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What You Need to Know to Watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

These guys, they’ve got history. Photo: Marvel Studios

They may not be as instantly recognizable as Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, but Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are about to become household names via the second Disney+ original show to feature Marvel characters this year, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, premiering on March 19. They will certainly be familiar to even casual fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, given they have each appeared in multiple films in this billion-dollar franchise, but they haven’t exactly been in the spotlight until now. So viewers could be forgiven for needing a bit of a refresher on where they’ve been and where they might be going. Allow us:

The Falcon: Marvel Comics Edition

Photo: Marvel Comics

Sam Wilson made his debut way back in Captain America No. 117 in September 1969, making him one of the first Black superheroes. He has a relatively typical hero backstory, in that his youth was shaped by violence, with the early deaths of his parents turning Wilson to a life of crime at a young age. While working for the mob, Wilson’s plane crashed on a Caribbean island that happened to be occupied by the Red Skull, who essentially created the Falcon, giving him the ability to talk to animals, especially a falcon named Redwing (reimagined as a purely electronic sidekick in the MCU).

Captain America saved this new superhero, and the two worked together for years. Many other adventures would follow, but none will have much of an impact on the Disney show. Just know that Falcon has been an ally of Captain America’s for most of his printed existence, even joining the Avengers briefly in the late ’70s, and that he helped Cap track down the Winter Soldier in the Captain America: Civil War story line in the ’00s, an arc that heavily influenced the MCU. In 2014 in the comic books, Wilson even became Captain America after Steve Rogers lost his powers and aged into an old man. Sound familiar?

The Falcon: MCU Edition

Photo: Marvel Studios

For the feature films, Kevin Feige and the powers that be at Marvel reshaped the Falcon into more of a pure sidekick for Captain America, removing his avian telepathy and amplifying his almost Stark-esque skills with his superpowered uniform and deadly explosives.

Played by Anthony Mackie, Sam Wilson was introduced in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier on a morning jog, passed with alarming frequency by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). Wilson is framed as someone who works with veterans with PTSD, making him an instant ally for both Rogers, who has to struggle with losing decades of his life, and eventually Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who was an evil experiment trying to find his humanity again. He gets one of his strongest character beats in Winter Soldier when he reveals that he served in Afghanistan and lost a friend named Riley during the mission, eventually finding his purpose by helping others deal with trauma and grief — themes likely to find their way into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, too.

Wilson really becomes a part of the MCU when Rogers and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) come to him seeking safety when the entire force of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be hunting them. Informed that Hydra has infiltrated the organization, Wilson offers his assistance and reveals that he was a part of a project too, and the group retrieves the EXO-7 Falcon uniform together, allowing some quality Falcon action through the rest of the film. His biggest moment comes in a fight with Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), the double agent for Hydra who would briefly become Crossbones in Civil War before going boom. Wilson literally jumps into a helicopter to escape a building tumbling to the ground, and he ends the film agreeing to help Rogers find his old friend Bucky.

The Falcon surfaced again in Avengers: Age of Ultron, although he’s sidelined for most of the action of the Joss Whedon movie. He appears at the beginning to shoot some pool and reveal he’s still looking for Bucky, which one can assume is what he’s doing while all hell is breaking loose in Sokovia. He has a bigger beat in Ant-Man while working at the New Avengers Facility on the day that Ant-Man decides to try to “borrow” the Signal Decoy to save the world.

The Falcon surfaces again in Civil War, tracking Crossbones to Lagos, where a battle leads to tragedy at the hands of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). The resulting carnage amplifies the international call for oversight of superpowered individuals, but Captain America is instantly skeptical of this plan, and Falcon sides with him from beginning to end, basically leading to their joint expulsion from the Avengers.

When Bucky Barnes is framed for an attack in Vienna that kills King T’Chaka of Wakanda, Steve, Natasha, and Sam rush to find the Winter Soldier before anyone else does. Sam Wilson is a loyal sidekick to Steve Rogers through most of the action of Civil War, and his relationship to the Winter Soldier in the Disney show should be most influenced by this arc. Not only does he know a lot about Bucky’s traumatic past, but he’s likely to carry some of the loyalty that Captain America has for his oldest friend into any new adventures. After all, they went through a lot to save him.

The Falcon returned in Avengers: Infinity War as part of a few major sequences — the attempt to save Vision early and the battle of Wakanda — before becoming a victim of the snap. He’s then the first voice heard at the end of Avengers: Endgame, racing into the final battle when he has snapped back into existence to kick some ass.

After the funeral of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Wilson watches Steve Rogers travel through time, only to quickly see him return as an old man. An old Rogers, having lived a happy life, gives Wilson the Captain America shield with the approval of Bucky Barnes. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes place shortly after these events, so it will have to address what Sam Wilson has done with the legendary shield since Endgame. Is he the new Captain America?

