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The Falcon And The Winter Soldier: 1.03 – The Power Broker is an example of a story allowing it’s plot to inform it’s characters as opposed to it’s characters informing it’s plot and that is a major problem.
Save for two specific moments, there are three significant issues which plague this episode’s ability to tell anything more than a bland semi-sequel to Captain America: Civil War. We will touch on the first two shining moments in a bit, but let’s dive in on the three stumbling-blocks first:
- Stuff happens in this episode because stuff needs to happen in order for the plot to move forward.
- I don’t know if The Flag Smashers are supposed to be sympathetic villains, or if I am supposed to really hate them, or if they’re just misunderstood?
- I’ve already seen better versions of this whole episode in plenty of other films – namely, John Wick.
At first glance, this episode seems to center around our two heroes blurring the lines of heroism and pragmatism – sacrificing some of their well rooted integrity to solve the Flag Smashers mystery. Whether it is breaking Zemo out of prison, traveling to Madripoor (more on this in a bit) and commiserating with the MCU’s hive of scum and villainy, or casually murdering a large swath said scum and villainy, Sam and Bucky are hot on the case to unearth the Super Soldier Serum mystery.
For the most part, TFTWS has performed relatively well in the motivations for it’s characters as it relates to the plot. Sam and Bucky joined up in the beginning of episode two for reasons that were personal to both of them as well as independent of the end goal. John Walker, as much as of clown as he is, acts the way he does because he’s wildly insecure and performs his duties through that lens. But this episode – boy, this episode doesn’t do that at all.
We caught a minor sniff of this notion with last week’s “gotcha moment” when Bucky revealed they were going to see Zemo concerning Hydra’s possible ties to the newly surfaced Super Soldier serum. The reasoning was that Zemo, of all people, would have a beat on any intelligence because he knew all the “secrets”. Sure, you can squint at it and see some connection there, but it’s lazy writing at best and it happens because the writers wanted to reintroduce Zemo into the storytelling mix. There’s nothing specific or detailed about Zemo which prevents any other character in the MCU from performing the same task. It happened because it needed to.
While I can whistle past the graveyard as it relates Zemo’s sudden appearance in the show (and TBH I am happy to do so because I love me some MCU Helmut Zemo) there are instances that I simply cannot look past in this episode. Zemo breaks out of prison with extraordinary ease and Bucky somehow slips him a keycard to use. How this happened? There’s no need for detail really because the story needed Zemo out of prison to take our characters to Madripoor.
What’s worse about this sequence is that instead of focusing on some great acting and pathos being featured between Zemo and Bucky, all I kept thinking about is this: how the hell are Sam and Bucky allowed to go see Zemo? One guy is an Avenger who, as Bucky states, would do nothing but rile the prisoner up. Oh, and the other is, yanno, the guy who Zemo manipulated and framed for blowing up the U.N..
Not to mention Zemo also knows the specific key phrases that can scramble Bucky’s brains faster than Gordon Ramsey cooking up his famous eggs. You would think that the prison warden, even if there was a one percent chance of Bucky being turned back into the most murdery cyborg this side of Skynet, would take a look at these two and say, “nah we’re good fellas – thanks for visiting Germany though.” No, it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because the story needs them to see Zemo and Zemo needs to be broken out.
Speaking of Zemo, now he’s the Sokovian equivalent of Bruce Wayne?
I know all you comic book nerds are going to blah me to death about how he’s actually a Baron in the comics and royalty is part of his backstory. Yeah, I get it.
In this case, however we are not analyzing comic Zemo. We are discussing The MCU version of Zemo, who was introduced by F.R.I.D.A.Y. in Captain America: Civil War as nothing more than simply a colonel in the Sokovian special forces. Does that mean he is NOT a Baron? Not necessarily, but it would be logical to assume Tony Starks AI assistant would provide him with all the relevant information about the guy who was the main villain pulling all the strings behind the Avengers civil war. One would also assume Zemo being a Baron would probably be chief among the pertinent intelligence but that’s neither here nor there.
The Baron retcon for Zemo accomplishes two objectives for the story: it allows our characters a way in to Madripoor and to have all the necessary resources to achieve whatever goals the story needs. But also, it somewhat invalidates — no, it totally invalidates — one of the major operative character themes for Civil War: a simple man who had some training lost everything because of the Avengers actions in Sokovia. That man that served as the perfect mirror for the Avengers because he was obsessed with revenge and transformed his weaknesses into his strengths. While, at the same time, forcing the Avengers’ (the most powerful people on the planet) strengths to devolve into their weaknesses.
TFTWS now gives Zemo every resource on the planet, a warehouse full of antique cars, a private jet and a non working refrigerator. Plus Zemo gets a really sweet purple mask that’s just been chilling in his car filled warehouse because….reasons. Well, the story needs him to have it. So, he does. (Let’s also just look over the little fact this mask means he had nefarious intent prior to his wife and children being killed in Sokovia – which would once again invalidate his thematic motivation in Civil War.)
