So here we are again. After the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink ending to WandaVision a couple of weeks back, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier opens in a markedly muted way. Sam, the eponymous Falcon, is getting some last-minute creases out of his suit trousers – less Iron Man than Ironing Man!! – and looking at Captain America's shield.
There's a lot of wobble-cam and soft focus and it's all very intimate. This is a guy who didn't exist for five years, then when he did start existing again his mate suddenly became extremely old and then died. Still, no time to stand around fiddling with Cap's inconspicuous leather shield-bag: there's a soldier being skyjacked and stolen away to Libya.
All at once, this feels like a very specifically Marvel sequence and an odd hodgepodge of other action sequences. There's a little of The Dark Knight Rises in the hijacking of a plane transporting some important bod somewhere. There's a bit of Mission: Impossible – Fallout's Halo jump. And there's a quite disconcerting bit of The Spy Who Loved Me in the bad lads' black jumpsuits with lemon piping.
After much missile-evasion, Sam explodes several helicopters and gets rid of all the henchmen (except the biggest and most French one), grabs the soldier, avoids Libya, and settles down for a cup of tea with his army mate Torres. In a Tunisian teahouse, we find out that the new big bad is a group called the Flag Smashers, who want a unified world without borders. (Which sounds... quite good?) Apparently they're pro-Blippers, and liked life better when there were fewer people around. Quite what they're after is a little opaque. More fun are the conspiracy theories that have sprung up around Cap since he died. "Some people think he’s on a secret base on the moon, looking down over us," says Torres, slightly hopefully.
Back at the Smithsonian, Sam's putting the final piece of Cap's legacy into a display case and urging everyone to move on: "We need new heroes, ones suited for the times we’re in."
Not that anyone seems particularly keen to move on, judging by the gigantic Steve Rogers exhibition the Smithsonian seems to be throwing, but hey. "The world’s broken," Tony Stark's old pal Rhodesy tells him. "Everybody’s just looking for somebody to fix it." Hopefully this is a pairing we end up seeing a bit more of: it feels like there's a lot that could be done between two men who've both lost their best mates in the very recent past.
It's not this week, though. Bucky Barnes, the artist formerly known as the Winter Soldier, has been having some bad dreams about the time when he was killing on behalf of neo-Nazi aliens, though he's not telling his therapist about it. Instead he's taking the My Name Is Earl approach to atonement, tracking down the people he wronged with his international murdering. One of those people is grumpy old Mr Nakajima, who was on the wrong end of a bullet from Bucky while trying to get back into his hotel room. Awkward!
So far they're sashimi pals, but you presume Bucky's rehabilitation and personal reckoning with having done loads of randomers in will be tied up with how he bumps along with Mr Nakajima. Mr Nakajimi only really seems interested in helping Bucky get his horn on, which he does very awkwardly over a game of Battleships while wearing gigantic leather gloves over his robot hands. (How do you pick up the tiny little Battleship counters with gigantic leather gloves on? A question for another time.)
Meanwhile Sam's Serious B-Plot is about sorting out his sister Sarah's boat and shrimp-fishing business, the one which has been in their family for years. (By the way, was it just us who assumed Sam's nephews calling him Uncle Sam is a none-too-subtle nod to his upcoming ascension to Captain America status?)
Torres is on the tail of the Flag Smashers, who've nicked loads of money in Switzerland and have a suspiciously strong bloke at their head, while Sam and Sarah are turned down for a loan. There's a fairly strong undercurrent of ingrained racism within the banking world here, which is very interesting, but does feel like it's come from another series entirely. Nonetheless, Sarah pulls up the other big theme of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: making amends, and specifically why she doesn't appreciate Sam's hero act. "You don’t get to come back and try to right your wrongs just because you couldn’t deal with what was going on here," she tells him.
So what to make of it all? It's a bit of a mishmash of tones: big action explodeathon, domestic family drama, post-Bourne angst. You hope it'll settle into itself a little more when the Falcon and the Winter Soldier actually become The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. For now, it feels like a holding pattern.
But right at the last – and in defiance of head writer Marc Spellman's assertion that this isn't a fan theory-centric kind of series like WandaVision – there's the kind of curtain-closing flourish which Marvel does so adroitly. We meet a new Captain America. Who the hell is that?
Another weird invasion from another mega-franchise: the Uruk-hai style hand-print on the front of the Flag Smashers' masks.
If you were sat with Bucky in that sashimi restaurant, with him wearing his murder gloves and not answering any of your questions, you'd be slamming the silent alarm within seconds.
That said, good to see chess being sidelined for once in favour of Battleships, for a scene where two characters need to verbally joust and try to outfox each other. Should do Kerplunk next.
Judging by the very small amount of face we can see, the new Captain America looks a bit like anti-lockdown shock jock Mark Dolan. Now that would be a twist.
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