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

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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.

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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.

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

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WandaVision wasn’t meant to be Marvel Studios’ first television show. That was supposed to be The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: an action-driven piece branching off from Marvel’s most popular movies, the most straightforwardly sensible pick for the franchise’s Disney+ debut. Production on the latter wasn’t finished in time, though, with filming delayed because of the novel coronavirus, in turn meaning that WandaVision was brought forward.

WandaVision also wasn’t meant to be the first Marvel content released in over a year: with twenty months between it and 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, WandaVision’s arrival marks the end of the longest Marvel drought in a decade. Again, plans were disrupted because of the global pandemic, with Black Widow and The Eternals removed from their scheduled 2020 release dates. As a result, WandaVision took on a significance it was never intended to bear – but the series makes for an unexpectedly appropriate return, though.

Structured as a collection of sitcom homages, each new episode of WandaVision (with a few notable exceptions) has advanced through the decades of comedy history – the series began by mimicking The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched, and in more recent weeks modelled itself on Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family. The tension at the heart of WandaVision is the push-and-pull between these sitcom trappings, and a much more recognisable set of tropes drawn from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: Elizabeth Olsen imitating Mary Tyler Moore or Julie Bowen is intercut with Randall Park going through the motions of a Clark Gregg/Cobie Smulders role.

On one level, this is a little less unusual for a Marvel property than it necessarily appears – those films have always, at least ostensibly, styled themselves as different genres. That’s part of the appeal, and a big part of how they sell themselves: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is nominally a 70s style political thriller, Ant-Man is loosely a heist film, Spider-Man: Homecoming is broadly a John Hughes movie, so on and so forth. Exactly how well they live up to those inspirations almost doesn’t matter – changing the surface level iconography and applying a different aesthetic sheen to each film, even if they can be all be reduced down to something functionally very similar underneath that, is what sustains the MCU. (Or, put another way, you can make Iron Man twice if the second go around he’s a magician.) WandaVision goes further with this, a much more faithful recreation of its inspirations than its predecessors are of theirs, but it’s still operating in the same milieu as the rest of the Marvel universe. In and of itself, arguably the only innovation WandaVision has introduced is to literalise that question of genre, the puzzle box structure asking “what is this show, really?” being applied to something usually left only as subtext (or, if you prefer, marketing speak).

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What’s perhaps most striking about WandaVision, then, is essentially an accident. As many people have noted, the idea that Wanda is seeking refuge from her grief and pain by throwing herself into the television she loves is especially resonant now – it’s exactly what a lot of the audience will have spent the past twelve months doing themselves. (A stray reference to quarantining in the seventh episode takes on an odd resonance; WandaVision is about a traumatised woman who has to stop binge-watching sitcoms and face the real world, here defined as a Marvel movie, but it might as well be an instruction to the viewer at home.) After over a year without any new Marvel content, the franchise’s big return is a show about, on one level at least, the Cinematic Universe eating sitcoms from the inside out: the superhero genre dominating and subsuming that which thrived without it, demanding you pay attention to it again.

WandaVision is a show about its own impact on popular culture, and in a sense that’s what makes it such an inadvertently perfect piece to re-establish the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a period away. Where the past year saw a paucity of Marvel content, the coming year brings a flood: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will air later this March, with Loki, What If…?, Hawkeye, and Ms Marvel to follow, while films Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home are all planned at least to see release too. Without really meaning to do so, WandaVision ended up setting the stage for that return – decades of television history slowly turning into the latest Avengers spin-off, diegetically as well as literally.

On its own terms, WandaVision is best when it commits to its central conceit, when it embraces the idiosyncrasies that made it so distinct; the show loses that sense of verve and flourish when it’s focused instead on spinning six different MCU plates all at once. There’s a marked contrast between the earlier episodes and the later ones – the WandaVision that ties into Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel 2, and Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is dull and flat and lifeless compared to the WandaVision dedicated to exaggerated hijinks and slapstick humour. (You can feel that on screen, sometimes; Kathryn Hahn is a delight as nosy-neighbour Agnes, but it’s obvious she wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about playing Agatha Harkness.) It’s hard not to wish WandaVision had gone even further with its sitcom stylings – mimicking late-2010s dramedies like Fleabag with its eighth episode, putting a little more emphasis on jokes at the beginning – but by the point the show devolves into a blurry CGI mess, it’s easy to appreciate the time the show did spend as a comedy homage.

WandaVision loses something when it becomes so entirely of a piece with the rest of its franchise; a little less focused on character, a little less emotional clarity, a little less sense of its own identity. It’s a shame, not least because of how good Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany were when given the chance to do something new. It wasn’t exactly a surprise: the sitcom homage turns into a superhero film, just like the political thriller and the John Hughes movie did before it. For the most part, WandaVision has done what it was always expected to, sacrificing its charm and quirks in favour of an obligatory reversion to a familiar mean – but it’s hard not to read into the metanarrative there, as Marvel reasserts itself in the real world by telling a story about Marvel reasserting itself in a fictional one.

Or, put another way, what is WandaVision if not the Marvel Cinematic Universe persevering?

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.