Though it suffered from some serious pandemic-related delays that saw its original rollout plans having to change, in hindsight it may have turned out to be a good thing for Marvel Studios. With Lucasfilm having already established a foothold at Disney+ with two hugely successful seasons of The Mandalorian and a future slate that already has "Star Wars" universe fans foaming at the mouth, there was a bit of fan and media attention paid on if Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios could hold their own. Well, they did, and then some with the Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany-starring WandaVision– which ended up warping viewers pre-conceived "realities" of what an MCU series could be. Though not intended to be the first series out of the gate, it was important that it did because it set a tone and a high bar for what viewers can expect. And just as it was important for WandaVision to kick things off, it's also feeling right (so far) that a series like the Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan-starring The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would be the one to follow it. Okay, from this point forward? Consider the "MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!" sign officially lit just in case… though I'll try to keep things as vague as possible, when possible. See you on the other side of the spoiler image buffer…
First, a couple of things to get off my chest in the interest of full disclosure. I'm not the biggest MCU fan in the world. I don't hate them. Far from it. In fact, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy pretty much rule- as does that scene in Endgame when everyone appears to back up Captain America (Chris Evans). But the rest of it I find to be varying degrees of mediocrity with way too many jokes considering the body counts. I think part of it has to with the "Baaaaaaaa!!!!" fanbase that sees any criticism as someone talking s**t about their mother. But after only one series and the opening episode of a second one, I can officially proclaim the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) dead- and long live the Marvel Streaming Universe (MSU)!
Why, because by the time the credits rolled on the Kari Skogland-directed and Malcolm Spellman-written opener "New World Order," I already knew more about (and gave more of a s**t about) Sam (Mackie) and Bucky (Stan) then I did in all of their cinematic appearance combined. And it's not because "Well, television gives you more time and episodes to work with" because I'm talking about one, 47 minute-plus episode. If I had to describe the opening chapter in a sentence, it would be, "This is what you get when you combine a modern indie film with two really great action scenes." Not an easy trick to pull off, and yet the combination of Skogland and Spellman make it work and work well.
Now with this being the season-opener/series premiere, I apply a basic set of rules to determine if it's done its job or not. If you're a season-opener, then I expect you to give me a sense of last season (not a full recap) and establish the narrative threads for what's to come. If you're a series-opener, then scratch that first part, add in a part where you give me a decent intro to the characters I need to vibe with (don't need their entire backstory), and then start the narratives. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier found itself somewhere in the middle- having to recap as well as offer a lot more backstory on two characters that viewers haven't been exposed to on too many personal levels in the past, and yet all of the key components were in place:
Last Season/What Came Before: Viewers were given more than enough about Sam and Bucky's MCU backstory without the viewers being overwhelmed or feeling lost. From references to the Blip and Sam's decision on what to do with the shield Steve Rogers handed down to him to Bucky required to go to therapy as a condition of his pardon were nice references the acknowledged the past without getting slowed down by it.
Intro to the Characters: From Bucky's therapy sessions and loneliness to his quiet attempts at redemption, I found my heart breaking for the guy by the end of the episode. This was the first time that I forgot about the Winter Soldier persona and just cared about Bucky. With Sam, the entire family history and business coming into play was a nice surprise- as were the issues of race and America that were underlying a number of moments that involved Sam the future of Captain America. I'm interested to see how Sarah (Adepero Oduye) responds if/when she finds out her brother wasn't on a "mission" during the Blip- and as much as I'm liking Danny Ramirez's Lt. Joaquin Torres, he's giving me that "Goose from 'Top Gun'" vibe. If he starts flashing pictures of family, start the death clock.
Building the Storylines: Between Sam giving up the shield and the threat posed first by the terrorist group LAF and then the super-jacked-up Flag-Smashers, the series' big bads have the potential to make for even better uber-action scenes than the ones we saw this round (and they were big-screen quality, Mackie- no worries). The philosophy of the Flag-Smashers being that they prefer life during the Blip is an especially evil choice of antagonist for our "co-workers" to take on. But serious props to Spellman for that perfect, first episode cliffhanger moment- the one that got us pissed off for Sam as he watches his shield being given to some "trumped' up manufactured "Captain America, Inc." in the form of John Walker (Wyatt Russell)- all teeth, cheesy smile, and cornball demeanor. Exactly the kind of big bad that gonna be fun to hate- and it looks like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier might just end up being fun to really, really like. Take notes, MCU!