Believe it or not, the kids call it the “Disney+” model.
While airing episodes weekly was the norm on television for just about all of history, the arrival of Netflix as the major streaming player changed everything. Since House of Cards premiered in November 2013 (or if we’re being pedantic since Lilyhammer premiered in 2012), the all-at-once model has reigned supreme in the streaming world, with outlets like Amazon Prime and Hulu following suit.
To the delight of TV purists, Disney’s major streaming venture Disney+ has returned to the weekly episodic schedule, and was rewarded with massive, sustained weekly buzz for shows like The Mandalorian and WandaVision. Now that the weekly release model seems not only viable, but essential again, it must be protected at all costs. Which is why it pains me to admit that Marvel’s second Disney+ effort, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, should probably not be a weekly show.
Just about everyone involved with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is fond of pointing out that it’s really a six hour movie (or four hours and some change, factoring in varying episode lengths and credits) rather than just “merely” a TV show. Of course, calling a television series a movie is taboo among TV critics and enthusiasts. This time, however, the folks at Marvel Studios really might have a point.
Based on its first episode (the only episode made available in advance to review), The Falcon and The Winter Soldier really is the platonic ideal of the “movie as a six-part TV show” concept. And that comes along with some inherent advantages and disadvantages.
The advantages at play are the obvious ones. The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is a Marvel movie…and Marvel movies are usually pretty damn good (give or take a Thor: the Dark World here or there). Episode 1 of the series opens with a massive action setpiece that seems truly eager to show its audience just how legit of a Marvel movie can be. The opener features Sam Wilson a.k.a. The Falcon tracking down a terrorist cell in desert environs. It’s not only the most satisfying bit of action we’ve seen Falcon involved in yet, it also immediately makes WandaVision’s finale magic fights look quaint in comparison. It harkens back to the setting and geopolitical circumstances of the first act of 2008’s Iron Man, granted without the “timely” references to MySpace.
With its kinetic opening, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier finds the MCU paying homage to itself. This franchise has always been self-referential. Now it appears to be self-reverential. Many of the most appealing parts of this first hour come from Marvel acting as a Hydra-like Ouroboros with Marvel history. Symbols from the franchise are treated with the utmost sanctity, with Sam examining Captain America’s shield before delicately placing it inside a canvas bag like a priceless piece of art. Meanwhile, all the “normies” who come into contact with the Falcon are delighted to be in the presence of such a Marvel celebrity. One even asks a question I’ve often wondered myself: how do the Avengers make their money anyway?
It’s still early on in the proceedings but The Falcon and The Winter Soldier appears to be the latest in a respectable line of recent MCU offerings that have solved the franchises long-touted “villain problem.” The shadowy entity known as The Flag Smashers enter into the MCU canon of “wait, do they have a point?” baddies alongside Erik Killmonger and maybe even dedicated environmentalist Thanos.
Watching The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s first episode is an entirely pleasant experience, because watching most MCU films is a pleasant experience. It’s also an incomplete one. In hindsight, Marvel was probably lucky that filming delays forced Disney+ to open with WandaVision as its introduction to television storytelling. For, despite any of its faults, WandaVision was unquestionably an episodic experience. While the storytelling understandably veered toward standard MCU fare in the end, each episode prior stood on its own. The same cannot be said for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.
Episode 1 is designed as the first act of a larger story. As such, it can feel frustratingly incomplete at times. Showrunner Malcolm Spellman and the writing team do land on an appropriately intriguing moment for the first act’s conclusion, but it’s not anywhere near the shocking needle drop endings on any of WandaVision’s first eight episodes.
The titular Falcon and Winter Soldier don’t even make contact with each other in this first hour, which is unfortunate as according to the many interviews with the show’s stars leading up to the premiere, the buddy comedy energy between Sam and Bucky is an integral part of this story’s appeal. Given that this first episode tackles both Sam and Bucky separately, it often comes across as a much longer version of the Marvel Legends clips that Disney+ publishes to help audiences get reacquainted with the characters. It also doesn’t help that Bucky’s introduction covers a lot of the same ground that the character has trod thus far, while Sam gets to expand his story. His family has a shrimping boat in Louisiana!
Ultimately, however, any complaints over the slow, expository nature of this first episode will likely seem petty in the weeks to come. Marvel has the track record to be trusted with these characters. And the questions the show appears to be raising are intriguing ones. When it’s all said and done, the entire Falcon and The Winter Soldier experience could be as satisfying as any major Marvel movie.
We just don’t have the entire experience now. All we’ve got is one incomplete episode that must be judged on its own merits. Sorry, Marvel, them’s the TV rules.