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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues its march across Disney+, it needs a buddy show, and the buddies are the Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
Both old allies of Captain America, the two find themselves going up against dangerous villains, a wry therapist and sometimes each other. I'm Glen Weldon.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "The Falcon And The Winter Soldier" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. You just met Glen Weldon. Also with me and Glen, from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., is NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Welcome back, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.
HOLMES: Now, as many of you know, Eric is a comics guy. So he, like Glen, brings that to the table. In this show, the Falcon - aka Sam Wilson - is played by Anthony Mackie. The Winter Soldier - aka Bucky Barnes - is played by Sebastian Stan. You are familiar with both of them if you followed the "Avengers" movies. By the way, we will be spoiling those movies in this episode, in case you're still waiting to watch them.
These guys are both old pals of Steve Rogers, who was Captain America until he disappeared and returned as an old man and tried to pass the shield to Sam. But as this show begins, Sam is trying to decide whether he really wants the shield. Bucky, meanwhile, is in therapy, trying to deal with his old traumas and current nightmares, and his dry-humored therapist is played perfectly by the great character actress Amy Aquino. I have to say, if you're going to get an actress for that part, you want to get, like, an Amy Aquino type, so they just got Amy Aquino.
HOLMES: They've dropped two episodes of this as we record this on Disney+, so we've seen two. Glen, what do you think of this show?
WELDON: I am not feeling it yet. I reserve the right to at some future point, and I'll keep watching because I am, after all, me. And this thing is loaded to the gills with Easter eggs from the comics.
But I'm mostly puzzled. I mean, the reason this show was created is because of the chemistry, the pseudo-sibling chemistry between Sam and Bucky, so it's odd that we don't get that until Episode 2 of 6. And when it does arrive - and this might just be me - I think it feels a bit forced and a bit generic. That bit about, you know, the big three being androids, aliens and wizards - that's not a thing; that is a thing - that feels so Whedon-y (ph), kind of looking backwards at a time when these characters should be using this opportunity to find a kind of new, more specific rhythm or individualized dynamic.
I mean, I love seeing Amy Aquino in everything. She's been around a long time. Anything she does, she makes better. And Wyatt Russell shows up, and he's also great in everything. And you usually see him in stoner mode, like in that "Black Mirror" episode and in "Lodge 49," but here he's playing against type, and it's really surprising.
Ultimately, I think I like the Sam stuff in the show a lot more than the Bucky stuff because that feels more substantive to me. It's making an observation that, you know, racism is so systemic that even saving the world doesn't get you out of it - that tracks. Now, we have to take a step back. Does it make a lot of sense that an Avenger basically employed by Tony Stark wouldn't be put on some kind of retainer or stipend? No, that doesn't make a lot of sense. But...
DEGGANS: What's up with Pepper?
DEGGANS: That's my main question. How could sister girl let Falcon, like, go back to his dilapidated family fishing boat? I'm sorry. I...
WELDON: Well, I have some thoughts about that.
DEGGANS: Pepper's going on my naughty list.
WELDON: No, no, no. It makes no sense. And also, look; the fact that in this show, the government is looking for a public face, a national hero, that it's going to revert to what it did before instead of attempting to grow, that also tracks. And the reason that tracks is because you take your fantastic story - this is a good example of taking a very fantastical story and grounding it in something real and resonant. I think they're trying to do that with Bucky, but I'll talk about that later. I just don't think it's working. As you can see, I'm grappling with a lot of stuff about this show. But the one thing I am bone-deep certain of is that Sam and his sister's business should be shuttered immediately.
WELDON: In the pilot, they left - what? - hundreds of cooked seafood meals - now, we're talking shrimp here; we're talking shellfish - sitting in the back of their pickup truck while they applied for that loan. So that is - what? - at least half an hour. Let's call it half an hour. It's probably something closer to an hour - in the hot Louisiana sun. And then - and then - they delivered it. So that is a highway to the danger zone. That is an E. coli buffet.
WELDON: And people online are like, oh, but they delivered it to a homeless shelter. And I'm like, well, that makes it...
WELDON: ...Ten times worse.
HOLMES: It's really true. Eric, what did you think?
DEGGANS: I'm with Glen in a lot of ways. The first episode, there's a lot of table-setting going on, so I just sort of figured, OK, we're being caught up with where Sam is, we're being caught up with where the Winter Soldier is, where Bucky is, in their lives. OK, I get that.
But even in the second episode - he's right - the chemistry between these two characters feels forced. And the reason it feels off to me - and I've seen people talk about this on social media - is that these two guys are clearly missing a guy who was the most important man in their lives, and they're not talking about him, and they're not talking about that. They're focused on this shield...
DEGGANS: ...As some sort of symbol. And what it's really a symbol of is the love that they had for Steve Rogers. And why can't they just talk about that? And why wouldn't the therapist who finally gets them to face each other get them to talk about that? Now, maybe this show was sort of aiming towards that, and we'll get to that in later episodes. But they're both smart enough characters to know what's really bothering each of them, and to have that kind of hanging really bugs me.
And it's odd - you know, like, the success of "WandaVision," I think, is sort of like a double-edged sword. Marvel got lucky if, indeed, the pandemic sort of created the situation where "WandaVision" went first because "Falcon And Winter Soldier" (ph) was supposed to be the first Marvel series on Disney+ to debut, and then "WandaVision" was going to be next, but the pandemic messed up the live-action filming of all these action scenes, and so they went ahead with "WandaVision," which had a lot of special effects and didn't have to have as much live-action filming, and "WandaVision" is such a more creative series, especially in its start, that there's a bunch of people who are willing to be forgiving and want to see this show succeed because they were primed by "WandaVision," but it also means that the show doesn't stack up all that well. And that's going to be a challenge they have to face in the future, I think.
