Review: Marvel’s new TV series sets itself up to fight a powerful villain: racism in America

A Black man in a suit and tie holding Captain America's shield
Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, in Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney+.
(Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)

A Black superhero goes from sidekick to centerstage in Marvel’s latest must-stream event, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” a six-part series poised to deal with the realities of racial inequity in a fantastical universe of conflicted avengers and hellbent villains.

Former Captain America wingman Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon (Anthony Mackie), is the central focus of Marvel’s second TV series on Disney+, which touches down Friday. He’s on the precipice of joining forces with the Captain’s former brother-in-arms, Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) in the next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s expansion from film to series television. Following the critically acclaimed “WandaVision,” this live-action drama is also set after the catastrophic events of “Avengers: Endgame,” but that’s where the similarities between this story and the one about the Scarlet Witch end.

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” premiere has more in common with the traditional storytelling of Marvel films than the experimental realm of Wanda and Vision. The high-flying drama kicks off with a heart-pumping action sequence: Falcon’s on an airborne rescue mission, where his billion-dollar set of wings and fancy flying suit come in handy during a hijacked military operation somewhere near the border of Tunisia. He boards enemy aircraft midflight, brawls inside plummeting planes, deflects bullets midair and outpaces missiles, all at dizzying altitudes in a combat scene made for the big screen.


The Disney+ series, which concludes Friday, mixed sitcom aesthetics, superhero stories and profound emotion. No wonder it’s the watercooler show of the moment.

March 5, 2021

But once he’s safely back on the ground, the episode slows down considerably to explore the backstories of its characters — Wilson’s in particular. Pacing that requires patience is a risky move, especially in Episode 1, and within a franchise that’s conditioned its audiences to crave nonstop action. But the methodical buildup works, subtly creating tension on several fronts. It’s hard to know where this series from creator and showrunner Malcolm Spellman (“Empire”) is going because Disney+ released only the first episode for review, but in that episode there are intriguing hints that this is one superhero series where even the strongest of Stark-made materials can’t protect against the ravages of racism.

The aging Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (played by Chris Evans in the films), passed his iconic shield to Wilson in 2019’s “Endgame,” and now the airborne hero is reticent to assume the mantle. (Without spoiling anything here, it turns out the choice may have never been his to make in the first place.) Meanwhile, Wilson is trying to help his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye), a struggling single mom, revive the family’s fishing business and keep the house their parents handed down to them. But a visit to the bank shows that even Falcon’s celebrity status won’t override decades of unfair lending practices woven into the American banking system.

A man in a leather jacket and gloves
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, in Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
(Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)

For his part, Barnes, Rogers’ friend turned enemy turned confused collaborator, is waging his own battle against severe PTSD from his days as a brainwashed assassin for Hydra, an authoritarian paramilitary organization with an ambition of world domination. He’s in therapy, and suffice it to say the brooding ex-assassin is not the most compliant patient. Plus, like Wilson, he’s questioning his role in a post-Captain America world.

Their personal dilemmas play out against an emerging global threat that will most certainly cause these reluctant allies to deal with their baggage while kicking the crap out of rogue forces. Viewers need to stay tuned to see this unlikely duo fight side by side — or even, perhaps, each other. There’s undoubtedly more to their backstories that will bind the two characters and challenge their ideas about each other.

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has yet to reach its ideal cruising altitude but it’s on a smooth, slow climb that promises to take viewers to new, exciting destinations.

‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’

Where: Disney +

When: Any time, starting Thursday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)