Sam and Bucky: the 80s Want Their Plot Cliches Back
I didn’t write a review of the second episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier because the review would have just been: Not as exciting as the first episode. The action scene was lackluster and the scenes with the new Captain America were not very compelling. Even when the new Cap and his buddy are arguing with Sam and Bucky the scene didn’t have any bite. On the other hand, the bantering scenes between Bucky and Sam were awesome. I would gladly watch an entire series of the two of them just snarking.
If episode two was a let down after the opening, episode three may be a full-fledged crash and burn. The biggest problem is one that Cora Buhlert called out in her review of the first episode:
> the villain Flag-Smasher is a problematic and I would have preferred, if Marvel had not used him. In the comics, Flag-Smasher is just one guy (apparently, the main Flag-Smasher in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a woman, which is progress, I guess), not a whole organisation (though he later is part of one), and his reasons for wanting to abolish nations and borders are both understandable and actually make sense. The fact that this character was portrayed as a villain tells you a lot about what Captain America comics were like in the 1980s and 1990s, when I used to call Captain America “Captain Nationalism” and flat out hated the character. The Marvel movies did a lot to move Captain America away from the old “Captain Nationalism” model and turned him more into what he was intended to be, namely the positive side of America given form. Hell, the Marvel movies actually made me like Captain America.
This problem was more than hinted at in the first episode, in that the only thing we were told about the so-called terrorist organization is that they want open borders and for people to be able to move freely between nations. Most people living in the European Union have had that ability within the union for decades, and it has generally been viewed as beneficial economically, culturally, and socially.
American conservatives are horrified by the idea of open borders, which makes this show’s narrative lean into that Captain Nationalism idea. The new Cap being both a jerk and someone more than happy to promulgate the jingoistic propaganda is fine for a character who clearly is supposed to be one of our antagonists, but when the two protagonists also immediately assume that open borders are bad, that’s more problematic.
I had hoped that the Flag-Smashers would turn out to be a worthy exploration of some kind of justice issue, but the third episode just muddles it up even more. The leader, Karli, is also angry that people who were dusted in the blip but then came back are getting aid and resources to reintegrate with society. That sort of resentment is something that happens in the real world in relationship to refugee crises, it’s true, however the people who feel that sort of resentment are also almost always the same people who vehemently opposed open borders.
The two beliefs just don’t go together.
Later she talks about another goal: destroying industries. As if destroying some people’s livelihoods and interrupting the production of necessary goods wouldn’t make the other issues she laments substantially worse.
The main plot developments of episode two were the revelation that some of the Flag Smashers are super soldiers (and that someone somewhere has re-invented a serum like the ones that gave Captain America and Bucky their powers), and that there were African-American soldiers experimented upon during the Korean War era, one of whom developed powers like Captain America, was used for some covert missions, and then locked up in prison for years afterward.
The main action of episode three has to do with getting Baron Zemo (introduced in Avengers: Civil War) out of prison on the grounds that his connections to Hydra will help them find whoever has made the new super soldier serum. Which leads them to the fictional city of Madripoor looking for the villain called the Power Broker.
Madripoor is a cliche lawless city/state. Such settings are cliches precisely because they serve certain kinds of stories well. The similar city/planet that appeared in the Star Trek: Picard episode "Star Dust City Rag" is an example of how it can be used to move both and action and comedy plot forward. Here it’s just portrayed as a generic Asian Cyberpunk town… that doesn’t seem to have any asian inhabitants. At all. Not one. And it is supposed to be in or near Indonesia!
I could keep going on and on about the logistic and plothole problems with this episode. It’s just mind-boggling how bad it got. (Shipping containers do not work that way!)
Now, one difference in episode three is that the action scenes are generally more exciting than what we got in episode two. It’s only when you think about the plot or logic that things fall apart. We also didn’t get much fun banter between Sam and Bucky. On the other hand, Zemo is quite fun, and the actor does a really good job dancing between being charming and menacing. It was nice to see them doing something with Sharon Carter; making her be really angry about taking all of the consequences for actions in Captain America Civil War without any of the praise and certainly not a pardon, unlike some of the other characters (Bucky and Sam, specifically). It was also really fun surprise to see the character of Ayo (one of the Wakandan Dora Milaje) at the end of the episode.
I enjoyed parts of this episode. But the way the plot, motivations, and logistics keep crashing through my willing suspension of disbelief leaves me worrying that I’m not going to enjoy the series at the end.
Because I like the MCU versions of Bucky and Sam so much, I will undoubtedly stick it out. I just hope I don’t regret it.
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Edited to Add: Episode Four: "The Whole World Is Watching" is a considerable improvement, answering some of my plothole questions and moving character arcs forward. Full review soonish.