Falcon & The Winter Soldier is probably bad actually

So I waited until episode three of Marvel’s new TV spin-off because the first two episodes weren’t compelling but they had some good points. In particular, episode 2 implied that the show might go to interesting places but kept sort of hesitating around them. For me, to get a sense of what the character of this show was would depend a lot on the choices the story makes in episode 3.

The bad news is that the third episode was the weakest episode yet.

If you are OK with a sort of brainless superhero-themed spy/action show, it’s still fine. There’s a decent cast and plenty of money behind the production, so it will provide some distraction for 40 minutes. It falls apart rapidly if you engage your brain. I have no issue with not engaging your brain when consuming media — I spent a satisfying time watching a magical ape fight a radioactive dragon monster on Friday with no complaints. However, I would like a bit more smarts in when an opportunity arises and episode 2 of F&tWS showed that the writers were aware of some opportunities. The show just glanced off the idea of Captain America as a symbol of the darker side of America and skimmed briefly on the racism behind Sam not being the next Captain. Maybe, the show will return to this idea and do something with it but…well, we’ll see but my expectations are low.

The cynical side of me, when hearing that Disney (who still haven’t paid Alan Dean Foster) announced the MCU TV shows thought that these might end up being IP checkboxes. You know, like those comic book episodes were a famous character has to interact with some back-catalogue hero or villain really just to keep the name in rotation. That’s not always a bad thing, after all Neil Gaiman grabbing DC’s Sandman character and running with it took a 1930’s Shadow knock-off and created something extra-ordinary. So the purely pecuniary motives of the corporation don’t always translate into bad entertainment from the artist. F&tWS isn’t Gaiman’s Sandman, it’s a lot more like when Marvel was trying to make the Inhumans a replacement for the X-men in its properties because it didn’t control the film rights (at the time) for all the X-universe characters.

So the two problems with episode 3:

  • Madripoor
  • Zemo

Let’s deal with Madripoor first. Madripoor is a cliche-city. It is Singapore-not-Singapore because it can’t be Singapore because Singapore it’s not a mess of cliches (or rather it is a mess of its own cliches and proud of them) nor is it Hong Kong (likewise) but some of both and a chunk of Bangkok and dash of KL and whole pile of Western fantasies. Pile up all the things that you might want in a fancy but piratical South East Asian city but then given it a new name so that it is marginally less terrible. Rather like Sokovia is the cliche city for Eastern Europe. Part of Marvel’s advantage over DC’s comics was to eschew this idea for American cities and put Peter Parker et al in New York rather than “Gotham” or “Metropolis”. These days fake cities feel fake and notably Marvel doesn’t do this for London, Paris, Moscow (or to complete the lyric) Munich (although maybe that would have been better for Munich?)

Madripoor was a bad idea. It was a lazy idea.

Zemo. I rewatched Captain America: Civil War recently and in so far as this F&tWS is a sequel to a movie it is a sequel to Civil War. One thing I really liked about the film is that it had a complex villain who defied audience expectations. Using the name of the comic book supervillain Baron Zemo, the Zemo of the film is a counterpoint to the evil Central/Eastern European supervillain (eg The Red Skull or Doctor Doom). Instead, Zemo is a security forces agent but with a simple motive: revenge for the death of his family in Sokovia. His only superpower is careful planning and an understanding of how to manipulate events. It’s a clever idea and one of the smartest parts of the film.

Of course, in making Zemo just an ordinary guy with a singular mission, Marvel threw away an existing comic book character. At the end of Civil War there was nowhere to go with the MCU Zemo. So episode 3 ends up being a narrative exercise in turning the complex, grounded character into Baron Zemo cliched baddy. After breaking him from prison, Zemo reveals that he is a rich aristocrat with a private jet and a big supervillain coat (and a mask). He’s campy fun but it is all kinds of sad and disappointing.

So two strikes and a so-so espionage plot this week.

