The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t want to be a television show

falcon winter soldier anthony mackie sebastian stan malcolm spellman kari skogland captain america movies tv

There were plenty of criticisms to make of WandaVision, but there was also at least always the sense that showrunner Jac Shaeffer and director Matt Shakman wanted to make a television show, and on some level knew what they had to do to do that. There hasn’t been that same sense with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which – five episodes in and nearly finished – doesn’t seem to want to be a television show at all.

The contrast between the two is striking. Where WandaVision was consciously and deliberately episodic, each week evoking a different era of sitcom history, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is entirely serialised: episodes of the former felt distinct from one another in terms of style and aesthetic, while also having their own discrete plotlines too, but episodes of the latter have tended to blur together. The end of each episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels less like the conclusion of an individual, coherent whole that might stand on its own terms, and more like an act break in a particularly long movie. (Or, rather, that’s how it feels when it works – just as often they’ve felt much more arbitrary than that, a case of having reached the fifty-minute mark and not much else.)

At its best, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is built around a handful of big moments and individual ideas. Sometimes that works: the slow pan around John Walker, the new Captain America, his shield drenched in blood, onlookers filming him with their mobile phones, is one of the more striking images the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever offered. But for the most part, though, the series struggles to take advantage of the strengths of its medium. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is built around those big moments, yes, but otherwise it’s formless – there’s an emphasis on plot but little momentum, always moving forward but rarely going anywhere. The middle stretch of the series is sluggish and lethargic, spinning its wheels to fill the runtime and little else; the fifth episode, the strongest of the show, is the one that most feels like an actual episode of television, rather than fifty-minutes of moving pieces around the chessboard to set up for next week. In fact, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier often feels like the rare show that’d be improved by binge-watching it, with the weekly release schedule imposing breaks where it’d almost be better to let one episode lead straight into the next.

falcon-winter-soldier-wyatt-russell-captain-america-john-walker-shield-murder-blood-cliffhanger-chris-evans

It’s meant to be that way, of course.

Anthony Mackie described the series as “instead of a two-hour movie, a six or eight-hour movie […] cut up into the show”. Meanwhile, director Kari Skogland made a similar comparison, saying they “made it like a six-hour movie” then “kind of sliced it up at the perfect moments”. Part of that is just marketing. (Much like, presumably, showrunner Malcolm Spellman’s distinction between “regular TV” and “top-shelf, Marvel” content.) These comments are a statement of intent as much as anything else – a way for the debut series to emphasise its similarity to its parent cinematic universe, differentiating itself from television almost as a mark of prestige. But they’re also revealing about a lot of the structural choices made by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and explains why the series is struggling to make an impact – it’s caught between two mediums and not doing an especially good job of being either. That six-hour movie feeling isn’t a fault, it’s a feature.

In fairness, it’s also possible, as has been widely rumoured, that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was heavily edited prior to broadcast to remove a storyline about a viral outbreak. That’s the sort of rewriting that could leave any show feeling formless, especially one already intended to be quite heavily serialised. Equally, there’s a sense that some of the structural choices the show made wouldn’t have helped much anyway: pandemic storyline or not, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier still left a lot of its character work to that fifth episode, with most of the series feeling like a preamble before getting to the story it seemingly promised. It’s the rythms and pacing of a film applied to the structure of a television show, without much thought devoted to how they’re different, and the distinct ways in which each medium works.

Eventually, there’s going to be a fan-edited version of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that turns it back into a two-hour movie. More likely than not, it’ll rely quite heavily on the closing episodes, and condense down the opening three into something much sharper and more concise. That doesn’t speak to a television show that’s conscious of its medium, that takes advantage of what its medium can offer – both in terms of what longer-form storytelling can do, and what more distinct episodes can let the series do. Maybe the series would’ve benefitted from an episode more explicitly from the perspective of Karli Morgenthau, clarifying the Flag Smashers’ beliefs and motivations; maybe the series would’ve benefitted from a flashback episode about Isiah Bradley, akin to the HBO Watchmen episode This Extraordinary Being. Of course, it wouldn’t necessarily have to commit so wholeheartedly to that kind of discrete storytelling – but it would have been improved by taking advantage of what an episodic structure allows that a film doesn’t.

Ultimately, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suffers for its structural choices. It’s never quite as entertaining as it could’ve been, it never feels quite as coherent or invested in its themes as it otherwise might’ve been. You get the sense that’s why the show hasn’t been a television phenomenon in the same way WandaVision was: week to week, it just doesn’t want to be a TV show.