HOLMES: Yeah, I think that's true. And I think it's not just that I liked "WandaVision" more than I like this show so far; it's that "WandaVision" was so different to me.
WELDON: Weird, yeah.
HOLMES: And this show opened the first episode with a 10-minute - jumping out of airplanes and flying through the air and zipping over and under rock formations and stuff like that, which - it's not that that's not good, but it's exactly what you would see in a Marvel movie, which to some people was a great thing. It was like, OK, this feels just like an MCU movie. That's great. That's amazing that they've accomplished that for television. And I can see that point. But what I liked about "WandaVision" was that it was different in a way that seemed very specifically engineered to be good television. This feels more like it's a movie in chapters, which - how you feel about that is entirely, you know, subjective, right?
I will say, I liked the sort of banter elements of this show more than Glen did. In fact, I pulled the clip of the same thing that Glen was saying was sort of, to him, not really that satisfying. I pulled that clip 'cause that was what I kind of liked about the second episode of the show. I have a little clip of that discussion.
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ANTHONY MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson) So I have a feeling they might be a part of the big three.
SEBASTIAN STAN: (As Bucky Barnes) What big three?
MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson) The big three.
STAN: (As Bucky Barnes) What big three?
MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson) Androids, aliens and wizards.
STAN: (As Bucky Barnes) That not a thing.
MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson) That's definitely a thing.
STAN: (As Bucky Barnes) No, it's not.
MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson) Every time we fight, we fight one of the three.
STAN: (As Bucky Barnes) So who are you fighting now - Gandalf?
MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson) How do you know about Gandalf?
STAN: (As Bucky Barnes) I read "The Hobbit" - in 1937, when it first came out.
MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson) So you see my point.
STAN: (As Bucky Barnes) No, I don't. There are no wizards.
MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson) Doctor Strange.
STAN: (As Bucky Barnes) Is a sorcerer.
MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson, laughter) A sorcerer is a wizard without a hat.
HOLMES: That, to me, is a fun little conversation. I like the references to a sorcerer without a hat. I think that's cute. I always say I'm not necessarily the demographic for comic book movies that are - it's night and it's raining on a manhole cover.
HOLMES: There are other people who are not the audience for the ones that are kind of quippy-quippy. They find that tiring, tiresome. I think Glen is suggesting not that, but that it has to be of a certain - at a certain level. And I really wanted that energy from this. And I found the first one so dour, the first episode, because after that opening action sequence, you get a lot of mournfulness, and then you get these really super moody, stylized sequences with Bucky in therapy and these super, super close-ups, and it just feels to me dour. So to have this leavened this much in the second episode was such a relief that I probably overlooked some of my hesitations about it.
I do think - the story that they're pursuing here, which we haven't really talked about yet, is that there is a group of villains who are interested in kind of undoing the part of "Endgame" where they brought everybody back from being blipped out of existence, what Glen has called the Snapture (ph). They want to undo that because as you can imagine, if you cut the population in half for five years and then all of a sudden you bring everybody back, that's a crisis, right? And they kind of want to go back to living the way they did before. I think that's an interesting thing, right? I like it when superhero movies deal with consequences. But it's - when Glen says 2 of 6, I start to think, boy, yeah, there's limited runway here for what I think they're trying to do.
WELDON: Yeah. And I think one of the reasons the first episode felt a little bit off - my theory is that it has to do with Bucky's inner torment, which I'm not really invested in. On the surface, it would seem to be doing the same work that the Sam stuff is. You know, everybody knows - has battled feelings of guilt and need to make amends and torture yourself as you truly attempt to become a better person and that we're often our own worst enemies. All that tracks. That's grounded and relatable, right? Not here because, dude, you were brainwashed. Like, you were compelled. You were forced. You were triggered by a series of code words. You are not complicit in this. It's not like he's fighting inner demons. They were demons that possessed him.
Now, I get that that's one thing to kind of deal with that intellectually and another to confront it emotionally, and that's the story they're trying to tell here. But at the center of it is this magic brainwashing device that keeps kicking me out. If they were instead having him deal with the fact that the brainwashing was some kind of violation and what he needs to do with his anger over that, that is more substantive. That feels more - it doesn't have to be relatable, but that feels more resonant. And this stuff - it's like, every time he just looks pained at somebody. It's like, dude, it wasn't you.
DEGGANS: Well, the one thing I would say about that, though, is I think that part of what they're doing with Bucky is also what they're doing with Sam, which is - who are you? You know, once the things that defined you are gone, who are you? And so for Bucky, he was Captain America's sidekick, and then he was the Winter Soldier, and now he's not either of those things. So what is he? And with Sam, it was - he was Captain America's sidekick, and he was an Avenger, and now that that's gone, what is he? And those are compelling questions, particularly when you get the sense in the second episode that they're going to start talking about - does America have a problem accepting Black heroes as its symbol? And I'm really interested in how we get into that question.
But - because I kind of feel like the whole, you were forced to kill people and you're traumatized by it, is also something they covered in the movie "Captain America: Winter Soldier" (ph). So here, it's more like, who is he going forward, and what can he be without Steve? And those are all cool questions. I sort of feel like maybe the way they're getting to it just feels a little predictable.
HOLMES: All right. Well, we want to hear what you think about "Falcon And The Winter Soldier." Find us at facebook.com/pchh or on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you, Glen and Eric, for being here.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
WELDON: Thank you.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, subscribe to our newsletter. It's over at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about - oh, yeah - "Godzilla Vs. Kong."
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