If you want to read reviews of the other two episodes then Cora has a review of both episodes (http://corabuhlert.com/2021/03/22/marvels-new-world-order-some-thoughts-on-the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier/ and http://corabuhlert.com/2021/03/29/the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier-meet-the-star-sprangled-man/ ) and Font Folly has a review of episode 1 (https://fontfolly.net/2021/03/22/bucky-and-sam-try-to-find-their-place-in-the-new-world-order/ )

43 thoughts on “Falcon & The Winter Soldier is probably bad actually

  1. I actually saw this as an interesting exploration of Bucky’s rehabilitation. He is LARP-ing “The Winter Soldier” and (IIRC) is somewhat distraught by Zemo just killing that Nagel dude. He’s also showing some heavy observational skills (picking up the Wakandan surveillance globes).

    Unlike some, I am not expecting any extensive Wakandan “you killed our king, now you must die”, because Bucky spent a fair while in Wakanda, and if that’s what they wanted to do, that is when they would have done it.

    So, so far, I think it’s still on a net-positive trajectory.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I couldn’t help but notice that Karli Morgenthau has morphed from “well-intentioned extremist who may sort of have a point” to “kick-the-dog evil”, and that Captain America 2.0 is also losing whatever traces of subtlety he might have possessed, which doesn’t bode well for the second half of the series.

    Also, what was Sam Wilson actually doing in Madripoor? Other than “nothing of any noticeable use to anyone, though he did get embarrassed and shot at”, that is. Posing as a criminal is hardly part of his core skill set; surely he would have been better off staying at home mending Redwing while Bucky and Zemo handled the spy stuff.

    IIRC the original Baron Zemo, though he was a Nazi and a bad lot generally, was mainly a guy who had his balaclava superglued permanently to his face and was really, really cross about it. So I guess there is room for this Zemo’s characterization to get sillier.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, on Karli. In episode 2 they made her potentially interesting and a step away from generic cliche terrorist and I was ‘ohhh, interesting’ and then they literally blew up anythign nuanced about the character.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I read her increased violent tendencies as a reaction to the woman dying in the same episode. Not sure it is a rational reaction, but I am willing to let “grief” explain that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You didn’t like the conversation on the plane about Cap, the shield and Sam? Bucky is obsessed with preserving Cap’s legacy despite the treachery of governments while Sam was worried about ruining Cap’s legacy and also trying to get back some of his old life after going on the run with Cap and being blipped out. Zemo points out the corruption of having someone like Cap in the first place, etc.

    That Zemo is a rich Baron was established in Captain America: Civil War. It’s the reason he was able to pursue his plans to exterminate Tony/super soldiers/Hydra. The guys are mainly just surprised that he still has wealth since he was sent to prison. He points out that rich people going to prison doesn’t mean that their wealth disappears, which is, well, true.

    Madripoor is an imaginary island nation that was invented in the Marvel comics in the 1980’s and at one point controlled by Hydra (and the original Power Broker worked for Red Skull.) The story that Falcon & Winter Soldier is following, with variations re the more recent movies, is drawn from various Captain America and related comics story lines and Madripoor apparently has relevance to those storylines.

    The visiting Wakandan is not after Bucky but after Zemo who killed their king (and framed Bucky for it.) Since he’s broken out of prison, they want to take care of him. Bucky said that Wakanda is the only place he felt any peace, and they are quite fond of him and healed him, but he’s also the one who broke Zemo out and is working with him, so it should be an interesting conversation next episode.

    The series is going to bounce about and not really explore any one place and the action is going to continue to ramp up, but it has a lot of morally tangled, bleak spy issues going on as well. The main theme of the show is very solidly now can Bucky and Sam redeem themselves and what does that redemption look like? Sam’s guilt over Carter and his anger about Isiah was an interesting aspect if not a radical one.

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    1. //You didn’t like the conversation on the plane about Cap, the shield and Sam?//

      I did and it will sound weird but I also liked the faux-Cap being a bit of shit when they raided the place in Munich. I love the idea of dueling notions of America that Captain America can personify. America really can stand for hope and justice…it just doesn’t.

