Sidekicks don't always get their due, especially when you've got a Genius Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist, the God of Thunder, and America's Ass running around in a "spangly outfit" to compete with. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never had "sidekicks" by name, it's fair to argue at the very least that there's always been a B-team.
WandaVision and, now, the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, "New World Order," have changed that, adding the kind of depth long-term MCU fans have often dreamed of for their favorite side characters.
Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) were arguably always hanging around the perimeter. Bucky has played a major role in all three standalone Captain America movies — as a best friend, a tragic villain, and an anti-hero, respectively — while Sam has provided equal parts humor and everyman morality ever since Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) zipped past him at the start of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Those roles never left Sam or Bucky with much in the way of backstory, though. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is looking to fix that — with some bonus big screen-worthy action along the way.
**SPOILER WARNING: This story contains spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 1, "New World Order."**
"When you sit down and enjoy the characters over time, you can get inside their heads very differently and inside their experience, which just makes it immersive," series director Kari Skogland told SYFY WIRE ahead of the premiere. As she explains, Sam and Bucky come from two very different worlds; different time periods, different experiences, different traumas.
In Episode 1, audiences get a better idea of where Sam comes from: The Wilsons are a working-class family from Louisiana; Sam's a stubborn brother, loving uncle, and dedicated son who's unwilling to let go of the past. His dedication to the Wilson family's old fishing boat that his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) operates while he's off saving the world is, while admirable, slowly creating a rift between the siblings. And when Sam tries to get a loan to help Sarah keep the business afloat? The local bank cares more for Sam's celebrity Avengers status than it does his family's long history in the town and refuses to help. When they imply the loan officer's denial might be due to racism, the man bristles.
As Skogland promises, this won't be the last time Sam's identity as a Black man will come into play. In Marvel's comics, Sam's time with the shield has seen him tackle the complicated ins and outs of what it means to be a Black Captain America in a country long defined by systemic racism. Given the MCU's track record of following in the comics lore's footsteps (with the occasional update, such as changes to Civil War or how WandaVision went about picking and choosing parts of House of M and Tom King's Vision), it's fair to assume Falcon and the Winter Soldier will do the same. Meaning: Sam's reluctance to pick up the shield Old Man Steve so resolutely handed over in Avengers: Endgame and that Sam gave up at the top of "New World Order" is complicated.
As series head writer Malcolm Spellman explains it, "There's no way to avoid ‘yes' or ‘no' to that shield. As a Black man, there was going to be no avoiding the journey he has to go on. It's not obvious. People think it's like, ‘Oh, I'm Captain America. I'm off and running.' Nope, that's not it."
Spellman calls the scene in which Steve gives Sam the shield in Endgame the series' "biggest blessing" because Sam verbalizes his immediate doubt, telling Steve that it feels "like it belongs to someone else."
"If you factor in who this man is — and you will factor it in because we got to bring Louisiana and all that to life — it is an incredibly difficult thing for him to confront," Spellman continues. "Yeah, obviously the shield represents a best friend who is gone, but it's also [about] who [Sam] is and where he comes from and I think you start to see it immediately, like in the bank scene and with his family at home. He can't in good faith just throw on the stars and stripes."
Sam's reluctance to take up the shield and redefine the role of Captain America on his own terms mirrors his hesitation to let his sister move on beyond the confines of their family's legacy. He's stuck in the past, unsure how to move forward, but he's not the only one.
The other side of the coin is one James Buchanan Barnes, who's holding onto over 100 years of frequently defrosted trauma, guilt, and uncertainty after spending decades as HYDRA's top assassin, the Winter Soldier, against his will. In Episode 1, we see Bucky in full Winter Soldier mode, shooting up a hotel to take down some unnamed target — just before he wakes reeling from the nightmare and we see he's sleeping on the floor. (Ironic, given that Sam and Steve first bonded over how sleeping in a bed felt like "lying on a marshmallow.")
Cut to Bucky in therapy and lying to his therapist about still having nightmares. (Side note: Please don't lie to your therapist, folks.) He's working on amends, has steps, including a script to deliver — "I am no longer the Winter Soldier. I am James Bucky Barnes, and you're part of my efforts to make amends" *insert forced smile* — and has been shutting himself off from the outside world.
"One thing that I was interested in was this idea of how old Bucky is," Spellman shares. "He's, I think, 106 years old or something like that and... because he was never in his right mind, he's not of any given generation because he's never been present. So... we know [everything] he's been through and now he's forced to confront them."
With Bucky's age in mind, we learn he's befriended an elderly man — one with a pre-serum Steve Rogers' ill-advised "fight me" spirit, no less. The man, Yori Nakajima (Ken Takemoto), lost his son a while back and enjoys Bucky's company enough at the very least to set him up on a date with a pretty waitress. The little MCU audiences know of a pre-war Bucky indicated he was a bit of a ladies' man back in the day, but that's changed now. While the date starts off well, it ends with Bucky running out the door in a panic when she compliments him on spending time with Yori.
The real heartbreak comes when it's revealed that the target from Bucky's earlier flashback-nightmare is Yori's son, who he's still mourning. This relationship, seemingly so sweet, is a part of Bucky's amends.
"Violence has consequences. We were very conscious of that being embedded in our storyline," Skogland explains. "And that's what Bucky is dealing with, the fact that his violence — no matter good, bad, or well-intentioned, there are consequences. That if he is going to find himself, he's going to have to deal with it, partly because to not acknowledge the consequences is making him feel disconnected from everybody, and from himself and his core ethics and moral values."
These internal struggles will play a large part in both character's journeys. That Sam and Bucky haven't even been in the same room yet begs questions about how their opposite personalities and similar hang-ups will clash as the series continues.
"I think that is something that is... new to the MCU," Skogland says, admitting that while other movies may have dabbled with characters' trauma, "it's quite rare that it's so personalized. And that's what's so exciting about telling this story because it's so intimate and personal with both Bucky and Sam and their past is really informing their present. And so we are in the moments with them as they are taking their past, allowing it to filter into their present, which is going to become their future."
New episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiere every Friday on Disney+.