The old man and the serum: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier “The Star-Spangled Man”
Previously on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: The titular Falcon, Sam Wilson, wanted to help save his sister’s fishing boat, but since being an Avenger doesn’t, strictly speaking, pay (why would anyone work for Tony Stark for free? Especially considering how often he builds stuff you end up having to fight?), he has to face the institutional racism of the banking industry on his own. They probably wouldn’t have dared deny him the loan if he’d become the next Captain America like Steve Rogers wanted, but his impostor syndrome means the role went to literally just some guy. Meanwhile, the titular Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes, is going to court-mandated therapy and trying to make amends to the people he hurt during his time as a brainwashed assassin. The two are facing the challenges of several terrorist organizations with unclear motives, the unclearest of which are the Flag-Smashers, who believe the world was better during the Blip years (why?) and now want to erase all national borders (why?).
We open up on a zipper sliding seductively down…
…to reveal the new Captain America costume worn by John Walker, the new Captain America. He’s at his old high school, where a special edition of Good Morning America (which airs on a network owned by Disney, naturally) is being filmed to commemorate his selection as Captain America, because in the Marvel Universe people still watch morning talk shows. In a interview with actual GMA host Sara Haines, Wyatt Russell does his best impersonation of his dad as he chuckles and aw-shuckses his way through and says hey, I got no gadgets or superpowers, I’m just a decorated elite soldier and MIT grad, you know, a regular guy.
Bucky watches this on TV from his apartment inside an antidepressant commercial. He’s so upset he pays a visit to Sam just to bellyache. Sam doesn’t want to hear it, because he’s too busy dealing with this mysterious masked super-strong guy who’s leading the “anarchist” (Marvel-ese for “they don’t like the gummint”) Flag-Smashers, and he’s headed to Germany to check out a lead. Bucky insists on tagging along, and no one stops him. He jumps out of the plane after Sam, making sure to tear off his sleeve to show off his badass robot arm. Since Steve Rogers jumped out of a plane with no parachute in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Bucky decides he has to do that too, trying and failing to use his metal arm to block all the tree branches on the way down. His undignified pratfall is caught on candid camera by Sam’s drone Red Wing. (Side note: I recently found out that in the comics, Red Wing is an actual bird that Falcon has a psychic link with. Words cannot convey my disappointment.)
They track down some folks moving stolen vaccines out of a warehouse, with the duo engaging in stealth-compromising sitcom banter the whole time. The villains take off in two trucks, and Bucky catches up to one, jumps up on the tailgate, and opens up the door to climb inside, in full view of the other truck right behind it. Stealth! He discovers the truck is full of vaccines and also a hostage.
But the whole thing turns out to have been a trap, as Bucky discovers when he’s kicked into the other truck’s windshield by the super-strong “hostage”, who soon dons a Flag-Smasher mask. Two other Flag-Smashers grab him and drag him up top for a good Speeding Truck Fight, where they show they all have abilities that could only have been provided by the super-soldier serum. Red Wing is grabbed out of the air and smashed to bits. Bucky is kicked off the side of the truck and only his six-million-dollar arm saves him. It looks bad for the two, but soon the new Captain America shows up with… some guy who used to go to high school with him?
But with it being seven super-soldiers against one super-soldier and three regular soldiers, the fight ends quickly and the Flag-Smashers get away. John and his buddy Lamar Hoskins (Cle Bennett), who like his comics counterpart is nicknamed “Battlestar”—presumably due to his love of Battlestar Galactica—stop to pick up the title heroes and they have a long, standoffish car ride. Bucky is openly hostile, while Sam is more diplomatic but still makes his feelings clear. John does the whole shame-we-can’t-work-together thing and leaves them be.
Meanwhile, the Flag-Smashers take refuge at the home of a confederate, where they talk amongst themselves and make an unsuccessful stab at explaining what their motives are. That “hostage” from earlier is really their leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), apparently the gender-flipped version of the Flag-Smasher from the comics, whose real name is Karl Morgenthau. Karli seems to be something of an existential nativist; she’s mad that the Global Repatriation Council, the board in charge of allocating global resources in the wake of the Blip, seems to be ignoring the needs of the people who didn’t get snapped and are now displaced by the returning half of the population. (Why would that cause mass displacement? Did they knock down the house of every single person who disappeared and then say “oh, our bad, come have these guys’ houses”?)
Karli asserts, “We saw a glimpse of the way things could be.” Um, we viewers didn’t. Can you explain what that was, please? At one point, she gets a random threatening text that she doesn’t mention to the rest of the group.
In an effort to track down the source of the super-serum previously thought destroyed, Bucky takes Sam to the Baltimore residence of an Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a super-soldier active during the Korean War who was dropped behind enemy lines to fight Bucky. Isaiah is less than disposed to help. His very existence is a secret. It’s heavily implied that his super-soldierdom came about due to some Tuskegee-type experiments (in the comcs, Isaiah was the hero of the limited series Truth: Red, White & Black, where the Tuskegee parallels are made much clearer). After the war he was imprisoned for thirty years, during which further experiments were performed on him. He angrily throws Bucky and Sam out of the house.
Some racist cops hassle Bucky and Sam while the two are arguing on the street. They apologize profusely once they find out who Sam is, but it turns out Bucky has a warrant out because he missed one of the therapy appointments that were a condition of his pardon. They take him to jail, but John Walker shows up and releases him in his official capacity as Captain America—as he puts it, he’s “kind of the government”—saying that he’s going to be doing some ops with Bucky, so they’ll have to squeeze in his therapy whenever they can manage it.
Very angered by this development, Dr. Raynor drags Bucky off to a cell then and there for a therapy session—and bizarrely, insists that Sam come along. Though these two characters have never seriously interacted onscreen before this series (as far as I can remember), and the only thing they have in common is Steve Rogers, the show insists that they have a longstanding and playfully antagonistic relationship like two sitcom nemeses. And befitting the sitcommy nature of this whole conceit, Dr. Raynor insists on taking Bucky and Sam through some couples therapy exercises. Just spilling his motivation straight out, Bucky says he’s mad at Sam for refusing the shield Steve offered him, because if Steve’s faith in Sam was misplaced, then so too could his faith in Bucky himself.
John and Lamar accost them outside the police station, and fill them in on some intel about the Flag-Smashers taking the stolen vaccines to some displaced-persons camps in Europe. He offers once again to work together with them. Sam says he appreciates the offer, but it wouldn’t make sense, since they’re on the government dole and he and Bucky are essentially mercenaries. “Then stay the hell out of my way,” says John ominously.
Cut to Slovakia, where the Flag-Smashers are putting the vaccines on a plane. They get word that they’ve been spotted. One of the supersoldiers offers to hold off their enemies so that the plane has time to escape. He pushes over a telephone pole to block the incoming motorcade, and then screams as he charges toward the police and gets gunned down.
Bucky tells Sam that they have one lead that John Walker doesn’t have, who knows all about HYDRA’s super-soldier program, and who (supposedly) found and destroyed the last super-serum known to exist. It’s Helmut Zemo, the guy who framed Bucky for a terrorist bombing in Captain America: Civil War and successfully broke up the Avengers. We cut to the prison in Germany where he’s being held, and despite the fact that Zemo was never depicted as having super-powers, or super-intellect, or really anything that makes him particularly dangerous, he’s got a complete ultra-high-security supervillain setup in here, complete with a chessboard and booming choral music.
Next week: The Flag-Smashers freeze a flag in liquid nitrogen so they can finally smash one. Red Wing is rebuilt with a taste for flesh. Dr. Raynor goes into superhero therapy full-time.