For the vast majority of Bucky Barnes’ 106 years on Earth, his life has consisted of running from fight to fight without a second to sit down and simply exist. Now, Bucky Barnes is faced with a new reality he doesn’t know how to navigate — what happens after the knuckles are bandaged and the bad guy is dead?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe spent 11 years building up to its climactic battle between Earth’s mightiest heroes (and a couple of pals from space) and the Mad Titan, Thanos. There were some hiccups along the way — Ultron nearly destroyed the world, countless other villains like Loki, Red Skull, and all of Hydra tried to kill the Avengers a few times — but everything boiled down to Thanos.
He’s no longer a threat (in this universe, anyway). Millions of people are back on Earth after being snapped from existence. The world is trying to move on from the last five years. New regulations are being drawn up in government, banks are trying to figure out how to help people with finances after five years of being away, but superheroes are stuck in a moment of suspension.
The next big thing is around the corner — it always is — but for now, Marvel Studios is using its new television universe on Disney Plus to take a step back and let its heroes decompress as they try to figure out their place in a strange, new world. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which debuts today, is a perfect example.
[If you’re reading a write-up of a new Marvel show, you know what lies ahead. Here’s your warning for minor spoilers that appear in the first episode.]
At the outset of the show, Captain America is gone, and his two best friends are navigating a world without him. Sam Wilson (Falcon) has rejoined the Air Force and is trying to stop terrorists from gaining power. Bucky Barnes (Winter Soldier) is undergoing therapy, living as a normal civilian in New York City for the first time since before he left to fight in World War II. Both are trying to acclimatize to their new lives, dealing with stuff they didn’t have to when the world was on the brink of extinction.
In one instance, Sam is trying to help his sister in Louisiana get a loan for the houseboat they grew up in but is now getting too expensive to keep up. In between pitiful requests for selfies from an Avenger-fanboy banker, the duo are consistently told they don’t have enough income for the bank to issue a loan. Confused, said banker repeatedly asks how Sam earned an income when he was part of the world’s most famous superhero group (“did Stark pay you when he was around?”) and how he could possibly be so broke all things considered. Even if Sam disappeared for five years (hence, no recent income), that just makes him like half the world’s population who also disappeared.
It’s a wonderful scene. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier shines best when it’s putting forth questions people have kicked around in the back of their minds or in conversations with friends for more than a decade. How do the Avengers get paid? What do they do on their time off? Do they go on dates with non-Avengers? Do they pick up part-time jobs when the world doesn’t need saving? How do the Avengers live when there’s nothing to avenge?
It’s a big part of what makes comic books fun week after week, month after month. The intimate lives of superheroes when the masks are removed and the high-tech gear is taken off is just as important as the extensive CGI fight sequences. In WandaVision, those are the small moments between Wanda and Vision in what could have been their post-Thanos life. If Marvel’s upcoming Hawkeye series finds its inspiration in Matt Fraction’s beloved Hawkeye comic, it’s rooftop barbecues, sipping coffee in the morning, and looking for new cars to buy. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it’s Sam helping his nephews catch fish on the dock or Bucky trying online dating. Hell, Bucky in therapy is something ripped right out of Tumblr; that’s a compliment.
Everyone is trying to figure out their identity just months after half the world’s population returned, and they’re trying to do it with undeniable legacies hanging over their heads. Without Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man), two of the country’s greatest heroes are gone and a hole is left in their place. Sam doesn’t want to become the new Captain America. Bucky, aside from processing the guilt and trauma he received after his years of operating as the Winter Soldier, is being monitored by the government. The world might need a new Captain America to feel safe, but replacing Steve Rogers isn’t as simple as pointing to a new guy and saying “you’re it.”
Well, not to Sam. By the end of the episode, the government introduces a new Captain America (most likely John Walker, who becomes US Agent and has his own colorful history). While the government tries to find a replacement for Steve Rogers back home, Sam is preparing to take on a new threat, one that will require Bucky’s help. Without a Steve or a Tony set to lead the charge, it’s up to them to stop whatever threat comes their way — even if that means putting the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life on hold. As Bucky tells his therapist, he’s never known life without running from battle to battle.
It’s here that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has all the elements of a typical MCU movie. The pilot opens with a 10-minute action sequence (including the appearance of a Winter Soldier favorite) and sets up the kind of mission-based action movie that Marvel fans love. It looks good, feels expensive, and teases a much more traditional MCU experience. Whereas WandaVision screamed experimental and abstract (in comparison to the greater MCU-at-large), Falcon and the Winter Soldier can nestle perfectly in between every Captain America and Avengers installment. There are big fights, bigger explosions, and the promise of more bad guys. I mean, the episode opens with Falcon fighting Batroc.
There’s no question things are about to get explosive for the boys again. But it’s the quieter moments — Bucky trying to have a date with a girl at a bar without taking his gloves off because he doesn’t want to flash his metal arm, or Sam goofing around with his nephews — that make Falcon and the Winter Soldier feel special. We’ve spent so long as fans getting to know the big-name superheroes that now feels like a perfect instance to get to know characters we didn’t get enough time with over the last decade: Wanda, Vision, Bucky, Sam, Clint Barton (Hawkeye). In fanfiction, one of the most popular settings is the Avengers crew living together in Avengers (nee Stark) Tower. People want to imagine their favorite superheroes going about their days just like anyone else. I love Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes just as much as I love stories about Falcon and Winter Soldier.
If Falcon and the Winter Soldier winds up being Bucky and Sam palling around and figuring out who they are outside of battle — in between big fight sequences, of course — I’ll be happy. After all, we adore the party scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron for a reason.