Marvel may have closed the book on its first decade of storytelling in 2019's grand finale Avengers: Endgame. But in the franchise's world, moving forward into a new era might not be so simple.
Marvel on Friday debuted its second Disney+ original series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which follows Captain America's chosen successor, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), as they grapple with a world without him six months after Avengers: Endgame. The series' somber premiere kicks things off in a slow but intriguing fashion, mostly devoting its time to patient character building. But the first episode also notably complicates previous Marvel events, previewing a series that could use its extended running time to deftly explore the world after Thanos' snap and its reversal.
When we last left Sam and Bucky in Endgame, the Avengers had successfully brought back half of all life on Earth five years after Thanos wiped them out. Audiences also said goodbye to Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, with Rogers passing the mantle of Captain America to his buddy Sam, also known as the Falcon.
But not so fast. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier's premiere reveals that Sam has actually turned down the mantle of Captain America and continued under his previous identity of the Falcon, deciding to hand in Steve's iconic shield to a museum instead. Endgame might have offered a chill-inducing passing of the torch moment, but for Sam, Mackie explained to The New York Times, being handed the shield was actually "a major burden."
It's a surprising choice, but one that provides The Falcon and the Winter Soldier with some significant storytelling opportunities. Sure, the series could have slotted Sam into another Captain America adventure right away, and it seems safe to assume we'll still get that at some point. But by first backing up a bit, Marvel can allow Sam to gradually come into his own as our new Captain America, examining what picking up the shield means to him in a way Endgame didn't have time for. More importantly, a further complication sets Marvel up to take on racism in a way it has never before attempted, introducing a narrative specific to Sam's experiences as a Black man.
"The show is very honest and forthright and very unapologetic about dealing with the truth of what it means to be American, Captain America, Black Captain America — and if that's even a thing," Mackie says.
This first episode also complicates the Marvel universe in another way, though, by offering tantalizing glimpses at an idea that has only occasionally been acknowledged since Endgame: that even though the Avengers won, the sudden return of billions of people who had been gone for five years, part of an event now known in the Marvel universe as "the Blip," would still dramatically shake the planet. Just think about it: the Marvel movies are now all taking place in a world where half the population watched themselves turn into dust and die, while the other half are reeling from believing for five years that their loved ones were gone forever. What would it be like for those who snapped away to attempt to integrate themselves back into their old lives? What kind of major and minor fallout could there be throughout society?
One might expect Marvel to hope audiences simply don't think about these questions much. Instead, we discover in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier's premiere that the sudden return of billions of people, despite being Endgame's moment of triumph, actually sent the world into "turmoil," and the planet is described as "broken" and unstable. The Blip often comes up in casual conversation, too, with a character at one point asking another if they've dated much since "half the fish in the sea came back." In another scene, the fact that Sam hasn't had any income for the five years while he was blipped away is even used as an excuse to deny him a loan. It also appears the show's villains may have risen as a direct result of Endgame, as we're told a group known as the Flag-Smashers is driven by the belief that the world was actually better during the time that half the population was gone.
These are all fascinating little pieces of post-Endgame world-building. It continues the Marvel tradition of having their movies' events ripple out into subsequent installments, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could follow those ripples even further, given the series has six hours to work with.
Certainly, the premiere only does so much with these ideas, leaving numerous opportunities on the table; Bucky Barnes has a therapy scene, for example, in which it somehow never comes up that he was essentially dead for five years recently. There has been some concern from fans, too, that after WandaVision radically changed up the Marvel format with its journey through sitcom history, Marvel's second Disney+ outing might adhere a bit too closely to convention, and there's certainly a good degree of familiarity in this first episode.
But diving more into the lasting impact of Thanos' snap would not only make this Marvel's second series in a row to unintentionally echo the COVID-19 pandemic — a line about returning to normal hits differently now. If the show ultimately uses the extra time afforded to it to explore both systemic racism and also the fallout of the Avengers' movies apocalyptic events on our characters and their society, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier might be able to offer something that stands out as, in Sam's words, suited for the times we're in.