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The Falcon and The Winter Soldier episode 1 review: We need this right now

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier episode 1 review
(Image credit: Marvel Studios/Disney Plus)

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier arrives right when we need it most, over a year into a pandemic that has crippled the multiplex and left us starved for action movies. The super-corny Wonder Woman 1984 and the wildly confusing Tenet were the closest we got, and neither quite hit the mark. Thankfully, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Shaw) are here to save us — and the world, too.

If The Falcon and The Winter Soldier episode 1 is any indicator, the rest of this series will be a hit. And even while it may not be as creative or surprising as the first Disney Plus Marvel show, WandaVision, it will likely be as popular if not more. And that makes sense: we've seen more of Sam and Bucky in the previous MCU films than we'd encountered Wanda and The Vision, and so there's more emotion tied to their return.

And let's get something out of the way: The Snyder Cut is definitely taking up a lot of the oxygen in the streaming conversation — but it has nothing on Falcon and The Winter Soldier. One hour of this series proves more enjoyable and fulfilling than four hours of the new Justice League edit. 

Falcon and Winter Soldier delivers familiar MCU action

While episode 1 begins with a moment of reflection, as Sam considers Cap's shield, it's not long before we're back in blockbuster action mode. Sam's in the skies to rescue a military captain who's being pursued by a terrorist group near Tunisia. 

One hour of this series proves more enjoyable and fulfilling than four hours of the new Justice League edit.

Everything goes pear-shaped quickly, but Sam's quick thinking and faster flying gives him a wing up on the competition. Maybe it's been a while since I've seen a new action movie, but this scene is the kind of thing that will make you miss the theater-going experience if you do not already. 

But the heart is in the post-Endgame drama

But once we zoom out, both Falcon and The Winter Soldier are following paths that make sense for both characters: dealing with life after Steve Rogers, the man who connected their own lives. Don't expect them to actually engage with each other in the first episode, though, as they're off on their own paths. Sam is not ready to become Captain America 2.0 and trying to make things better for his relatives, while Bucky is trying to come to grips with what he did when he was The Winter Soldier. 

Falcon and Winter Soldier works best, so far, when both characters are processing who they are. Bucky has a lot that he's dealing with, as his actions as The Winter Soldier are living rent-free in his head — and they're driving him insane. He's trying to make a new life, at the behest of his therapist, but it's not going to plan at all. Those therapy sessions, though, are already a highlight of a show filled with memorable moments. I haven't seen therapy in a ton of TV shows, but I was getting flashbacks to Dr. Melfi and Tony Soprano's banter, in a good way.

Falcon and The Winter Soldier episode 1 review: Sam and "his" shield

(Image credit: Disney Plus/Marvel Studios)

Meanwhile, Sam's still active, helping out on missions and spending his free time talking to an industrious soldier investigating a new terrorist group called the Flag Smashers. But that's just a bit of story-building for what will likely be one of the big villains of the season. We spend more time with Sam back home in Louisiana with his family, where his sister Sarah is still trying to keep things together after he spent five years in the "blip." 

Sam is pushing Sarah to try and salvage the family boat instead of sell it — even though she needs the money. That doesn't work out too well when they try and get a loan from a bank, only for the clerk to look down on their bad records and take a selfie with Sam. The scene hits hard on how society doesn't do right by veterans returning from war, fleshing out the idea that this series will show us what the real life of a superhero is like.

Falcon and The Winter Soldier episode 1 review: Bucky is processing

(Image credit: Disney Plus/Marvel Studios)

Throughout the episode, Sam and Bucky get the space to be the center of attention that they never were in previous Marvel movies. And as Bucky broods and as Sam fights for what he knows is right, we're reminded about how charismatic both Mackie and Shaw are, and why they both have not-insignificant fandoms online. This show may not appear to be the surprising mystery-box series that WandaVision was, but it's going to be voraciously devoured, and that's just as good.

Why we're here and what's next

The big underlying story of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, so far at least, is that these heroes (and the world writ large) has a void where it once had its mightiest heroes. In an early scene where James Rhodes asks about Sam's decision to not be Captain America, neither has to admit that they're both in similar territory. Rhodes is currently without Tony Stark, the Captain America to War Machine's Falcon. The difference, though, is that he wasn't given the Iron Man mantle. Sam was. 

Falcon and The Winter Soldier episode 1 review: Sam's frustrations

(Image credit: Marvel Studios/Disney Plus)

In the last moments of the episode, we meet a new character that basically sets up the big story of the season. We see them for maybe a few frames, and they're gone. I'm not spoiling it here because that's no fun (and because we learn so little about the character), but it sets up a lot to come. It's the kind of cliffhanger that will send people looking for episode 2, only to realize that it's not out yet. Unlike with WandaVision, we have to wait til next week to see the second episode. 

It feels like Falcon and The Winter Soldier will be building us to the next stage of the Avengers group. While we've wondered if Captain Marvel will be at the helm of this team, it seems like they're setting Sam Wilson up to be a leader — and understanding that it might take some time for him to be ready. And if the rest of the series is as good as its first episode, I'm sure Sam will be assembling the Avengers in no time.

Henry T. Casey

Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past six-plus years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.