I’ve started, scrapped, and re-started my review of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode four, “The Whole World is Watching” several times. The episode is a big improvement over episode three, but the basic story still appears to have more than a few major flaws. I think the way to stop myself from digressing down a lot of rabbit holes is to focus on what I think the source of the flaws is, before talking about the plot.
Before I get into that, I have neglected to mention that this show is on Disney+, and the parent company, Disney, continues to refuse to pay royalties owed to Alan Dean Foster and others for novelizations and similar work.
I can’t really talk about the episode without spoilers, so:
Warning: Spoilers Below!
Television shows and movies and the like have always had problems when trying to incorporate the real world and real history into their narratives. Sometimes it is mostly an annoyance, such as all the times that shows are supposedly set in the City of Seattle, where I live, but are very obviously being filmed in Vancouver, Canada (which means most of the world doesn’t even notice). This particular shows shares a sin with lots of American shows in that the Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, is being used as a stand-in for several different European locations, much of which bear little resemblance to Prague.
That kind of muddle doesn’t usually create plotholes, so those of use that do recognize the difference can still enjoy the story.
Unfortunately, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is also suffering from another kind of dissonance with the real world. For example, the villain, Zemo — who is still belng played deliciously well by Daniel Brühl — makes several references to his family’s legacy and his own childhood that just make absolutely no sense for a person who is supposed to have grown up in a fictional country which is, according to previous films in the MCU, sandwiched inbetween the real nations of the Czech Republic and Slovokia. Nor does another of his references to a childhood visit to the real world city of Riga, capital of Latvia.
At least they don’t make sense if you assume that these stories are taking place in the year 2021, which they appear to be. I should pause here to point out that Cora Buhlert goes into much more detail about these discrepancies in her reviews.
Rather than retell this information, I want to present my theory for why the writers or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and other MCU properties are making this mess. I think it comes down to two things. First, Americans (by which I means inhabitants of the U.S., not to disparage our Canadian or Mexican neighbors) or embarrassingly ignorant of both history and geography. Second, the comic book origins of the Marvel Universe have a particular time warp baked into the origins and themes of most of the classi villains and heroes.
To the first point, I want to hasten to point out the most of my fellow citizens are woefully ignorant of the geographic of Europe, Asia, Africa, and so one. But they’re also extremely ill-informed about our own country. I spent my late teens and early twenties traveling around the country in a touring choir, and do not exaggerate when I say I met thousands of people who did not know that Washington State, where we were from, is not the same as the city of Washington, D.C., and that the two Washingtons are literally on opposite sides of the continent. More recently there was that viral meme about how many millions of people were shocked and sometimes angry to learn that Alaska isn’t an island. And let’s not forget the Trumpers from the U.S. state of Georgia who were running around the capitol waving not the flag of their home state, but the flag of the Eastern European Nation of Georgia (because they search for Georgia flag on Amazon–I kid you not!)!
So, Americans, including most of the writers and show runners of any series you can name, literally do not know the difference between Albania, Austria, Latvia, Serbia, or Romania; let alone have any idea of their relative histories. Similarly, if they’ve even heard of events like the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus, the Kosovo War, the First or Second Chechen Wars, the Romanian Revolution, the Hungarian Revolution, or any of the Albania Civil Wars, they have no idea what the conflicts were about nor which ones came before and which after the Dissolution of the Soviet Union.
So fictional European characters written by Americans are going to have backstories that make no sense and contradict history at every turn.
Then there is the Marvel timeline problem. Most of the classic Marvel heroes and villains have their origins in the 1960s and 1970s. Things about American culture and which parts of recent history were important to Americans during that time are baked deeply into the DNA of the fictional lives, themes, and backstories of those characters.
One of the concepts that ghosts along just under the surface of the very essence of a huge number of Marvel characters is that World War II was only 20 or 30 years ago. Trying to translate those origins into modern times means that writers wind up half-heartedly tying major turning points in the lives of both heroes and villains to a more recent conflict, which likely has little culture or economic similarities to WWII as perceived by Americas during the Viet Nam War era. This results in some very confusing elements to the personalities, motivations, and backstories of those characters in a modern setting.
Enough explanation of why most of the socio-politico motivations of any of the villains in this series makes absolutely no sense. Let’s get the the actual episode. “The Whole World Is Watching” is a significantly better entry than episode three. The action sequences (particularly the one involve the Wakandan Dora Milaje) are much more exciting, engaging, and have a lot of emotional heft.
In a completely different arena, we see Sam using his skills as a PTSD counsellor to try to get through to Karli, the leader of the flag smashers. I should note that Cora Buhlert has pointed out the Sam’s true superpower is empathy, and I have to agree that this comes through really strong in this episode.
Karli cross the line from activist to terrorist last episode, and in this episode we see that even some of her most loyal followers are uneasy with this shift. Even so, Sam does seem to reach a moment of understanding. And it is during the conversation with Sam that Karli herself acknowledges that her philosophy, goals, and tactics have some contradictions.
During Karli’s conversations with her followers and with Sam, we get a lot more details of what happened to at least some of the people who didn’t vanish in the blip, and a slightly better explanation of why Karli and her followers are doing what they’re doing. It would have really made episodes two and three make a lot more sense if the writers had found a way to include some of the information in episode one. For example, some of it could have logically been brought up during the scene where Sam and his sister try to take out a small business loan. Just sayin’.
Sam isn’t able to talk Karli down, however, because USAgent, aka Captain Nationalism aka the new Captain America, is too impatient to give Sam the ten minutes he asked for. Zemo uses the ensuing fight to shoot Karli and destroy most of her vials of super soldier serum. Unfortunately, New Cap finds what might be the last surviving vial, and later in the episode we learn he’s injected himself with it.
It is during the second fight with the Flag Smashers that we see that New Cap has super strength. When his loyal friend seems to be killed in said fight (I’m not convinced he’s dead, because the camera cut back to his motionless body at a really odd moment after all of the rest of the characters left the building, chasing the Flag-smashers), New Cap gets even more reckless, leading up to the extremely bloody and shocking final scene.
I’m going to put a stake in the ground here and say that if the rest of the series doesn’t use that final scene, where an unarmed man who is trying to surrender it brutally murdered with the entire event caught on the cameras of hundreds of smart phones as a metaphor for real live incidents of police brutality, than the whole series has missed the boat.
Despite a lot of improvements, we don’t get anything as enjoyable as the banter between Bucky and Sam in episode two. Which is a shame.
While this episode did a lot to salvage the mess of episode three, there are still a heaping pile of details to wrap-up with only two episodes to go. I suspect it’s going to be a wild ride, whether they succeed in tying everything up or not.
These reviews might be of interest:
Note: When I mentioned above how poorly Americans know geography and history, I am including myself. I literally used to read Encylopedias cover to cover for fun, and I love reading reference books of all kinds, but I also know I have some big and occasionally embarrassing holes in my knowledge. I can draw, from memory, a fairly accurate map or the borders of European countries circa 1914, for instance, but give me a blank modern map of Europe and tell me to fill in names and I know I’ll get several of them wrong.