Anthony Mackie breaks new ground, while Wyatt Russell’s charismatic anti-hero pulls ‘Winter Soldier’ out of the hole
After a terrible first episode, ‘Captain America’ and the Winter Soldier pulled itself out of the hole and delivered reliable service for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The show wasn’t formally innovative. The music and camerawork were formulaic, the writing often humorless and clunky. But it did what it had to do, move chess pieces around the board, almost literally. People would show up unannounced and uninvited, when we’d last seen them halfway around the world, to fulfill plot functions.
CAWS introduced new characters and renamed old ones, as Marvel continued to straddle the line between relevance and meaninglessness. Sam Wilson, the Falcon, befriends an old Black Baltimorean named Isaiah, the victim of a Tuskeegee-like government Super Soldier experiment. From the show’s opening bell, it’s clear that Sam is going to pick up the Captain America shield, but it takes two-and-a-half hours of speechifying to get there. Though the ultimate conversion falls a little flat, and Anthony Mackie’s climactic shield-bearing speech is laughably wishy-washy, anyone looking to get social justice satisfaction from this show will leave satisfied. “No super serum,” he says. “No blonde hair, blue eyes. The only power I have is the belief that we can do better.”
But the side arcs in this show are a lot more interesting, given the forgone conclusion for the Falcon. Sebastian Stan does what he can with his limited acting range as Bucky, seeking a redemption arc from his decades as a sinister underground super-agent with a mechanical arm. But the real star is Wyatt Russell as John Walker, the “new” Captain America, whose status rises and falls faster than GameStop stock.
Russell is an excellent actor, and this is his star turn. Walker’s character veers from tragic to comic and back again. His storyline features the best writing, and also some witty scenes with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as some sort of mystery aristocrat who’s pulling the strings behind the scenes. CAWS really sparks to life when Walker appears. The producers seem to realize that he’s their best weapon. Once his introduction occurs at the end of Episode 1, Walker is never off-screen for more than 10 minutes.
The Captain America branch of the MCU has always been about moral ambiguity and shifting alliances, and Russell’s character embodies that. While the Falcon may end up bearing the gee-whiz mantle of the original Captain America, John Walker is more relatable, not really a hero. He occupies gray areas, doing the bidding of bosses he doesn’t even know. He’s adrift in an ethically questionable sea. Now the MCU has a good Captain America, and a naughty Captain America, one for the best of us, and one for the rest of us. Since none of this means anything anyway, we might as well have a confused hero.
The show almost falls apart because of a terrible, wooden performance by Erin Kellyman as Karli Morgenthau, the leader of a rebel band called the “Flag Smashers,” who seek a borderless world for reasons I couldn’t quite understand. The MCU tries to be meaningful and relevant to the real world, but its universe is so absurd that it’s hard to empathize. Kellyman is onscreen a lot during this show, almost as much as the protagonists themselves. There has rarely been a more annoying character in any cultural product. I really couldn’t wait for her to go down.
In the end, this show had its flag-smashers, and its scene-stealers. Mackie and Stan were fine, they fulfilled their contracts. But you found yourself watching to actually watch Daniel Brühl as Baron Zemo, whose midseason Eurodance created the show’s viral sensation, Louis-Dreyfus, and Russell. As usual, ethically suspect characters have more fun.