Related:

WandaVision is an escapist fantasy, but there’s no escape from the Marvel machine

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Film Review | Ant-Man (2015)

ant man paul rudd evangeline lily michael douglas peyton reed edgar wright poster review marvel cinematic universe

I watched this today! It was a rather excellent movie. Lots and lots to like about it. Very funny; I think one my favourite jokes was towards the end, when Michael Peña’s character was giving the second tip, and he started talking about the art he liked. It amused me, because normally the joke would be “this guy doesn’t get art”, but it’s subverted when he goes off on a tangent about how he prefers one artist over another. Very good. Lots of excellent jokes.

Also! I particularly liked the shift to the legacy orientated way of looking at things. One of the more interesting superhero concepts, which isn’t really explored so much, is the fact that mantles often are passed on. Because the movies tend to start with the “original” character, rather than their successors, we haven’t seen that yet – it’s entirely possible, though, we might yet see Anthony Mackie or Sebastian Stan becoming Captain America at some point in the future.

Anyway, though, I digress. (Wasn’t Anthony Mackie very cool as Falcon?) I quite liked the fact that we saw Hank Pym passing on the mantle of the Ant-Man to Scott Lang – it wasn’t perfectly done, but it was quite well handled, I felt. I’m hoping that, eventually, whenever we next see Ant-Man, we see Hank and Scott, to further this mentor relationship.

But, on the other hand, the flaws were very much apparent in the film. I’m not sure whether this is because of the films troubled development, or just some general flaws, but whatever.

First up is going to be Darren Cross, AKA Yellowjacket. In the run up to this film, the question of weak/underdeveloped Marvel villains has been floating around a fair bit, so the question was closer to the forefront of my mind while I was watching this than usual. Aaand… I mean, I understand the basic idea of wanting to focus on the hero, rather than the villain, especially in the first movie, and especially one in which you’re trying to set up essentially three main characters – Scott, Hank, and Hope.

But I really do think that Cross could have been much, much better. He was a rather two dimensional character, I felt; acting like a megalomaniacal villain simply for the sake of it. For consideration: What if Cross didn’t want to militarise the Pym Particles, but to use them for altruistic purposes? That sort of shrinking/growing technology could solve more than a few food shortages with relative ease. I always think that the best villains are the ones you can entirely understand the motives of, and perhaps even agree with. You’ve got a very easy set up here – Cross wants to use the technology to help as many people as he can, but Pym is reticent, selfish even, about sharing the technology, because of what happened to Janet. The conflict comes from that – it’s far more morally grey, because both parties are technically “right”, yet neither will compromise. It’s a little bit different, it’s more nuanced, and wouldn’t even require much more screentime for Cross. Just a few tweaks, and the film is likely a lot stronger, in terms of it’s narrative. You can still have Cross suit up to fight Scott, because he wants to stop Scott from, as he sees it, hurting a lot of people.

(Oh, and, hey, there’s another angle for the mentor thing – because Cross was once Hank’s protegee, he could have been the Ant-Man. Differing views split them apart though. Is that correct? Who deserves to be the hero? Etc etc etc.)

Second problem, or noticeable error, would be in the treatment of Hope van Dyne. And that’s… difficult. I mean, it’s already been extensively discussed about the fridging of Janet (though it seems like she’ll be back eventually), but that’s not quite what I wanted to talk about.

Ant-Man does arguably have some similarities to this comic here, which did stand out as I was watching it. Hope was essentially already far more competent than Scott, and probably a better choice for the job than he was, yet Hank was making choices for her (Hope: “Don’t blame yourself for mum’s death, it was her choice”). And… Well, to be honest, I think it was actually “okay” here, insofar as this sort of trope can be okay. It’s obvious that Hank is grieving, and he’s determined to keep her safe – the movie straight up says that Scott is expendable. (Which made me feel validated, albeit less smart, because I’d been sat there going “oh yeah this is obviously because Hank thinks Scott is expendable, wow I am so great at picking up on this admittedly quite obvious subtext”)

But then at the end, Hope does get the Wasp suit, which is a culmination of the arc between her and Hank, so I think this is probably not going to be much of an issue should the characters ever return. I mean, taken on it’s own, I think this film actually doesn’t do so badly – it’s just that in context of everything else, it’s a little difficult to completely give this film the all clear.

Though, you know, those are both fairly mild concerns. It really really was an excellent film, that was really enjoyable to watch – it was refreshing to meet a new character, but I appreciated the inclusion of other MCU elements to give a bit of texture to the film and it’s world. I thought Paul Rudd was brilliant, I thought Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lily were brilliant – the whole cast did really well. Fantastic visual style to it all as well – the shrinking elements worked excellently throughout. They were one of the most important things to get right, and this film absolutely got it note perfect.

I enjoyed Ant-Man very much, and I am really looking forward to seeing him return.

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Superhero Movies Index