Released this spring over six weeks, Falcon and Winter Soldier was a huge hit. I certainly watched every episode. It wasn’t as funny as Loki. It wasn’t as emotionally devastating as Wandavision.
But it was great. It was a solid political intrigue terrorist story, with some superhero antics thrown in for good measure.
Let’s talk today about why it works.
I want to start with the primary antagonist, Karli. She is a terrifically written antagonist.
Notice that I don’t say bad guy. Because Karli isn’t what I’d consider a bad person. She’s a person who’s lost hope in the world.
After the blip was corrected, millions of people were displaced. There are not enough resources to go around. Karli’s barely surviving with her friends and what little family she has left. She’s not a bad person. She’s just trying to get someone, anyone to take this situation seriously. And it is serious. People are dying.
Kind of like now, in real life. But I digress.
Karlie is the perfect example of a person with good intentions who does horrible things. We don’t want her to succeed, but we also don’t want her to suffer. Part of this is achieved by the fact that she’s young and adorable. Come on, what melts a heart faster than curly hair and freckles?
The other part is that she’s a genuinely loving person with real familial attachments. We see her hanging out with her friends. We see her mourn the passing of the woman who raised her. We care about her because we can see that she cares about the world around her. This is not detached from the horrific things she does. If anything, it’s a direct relation. She loves, and so she feels like she has to kill.
Of course, Karlie’s just part of the story. As it’s been pointed out online, we spend a lot of time (maybe too much) seeing the character growth of Sam and Bucky.
Sam is angry at a lot of people. And he’s got every damned right to be. He’s saved the world as an Avenger, and no one can even help his family save their boat. And now, everyone wants him to be Captain America, and represent a country that has treated him badly.
This storyline delved into some deep issues I’m not fully qualified to discuss. The super-soldier serum being tested on unwilling black men is too close to actual historical events for my comfort, frankly. If the popularity of this show does anything, I hope that it shines a much-needed light on some disgusting moments in our history.
As he comes to terms with helping a nation that has not helped him, Bucky’s going through a very different evolution.
He has done terrible things. He’s killed innocent people. And the fact that it wasn’t him committing these actions doesn’t matter to him. His body was used, he’s just as much of a victim as anyone. But he still buys lunch for the old man whose son he murdered as Winter Soldier.
These character arches are a big focus of the show, and I was thrilled to see this. We need more stories of growth and change. Yes, explosions are fun. Yes, aerial battles are awesome. But fiction is supposed to tell truths while telling lies. And I’m thrilled that such a mainstream, popular show talked about some hard truths.
So, the takeaway for writers is this.
Write an antagonist who’s pure enough to be relatable, but still twisted and broken enough that you can’t root for them to succeed.
Write honestly about things that need to be talked about.
Is there a show, movie or book that you’d like me to break apart and discuss why it works? Let me know in the comments.