Even before the official start of Phase 4 and Marvel’s Disney+ era, it was clear that the studio was taking full advantage of the opportunity provided by the platform to tell stories outside the typical vein of what audiences expect from an MCU movie. The most obvious example was WandaVision’s foray into various old sitcoms, but Loki and What If…? both promise to push that envelope as well.
If there was one series in this first wave of Disney+ Marvel projects that seemed like it was going to be more of the same, relatively speaking, it was The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Not only was it marketed as a fast-paced, action-heavy, and quippy show akin to the style of movies Marvel is known for making, it went a step further. People were even pointing out that the Super Bowl spot earlier this year made the series look as testosterone-heavy and adrenaline-filled as possible.
disney played up the explosion action dude-ness of this trailer for the superbowl i can’t rn https://t.co/gf4mDrOwGP
— bean (@beyabean) February 8, 2021
the only thing missing to complete the vibe was a really male gaze-y shot of a a female character
— bean (@beyabean) February 8, 2021
The other main expectation that people seemed to have going into the series was that the two leads would have a rivalry with each other before becoming friends at the end. This made some sense since the creative team was making it a point to emphasize that Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes were friends with Steve Rogers, but not each other, but fans took it to a meta-level and made it about the shield. Specifically, that the two would both want it and fight over it, even though Avengers: Endgame made it clear it was going to Sam and there was no indication Bucky even wanted it.
The kicks, flips, and quips were all there, and the tension between the two main characters was, in fact, largely about the shield being in the right hands. But it wasn’t a matter of who was more worthy to wield it and bask in the public’s glory; it was about recognizing the gravity of its meaning and showing respect to it, and their friend. Sam didn’t feel prepared to take it all on, and Bucky was hurt that Sam gave up the shield because it went against Steve’s wishes.
The person who did have a desire to be the next Captain America, John Walker, ended up being the antithesis to a lot of what Sam and Bucky said and did during the series. For example, while he initially claimed to feel uncomfortable with all the fanfare surrounding the title, he sure did like to introduce himself with it before providing his actual name.
Walker was also the one who put an end to Bucky’s therapy sessions. Mental health issues aren’t really a thing in most buddy movies but were a major part of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Both leads have suffered from PTSD for a while, though Sam has more time to figure out healthy ways to deal with it than Bucky. This isn’t treated as a shameful thing they try to hide from each other, but a problem they ultimately work together to solve. While Bucky’s therapy sessions end in Episode 2, he does write a note to Dr. Raynor thanking her for her help in the finale, showing that while Walker likely meant well in ending the sessions, it probably wasn’t for the best overall.
On a somewhat related note, it was also refreshing to see Bucky and Sam openly admit to each other when they were wrong about something. Pride, especially male pride, tends to be very fragile in media, especially within the action genre (this also goes for real life) so it was great to see the two leads actually talk to each other about topics like race and mental health without visible reluctance. This showed up in other ways as well, like how Sam preferred to talk with Karli Morgenthau about her beliefs and actions instead of rushing into a fight with her and the other Flag-Smashers (while Walker was used to battling against his opponents and liked it that way).
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wasn’t just the story of Sam Wilson becoming Captain America, or Bucky Barnes finding his place in the world after becoming free of HYDRA’s brainwashing; it was all about being a good man. It’s what Dr. Erskine said was the reason Steve Rogers was chosen for Project Rebirth all the way back in Captain America: The First Avenger (as opposed to a “perfect soldier”, which John Walker arguably was) and it’s what sets this series apart from other buddy action or comedy movies.