Zemo takes our boys to Sokovia to meet up with Selby, someone he has dealt with in the past, and she just happens to have all the right answers. Again, Zemo knows her because of…reasons. Everything goes swimmingly until
Sam “Smiling Tiger” receives a phone call from his sister Sarah and then everything goes to crap while resulting in Selby’s death from an unknown sniper. Why does Sarah call Sam at that moment? Nothing urgent really. Honestly, she’s in no imminent danger and there is nothing that is pressing in that exact moment. Sarah just decided to chat for funsies about the bank issues they were having back in episode one. The show needed our boys on the run, so it had Sarah call.
Moreover, I don’t know if this is supposed to be a funny scene, a suspenseful scene, or if it’s supposed to be exactly how it came off: awkward. In the end, we learn just enough to move the plot forward, but keep our terrific trio in the dark on who The Power Broker is and maintain whatever mystery Malcolm Spellman and Derek Kolstad are trying to keep from us as viewers. So Bucky, Sam, and Zemo are back on the run.
While on the run though, and seemingly cornered by nameless/faceless (Power Broker employed?) rando baddies, yay, Sharon Carter shows up and murders them all!
Yes, that’s right, Sharon Carter just happens to be in Madripoor, and she either has the best luck on the planet in being at the right party at the exact right time or she has enough intelligence from somewhere to know that Bucky and Sam will be where they are and when they are. But, then again, no one is supposed to know they are Bucky and Sam – as they are supposed to be The Winter Soldier and Smiling Tiger, who just happen to be hanging out with a conspicuously freed Helmut Zemo. Nevertheless, Sharon shows up at the right time to save the day, and just happens to be influential enough in Madripoor now (a mere six months after reappearing from The Blip) that she throws parties with the most elite Madripoorians(?) to sell art and have a lavish lifestyle.
Oh, and, she agrees to help our terrific trio because Sam promises her that he can, as nothing more than a government sub contractor, clear Sharon’s name of high treason. Another note, why was everybody else involved with The Avengers cleared of any wrong doing after defeating Thanos, but not Sharon? (psst…because the show needs her in Madripoor). Somehow, though, Sharon agrees to help out because she is so eager to give up all of her power, influence, and apparent immense wealth – all for a minute chance at a clear name, a desk job, and a white picket fence in the U.S.
Once again, the show needed her there and to have enough clout to relay the information not because it was within Sharon’s character to do so, but because that’s what it needed to move forward in it’s momentum.
There are countless other instances of the show prioritizing plot over character in this episode, but another main issue is that I’m not 100% clear on what the heck is actually going on with the Flag Smashers. Are they bad guys? Are they misunderstood? Are they good guys doing bad things? We are halfway through the series and I still have no clue. Sure, Karli blows up a building full of soldiers and people by the end of the episode.
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Karli legitimizes this action because this “is the only message they understand.” But, what exactly is the message she is trying to convey and to whom is she trying to convey it? From what I gather, The Flag Smashers want the unity of the world to revert back to the way it was during The Blip – one people, one world. They stole Super Soldier serum from a really bad dude named The Power Broker, used it on themselves to help their cause, and now they are redistributing vaccines and supplies to those who have been left behind after The Blip.
It’s one thing for me to be confused about their significance and their utility to the plot, but I don’t see why Sam and Bucky are so intent on stopping them? What about the Flag Smashers actions, other than their really ominous name, suggest that two Avengers need to commit their full attention to their affairs? Perhaps it’s because they exist as super soldiers and that is enough reason to combat them? Maybe, but the show is also telling us that Karli just wants to help the unfortunate and she can go be a teacher once this is all said and done. Wow, she must be stopped NOW.
Furthermore, the show also tells us that Wilfed Nagel made the Super Solider serum for Power Broker – twenty vials to be exact – and those vials were stolen by Karli. While he was (apparently?) in the process of making more, Nagel had not science’d up a complete serum yet since the theft, so there were no other vials to be had in his lab. Naturally he was murdered by Zemo, which does make sense for his character to do something like that, but that leaves the threat of more Super Soldiers being created now moot. Yet, Sam and Bucky continue on because….reasons.
So if there is no threat for more Super Soldiers and the Flag Smashers are just trying to help people (granted being a little forceful in their application), why are they the bad guys again? Maybe if their goal was to physically topple governments the way that the Winter Solider program was originally founded on, that would make sense. They would need to be stopped, and be stopped by at least an Avenger or two. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here – so, again, why are they the bad guys?
A lot of this confusion is not immediately evident because the show is moving so fast that there is not time to stop and think about it’s mechanics. Going to see Zemo! Wait, why would they be allowed there? Who cares, look, a prison break! Wait, how did that key card get in the cell? Who cares?! Antique cars and a private jet! Wait, how is no one aware that Zemo’s private jet is now suddenly in Germany after he breaks out? Who cares?! It’s Madripoor and Sharon Carter in a brutal fight scene! The fault belongs to the writing, and, the writer: Derek Kolstad.
