TV Review: ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their superhero roles for the latest Marvel/Disney+ series…

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Disney+ series ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Daniel Bruhl, Emily VanCamp, Erin Kellyman, Adepero Oduye

Series created by:  Malcolm Spellman (based on the Marvel comics)

What’s it about?

As the U.S. government unveils a new Captain America, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes unite to take on the threat of an emerging radical group…

In review

Following the conclusion of the first Marvel Cinematic Universe streaming series for the Disney+ platform – the excellent WandaVision – Marvel Studios’ six-episode superhero action drama The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has now also wrapped up and it’s another hit for entertainment goliaths Marvel and Disney.  The series sees lead stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles as Marvel heroes Sam Wilson/The Falcon and “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier, respectively (both last seen in 2019 blockbuster Avengers: Endgame), as they take on the threat of a revolutionary group calling themselves the ‘Flag Smashers’ whilst also facing their own personal post-Blip concerns and the rise of the U.S. government’s newly appointed Captain America, decorated Afghan War veteran John Walker (Wyatt Russell – son of Kurt Russell).

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is an engrossing Tom Clancy-esque action-espionage thriller in the spirit of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War (the “flavour” further enriched by bringing back composer Henry Jackman to score the show).  Series creator Malcolm Spellman and his writing staff tap into present day concerns, commenting on themes such as racial prejudice and division, the political state and social unrest whilst mirroring the buddy-cop character dynamics of the Lethal Weapon films, making the pairing of Sam and Bucky even more enjoyable.  Blessed with a handsome budget, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier boasts top-notch action scenes – Sam’s aerial battle in episode one and a truck-top fight involving Sam, Bucky and Walker as they take on the Flag Smashers in episode two are early examples – but is not driven by them, taking the time to delve into its characters and plot more deeply than a two-hour film possibly can.  This obviously results in a slower and more measured pace than an MCU film which some viewers might struggle with, but a generally consistent rhythm is quickly established, injecting the action where it’s called for and not just for the gratuity of it.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is far more motivated by character drama and the rich, thought provoking thematic elements it presents and as a result, anyone expecting straightforward superhero entertainment may be disappointed.

The series’ premiere episode does a good job of reintroducing the lead characters and their status quo following their return from non-existence in the ‘Blip’ (as per the events of Endgame) as Sam and Bucky attempt to get a grip on their lives.  Doubtful about taking up the role bequeathed to him by Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson relinquishes Cap’s shield to the U.S. government, before finding out that his status as an Avenger won’t help him secure a bank loan to help his sister Sarah (played by Adepero Oduye) and save the Wilson family’s fishing business.  Things are no better for Bucky Barnes, now gifted a Presidential pardon for his previous actions as The Winter Soldier, he begrudgingly submits to therapy for post-traumatic stress and plagued by guilt befriends an elderly Japanese man (Ken Takemoto), whose son he had murdered during one of his past operations as a Hydra assassin.  It creates an interesting set-up for both characters giving both Mackie and Stan plenty of depth to explore and they have never been better in their roles as they are elevated above their place as supporting players in the MCU films.

With Sam and Bucky taking on government contracts to make ends meet and Bucky questioning Sam’s decision to give up Cap’s shield and all that comes with it, tensions rise as the two begin to clash with a headstrong and determined John Walker.  Discovering that the Flag Smashers have super soldier serum-induced abilities, matters are further complicated when Sam and Bucky decide to team up with Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), incarcerated at the end of Civil War.  Travelling to Madripoor (a location Wolverine fans will know, weaving an X-Men related element into the MCU) with Zemo, who we learn actually is a Baron, aligning the character more closely with his Marvel Comics counterpart (even donning the iconic purple mask at one point), allows the investigation of the Flag Smashers to progress as well as facilitating a reunion with exiled former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp, also last seen in Civil War) who helps the mismatched trio search for the shadowy string-puller of events: the enigmatic Power Broker.  The dingy criminal underworld vibe and accompanying action is comfortable territory for John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad and he gleefully infuses those elements here into The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Daniel Bruhl is assuredly excellent, bringing a snarling arrogance and scheming duplicitousness to the wholly untrustworthy yet surprisingly helpful Zemo.  Releasing the Baron naturally has its consequences, drawing the attention of Wakanda (again, recalling the events of Civil War, where Zemo was responsible for the death of King T’Chaka) heating things up further as the eminent African nation dispatches it’s formidable royal guard, the Dora Milaje.  Lead by Ayo (Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba), there’s a gripping hotel room fight that’s a swift reminder of how down-right awesome and unstoppably efficient Wakanda’s warrior woman are.  Flashbacks to Bucky’s recovery in Wakanda burdens him with a sense of betrayal as the scenes demonstrate how Ayo helped to break his Hydra induced programming.  It’s another small but significant aspect that enriches Stan’s character whilst providing organic connectivity with the wider MCU.

