When WandaVision’s season finale rolled around, there was one common complaint — that a show which really pushed the boundaries of what a ‘Marvel product’ could be still defaulted to factory settings at the end of it. Across its first eight episodes, the show was a gradually unfurling exploration of grief, and the dangers of escaping into entertainment as a coping mechanism, all wrapped up in a layered mystery. By contrast, the finale was a big return to Marvel form, featuring not one but three big climactic showdowns. Characters cast hexes, shot laser beams out of their foreheads and (in an absurd lack of judgement) even attempted to shoot children. The emotional gut-punch and hard-won catharsis that followed were powerful moments, but did they have to come after a series of flying battles in the sky?
The 48-minute-long episode begins with a 25-minute-long series of fights, a less-than-promising sign for those who were expecting more of the grounded character development and intimate emotional revelations of the previous episode. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) attempt to stop rebel group the Flag Smashers, while simultaneously attempting to rescue the people meant to be their targets. The ensuing fight scenes serve as the glorious introduction of Sam as the new Captain America (new suit! new wings!) but do little else. They’re choppy and fragmented, and splitting the team up only makes viewers wonder what two of them are doing while the third is getting a sound ass-kicking. (For the convenience of the plot, the fights all converge at the same location by the end.) Staging and editing aside, a minor quibble with one of the fights is that the Vibranium Captain America shield, made of the strongest metal on Earth, is stopped dead in its tracks when it’s hit with a chair…made of steel. While expecting logic in a show about a flying man and a 106-year-old super soldier might seem unreasonable, expecting consistency isn’t.
By handing over the Captain America mantle to Sam, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has attempted to answer questions about what it means to be a Black man in America today, and what it would mean for a Black man to represent a country that hasn’t historically represented him. It’s a noble endeavour, but the show insists on a tell-don’t-show approach, driving the point home either through trite speeches meant to uplift or through depictions of state and police violence against Black people, reel scenes that pale in significance to real-life stories. This continues in the finale with Sam giving a motivational speech so on-the-nose, he may as well have broken the fourth wall and delivered it directly to the camera. “I’m still here,” he says. “No super serum, no blonde hair, blue eyes. The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.” He also has a billion-dollar Vibranium shield, but okay.
The episode makes the baffling decision to give two characters arcs that are abrupt departures from their established characterizations. Former Captain America John Walker (Wyatt Russell) gets a heroic moment of redemption. Sure, the man stole super soldier serum, went mad with power and brutally killed a civilian in broad daylight, but now he’s stopped a truck full of people from going off a ledge and quoted Abraham Lincoln so he’s…all right? Up until the last episode, John was the embodiment of America’s dark history — a man representing a country forged on blood and violence, forging his own legacy of blood and violence. The finale makes him a sidekick for Bucky to banter with while Sam’s off fighting, the bad blood between them having miraculously dissipated.
Equally abrupt is the reveal that Sharon is the Power Broker, a shadowy villain lurking in the margins of this series. It throws away a whole character arc in favour of a cheap plot twist, reducing Sharon from an upright government agent wrongfully prosecuted by that very institution, to someone they lucked out into exiling. Except that they’ve now granted her a pardon and given her her old job back, so she’s free to sell state secrets to wealthy bidders.
The Flag Smashers aren’t that lucky, falling victim to not only inconsistent writing during the series, but the smarts of Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) during the finale. Their deaths are neither memorable nor tragic and their lofty objectives? Yeah, Captain America achieves them with that single speech he makes.
Where the show finally shines is during a seven-minute ending stretch that includes includes super soldier Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) finding out that his legacy, which the US government erased from the history books, is now part of an exhibit in the Smithsonian. Another person rewriting his legacy is Bucky, who finally makes amends for his past as an assassin and apologizes to the father of a young man he killed while on a mission. “I didn’t have a choice,” he says. It’s a poignant moment of character development for a man who’s blamed himself for the deaths he caused under the effects of Nazi brainwashing (long story). Whether or not the father forgives him, Bucky’s learnt to forgive himself.
That a huge weight has finally been taken off him is evident a few scenes later in which he joins Sam’s family in Louisiana for a cookout. Bucky’s the happiest he’s been in years, a man from a different era finally finding one he belongs in. When Sam puts his arm around him and the two walk off, the episode ends with a title card that says: Captain America And The Winter Soldier. It’s a nice touch, except that The Winter Soldier is the assassin codename Bucky no longer goes by. Guess they didn’t get the memo.