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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier explores the modest, post-Endgame life of superheroes

Problems such as rent, bills, and ongoing trauma didn’t go away when the Avengers defeated Thanos.

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Courtesy of Marvel
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

After watching the first episode of Marvel’s newest Disney+ series, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, I found myself wondering why the Avengers never unionized.

All those years of overtime, broken bones, concussions, health care costs, PTSD, travel, no vacation days, no suitable life insurance, unsubsidized phone plans — saving the world had a human toll. And what I learned from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is that even though they worked alongside one of the richest men on the planet (Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man) and saving the universe from Thanos, Falcon, the Winter Soldier, and the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes weren’t even compensated.

While the Marvel TV series is about its two titular heroes — heroes who spent the better part of the last decade playing Captain America’s wingmen — it’s also about what life is really like for an Avenger. It addresses some questions about who pays the Avengers (the answer is no one, really) as well as the day-to-day existence of a superhero in the real world.

But in particular, the show explores what kind of world all these heroes are coming back to after the events of Avengers: Endgame.

It turns out that defeating the most monstrous being in the universe was really nice, but the real world’s ills didn’t miraculously turn to dust when Thanos did. There are still bills to pay, jobs to work, and kids to take care of. And with all these terrestrial downers, what is there to gain from being a superhero?

I suppose Falcon and Winter Soldier, through their adventures on the new series, will try to answer some of those questions and convince me that being a nonunion hero is worth it. Marvel made only the first episode of the show available to critics prior to its March 19 debut, but it does reveal the basic themes of the series. Here are some thoughts on the premiere and a hint of what to expect.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t escapist

There will be no mistaking The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for the stylish puzzle box that was WandaVision, Marvel’s first Disney+ show and the subject of much discussion and debate. Everything about it is more straightforward.

There’s no meta conceit, there are no elaborate costumes, there’s no real sense of magical hijinks. Of course, it’s still a Marvel series, so there’s no guarantee nothing supernatural is going on. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks quite literally to be a story about Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

The show takes place months after Endgame, which also places it chronologically after WandaVision (the latter is set just a few weeks after Thanos is defeated, with everyone who’d vanished in the Snap recently returned to Earth).

In episode one, we catch up with Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon, who’s become a government freelancer of sorts. He’s helping the Air Force on covert missions. But he’s not doing so as the next Captain America — a bit of a surprise, since Endgame concluded with Steve Rogers passing his iconic vibranium shield to Sam. That shield and the legacy it represents weighs on Sam, and the episode sets up the questions of whether he’ll be able to balance his own sense of self-worth, overcome his self-doubt, and become the hero Rogers wanted him to be.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, is stateside and trying to work through his trauma. Someone has set him up with a therapist — an absolutely great, commonsense decision of the type we rarely see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and Bucky is trying to make amends with all the people he’s done wrong. The problem is Bucky spent a lot of time as a trained, augmented, and brainwashed HYDRA assassin who is also 100-something years old. Trying to make up for all the grief he’s caused could easily spiral out of control and include generations of people whose lives he ruined.

If you’re Bucky, at what point do you just decide to do the best you can? Can you ever stop? And will amending wrongs ever make up for all the pain you caused? The Falcon and the Winter Soldier clearly wants to explore these kinds of questions, and judging by the title, it seems both Falcon and the Winter Soldier will find some kind of peace in each other, despite their respective struggles.

The show depicts the real-life consequences of the Snap

The most fascinating stuff in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s first episode is its world-building. Though we’ve seen glimpses of the post-Endgame reality in Spider-Man: Far From Home and WandaVision, neither has given us a substantial taste of how Thanos’s Snap and Iron Man’s subsequent snapback changed life on Earth.

People were blipped out of existence for five years — and when they came back, those who remained may have moved on without them.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier toys with the idea of what this would look like for regular folks. Banks don’t want to give out loans to people who were affected by the Snap because they hadn’t earned income during its five-year duration. Those same people also don’t have jobs to come back to, and their relationships with friends and loved ones have been dramatically affected, if they’re still intact at all. Imagine coming back to find that your spouse has remarried. Imagine going on a date with someone who didn’t exist for the last five years. Imagine finding a place to live or applying for health insurance.

There are, of course, worldwide implications too.

With vast shifts in the population, certain countries’ governments might now be radically different. A 50 percent decrease in the global population would affect not only regular citizens but also various countries’ alliances and rivalries. Villainous organizations like HYDRA and AIM would be impacted as well, and it’s possible new ones may have sprouted up to take advantage of the chaos.

When the Avengers defeated Thanos and brought back everyone who’d vanished in the Snap, their return didn’t mean that all the world’s problems were solved. Thanks to the Avengers, a lot of people now have a second chance at life. But those second chances, even for Avengers such as Falcon and the Winter Soldier, aren’t necessarily going to be happily-ever-after experiences.

It’s way too early to judge The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Critics were given access to only the first episode of the series prior to its debut, so any judgment right now is going to be premature. Consider how WandaVision started as an homage to vintage sitcoms and ended with prophecies about the multiverse, reality-warping, and chaos magic.

That said, both Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie boast a ton of charm and charisma, and the themes Marvel works with here — trying to show the everyday labor of coping with the Snap, the beginnings of Sam’s ideas about legacy and how race may factor into it, how superheroes deal with trauma — haven’t really been mined yet within the MCU. There’s easily enough story to keep both hard-core and casual fans coming back for at least a couple of episodes.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres Friday, March 19 on Disney+.