THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Alexander Wallace faces destiny.
There are some shows you watch or books you read that leave you with the distinct impression that there is much to be said. Sometimes, that is a harbinger of woe, as the flaws you have just experienced are myriad and defy easy comprehension. Other times, such a reaction is due to the cleverness, the craftsmanship, and the profundity of that which you have just experienced.

It is with great joy that I report to you that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the latter. It not just continues Disney+’s winning stretch that began with WandaVision, it surpasses the former show in just about any conceivable way (and WandaVision was plenty good on its own!).

As you would guess from the title, this is a show that is driven by its two leads, both secondary characters in the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe who get to shine here. They are each other’s foils, with Sam Wilson being the energetic, extroverted one and Bucky Barnes the introverted, more brooding sort. They fight a good fair bit, and at one point swear off ever seeing each other again after a meeting with a valiant therapist (said scene is one of the funniest in the show). The two are, however, haunted by the presence of a dead man: Steve Rogers, the first Captain America.
One of the biggest themes running through this show is the burdens of your past; just about everyone major has to reckon with their histories in one way or another. Bucky Barnes does so in the most obvious way as he tries to atone for the sins he committed when serving HYDRA as the Winter Soldier. Sam Wilson has to reckon with his own past and the history of the symbol whose mantle he struggles with potentially taking, as well as the legacy of the Snap on his own family in Louisiana.

But in a sense, the two main characters take a back seat as the show probes the nature of reckoning with personal history and with broader history. One sterling example of this is Karli Morgenthau (played with great pathos by Erin Kellyman), the leader of the FlagSmashers, a radical left-wing insurgency that wishes to end the cruel treatment of the refugees who were zapped back into being as the Snap was undone in Avengers: Endgame. It is shown to us that it seemed that the world had found some better ways to do things when it was burdened with less than half of its population, and it is that sort of equitable world that the FlagSmashers are willing to fight and die for. Karli reminded me strongly of Ulrike Meinhof of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the leftist terrorist group in West Germany in the 1970s (which was dramatized in gripping fashion in the 2008 film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex). Both are female revolutionaries who are willing to leave a wake of destruction in their wake in the name of utopia, and both are engrossing as a result.
It is not merely individual history that this series tackles; rather, so much is drawn through the history of a symbol. That symbol is Captain America, portrayed by Steve Rogers or otherwise. You get this most directly when the government of the United States announces that there will be a new Captain America by the name of John Walker (portrayed by Wyatt Russell, who had a major role in the 2018 war horror movie Overlord, which is easily one of my favorite movies of the past five years or so). John Walker is a blunt, forceful man who reminds me of what Ian Fleming said about his most famous creation, James Bond in an interview with the New Yorker:
“When I wrote the first one in 1953, I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be a blunt instrument ... when I was casting around for a name for my protagonist I thought by God, [James Bond] is the dullest name I ever heard.”
In a way, John Walker is James Bond if the latter were a supporting character rather than the main lead in a blockbuster film series (and in a more comic-bookish outfit - but there are certain things in the Bond movies that could fit in a superhero movie without much issue). Both are abrasive, violent men with personal demons dispatched by their governments to break bones and crack skulls in the name of a higher purpose. If Steve Rogers is the America that fought the ‘good war’ against fascism, John Walker is the America that bathed Vietnam in Agent Orange and napalm, and dropped more bombs on the little country of Laos than were ever used, by any country, during that ‘good war.’ He is how America is seen by so many outside its borders: deeply unstable, contradictory, nigh-incomprehensible, and at times absolutely vicious.
It is that duality in American history that drives the series in its portrayal of one subject: race. It is not for nothing that one of the potential successors to Steve Rogers is a black man, and this series commendably does not sidestep the issue but rather confronts it head-on, and does so with great tact and sophistication. It reckons with the brutal disconnect between what I call America’s two foundings: its moral founding at Philadelphia in the grand tradition of European liberalism that has led to the inspiration of millions worldwide and many great deeds, and its material founding at Jamestown and Plymouth, the ravenous greed that expanded at bayonet point, that which depopulated a continent of the majority of its original inhabitants and shackled an entire people on cotton plantations (and which, in many ways, was a potent inspiration for Nazi Germany). Much is made of this dissonance, primarily through how Sam Wilson approaches the figure of Captain America, but also through a smaller but very memorable character portrayed with incredible pathos by Carl Lumby. It is a line of story that should make many Americans pause.

This series is nothing less than a tour de force, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for Disney+ and for television of the 2020s, and for so many other things. This is the superhero as national myth ruthlessly interrogated, and the story of the past several movies and shows brought to a thematic depth I have not yet seen in the franchise. When you finish The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, you will feel as if you have seen the truth written with a lightning bolt. It is shocking, doubtlessly, but the sort of shock to the status quo that is deeply necessary.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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