Kolstad is a good writer and you definitely know his work. He wrote this little franchise called John Wick, and you can feel his fingerprints all over this episode. Whether it was the club scene, meeting Selby, or the signature Gun-Fu exhibited by Sharon during her major fight scene amidst the storage containers, I was half expecting Sharon to say:
It’s not to say that I don’t love me some John Wick. I ABSOULTEY do. But, that’s the problem. What we all just watched was John Wick lite. I’ve seen the fight scenes, the club scene, the over the top characters, and the somewhat questionable logic all before; in John Wick. And it was done a lot better in those films. They happen in TFTWS because it needs to, but also because it’s telling you to think one thing, and one thing only: THIS. IS. COOL. And it is – in John Wick.
Where the episode goes right, however, are to specific points. First, Zemo confronts Bucky with the words that are supposed to reset Bucky’s brain just to see what would happen. While Bucky maintains they don’t work anymore, Zemo says that there is something left still in there that pushes Bucky.
This is important because Zemo forces Bucky to once again play the role of The Winter Solider in Madripoor. But, is he really playing a role?
Bucky is terrifying, and Sebastian Stan is even more terrifying playing him. But the ease with which Bucky dispatches an entire bar full of what would likely be the world’s most talented bounty hunters, comes so naturally and effectively. He may maintain that he is not a killer anymore, but there is definitely still something in him that erupts when it needs to. Contrast this effectiveness with Zemo’s rather effective comments on how place heroes on a pedestal, there’s no wonder why Bucky ends up telling Sam that he will take the shield before Sam destroys it.
Lastly, the show also nails it’s characterization of John Walker just right. Despite his enormous resources, Walker is still hamstrung by the rules of the government and you can tell it frustrates him. He wants to prove so badly that he is an effective Captain America that he seemingly wants to even bend some of the rules to prove it. The “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!” line could have been super cheesy, but it was played perfectly by Wyatt Russell. He may be the new Captain America, but no one cares, and no one believes it. Walker is a man who is desperate, out of touch, and running out of options to prove his worth. To emphasize this point, director Kari Skogland makes an impressive choice to zoom right in on Walker’s face and blur the background as he comes out of his failure to capture any Flag Smashers. It’s perfect visual storytelling to exemplify Walker’s tenuous grip on his reality.
By episode’s end, however, we are left with nothing more than Karli blowing up a building, the terrific trio driving away in a muscle car, Walker in the wind, and another gotcha moment when Ayo shows up to say she wants Zemo. It all feels perfunctory, like it’s supposed to happen. We are in the middle of our six hour movie and there is no transformational moment yet. There is nothing propelling our story forward other than plot mechanics and it’s a very fast and frustrating turn for a show that was exploring some real pathos in it’s characters the past two episodes.
APROPOS OF NOTHING FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER: 1.03 – THE POWER BROKER
- We get a passing mention of Nagel’s work deriving from the blood of people who were experimented on in the past. Implicit in that revelation is that it was Isaiah Bradley’s blood.
- We also get a a passing mention of Nagel continuing the work of Dr. Erksine – the good doctor played by Stanley Tucci in Captain America: The First Avenger who gave Steve Rogers his powers.
- One of the best running jokes in the MCU is how Sam and Bucky refuse to move his seat up when one is the front of the car and the other in the back. This is such a cool reference, and it mirrors one of the most genuinely funny moments in Captain America: Civil War and the MCU writ large.
- Zemo is reading Machiavelli – ok guys. Calm down. Next thing you know you’re gonna start dropping some Theseus references in your shows…wait…
- Zemo also refers to the Avengers nonchalance as it relates to Sokovia and the memorial there. Excellent touch by Kolstad.
- Holy crap! Bucky’s little notebook full of names is actually Steve’s notebook he kept to catch him up on all the pop culture references in Captain America: The Winter Soldier!
- “He’s out of line, but he’s right!” A genuinely good moment between our terrific trio. Also referencing Marvin Gaye and how Sam wanted Steve to listen to Trouble Man in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
- Notice all the posters in Low Town of Madripoor saying, “The Power Broker Is Watching” Yup, I can see a path of this show where The Flag Smashers, Carter, the Terrific Trio, Walker and Battlestar all have to team up and take down The Power Broker.
- Also, don’t be surprised if The Power Broker is also the person in charge of the GRC.
- Madripoor in the MCU is very much like it’s counterpart in the comics — even Low Town vs. High Town. Madripoor is a really big deal – especially for the X-Men and Wolverine in particular. But after the WandaVision fake out with Quicksilver, I’m not going to get too excited here. If there was a way to introduce Wolverine and mutants in the MCU, however, Madripoor would be a fun way to do it.