Wyatt Russell as the new Captain America, John Walker in ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios),

As John Walker, Wyatt Russell is a great addition and enjoys a strong character arc, the new Captain America a harder-edged combatant who becomes more intense and increasingly frustrated at the perceived interference from Sam and Bucky, their methods seen as too tame in order to get results.  Walker is very much a man of action and prepared to do what is necessary so it’s fitting that angered by the slaying of his partner Lemur Hoskins – a.ka. Battlestar (Cle Bennett) -, the new-Cap gets himself serum-boosted.  Consequentially, no punches are pulled in the shocking scenes (in the closing moments of the aptly titled “The Whole World is Watching”) of an enraged John Walker, giving chase and bludgeoning a Flag Smasher with Captain America’s shield as crowds capture the brutal event on their smartphones.  It presents some unsettling and potent symbolism that once again presses upon the issues of today and makes the need for a more noble-spirited and just Captain America in the mould of Steve Rogers even more desperate.  Walker is not “bad” in simple black and white terms, but a product of a different time and forged by a different kind of conflict, this notwithstanding it remains a reminder of Captain America: The First Avenger in that it’s not just an enhancing super solider formula that makes a Captain America but that there also needs to be a good and balanced soul at the end of the needle.

What really works well with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is that beyond its characters and action set pieces, it paints an interesting picture of the post-Blip world and how many who have returned after a five-year absence are displaced and that not everyone is fortunate to receive the help and understanding they need.  Whilst the Flag Smashers are labelled as terrorists and commit deplorable acts, the series provides its villains with believable motivation and even an angle of sympathy through the group’s leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and the scripts bring some prescient arguments to the table.  This is exemplified in a philosophical exchange between Sam and Morgenthau as the heroic Flacon recognises her cause but questions the execution of her agenda.  It’s well-written and wonderfully performed by both Anthony Mackie and Erin Kellyman and makes for good drama.  There’s also an addition to Marvel mythology as Sam and Bucky’s initial investigations lead them to the doorstep of Isaiah Bradley (first introduced to the Marvel Comics universe in 2003’s Truth: Red, White and Black #1 and played here by the superb Carl Lumbly), an African America super soldier who fought in the Korean War and was subsequently imprisoned and experimented on.  This abuse makes a powerful and evocative statement that highlights important issues and does so in a thought-provoking manner.

Given John Walker’s turn, the penultimate episode opens with a necessary confrontation between the rogue Captain America and Sam and Bucky, before unexpectedly changing gear to a contemplative character-driven piece that’s actually a highlight of the series as Sam, through the counsel of Bucky, realises that he is the man for the job.  Whilst also introducing Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Marvel Comics character Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, it lays the groundwork for a pacey and poignant finale (“One World, One People” – another appropriately titled episode) in which Sam finally takes up the role of the true Captain America.  It’s a triumphant moment and the battle to stop the Flag Smashers once and for all allows the former Falcon to display all the daring-do and heroics incumbent of any Captain America.  It culminates in a potent and evocative media-facing speech from Sam Wilson that, although could be seen as a little too ‘on the nose’ is, once again, an address of important issues of race and equality.

Of course, it was never in doubt that we would see Sam Wilson’s inevitable transition from Falcon to Captain America and a natural and fitting evolution for the character as has been seen in the comics.  It’s similarly unsurprising that Sharon Carter is revealed as the Power Broker (speculation is already rife that she is actually a Skrull agent, given that the Secret Invasion series is nearing production…but who knows?) and likewise that John Walker would be redeemed, in a manner, as he assumes his new identity:  U.S.Agent (again, mirroring the Marvel comic books), ready to take on the under-the-radar assignments Captain America morally cannot and under the orders of the Contessa.

As we’ve seen with WandaVision and now The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, there is a lot of creative potential for the various other upcoming Disney+ Marvel series (Loki being the next to arrive this June) and provide fans with some substantial long-form storytelling and entertainment between the popcorn blockbuster offerings of the MCU films.

The bottom line:  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier presents viewers with a superior form of dramatic superhero entertainment that’s laced with prescient and thought-provoking themes.

All six episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Solider are now available to stream via Disney+.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“I’ll be back…”

Edward Furlong joins a returning Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger for James Cameron’s ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (image credit: StudioCanal).

Year:  1991

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Joe Morton

Director:  James Cameron / written by:  James Cameron & William Wisher

What’s it about?

