It felt like The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, arriving just two weeks after WandaVision's glorious sitcom weirdness wrapped up on , would be a return to the standard Marvel Cinematic Universe tone. All the prerelease hype suggested the usual mix of breezy superhero action, quippy banter and high stakes.
The first episode, streaming Friday, delivers that up front, with Sam Wilson, aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), immediately embarking on a visually stunning aerial rescue. The scene mirrors the opening set piece from 2014's excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, subtly reminding us that Steve Rogers chose Sam as the next person to wield his iconic shield in Avengers: Endgame.
Those are big shoes to fill, however, and Sam doesn't think anyone should adopt the Captain America mantle. He knows he has to play the hero, but he doesn't feel worthy of becoming that hero. His uncertainty and humility tell us he's definitely the guy for the job, even if he hasn't accepted it yet.
We also get our first look at his family back in Louisiana, giving us insight into the character's background in a way the fast-paced movies never took the time to. Sam's return home also highlights the real-world problems people in this universe face when supervillains aren't tearing cities apart -- one attempt to get a bank loan will make you grit your teeth.
Mackie infuses his performance with a careful mixture of easy charm, confidence and self-doubt. He's a delight to watch in every situation, and you'll be rooting for him to take up the shield.
Jumping to the other titular hero, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is struggling with his dark deeds as brainwashed assassin the Winter Soldier and his attempt to make a life for himself now that he's free from his programming.
Bucky's scenes in the 43-minute first episode are more intimate than Sam's, with lots of close shots suggesting how traumatized he is after decades of being thawed out for killing missions. Stan slides effortlessly between distant and endearing as Bucky spends time with the few friends he's made -- one of those relationships leads to a gut-punch that'll make you feel deeply for him.
Allusions to the heroes' pasts also serve to bring anyone who hasn't watched every MCU offering since 2008 up to speed, so the show should serve as an ideal jumping-on point for those who just want a superhero-flavored thriller. It's satisfyingly linked to events that came before, without feeling bogged down by years of continuity.
Aside from the two boys, we get some fascinating hints about an extremist group (presumably the show's first main threat) that rose up in the five years between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Its use of the internet to gather followers feels eerily close to reality, so it'll be exciting to see how this plot thread plays out.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier may not spark the wild fan theorizing WandaVision did, but its charismatic leads, espionage action and grounded approach suggest we're in for a fun ride over the show's six-episode run.