The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Disney+’s latest series set in the world of Marvel, isn’t the biggest risk taken by the Mouse in the last few years (hell, it isn’t even the biggest risk taken in the last few weeks). On the surface, the six-episode hour-long drama is so far a relatively straightforward action drama. But the series is very much born of the current state of pop culture, where a diversity of platforms and approaches now enables exploration of a cinematic universe’s unseen corners. It’s a state of being which means that while the show represents a pretty big risk for the MCU, the first episode thrums with potential.

Falcon is almost as straightforward as its title, focused as it is on the lives of Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes, once known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Both men were one-time BFFs of Steve Rogers, and six months after the events of Avengers: Endgame they’re both struggling to figure out how to move forward in a world still shaken by the events of the Blip — a world which could really use a Captain America.

The show’s premise is the sort of challenge which comes with the potential to (pardon the phrasing) either soar or crash and burn: Craft an entire series around two supporting characters in a massive franchise, based on a handful of tiny moments scattered across several previous films. One YouTube supercut I found featuring every previous Sam and Bucky scene in the MCU is 11 minutes long, but the vast majority of that runtime is devoted to fight scenes — only around three minutes, if that, actually features the two characters talking to each other.

There’s no denying that those few moments of film were memorable enough that when this show was first announced, it was easy to get excited about the possibility of these two characters being given more time to interact. But first, Falcon wants to make sure you know who both of these men really are, a task which is embraced wholeheartedly in this first episode (the only one provided in advance to critics).

Because I’ve only seen one episode so far, this review is not terribly long. It also does not include a letter grade, because it feels wrong to assign a grade to the first chapter of a novel. But what I can say in the lead-up to this next installment is that this is further evidence of one of the MCU’s greatest strengths — that while there’s a clear throughline to this unified storytelling universe, there is still room for a diversity of approaches to these characters. On the weirdness scale, Falcon is as far away from WandaVision as you can get so far. But that feels like it’s by design: This is a show about what happens after an intergalactic mad despot gets a magic glove and snaps away half the population for five years, but told from the point of view of those without capes or tights.

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Okay, yes, one guy has a robot arm, and the other guy is also more than capable of superheroics. But their lives require them to grapple not just with the emotional toil of Captain America’s legacy and the traumatic aftereffects of the Blip, but certain practicalities that Iron Man and Thor rarely have to face. Therapy, bank loans, online dating — just because you can fly through the air or have been alive for over a century doesn’t mean that life is easy. This level of grounding is even reflected in the production design and set decoration, with clear attention paid to making sure that Sam and Bucky’s homes feel like lived-in spaces, appropriate to their respective situations.

(L-R): Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in Marvel Studios' THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Image via Disney+

To be honest, it’s a little bit unfair that WandaVision came out before Falcon, because they’re two very different shows serving very different functions: WandaVision drilling down into the psyche of a character who may end up playing an integral role in an upcoming film, while this new adventure is more firmly based in reality than nearly any other MCU narrative to come before it. Director Kari Skogland, who helmed every episode, keeps the action clean and straightforward, and head writer Malcolm Spellman invests a lot of time and energy into the sort of everyday details that that have gone overlooked for over a decade by this franchise.

Both Sam and Bucky, at the beginning of the series, are feeling the absence of their friend — a strong starting point that gives both actors a lot to work with. But while everyone misses Captain America, saying goodbye to him means saying hello to a whole new adventure.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres Friday, March 17 on Disney+.

KEEP READING: 7 Things We Hope to See in ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’

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