Opinion: Falcon And The Winter Soldier Has A Villain Problem

The latest Disney+ MCU show suffers from a familiar storytelling problem.

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Throughout WandaVision's early episodes, viewers complained that the show needed a villain. The next MCU show, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, has the opposite problem: The show has two villains, but neither really works. Karli Morgenthau and John Walker each fit the definition of an antagonist for Sam and Bucky, but neither is a good villain--albeit for very different reasons.

Let's talk about John Walker first. The new Captain America, borrowing from the stories of "US Agent" in the comics, is a decorated soldier who took up the iconic shield at the behest of the US government. After injecting himself with the supersoldier serum and losing his best friend Lemar during battle in Episode 4, the unsavory elements of John's character won out, and he's been on an overtly villainous path ever since.

The problem with John is he was never likeable to begin with. On Falcon and Winter Soldier, we haven't witnessed the tragic corruption of a previously sympathetic character, like Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight; John seemed like a pretty big jerk from the first moment we met him. From his pompous introduction in Episode 2, John Walker has been egotistical, petulant, and naive--which is ironic considering the one thing about his past that has been established is his highly decorated military history. He's made bad call after bad call, refused to listen to other, more knowledgeable characters, and screwed up over and over. Even the casting plays a part here--Wyatt Russell just has a certain kind of face, like Walton Goggins, that makes you want to punch him in it. This character never had any chance of being a "good guy."

Granted, in comparison with Steve Rogers, nobody looks good. But if John had exhibited a shred of humility or nobility at any point along his character's stunted arc, his story could have seemed tragic, instead of simply inevitable and annoying.

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And then there's Karli, who seems designed to fill that exact role: a tragic character whose villainous turn could have been avoided. She's a refugee--though she seems to bristle at the term--who fights for the common people--or so we've been told. But that's the issue: These are all things we've been told about Karli, but haven't actually seen.

Given WandaVision's limited perspective within the town of Westview, 2019's Spider-Man: Far From Home remains the only real glimpse we've had at the MCU world post-Thanos. And as far as we could tell based on that, the instantaneous murder of 50% of the world's population and their subsequent, equally unexpected return five years later didn't really have much of a negative effect on anything. Peter and his friends picked up where they left off in high school, excited to take a school trip to Europe, where everything is pretty much the same. In fact, the "blip" was mostly brought up for laughs in that movie.

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Karli and her Flag Smashers say they want the world to go back to how it was. What the hell does that mean? The show has doled out vague nuggets about the world having fewer borders during that five-year stretch, but this is the first we've heard of it, and it's never adequately explained. In Episode 4, the Flag Smashers delivered a list of demands, but we have no clue what those demands are. What is Karli fighting for? Why do the Flag Smashers have so many devotees--a digital army summoned with a smartphone app and international support from underground movements the world over? What do they actually want? It's never clear, making it difficult to sympathize with Karli, and turning her into just another MCU villain to root against until she's inevitably defeated.

In Episode 5, "Truth," when Karli declared to Batroc that "the GRC vote isn't going to happen," I had to ask myself several questions: "What GRC vote? What's the GRC again? Is the GRC a private corporation or a government body? Are they good or bad?" The show hasn't done a good enough job setting any of this up, and thus, it's hard to care. The struggles that people face in the MCU's post-blip world, where half the global population disappeared and then returned five years later, are no doubt tremendous, but the problem is we've never actually seen them. Karli should have been a window into that world, but instead, she's spent most of her time on-screen making vague declarations, fighting the heroes, and blowing up buildings full of people.

Falcon and the Winter Soldier has done a lot right, especially where Sam and Bucky are concerned. It's effectively brought up complex issues like race and poverty that allow these former side characters to finally expand and breathe, while still feeling like the MCU. But like many other entries in this cinematic universe, its villains have fallen flat. Maybe this will all turn around in the show's finale, but I doubt it.

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