      What was the title of that short story about like the PR person asigned to Steve Rogers who can’t cope because he’s this 1930s New Yorker who is basically a radical leftist by modern standards?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I got the notification of the pingback just as I was queuing up for a re-watch of episode 3. I have not read your review, just the title. I’m re-watching before trying a review because when I watch it last night I wasn’t complete awake, so I wasn’t sure that I was unhappy with the episode because it had a lot of problems or because I wasn’t completely cognizant…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Most of it was worse that I remember from just last night.

        I’m still not going to read your review until I finish the first draft of mine. I have so, so, so many notes I would have given the writers if I were their editor…

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I know for certain, though, that a sentence earlier in my rough draft of the review is absolutely right:

        ‘Cora Buhlert called it.’

        I’ll try to get the draft cleaned up within the day…

        Liked by 3 people

  5. “These days fake cities feel fake” I’m inclined to agree with James Robinson in Starman, fake cities can allow you to do more stuff with them, though they frequently don’t. Trickier doing it with cities in other cultures, as you point out.
    I remember Mark Gruenwald said when he was writing Cap that a lot of fans assume he’s got a Reaganite view of the world when he’s much more an FDR Democrat.
    Haven’t watched the show myself. I couldn’t resist Wanda/Vision but this one doesn’t overcome my current distate for Disney’s policies. And I simply don’t have time at the moment (watching much stuff for a book on alien invasion films).

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m only a few episodes in and I’d say it is not a good choice for a fan of Holmes or Holmes style stories. It’s about as far as you can get from a Holmes story and still have Sherlock Holmes in it.

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      2. I would actually love The Irregulars if it wasn’t tied to Sherlock Holmes. I’m quite certain the writers of The Irregulars have massively missed the point of Sherlock and/or gotten him confused with his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was into all sorts of wacky shit.

        I’ll keep watching it though, I like the orphan-found-family, the pointing out of class inequality and the diverse cast (which would’ve been representative of Victorian Britain at the height of our globe-spanning empire, just in case any puppy or other fuckwit wants to come and complain about it). I just wish they hadn’t forced the Sherlock connection, which isn’t necessary and actually makes the show *worse* through its inclusion.

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    1. I’m not a fan of fake cities and countries at all, though using real ones is often even more offensive, as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier amply demonstrates.

      Also, the problem with Madripoor is that no place like it exists in the real world. There are no hives of scum and villainy left in the real world, if they ever existed in the first place. Yes, they could have used a real East or South East Asian city, but portraying e.g. Singapore or Hong Kong or Bagkok as a hive of scum and villainy would have been even more offensive.

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  6. Yeah, I was disappointed by this too. After all the nice character moments in the last episode, it seems like they deliberately turned around and wrecked it. What was the point of that opening scene with the new Cap if in this episode he suddenly starts yelling, “Do you know who I am?”

    Unless they’re trying to hammer home the idea that John Walker is a complicated asshole, but if so, this was a clumsy way of doing it.

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    1. I think the point was that not everybody welcomes superheroes and that superheroes who bear the name and flag of a particular country may not be viewed as heroes and saviours in another country, but as bullies. It’s a point that’s often glossed over in the Captain America movies, simply because Steve is a likeable and genuinely good person, whereas John Walker is a bully plain and simple.

      So I liked that scene, though I agree that it could have been made better. Not to mention that the Munich (which does not wear riot gear uniforms like that) would not simply agree to work with an American ultra-patriotic wannabe superhero, but would tell John Walker and Battelstar where he can stuff it.

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  7. This was a mess.

    Sam was not in any way driving the plot, it all just happened to him. Which is wrong for a show where’s he’s got top billing.

    I did like the convo on the plane, and LOL at the music discussion. “He’s outta line, but he’s right.”

    Daniel Bruhl is loving his job and it shows.

    By comparison, WandaVision episode 3 had the amazing instant pregnancy and the Ultron-knowing “Geraldine” being tossed out of Westview into a SWORD base.

