The Falcon and the Winter Soldier never pretended to be a light-hearted show. Its interest in examining the racial divide in American society guaranteed it would tread into dark places, but even for a series that saw Bucky Barnes impale a goon with a lead pipe, “The Whole World is Watching” goes beyond what anyone could expect from a Marvel Studios production. After 13 years of uplifting storytelling, the change in tone is exactly what Marvel needs to keep fans invested in its universe without flagship heroes like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Its title characters have started to fade into the background, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s nuanced villains and intelligent commentary are driving Marvel storytelling to unforeseen heights.
Part of what makes “The Whole World is Watching” so effective and unique is its thoughtful use of violence as a means to draw an emotional reaction, even when the story beats are predictable. The result from writer Derek Kolstad’s red paintbrush is all Picasso and no Jackson Pollack – every motion in an action sequence fulfills a purpose, building towards a breathtaking climax. The jaw-dropping fight at the end of the episode is an obvious example of Kolstad’s excellence, but an early chase scene featuring a pistol-wielding Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is every bit as good. Just as Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) thinks she’s made her escape from the pursuing Avengers – BANG – a bullet nails her in the side as a determined Zemo calmly advances towards his wounded prey. Director Kari Skogland’s camera work adds to the visceral gunfire, as Zemo corners Karli and shoots from point-blank range. It conveys how personal the showdown is to Zemo, and seeing him one step ahead of his opponent is a great payoff for a villain who’s always the smartest guy in the room.
If there’s one bummer about Bruhl’s Zemo, it’s that audiences are only going to get to watch him in action a few more times this season. From handing candy to uneasy children, to casually sipping whiskey while the Dora Milaje lay out Sam (Anthony Mackie), Bucky (Sebastian Stan), and John (Wyatt Russell), Zemo wins every scene he’s in. Bruhl’s performance, along with an excellent script, combine the best parts of top-tier Marvel villains past. Like Killmonger, he has a point. He has Loki’s wit, which leaves you on the edge of your seat even when you’re laughing at some quick quip, and he bears the same conviction that allowed Thanos to complete his mission despite overwhelming adversity.
Karli Morgenthau and her band of Flag Smashers are never going to reach Zemo levels of excellence, but “The Whole World is Watching” gave them a lot more screen time and made the most of it. Karli is a mass murderer, but she’s also a kid with undeniable leadership skills. Kellyman plays her with a naivety that almost washes the memory of her unnecessary killings away. A tender scene between her and Sam reveals a misguided child with her back against the wall. The Global Repatriation Council’s failures still feel too abstract to make Karli’s means feel justified, but Kellyman makes a strong impression with more camera time.
Wyatt Russell’s John Walker does the same, bringing the show’s themes squarely into focus through his masterfully written character. Through John, the failures of U.S. policy both at home and abroad are revealed. The U.S. Government’s racial biases led Walker to be handed the shield over a man far more worthy of wielding it, and its insistence on using that shield as a sword results in needless bloodshed on foreign soil. The chill-inducing shot of a demented John holding the bloodstained shield won’t win any awards for subtly, but it’s powerful nonetheless.
Showrunner Malcolm Spellman didn’t have to make John such a compelling character to have him achieve those thematic goals, but his ambitious vision has been completely fulfilled. John’s path from protector to murderer never loses sight of his morality. He can be off-putting and struggles with boundaries, but an honest conversation with Lemar shows his heart really is in the right place. He correctly questions whether or not he should take the dose of super soldier serum he swiped from Karli, only doing so when Lemar tells him of all the people he’d be able to protect. Steve Rogers took the serum for the same reason, and in that way he and John do share a bond.
John has been placed in an impossible position, and that makes his ultimate decision to break bad feel more tragic than “I told you so.” The government gave him Cap’s shield and propped him up to be Steve Rogers’ replacement without ensuring that he had the compassion necessary to do the job right. They tasked John with fighting super serumed terrorists without powers of his own and had him try to recruit Steve’s slighted sidekicks who were predisposed to hate him. John has a lot of heroic traits in him, but how could he not be overwhelmed by insecurity when tasked with such an impossible mission? It’s easy to label John as Costco Cap, but doing so misses the point of his arc.
