How Captain America 4<\/em> Can Rise Above The Falcon and the Winter Soldier<\/em>

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ended its season on Friday with a last-minute title change: The finale’s end credits rolled under the title Captain America and the Winter Soldier, reflecting the fact that Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), once known as the Falcon, has assumed the mantle of Captain America, as intended by the previous Cap (Chris Evans, who does not appear in this series). This plot turn coincided with an announcement that Malcolm Spellman and Dalan Musson, showrunner and staff writer on the series, respectively, would develop a script for a fourth Captain America movie, presumably focusing on Wilson. There’s also been talk that, unlike WandaVision, this show could inspire another season (or at least a related follow-up series) down the line. Whatever happens, it’s very likely that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will revisit Sam Wilson and his frenemy-turned-actual-buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in some form or another in the coming years.

With that in mind, I have some ideas.

To be clear, I don’t have strong opinions about where the story of Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes should go next. I’m not trying to impose a Choose Your Own Adventure on the MCU, or pitching Marvel my fan-fic. But as someone who enjoys these incarnations of these characters and this slightly less fantastical corner of the MCU, there are some things that I think should be done (and not done) with Captain America 4, Winter Soldier Season 2, or whatever else the MCU throws at Sam and Bucky next.

Decide Whether It’s a Movie or a Show

This sounds rudimentary. Obviously, a fourth Captain America, if it happens, will be a movie, while another group of six episodes released on a weekly basis would be a TV show. And yet much of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suffered from a kind of neither-here-nor-there middle quality that made it feel both overlong and insubstantial. On some level, this is expected; the MCU has been blurring the lines between movies and TV for years, with serialized, house-style movies eventually joined by expensive TV shows using marquee characters from the films. But it’s not impossible to draw clear lines: WandaVision may have devolved into a fairly typical MCU finale, but in its earliest hours it seemed less concerned than any other MCU project with replicating the rhythms of The Avengers or Iron Man, helped along by its self-consciousness about television conventions. Falcon and the Winter Soldier showed little interest in the TV format at any point, parceling out obligatory action sequences like a movie, yet lacking the momentum of a genuine feature film (maybe because even superhero movies haven’t typically crested the four-hour mark unless Zack Snyder is involved).

Because the show felt so much like a third-tier MCU movie, it’s easy to imagine another season playing the same way—or a Captain America movie that feels like a supersized episode of this show. What’s frustratingly difficult to picture is an MCU show that actually embraces the old-fashioned pleasures of television as a medium, where individual episodes can explore smaller stories or character shadings that wouldn’t necessarily support a two-hour feature. It doesn’t help that Falcon and the Winter Soldier ends in a way that makes the whole thing feel like a long prologue padded with deleted scenes: Hey, if you want to see what Sam was up to in between Cap anointing him his successor in Endgame and actually doing the job in Captain America 4, here’s a bunch of footnotes with nebulous episodic boundaries. Is producing a fun 45-minute adventure where Falcon and the Winter Soldier do a mission together so beneath the MCU at this point? Now Captain America 4 will have to work even harder to feel differentiated from the series; a subsequent season, meanwhile, would do well to focus on making individually memorable episodes, especially given Disney’s appealingly old-fashioned one-installment-at-a-time rollout.

Create Interesting New Characters

The MCU has established such a deep bench of great characters and actors, especially within the orbit of Captain America, that it made sense to pull in past players like Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) for Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But for the most part, they felt like plot pieces, not people. Worse, the show’s new characters were one-note: the extreme but idealistic freedom-fighting of Karli (Erin Kellyman), the barely-masked arrogance and insecurity of new government-approved Captain America John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the bland enthusiasm of Sam’s sorta-sidekick Joaquin (Danny Ramirez) and the string-pulling Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Beyond Valentina, who seemed to be included primarily as one of the MCU’s patented we’ll-see-you-later teases, is the idea of seeing more of these characters (beyond Sam and Bucky) especially enticing? The instability of John Walker, for example, was telegraphed from basically the second episode, and the character had nowhere to go that felt remotely unexpected. In the comics, Joaquin eventually becomes the new Falcon, a possibility that’s almost comically unexciting based on his appearances in this show.

Maybe comics fans enjoy that kind of expectations fulfillment; as drama, though, it’s pretty limited. Captain America: The Winter Soldier had the original Cap, teamed him with Black Widow, explored his prickly relationship with Nick Fury, introduced Sharon Carter, re-introduced Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier, and included a fine single-movie villain played by Robert Redford. Basically, every major character in the movie was more interesting at the end of its 140 minutes than they were before it began. Falcon and the Winter Soldier had the opposite effect: a show made compelling by the fact that Sam and Bucky were interesting before, and might become interesting again.

Stop Reciting Cliches As If They’re Revelations

Frankly, the idea of Falcon and the Winter Soldier writers having a go at the full-on Sam Wilson Captain America movie is kind of a bummer, because the moment-to-moment writing on this show was often very bad: canned quips that didn’t land, conversational cliches (“I get that”), and gestures toward very serious issues that don’t actually say much of anything. The show clearly wanted to grapple with Sam’s status as a Black superhero filling a role traditionally held by white guys, and discuss historical mistreatment of Black soldiers, with its allusions to the Tuskegee Airmen. Yet most of what it came up with were platitudes. It all came to a head in the finale with Sam’s endless speech, featuring a stirring call to “do better” and “step up.” There’s something facile about the lack of truly difficult choices Sam and Bucky ever have to make in this series; maybe that’s something that can happen in another movie.

Stop Making Everything About the Blip

The MCU’s attempts to take its world seriously while falling back onto comic book lore is best exemplified by The Blip, the event from the last two Avengers movies where half of all life in the universe was dusted away, then returned after a five-year gap where the world(s) went on spinning without them. This story turn is a testament to the power of the MCU and also a cursed tribute to the hubris of the whole enterprise. The MCU had been drifting away from “our” world for years, as it became increasingly caught up in its own alternate history (rather than the secret-history augmentations of the first Iron Man and Captain America pictures).

The Blip represented a point of no return: The Marvel world is no longer just our world plus superheroes. It has elements of our world (in the sense that it’s not set far in the future or under a dystopian form of government), but it has an unavoidable, fantastical mass event of unprecedented scale at its center. The Blip informed the trajectory of WandaVision and especially Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as it would have to. On the other hand, as Thor says in Ragnarok: Does it, though? Marvel’s willingness to explore the actual ramifications of this Thanos thought experiment displays an admirable dedication to its own storytelling choices, and a resistance to magically returning its world to status quo. It’s also ridiculous and maybe kind of stubborn, forcing all of its characters to reckon with the same elaborate, unrelatable backstory under the twin guises of “trauma” and “grief,” the two things that it turns out every movie and TV show of the past five years was actually about all along. (A genuine worldwide pandemic only has the potential to make these fictional mass traumas even more insufferably quasi-relevant.)

And it still manages to uphold the status quo anyway! Falcon and the Winter Soldier blanched from making any of its biggest characters actual post-Blip refugees potentially displaced by the returning populace, only somehow implying that all of this would make it hard for the government-employed Falcon to get approved for a loan. The actual chaos that might result from this event is kept largely off-screen, as abstract as any other “political” implications in most of the MCU. So why are we still treating it like a serious A-plot? As much as Sam and Bucky struggle with expectations, their pasts, and that ever-present trauma, the show intended to give them a showcase makes them weirdly subservient. I hope Captain America 4, or whatever else comes next, finally allows them to break free.

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