assistance to the heroes, who need his help locating the origin of the new batch of Super-Soldier Serum being used to juice up the Flag-Smashers. True, the only reason he agrees to help them is to fulfil his own mission of wiping out superheroes, and there’s no question he still loathes the Avengers…but at the same time, he saves their lives at crucial moments; he doesn’t lead them astray in Madripoor, although he clearly relishes watching them both endure humiliations while maintaining the disguises he selected for them, such as forcing Bucky to fake an activation, or forcing Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to eat snake-meat; and five years in prison appear to have humanized him…in a creepy, “uncanny valley” sort of way: he dances at a nightclub in Madripoor in a scene terrifyingly reminiscent of Spider-Man 3, and voices his opinion on Marvin Gaye and the “African-American experience”, earning a questioning look from Sam. He’s doing the bare minimum, and from Zemo that’s…a lot.
But perhaps some of it comes down to the fact that, in Madripoor, even a villain as legendary as Zemo is out of his element. We only get to catch a fleeting glimpse of what life is like in the pirate kingdom’s flourishing criminal underworld, and already I can’t wait to go back, perhaps in Shang-Chi and Hawkeye. The city doesn’t boast many big cameos from Marvel Comics’ rogues gallery, mostly just references (for instance, Sam Wilson’s disguise as the “Smiling Tiger” is a nod to an obscure Marvel villain with Thunderbolts ties), but the big players are still out there. In this episode, we only get to visit the lair of a villain named Selby (Imelda Corcoran), who radiates that wealthy-British-white-woman-who-still-regards-Southeast-Asia-as-her-colony type of unsubtle racism.
One of Madripoor’s less racist but no less morally gray residents is Sharon Carter, whose days of fighting for justice at S.H.I.E.L.D. and the CIA ended long ago. But despite her complaints with Sam and Bucky for leaving her to fend for herself after the events of Civil War, it’s clear that a few years on the run from authorities, operating a criminal enterprise in Madripoor’s fabulously wealthy Hightown district, have done wonders for Sharon’s character arc, finally giving her personality traits beyond “occasionally offers encouraging advice to male love interest (who is also her late great-aunt’s boyfriend)”. She’s now the semi-antagonistic, deeply cynical, three-dimensional character she might have been all along were it not for the Russo Brothers’ obvious disinterest in her potential beyond what she could offer Steve by silently backing him up in every argument.
The only thing about sticking her in a luxury penthouse apartment and giving her a side-hustle selling stolen artwork to the rich and famous is that it makes it ever so slightly difficult to relate to her apparent dissatisfaction with that cushy career path, and her desire to return to the US with a Presidential pardon: but The Falcon And The Winter Soldier already seems to have that figured out, implying that Sharon might not be entirely sympathetic, and that her plea for a pardon may hide an ulterior motive. Some fans think she could even be the mysterious “Power Broker” who commissioned the new Super-Soldier Serum.
But to my mind, the better bet is that John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the MCU’s new Captain America, is the Power Broker. We know from last week’s episode that Walker’s body was considered such an extraordinary natural phenomenon that he was studied by MIT. Episode three (and the behavior of the Flag-Smashers, who have all sampled the Serum at this point) revealed that this new variant of the Serum was designed to be, in its creator’s words, “subtle, optimized, perfect”, needing no “clunky machines” or “jacked-up bodies” to function – so even if Walker had taken it, he might have been able to hide that fact from MIT’s researchers.
The only wrinkle in this theory is that Walker clearly doesn’t have that kind of physical strength anymore: as evidenced in his fight with the Flag-Smashers. So perhaps this new variant of the Serum only works temporarily (which would explain the Flag-Smashers carrying it around with them at all times), or he could have been given an early, less effective, prototype by Dr. Wilfred Nagel (Olli Haaskivi), the new Serum’s inventor. Either way, the fact that Nagel designed his Serum using blood samples from Isaiah Bradley, the forgotten Black Super-Soldier, would makes this revelation particularly interesting from a thematic standpoint. And the only other thing we know about the Power Broker is that they’re hot on the trail of the Flag-Smashers, hunting for the stolen Serum…just like Walker, whose search for the anarchist organization is growing increasingly desperate and destructive, as he’s wielding the full weight of the shadowy organization known as the GRC (Global Repatriation Council) to find them.
Walker’s hunt seems intensely personal, from the way he threatens possible suspects to his use of Flag-Smasher Karli Morgenthau‘s (Erin Kellyman) first name. Why, unless Karli is in possession of the one piece of evidence that could forever tarnish Walker’s pristine reputation, potentially even lose him the Captain America gig?
With the mission to Madripoor cut short by Nagel’s death, Sam, Bucky, and Zemo return to Europe without Sharon to find the Flag-Smashers on their own and get to the bottom of the mystery. But in its closing minutes, Bucky suddenly veers off from the rest of the group, telling Sam to go on ahead without him – and while I was at first confused and concerned that this was just a plot device to separate the gang before a fight scene, it’s quickly revealed that Bucky is aware of someone else pursuing them. And even as I was getting ready for it to be some old acquaintance of his from HYDRA, the episode surprised me yet again, as the familiar Wakanda theme plays over the arrival of Ayo (Florence Kasumba), a Dora Milaje warrior.
Ayo appeared in Black Panther, where her most significant scene (one in which it was hinted that she was LGBTQ+ and attracted to General Okoye) was unfortunately cut – so it’s absolutely thrilling that she’ll get a proper chance to shine while representing Wakanda in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. Her mission is to find and presumably kill Zemo, who caused the death of Wakanda’s King T’Chaka in Civil War, and her distinctive fighting style will add an exciting new element to the upcoming action scenes, particularly if she’s armed with her culture’s traditional weaponry. This was not a surprise I expected, but it’s the one I think we all needed – particularly since Ayo’s inclusion may begin to give us some insight into how the MCU will move forward with Wakandan storylines following the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman.
Zemo, Sharon, Ayo…with all the characters that The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has taken in just one episode and already completely revitalized, it’s extremely exciting to see how the series will continue to do the same for Sam and Bucky, our leads. And it’s once again abundantly clear that Disney+ really is the best place to do this for all the MCU’s supporting characters, who deserve the time and space that only a six-hour television series can provide.
Episode Rating: 9.5/10