John’s character is so compelling that he’s indirectly responsible for Falcon and the Winter Soldier losing sight of its protagonists. His battle with insecurity, failure and trauma makes for more compelling storytelling than Sam and Bucky’s less personal fight against the Flag Smashers. Bucky’s mental trauma and path to redemption is every bit as interesting as John’s plight, but it hasn’t been the center of the story since the group therapy scene in “Star-Spangled Man.” Sam’s struggle against systemic racism – a problem so deeply rooted in American society that not even his Avengers credentials make him impervious to it – is even more compelling. By pulling Sam overseas, his plight has become more of a plot device than a tangible battle. There’s only about 45 minutes of content to pack into an episode, and the heroes’ stories have been the victims of that tight limit.
Even with its protagonists slacking, Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems to outdo itself every week, and if Malcolm Spellman is to be believed, that trend looks likely to continue next week. In an interview with Comicbook.com, Spellman said of episode 5, “It just gets real. And five, you’re going to cry.” Between Sam’s collision course with the shield, Bucky sliding toward a potential relapse, John coming face-to-face with his failure as a man, and Isaiah Bradley still lurking in the background, the gut punches could come from any direction.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Episode 4 Awards: The Whole World is Watching
MVP – John Walker: As its title implies, “The Whole World is Watching” revolves almost entirely around John Walker and his failure to live up to the Captain America name. I’ve talked plenty about why this character works so well in the big picture, but Wyatt Russell’s tremendous performance makes John fun to watch even when he’s doing something as simple as signing an autograph for a fan. After getting walloped by the Dora Milaje, his devastated line – “They weren’t even super soldiers” – captures everything that’s going on in his mind. John has never had consistent success leading comic book stories, and I think he works better in tandem with more heroic characters, but I hope he makes it out of this series alive.
Most Improved – Karli Morgenthau: The story’s treatment of Karli, a mass murderer, still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the character really shined this week. She was too stiff and self-serious in previous episodes, but her more sympathetic side is revealed when juxtaposing her with Sam. She’s just a kid, and Sam talking to her like a disappointed but loving parent bolstered her character.
Best Petty Bucky Moment – “Looking strong, John!”: Bucky has about 15 of these every episode, and all of them hit. While his compulsive need to call out Sam for handing over Cap’s shield is a strong runner up, nothing beats his belittling quip to John as the Dora Milaje beat the snot out of him. John gets lower by episode’s end, but that ass whooping at the Dora Milaje’s hand was his lowest point yet, and Bucky didn’t think twice about adding a verbal kick to the gut while Ayo and company delivered physical ones.
Who Won the Episode, Sam or Bucky? Bucky may be more consistently fun to watch, but Sam Wilson wins this week. Bucky mails in his attempts to get the refugees to give up Karli’s location, while Sam’s more empathetic approach almost leads to a breakthrough. Bucky lets John persuade him to join Sam upstairs to ambush Karli, and while I probably would have made the same choice, it was ultimately the wrong one. Sam got to showcase his compassion and a rare talent for talking to people, and that skillset was far more crucial to the team than Bucky’s ability to beat people up. Most importantly, Sam, without super-soldier serum, was able to land a spinning side kick on Karli’s stomach, earning a huge W on his thus far spotty combat resume.
“Huh?” Moments – Zemo’s escape and Sam’s endgame with Karli: Derek Kolstad did a bang up job on the script this week, but a few moments left me scratching my head. The Dora Milaje’s inability to keep one eye on Zemo while they took turns beating John to a pulp is unforgivable. Their express purpose for entering the story was to bring Zemo to justice, and they just let him “pull an El Chapo” because they were too busy flexing on John. Awful stuff from the Dora Milaje.
Similarly, I’m confused about Sam’s strategy during his one-on-one with Karli. He’s sympathetic to her cause, which I don’t really get because – and I cannot stress this enough – she blew up three people with a car bomb the day before. There’s no way that discussion should have ended in anything other than her arrest, but I didn’t see any extra sturdy handcuffs. Absolutely brutal stuff from my guy Sam Wilson.