Spoilers for Episode 3 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier follow!
We have reached the halfway point of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but in doing so it feels like we’re actually taking a few steps back in a narrative sense. After the end of last week’s episode, Sam and Bucky are reunited with a couple familiar faces, Helmut Zemo and Sharon Carter, both unseen since Captain America: Civil War. But are these the same characters we saw back in 2016? As we explore a new section of the Marvel Universe, we also revisit characters of old who are reintroduced in new and engaging ways.
If episode 3 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier indicates anything, it’s that Marvel and co. are not interested in leaving old plot threads loose. With that being said, we also aren’t being transported back to the time these threads were introduced. Since the major developments of the third Captain America film lead directly into the schemes of Avengers: Infinity War, and thus Endgame, the less obvious plot lines and setup were left untouched for years in favor of the grander story. So in short, we are now being treated to things that were hinted at before the Blip in a post-Blip landscape, changing the narrative quite a bit, especially since this series makes it a point to show us just how this damaged world works.
But what does this new playing field look like? Here it looks much like the island of Madripoor – the first location for our three’s company of Sam, Bucky, and Zemo, on their way to tracking down answers about the super soldiers they’ve been one step behind of. Madripoor is the MCU’s next attempt at bringing a fictional location from the comics to screen, which began with Wakanda in Black Panther. Much like Wakanda, Madripoor is imagined through clear inspiration from the real-world cultural architecture of its parent continents (Southeast Asia in this case) while throwing in fictional elements that make it appear different from the real locations that the MCU is accustomed to. That is to say that Madripoor, depicted with dingy and neon-heavy lighting, feels more like its own unique place rather than just resembling a stylized version of a city like Bangkok.
Once we hit the ground on this new location, it brings us face to face with a complimentary new tone and feeling that wasn’t present in the previous two episodes. While those entries strived for elements more akin to Mission Impossible, this one channels vibes that prove incredibly reminiscent of the John Wick franchise, which seems appropriate for this outing written by the creator of that series himself, Derek Kolstad. To say the least, the visual and tonal representation of Madripoor feels very much like a location where we could have seen Keanu Reeves racking up a body count if the John Wick films had not limited themselves to real locations. This proves fruitful here, because it makes the world building feel all the more immersive.
The purpose of this episode is to reintroduce characters we haven’t seen in years in a very new setting. Zemo is most notable in this respect, given that it’s almost as if the character has been given a comic accurate makeover that was not indicated by his appearance back in Civil War. Not only has he received his iconic purple mask, but the character is revealed to have been the heir of a rich family, and to have ties to the Madripoor underworld under the the name of, you guessed it, Baron Zemo. Also the fact that he’s got no sense of boundaries. The aforementioned “comic accurate makeover” is something that the Disney+ Marvel ventures seem to be actively striving for, namely Wanda finally getting her tiara in the WandaVision finale, among several other things that show displayed.
Now, this isn’t to say that Zemo is a completely different character than who we originally knew, but rather that there are more aspects to him that Civil War opted not to show because it didn’t need to. We have seen Zemo before, and even loved him, but now it feels like we’re really meeting him for the first time, which works to the advantage of the creatives behind this series. The same can be said for Sharon Carter, who finally gets time to shine as her own character after being getting sidelined in previous appearances. We heard of Agent 13, but now we really get to see her in action. And to say she’s not exactly content after so long would be an understatement, which makes up for the character development she wasn’t given previously due to screen time.
More than just picking up the basic plot lines set up in Civil War, there are several more callbacks in this episode – some much more blatant than others. Many lines are not just simple references that fans find neat, but are instead gentle reminders of what was and what could potentially be. For example, Zemo repeating Bucky’s trigger words upon their reunion to earn a reaction carries the same weight as Sam reminding Bucky that Wakanda wouldn’t be pleased to know that Zemo is no longer incarcerated. Returning musical themes for Bucky and Zemo brought back by composer Henry Jackman are the things that really bring home the nostalgia factor on top of this.
What makes episode 3 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier particularly interesting is that it uses a cliched premise out of the traditional buddy cop formula and manages to still surprise us with its developments. Bickering partners are forced to team up with an old enemy, and just so happen to come across an old ally on their trip. But there are several subversions in the narrative that make us scratch our heads about things we wouldn’t think to scratch our heads about, such as why our enemy figure is more inclined to help our protagonists than the ally figure. The surprises, unlike WandaVision, stem from questions that sound less like “who’s behind all this?” and are more in the direction of “what are they doing and why?”
“Why” is important in a show with heavy political undertones, mostly displayed through John Walker and the Flag Smashers, both of which are sidelined here in favor of pushing the Madripoor mystery along. Though there isn’t much to be said about Walker in particular, Erin Kellyman’s Karli Morgenthau is given a short but interesting part, which could prove worrisome considering how the Flag Smashers have been portrayed as modern day Robin Hoods. Even though slightly worrying in regards to the politics the show is trying to portray, the episode quality and plot handling have proven to be on a fast and steady rise. So here’s to hoping that the themes Marvel wants to convey with the Flag Smashers are able to stick the desired landing.
Even with the slight worry, the first half of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s second act is the best handled episode thus far, as it reinserts old characters through the use of a brand new world in Madripoor – practically dripping with potential in the MCU’s future. A rocky foundation is built sturdier by a strong focus on character development, balancing incredibly well with the energetic tone and vibrant setting that actually proves to be a distinct addition to the universe. The warranted interest in where this show could lead to definitely won’t be going down in the next few weeks.