On May 11, 1997, Fox aired “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase.” One of The Simpsons’ first truly meta installments, the story was built around the conceit that the network had asked the producers to come up with a bunch of new series — the episode’s three segments represented three imaginary spin-off shows that incorporated Simpsons characters in new settings or genres. Chief Wiggum got his own Magnum P.I.-style drama series where he becomes a New Orleans detective (working, inexplicably, with Principal Skinner). Moe is in a 1970s sitcom, alongside Grampa, whose soul has become trapped in a love-tester machine. And, finally, there’s The Simpson Family Smile Time Variety Hour, which is as knowingly cheesy as you’d expect. (“What’s a Tim Conway?”)
“The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” parodied the general lameness of TV spin-offs. (Sure, you may remember Joey, but who even knew W*A*L*T*E*R existed?) Frasier aside, they reek of desperation — the product of a network trying to extend a show’s popularity by focusing on side characters that, really, nobody loved that much. In a sense, TV spin-offs (and the original series that spawned them) were the first cinematic universes, expanding outward with new stories and supporting players that are, at best, only tangentially connected to the main action. You watch them because you’re hungry for a little taste of something that used to be a whole lot more substantial.
Disney only made the pilot episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier available to critics, so it’s hard to render any definite verdict about this six-part series, which will stream in weekly segments on Disney+ starting Friday. One shouldn’t entirely trust a first impression: After sampling the three review episodes of WandaVision, I didn’t have much faith in that program, only to be told by people that the show really got good afterward. Nonetheless, I think The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has the potential to be the good version of the “Spin-Off Showcase” dilemma. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan are actors I like playing superheroes I generally dig, but apparently even Marvel knew no one would go see a movie featuring either character — or both of them together. But a TV show? Yeah, sure, why not. Appropriately, then, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels like this-is-fine entertainment to tide you over until some bigger Marvel project comes along. (Hey, Black Widow arrives May 7.) The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten so massive that you have to appreciate a modest television series that knows its place in this bigger, more interesting world.
Where WandaVision had a clever formal conceit — each episode was modeled after a different era of sitcom — The Falcon and the Winter Soldier appears to be a more straightforward action-thriller. And it starts with a grabber sequence in which Falcon (Mackie) executes a daring rescue mission as he retrieves a kidnapped American military liaison from the hands of a dangerous new terrorist group known as LAF. The mission requires him jumping out of one plane, flying over to the terrorists’ plane, fighting a lot of bad guys and then chasing them (and the kidnapped liaison) after they don wingsuits on their way to a helicopter. Directed by Kari Skogland, it’s a dazzling set piece worthy of a James Bond opener, and it sets the bar high for the rest of the pilot and the series as a whole.
Alas, nothing that happens afterwards in the 47-minute-long pilot is as gripping, but that’s not entirely surprising considering that there’s a lot to set up. It’s been a few months since the events of Avengers: Endgame, and Falcon (aka Sam Wilson) is struggling with taking up the Captain America mantle after Steve Rogers walked away from the superhero life. Not unlike the first post-Endgame film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, which had to contend with that blockbuster’s long shadow — not to mention the death of Iron Man — The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a bit of a reset that finds its central characters catching their breath after the big Thanos battle and picking up the pieces of their lives.
Beyond the burden of assuming Captain America’s shield, Sam is also dealing with his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye), who wants to sell the old family fishing boat because the business is getting too expensive to maintain — an opinion that’s an affront to him since he considers the vessel part of their parents’ legacy. Sam’s economic woes are juxtaposed with the Winter Soldier’s (aka Bucky Barnes) psychological scars. Played by Stan, Bucks looks really good for 106 — like his ol’ buddy Cap, he grew up in the 1920s, only to be experimented on by HYDRA to become an elite assassin — but he’s suffering from PTSD and loneliness. Can this killing machine make amends for the tragedies he’s caused? And can he find love? A cute bartender (Miki Ishikawa) seems like a possibility, but Bucky is too guilt-ridden about the hits he’s committed to focus. For both men, real life is far more complicated than all that superhero stuff.
With its movies, Marvel has had mixed results when trying to downscale the stakes: Spider-Man: Far From Home was a dud, while Ant-Man and the Wasp proved to be a pleasant lark. The loss of Captain America haunts Sam, who doesn’t feel worthy of filling those shoes, but for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier it’s not just the absence of Chris Evans that’s conspicuous — it’s the realization that after Endgame and Thanos, nothing in the MCU will feel quite as momentous again. Perhaps wisely, then, the pilot episode takes its time, almost as if letting the audience readjust to this new normal in the same way that the characters are. (It’s a sad quirk of circumstance that the aftermath of the “Blip” — the global event in which millions of people disappeared after Thanos snapped his fingers — factors into the show while also serving as an eerie reminder of all those forever lost because of COVID.)
Unlike the Star Wars spin-off movies — which I liked, even though Lucasfilm didn’t always have the most confidence in them — Marvel seems very comfortable letting its myriad TV/streaming series (like some of the solo superhero films) be their own thing. A Doctor Strange film is different from an Iron Man film, and WandaVision is nothing like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This new show has the potential to be a fun slow burn, laying out its story deliberately while occasionally springing surprises on us.
That said, I’m really just guessing: After one episode, we have yet to even see Sam and Bucky in the same scene — or meet the actor who will ultimately play the series’ principal villain — but there are hints of what’s to come, particularly when a dangerous group of masked baddies show up to wreak havoc. And because Sam is wary of stepping into the role of Captain America, someone else will eventually take the job. (That actor we also do not meet in the first episode. Seriously, there’s a lot of table-setting going on in this pilot.)
But why I’d be interested in sticking with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is that, unlike those satiric Simpsons spin-offs, there’s nothing desperate about the show. Working with everyone from Spike Lee to Kathryn Bigelow before signing up for the MCU, Mackie has always been a charismatic, underrated dramatic actor, while Stan possesses a quiet, brooding charm. They didn’t pop the way their Avengers co-stars did because they didn’t play as compelling of characters — but also because they don’t have their cohorts’ megawatt star presence. However, they’re more than adequate company on the small screen. WandaVision made sense for television because it riffed on sitcoms, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (at least so far) is an enjoyable distraction that doesn’t cry out for a theater experience. It’s the equivalent of those web shorts that TV shows used to produce to give fans bonus bits of content.
Those involved with the series claim that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will be integral to several future Marvel projects, which I’m sure is true — mostly because it incentivizes people to tune in. So much of the Marvel machine is about keeping us hooked, feeding us new projects that we feel we have to watch so we’re not out of the loop in terms of what’s going on in this increasingly labyrinthine universe. There are a lot of reasons to be grouchy about that cynical, corporate-driven approach to storytelling, which is more about preserving and expanding a brand. But as far as obligatory viewing goes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is perfectly adequate. Lots of spin-off shows have been far worse.