Spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier follow.
There's a scene in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 4 where Wakanda's guard, the Dora Milaje, turn up to retrieve Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) from Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes' captivity. After a fun scene where they beat up the new Captain America, John Walker, Zemo manages to escape. All the Dora Milaje actually achieved was help Zemo get away – which is weirdly incompetent for them.
I thought this was an example of bad plotting, but it's not the only instance of this in the show. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is definitely entertaining to watch every week – and certainly looks Marvel movie quality in terms of its visual effects – it's turned into a somewhat messy show with too many villains, and not enough time to invest in the fun relationship between its two leading men.
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Too many villains
People always use 2007's Spider-Man 3 as an example of when too many villains can derail the plot of a superhero movie. The truth is, though, there are plenty of great movies that have multiple villains and make it work – just look at the busy but brilliant Captain America: Civil War, for example. Zemo was the 'main' villain, but Tony Stark was arguably another, while William Hurt's Secretary of State Ross played a supporting part in breaking the Avengers up. Hell, the movie even managed to pack Frank Grillo's Crossbones into the intro, and a brainwashed Bucky is the main threat for a bunch of scenes halfway into the film.
It's possible to make multiple villains work in these stories, then – it's just tough to balance them properly. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has fallen on the wrong side of this by having one too many antagonists, leaving a couple feeling like they could do with further character development.
I personally feel that the show hasn't afforded enough screen time to its new Captain America. John Walker only made his proper debut in episode 2 of the show, and barely played a part in episode 3. By the end of episode 4, he's already gone off the deep end, taken a vial of Super-Soldier Serum and killed someone in public. That's a fast arc that feels like it's missing some key beats – which you'd think a TV show would find time for.
Perhaps instead of sinking time into the Flag Smashers – a supervillain group in the show with a vague, boring post-Thanos ideology about tearing national borders down – they should've drawn more focus on the tension of Walker becoming Cap, and properly documented his journey into becoming Sam and Bucky's enemy. So far, it doesn't feel like the show has made the most of actor Wyatt Russell's talents, or explored this new Captain America's moral ambiguity as a government-endorsed superhero.
The Flag Smashers, too, are awkwardly positioned in the show – we're supposed to see them as sympathetic villains who have been forced into extreme tactics, but they were perfectly happy to blow up a Global Repatriation Council facility at the end of episode 3 with innocent people inside. It's hard to work out why their cause is worth investing in – but the show seems to want you to sympathize with their leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), who just killed John's comrade Lemar by punching him really hard. The show offers no evidence that she's any better than the newly-warped John Walker, but still positions her as potentially misunderstood.
The one villain who has got their proper time to shine is Zemo. Again, though, there are some issues for me in how he's been presented. The show has awkwardly rewritten his history for this series, restoring his 'Baron' title from the comics – apparently he's a rich guy with a butler and a private jet, which doesn't exactly gel nicely with his background in Captain America: Civil War as a member of a Sokovian death squad who'd lost everything.
The show has turned one of the few genuinely great and threatening MCU villains into comic relief, which is certainly a choice, but it's not one I feel has really backfired on the series. It helps that Brühl is a terrific actor. Plus, I won't argue that his dancing wasn't a highlight:
🕺🕺🕺 pic.twitter.com/BlIwrUhGcQApril 8, 2021
A lot of awkwardness from this show, to me, comes down to the fact that the writers have struggled to figure out how the Avengers would be perceived by the world in the aftermath of Thanos' defeat. More preposterous plotting: in episode 3 of the show, we saw Sam and Bucky go undercover in Madripoor. Or rather, Sam did, but Bucky didn't, since the locals referred to him as the Winter Soldier. The show tried to explain it away by telling us that Sam looked exactly like the Smiling Tiger, who he was imitating, but we know Falcon's a pretty famous guy at this point. This plot didn't really hold together.
The show struggles to paint a clear picture of what the post-Thanos status quo is on Earth at this point in the MCU timeline, something that WandaVision didn't have to worry about by isolating its story to a single location.
Still, none of this really bothers me enough to spoil the show – I'm wary of overthinking it. What's lost in the overload of characters, though, is the promise of seeing Sam and Bucky's tension and camaraderie as a pairing. We didn't get much of that at all in episode 4, and it feels like this relationship has faded into the background of a series that's so far felt like a long chase to track down some dull terrorists.
For me, that dynamic between the heroes was the reason I wanted to watch this in the first place. Every time you get a taste of it, it's the highlight of the show.
This lack of focus has made the show less essential than it could've been. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has two great leads who we know can be fun together – and one big threat, in a new, off-brand Captain America who definitely needs to have his ass kicked. With just two episodes left of the show, it's hard to feel like the real potential of the series has been truly met.
Still, I'd love for Marvel to change my mind on this before it's all over.