A reprogrammed cyborg is sent back in time to protect John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance against Skynet, an advanced A.I. that once attempted to have his mother ‘terminated’ and has now sent another killing machine to eliminate John…

In review: why it’s a classic

Irrefutably one of the greatest sequels of all time and a science fiction action classic on its own merits, Terminator 2: Judgment Day takes everything that was achieved with 1984’s The Terminator and amplifies it with the gift of a generous production budget in the region of $100 million (making it the most expensive film ever produced at the time) and cutting-edge special effects presenting a blockbuster film on an epic scale.  Returning to direct is James Cameron (who also produces and co-writes with William Wisher), whose career was launched with the surprise success of The Terminator and quickly assured by Aliens in 1986.  Cameron’s direction is both masterful and meticulous ensuring that T2 engages and thrills whilst having the same commitment to innovation the filmmaker had demonstrated previously.

At this point a household name as one of the world’s biggest stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises the role that made him – the Terminator.  Having become more familiar to audiences as the hero rather than the villain, T2 makes a creative switch with its lead actor and this time out Arnie gets to play the good guy, a reprogrammed T-800 model Terminator sent back in time by the human resistance to protect a young John Connor from being murdered by Skynet’s (the genocidal A.I. attempting to exterminate mankind) own Terminator, the morphing liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick).  Also returning is Linda Hamilton in a career high, providing an intense performance as a hardened and weary Sarah Connor, a credible evolution of the underdog everyday girl of The Terminator, physically and emotionally transformed into the troubled and burdened woman we meet in T2, now institutionalised and unable to safeguard her son.  Edward Furlong hits the ground running in his introductory film role as the rebellious pre-teen John Connor.  The young Connor’s ‘hero’ arc in T2, together with the surrogate father relationship he establishes with Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is the core of the film without which it simply would not have succeeded.  The excellent Joe Morton is also suitably cast as Miles Dyson, the man whose work would lead to the creation of Skynet and there are some great moments with him as he learns of what the future holds.

Not enough can be said of Robert Patrick, who puts in a chilling and predatory performance as the relentless and formidable T-1000, brought effectively to life using revolutionary computer-generated effects (supervised by Denis Muren, who would work with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park) which builds upon the pioneering CGI utilised by James Cameron in The Abyss.  The equally impressive practical effects and prosthetic/makeup designs are once again handled by Stan Winston and his team, integrating seamlessly into the film to provide a sense of authenticity and believability.  The superb technical work on T2 would rightfully result in Academy Awards for make-up, visual effects and sound.

Robert Patrick as the relentless T-1000 Terminator (image credit: StudioCanal).

The action set-pieces remain phenomenal and really hold-up when viewed today, enhanced by Adam Greenberg’s Oscar nominated cinematography.  From the opening sequences depicting the war-ravaged future of 2029, the T1000’s tanker truck pursuit of John Connor and his Terminator guardian and the rescue of Sarah Connor from the Pescadero mental institute to the assault on the Cyberdyne labs and the gripping steel-mill finale it’s all thoroughly entertaining, culminating in a crushing emotional pay-off.  Adding to this is composer Brad Fiedel who provides another memorable score, his electronic-synth music building upon the themes he crafted for The Terminator, highlighting all the excitement, tension and emotion of T2.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day would go on to gross over $500 million worldwide, a significant sum back in 1991 and a huge hit for the once mighty Carolco Pictures.  James Cameron would revisit the film to produce a ‘Special Edition’ extended cut (including a dream sequence that features Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese, reprising his role from The Terminator) two years later and a 3D theatrical re-release in 2017.  Beyond its ambitious effects work and action spectacle, T2 is a film with a great deal of heart and humanity at its core and it’s the successful marriage of those components – together with its wonderful cast – that makes it a film that continues to resonate with viewers thirty years later.

Standout moment

Tracking John Connor to a mall, the T-1000, disguised as a police officer, gives chase to its target.  But John is not alone as a large, shotgun wielding man comes to his rescue…

Geek fact!

Whilst Earl Boen is another actor to return from The Terminator, as Dr. Silberman, there is one more face from James Cameron’s 1984 classic to appear in Terminator 2: screenwriter William Wisher, who cameoed as an L.A. cop in The Terminator is seen as one of the mall patrons, taking pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fallen T-800.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’

Two iconic Titans clash in the latest chapter of Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse series…

A monstrous clash: two cinematic titans collide in ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ (image credit: Warner Bros’ Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Alexander Skarsgard, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Kaylee Hottle, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, Eiza Gonzalez, Shun Oguri

Directed by:  Adam Wingard / written by:  Eric Pearson & Max Borenstein (story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields) / 117 minutes

What’s it about?

The King of the Monsters faces the King of Skull Island as Apex Titans Godzilla and Kong grapple for their place as the victor…

In review

Not since Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice has there been such an anticipated cinematic smackdown between two titanic pop culture icons and thankfully Godzilla vs. Kong delivers.  The latest entry in the Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures ‘MonsterVerse’ series, Godzilla vs. Kong is grandiose, bombastic fun (embellished by Tom Holkenborg’s music score) and fully embraces its roots, melding epic scale action with the bonkers, outlandish B-movie comic book sci-fi (complete with flourishes of ropey character dialogue and moustache twirling villainy) of Japanese kaiju films with the worldbuilding and ancient mythology of King KongGodzilla vs. Kong therefore succeeds by just being what it is – a big, dumb roller coaster popcorn blockbuster that doesn’t falter in its efforts to entertain.  It’s unlikely to sway the opinion of anyone who hasn’t enjoyed 2014’s Godzilla, 2017’s Kong:  Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla:  King of the Monsters but for fans of those films it’s a satisfying treat.