    I do look forward to John Walker’s continuing descent into complete asshole who can’t even fake it any more and his inevitable comeuppance. Preferably on live worldwide TV.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I interpreted this scene a bit more generous by of the scene afterwards. I think New Cap is way over his head and he knows it and knows that he is trying to fill impossible shoes. So he lashed out when things didn’t go as planned. It’s a reaction you often see when people in authority position are facing a threat to the authority and don’t know how to react.
      Still makes him an asshole, but a human one. Wouldn’t surprise me if that’s were they are going with him… Captain impostersyndrome perhaps?

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Okay:

    1) New Cap is a career military man who was on special ops. Essentially, he’s a killer not all that removed from what Bucky was. And he’s working for the GRC to show that they are effective. (I did enjoy the WandaVision-esque GRC commercial.) He’s not a 100 percent horrible person and he’s smart enough to get that if he lets Bucky and Sam stir up hornets’ nests, it will lead him where he wants to go. The concept here is a jurisdictional one of nations battling over the problem of 4 billion returned people (analogous to the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Europe, etc.) SHIELD is focused on space threats, the Avengers are fractured, the U.N. is overwhelmed and GRC is the U.S. taking advantage pushing its might around on the situation. The same paranoid, clamp down views that came up in Civil War are now running the GRC and New Cap. It’s also entirely possible, given what the Doctor told the gang, that the GRC were in previous incarnations the ones originally funding the Doctor’s research into the super soldier serum and torturing the jailed Isiah. It’s also very possible that New Cap’s mission is not simply to stop the Flag Smasher super soldiers but to obtain them for experimentation and replication. And if the super soldier serum can be replicated and has been improved, then New Cap wants that serum. New Cap is essentially yet another different kind of extremist.

    2) No extremist is well-intentioned, with or without a point. Zemo also has a point but you’re not expecting him to act honorably if he thinks a course of action is suitable for his viewpoint. Karli Morgenthau is not really Robin Hood. She’s a killer and she and Zemo (and possibly New Cap) are supposed to be parallels. Karli Morgenthau and the Flag Smashers’ view is that the Earth was better off with the 4 billion gone — a genocidal view. At the same time, the Flag Smasher’s big gripe about why life is bad now is that much of that population are refugees who are being horribly treated by opportunistic governments. The guy she steals the food and medicine from was a criminal gang leader. After she robs them, she blows them up as bad guys she believes deserved to die for the crime of hording the medicine and food for black market sale. This doesn’t make her a good person but it doesn’t suddenly make her a cartoon villain either. Basically the show continually goes for grey.

    3) The idea that Sam needs to drive the plot constantly is a very American notion. But even though I am primarily watching the show to get me some Anthony Mackie time, Sam isn’t the lone protagonist. The show is him and Bucky together and their relationship. The first episode established where Sam and Bucky were in their lives — Sam is trying to rebuild his life and feels comfortable going back to being Falcon working with the air force, a world he knows and one that is separate from all the Avengers and past events, including taking up Cap’s shield and trying to replace him. He did not like being a fugitive with Cap and being unavailable to his relatives. Bucky is trying to resolve his guilt, need for redemption, psychological trauma, etc., and does it by largely isolating himself.

    In the second episode, Bucky is dragged back into Sam’s world, playing heroic military mission and he undertakes it because he’s trying to save Cap’s legacy and the only bit of hope he has for himself from that. He is panicked over the super soldiers when they find them out and tearing at Sam who is not happy to be dealing with these things again but not going to leave it to others to resolve. He also owes it to Cap’s legacy and to one thing he is proud of — that he has been an Avenger. But when they run into the new Cap, they both feel a bit as if they’d been made obsolete, lost control over their roles as the protectors of Cap’s legacy.

