Falcon and Winter Soldier reveals a new type of Marvel villain problem
The Disney+ series could have done with fewer bad guys.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did a lot of things right across its 6-episode run. The Disney+ series deftly tackled issues of race, nationalism, and trauma in ways that proved to be both compelling and moving.
But that doesn’t mean that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was without its flaws, and it’s in the show’s uneven finale episode that its lingering problems make the biggest impact. And there was one issue in particular that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suffered from throughout its entire run — the villains.
The Falcon, the Winter Soldier and so many villains
Each of those characters led their own storyline, so combine that with Sam and Bucky’s own personal journeys throughout the series, and you end up with a lot of different perspectives and narrative threads for a six-episode TV series to try and balance.
Taking that into account, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ultimately failed to achieve the cohesion between perspectives that it hoped to. The series’ attempts to reinvent the Sharon Carter character never quite worked and her secret identity as The Power Broker introduced a mess of plot holes and logic issues that it very much could have done without.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier never figured out how to make Karli Morgenthau and the Flag-Smashers the kind of morally gray or compelling villains that it wanted to either. It took far too many episodes than it should have to fully understand what their cause was, and Karli was never believable as the kind of charismatic leader all the other characters in the show acted like she was.
But more than anything, the issues of activism, revolution, and radicalism that were raised by the Flag-Smashers (and Sharon Carter, to a small extent) were never explored quite as deeply or thought-provokingly as the series’ themes of racial inequality and white supremacy were. As a result, most of the scenes involving the Flag-Smashers just fell a little flat.
Falcon and Winter Soldier’s Best Villain
There was one villain, however, that did prove to be the kind of formidable and compelling character Falcon and the Winter Soldier needed in order to provide drama and drive its themes home, and that was John Walker.
As a character, Walker represents everything that both Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) strive not to be. He’s the perfect soldier, always willing to take orders, and treats any of the resistance that comes his way with the kind of violence that Steve and Sam view only as a last resort. The government’s decision to approach him for the mantle over Sam was emblematic of the racial bias and inequality that still runs rampant in our society, and his overwhelming desire to make the Captain America shield his own stood in stark contrast to the more complex, mature way both Sam and Bucky view it.
Those differences resulted in tension and conflict between Walker, Sam, and Bucky that was present from their first interactions to their last. Walker’s arrogance and desperation to be the Captain America only made him that much more of an interesting counterpoint to Sam and Bucky’s personalities and created an ideological split between the two parties that was always clear. There was very little monologuing or explaining that needed to be done to establish Walker’s viewpoint or why he was an antagonist in the series, whereas it felt like most of the scenes with Karli and the Flag-Smashers involved her monologuing and explaining her motivations.
But if you really want to see how much more effective of a villain John Walker was than the Flag-Smashers, you don’t need to look much further than the differences between Bucky and Sam’s warehouse fight against Walker and their fight to stop the Flag-Smashers in the Falcon and Winter Soldier finale. Which fight were you more emotionally invested in? Which one was more exciting and intense to watch? And which one had the more impactful outcome?
If your answer is the same for all of those questions — and it probably is — then that should tell you everything you need to know about which of the show’s villains brought the most to the table.
The Inverse Analysis — As was the case with WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could have done with a more pared-down, focused narrative. The inclusion of characters like Sharon Carter and the Flag-Smashers just added more plot complications and perspectives for the series to balance that it honestly didn’t need.
To put it simply: John Walker was enough of a villain for all of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. He didn’t need any other antagonists to compete for screentime with.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is streaming now on Disney+.
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