Opening with Godzilla seemingly going on the offensive against humankind as he demolishes a facility owned by the shady Apex Cybernetics, the Monarch organisation, having captured Skull Island’s Kong for study and fearing untold devastation should the two Titans meet, hastily draws up plans to return Kong home.  Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) delivers the incredible effects-laden action with aplomb and with clear joy and enthusiasm (the recently announced ThunderCats feature film is in good hands).  From Godzilla and Kong’s scintillating initial face-off, an ocean-bound, battleship-sinking clash to the city-crumbling decimation of their brawl amongst the searing neon-lights of Hong Kong it’s all kaiju fans would want or hope for and an enthralling sugary delight for that inner-child.

Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein’s screenplay provides a functional framework to drive the narrative from point to point (alas lacking the post-war nuclear terrors and environmental concerns allegorically woven into classic Godzilla flicks) between the various showdowns of the two Apex Titans.  As was the case with the previous MonsterVerse instalments, the script draws on the rich history of both characters and laces it with fan-pleasing Easter eggs and reverence to the established mythology whilst creating some of its own – the most notable example being Kong’s wondrous journey into the home of his kind, the subterranean realm known as the Hollow Earth (culminating in a gratifying moment where the giant ape demonstrates the ‘King’ portion of his title).  Whilst the writing doesn’t seek to overly service the human characters, there’s enough interest to hold the viewers’ attention and keep them invested.

Millie Bobby Brown returns to the MonsterVerse in ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Of the human cast, the returning Millie Bobby Brown (the Stranger Things actress reprising her role from Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is a standout as the sparky Maddison Russell, as is Iron Man Three’s Rebecca Hall who plays scientist Ilene Andrews, joined by Alexander Skarsgard (The Stand) as ridiculed author/scientist Nathan Lind.  Also returning is Kyle Chandler in the role of Maddison’s father, Mark Russell (it’s worth noting that Chandler also starred in Peter Jackson’s King Kong) albeit in a much smaller capacity and bafflingly, despite being billed in the opening credits, the excellent Lance Reddick makes an all-too brief appearance – leaving one to believe there may be extra scenes left on the cutting room floor.

Newcomer Kaylee Hottle provides a sweet and touching performance as Jia, a deaf Skull Island orphan, under the care of Hall’s Andrews.  Saved from devastation on Skull Island by Kong, Jia is a key presence as she utilises sign language to communicate with the great ape, providing some surprisingly heartfelt moments.  There’s some goofy humour courtesy of conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) and Maddison’s school chum Josh (Julian Dennison, of Netflix’s The Christmas Chronciles:  Part 2) to lighten the tone whilst Demian Bichir, Eiza Gonzalez and Shun Oguri make for a trio of suitably cheesy villains.  The cast are all fine and enjoyable in their parts, although there is a genuine lack of gravitas in the wake of Ken Watanabe’s absence…his character’s fate in King of the Monsters obviously precluding his involvement, sadly.

Again, it’s not the human characters that the audience is here for and Godzilla vs. Kong treats their true leads with awe and reverence.  Given ‘Gojira’ was last to have his own MonsterVerse film, the focus of Godzilla vs. Kong shifts a little more towards Kong who by all intents is the main protagonist and the only hope of halting Godzilla’s rampage.  Like the previous films, there is a definite sense of personality to both characters conveyed through the intricate CGI animation and their interactions with the human players – more specifically in the case of Kong here.  A little slow in its first act, Godzilla vs. Kong ramps up to a mostly even pace, carefully positioning Godzilla and Kong’s confrontations throughout the film.  The finale is perhaps a bit predictable, but the climactic Hong Kong battle facilitates an exciting finish as the two silver screen leviathans face a threat that might be greater than them both, as hinted at in the film’s marketing.

Godzilla vs. Kong obviously isn’t profound or meaningful (at least in terms of intellectual high-art cinema) nor does it intend to or need to be, it’ simply bold, awesome spectacle and the kind of entertainment that’s needed right now.

The bottom line:  Godzilla vs. Kong does what it should by bringing audiences an epic, effects-filled extravaganza that pits cinema’s (literally) biggest monsters against one another for an all-mighty clash that’s popcorn entertainment at its purest.

Godzilla vs. Kong is now in cinemas where available and is also viewable (for a limited period) via HBO Max in the U.S. and Premium Video on Demand internationally.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).