    And in the third episode, Sam is then dragged into Bucky’s past world, a greyer world where he is not comfortable (despite having played fugitive with Cap for a bit,) and where he has to rely on both Bucky and Zemo and then Sharon, who he faces the guilt for that he got to be the respected and protected Avenger from their mission but Sharon lost her whole life. His having to rely on them to navigate was part of the point of the episode because Sam’s role in the series is him figuring out who he wants to be: Falcon, Captain America or Sam Wilson, fishing boat owner. Bucky has to also be dragged back into the discomfort of larping as his past enslaved self, which unsettles him and lets Zemo take advantage of both of them — which is why Zemo dragged them to Madripoor in the first place. The whole third episode is about the fact that our two heroes don’t have control of things.

    Bucky and Sam’s bickering is central to the story because they are wrestling with who they’ve been in the past and who they want to/can be now. If Sam is always confident, issuing orders (with Bucky obeying them, an unlikely facet of his character) and driving the action — like Cap — then you don’t have a story. You just have a long action movie. We’re getting yet another twisty psychological trauma story with no easy answers. But I think because it’s couched in two gruff and buff men’s trauma with explosions and guns, people are less likely to see it that way than they are when it’s a woman. We expect Wanda to be vulnerable, unsure and grieving. We don’t expect the men to be those things culturally. But Sam and Bucky are walking PTSD and grief. They are not at their best and they are not going to act like it.

    4) The tall lag Smasher’s character name is apparently Dovich.

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    1. I view Karli’s trajectory as analoguous to that of the Red Army Fraction and other leftwing terrorist groups. They may have idealistic motives at the start, but they’re still terrorists and killers and eventually spend more time robbing banks and looting than actually fighting the good fight. Besides, a lot of the members of the Red Army Fraction were educated young women (and men) from middle class backgrounds (several of them were the kids of Lutheran pastors), who wanted to be teachers, journalists or social workers before they decided to become terrorists instead.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. So, did Evil Scientist not believe in keeping off-site backups of his research? Did his boss figure what happened to Erskine was a one off?

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    1. Any tech involved in an Origin is actually just chrome on top of the character’s power set, and doesn’t work by ordinary rules, like replicability, or “able to be backed up”. It can only be replicated if/when the GM allows it, and then it still has to be paid for during character building. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  10. One of the things I love about CW’s Nancy Drew is that it meshes her with the supernatural stories so well. She still functions primarily as a detective, it’s just that now it’s “what happened to this ghost that made them so vengeful” or “where do I locate the lost talisman for banishing this demon?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I first started watching it, I didn’t know it was going supernatural and I was a little surprised. Nancy Drew was usually more like Scooby Doo for some stories — revealing something that seemed supernatural really wasn’t. The show runners took that aspect and flipped it. We’ve become very fond of the show.

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      1. They are in their second season now and the ensemble is all good at working with each other and the writing is pretty good. While the mystery in the plots isn’t always super mysterious, they do frequently go in surprising directions. The plot arc that goes from the end of the first season into the beginning of the second season we started getting a bit tired of, but then it went where we weren’t expecting. The show started with ghosts but expands into other fantasy phenomena, especially in the second season. It is neither an edgy nor a bubblegum soap series, and instead mixes Gothic style horror and thriller bits that are reasonably meaty with gentle comic moments that keep things moving along. The person playing the lead is an excellent, layered Nancy Drew but the four other main characters all are given chewy complicated backgrounds too. And they have some older, supporting characters who are quite good too.

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      2. I loved this week’s amnesia plotline, which proves they can do black humor well (“Why should I believe this?” “There’s a photo of you holding a sign saying ‘believe this.'”).

        Liked by 1 person

  11. “Any tech involved in an Origin is actually just chrome on top of the character’s power set, and doesn’t work by ordinary rules, like replicability, or “able to be backed up”. ”
    When Kurt Busiek launched his series “Power Company” at DC, one of the characters has a prototype super-suit that’s the only copy in existence and she has no real understanding of. I grumbled about how nobody in comics ever stops to think what happens if these unique tech pieces break … But in a subsequent story set several years after her origin, the suit is indeed wearing out. I was impressed (one reason for joining the title team is tech support).

    Liked by 2 people

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