Marvel loves a titular character.
From Iron Man to Black Widow, pretty much every Marvel movie has been named after the character or characters it was focused on. However, those names don’t always do the movie justice. Captain America: Civil War was about far more than just Steve Rogers. Thor: Ragnarok was an ensemble effort more than a Thor movie. The real star of Avengers: Infinity War was Thanos.
In that same vein, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is about far more than just Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. They are the viewpoint characters, yes, but their journey forces them to run into all sorts of people that fill out a harsh post-Blip world, ranging from John Walker to Baron Zemo and back again.
In Episode 3, Bucky and Sam recruit Zemo in their search for the Power Broker and Flag-Smashers leader Karli Morgenthau. Zemo leads them to a low-level criminal named Selby, which quickly goes south when Sam has to take a call from his sister Sarah. They then reunite with Sharon Carter and she fends off a small army of attackers while Sam, Bucky, and Zemo confront the new Super Soldier Serum’s creator before jetting off to yet another location where Bucky is confronted by Ayo of Wakanda.
At a glance, this may sound like a typical action-filled episode of any Marvel TV series, but upon closer inspection, it wasn’t really a Sam and Bucky-focused episode at all. Most of the action and exposition occurs when the two come across a woman who challenges them or agrees to help them. In reality, this episode did more for female representation than allowed in other Marvel movies, especially Endgame.
The most exciting part of this episode was, without a doubt, the return of Sharon Carter. After being on the lam for years, Sharon is living the criminal high life in Madripoor. After radio silence from the Avengers, she finds a way to fit Sam and Bucky into her new life as a stolen art magnate. Meanwhile, our heroes have to convince an embittered old ally who never got her government pardon to help them.
Gone are the days of Sharon Carter, blonde love interest replacement for her own great-aunt. All it took was a handful of years and a warrant out for her arrest for Sharon to become a fully rounded character.
This is a pretty shameless attempt to scrape together depth for a character that was swept aside after she served her purpose as a Steve Rogers’ love interest. While it’s a shame it had to happen at all, it’s at least a comfort the plot is circling back to those it ignored, even if Bucky isn’t thrilled with the new attitude.
He remarks “Wow, she’s kind of awful now” when Sharon accurately reminds him of his past as Captain America’s best friend. That’s likely to be an opinion shared with a section of fans, but if anyone reserves the right to be kind of awful, it’s Sharon.
Compare this to the all-female team-up in Endgame, a moment so self-congratulatory, it felt like an International Women’s Day Twitter post. Good representation means realistic characters. Realistic characters mean exposing women not just as badass fighters, not just as pretty love interests, but as human beings who can be frustrated when your superhero friends leave you out to dry.
Speaking of frustrated women, Episode 3 contained more glimpses of Karli Morgenthau, including her backstory, finally. After being displaced by those returned by the Blip, she lost her Mama Donya in a refugee camp. It’s unclear if this character is her biological mother, but the loss is devastating. That’s enough to make anyone angry at the world, especially at a young age.
She steals and injects the super-soldier serum, becoming the leader of the Flag-Smashers. It appears like she is the ideal example of a strong female character trope, especially because she is literally given superhuman power through the serum. As Sam says to Bucky, “That little girl kicked your ass!”
However, in a later scene, she discusses what she wanted before the Blip happened with one of her compatriots. She had dreams, she wanted to be a teacher, but that obviously can’t happen now. She recalls the side effects of the serum and how it felt like her veins were on fire. But sacrificing is part of her cause, be it a little pain or her childhood dreams. “It was worth it. Because the world is ours,” she says. “It should have been Mama Donya’s.”
This conversation shows the humanity in Karli not to just make the audience sympathize with her cause because it’s deeply personal, but also allows them to see her weaknesses — a need to return to some sense of normalcy. Normalcy, of course, is no longer an option. Either she’s under the control of the Global Repatriation Council or she demolishes society as she knows it.
It’s clear what she chose. Now we understand why.
Both of these women are given the space to flesh out their characters while Sam and Bucky are in full spy movie mode with Baron Zemo. Bucky, who was working on healing from his trauma, resets completely into his old persona as the Winter Soldier. Sam dresses as the Smiling Tiger, leading to a classic bluffing moment at the bar involving a snake heart.
That bluffing doesn’t work as well when they are cornered by Selby, and things go south quickly. While we don’t see much of Selby, the most revolutionary thing about her character isn’t that she’s so powerful, it’s that Sam and Bucky are so powerless. Their roles throughout the episode (save their escape from the club) are centered around deception and persuasion.
They break Zemo out of prison using a complex scheme, get through to Selby through pure acting skills, and then coax information out of Dr. Nagle. In the genre of spy movies and action thrillers, these are all actions usually done by a femme fatale.
Take for example the shipping container scene. Sam, Bucky, and Zemo are in Dr. Nagle’s lair trying to get information, and Sharon is left on her own as enemies swarm attempting to interrupt. It’s a role reversal that kills two birds with one stone: Sharon gets to prove herself as a combat expert on par with her allies, and Sam and Bucky get to extract information and get exposition for their next steps.
Those next steps look like they’ll involve Ayo, who provided a last-minute plot twist and a hope of more collaborations between Sam, Bucky, and different underrated women of the MCU.
All these women each showing their own strengths and weaknesses in one episode is a huge step ahead for a Marvel series, especially one centered around two men. A lot of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems to be dedicated to fixing old mistakes, rewriting the decade-old storytelling and breathing some new life into the franchise.
The series may be theirs, but this episode was carried by the women.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is now streaming on Disney+.