The Winter Soldier: Marvel Comics Edition

Photo: Marvel Comics

James Buchanan Barnes, a.k.a. “Bucky,” is actually one of the oldest characters in Marvel history, first appearing alongside Captain America in the iconic hero’s printed debut in 1940. Like all heroes, he tragically lost his parents at a young age, and he signed up to serve in World War II, meeting one Steve Rogers in the military. Barnes would join Cap on missions as a sort of Robin to his Batman, becoming close allies in the process. In an issue of Avengers in 1964, it was revealed that Bucky Barnes died in a mission to stop Baron Heinrich Zemo from stealing an experimental drone plane.

Of course, just as in the MCU, Barnes didn’t really die but was transformed into the Winter Soldier by Russians and used to commit assassinations around the world. He received a bionic arm, and most of his identity and past were wiped from his mind, turning him into a killing machine. In the books, he met Natasha Romanoff much earlier, helping her train during the Black Widow Ops Program. The two even developed a romantic relationship.

Barnes gained new printed prominence thanks to Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America in the ’00s (and an eventual great series of Winter Soldier comics by Brubaker that’s highly recommended). After a battle involving Red Skull and something called a Cosmic Cube, Bucky’s memories are restored, and he too becomes Captain America for a time following the death of Steve Rogers. (This was actually before Sam Wilson’s tenure as a replacement for Rogers, who died, came back, and then later lost his powers.)

The Winter Soldier: MCU Edition

Photo: Marvel Studios

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has stayed loyal to many of the source-material traits of the Winter Soldier, from the friendship background with Steve Rogers in WWII, to the enhanced physical abilities, to the trauma inflicted on him by being turned into a killing machine.

Played by Sebastian Stan, Bucky Barnes first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger as an officer in the 107th Infantry Regiment who was rescued by his old friend Steve Rogers when he falls behind enemy lines. However, an effort to capture Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) in the Alps leads to tragedy when Barnes falls from a train, presumed to be killed in action.

Many years later, Barnes resurfaces as the title character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it’s revealed he was experimented on by Hydra and turned into an emotionless killing machine. Granted many of the same physical abilities as his old buddy Steve, the Winter Soldier is ordered to assassinate Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) but crosses paths with Captain America. After some kick-ass action, Barnes seems to be at least partially released of his brainwashing by the action of the film.

In Civil War, the Winter Soldier is framed for the bombing in Vienna, leading Captain America and the Falcon to go on the run to protect him and clear his name. In the climax of the film, it’s revealed that a brainwashed Barnes killed Tony Stark’s parents in 1991 as part of an assignment designed to create more super-soldiers. An emotional Stark tries to kill Bucky, but Barnes is taken to Wakanda, where Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his people will use their advanced technology to finally strip away the mind control that has ruined his life. He can be seen briefly in the post-credits Black Panther scene getting the treatment he needs from Shuri (Letitia Wright).

The Winter Soldier is part of the battle of Wakanda that ends Infinity War, but he’s also disintegrated by Thanos’s snap, returning five years later for the final showdown. He’s at the Stark funeral and witnesses Steve Rogers hand the shield of Captain America to Sam Wilson, essentially giving his blessing to the transaction. The show seems likely to pick up with a more heroic Winter Soldier than the MCU has seen to date, as Shuri seems to have cured enough of his issues to make him more of a good guy than a bad one. Only time will tell how much of the Winter Soldier remains in Bucky Barnes.

Other Characters to Remember

Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl)
The character of Helmut Zemo has a strong background in the comics, crossing paths with Captain America as far back as 1973. In the books, he’s very much a supervillain, becoming a costumed leader of Hydra. In the MCU, he’s more of a human villain, a chaos agent who seeks to destroy the world by pitting Captain America against Iron Man in Civil War. Zemo activates the Winter Soldier, turning him back into a killing machine before tracking down five other super-soldiers from the same program whom Zemo kills. It turns out he was just trying to get Captain America, Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier to Siberia for some action, destroying the Avengers from within. As he’s about to kill himself, T’Challa stops Zemo, sending him off into CIA custody. Daniel Brühl has been announced as being in the cast of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp)
Remember Steve’s neighbor in The Winter Soldier who ends up involved in the action when Winter Soldier attacks Nick Fury in Steve’s apartment? It was revealed in Civil War that not only was she a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative but she was the great-niece of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Steve’s long-lost love from the ’40s. After The Winter Soldier, Sharon Carter went to work with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) at the CIA’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Berlin. She actually plays a significant plot role in Civil War, in that she helps Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers find Bucky Barnes, so it makes sense that she would appear in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

War Machine (Don Cheadle)
The Oscar-nominated star revealed last month that he would have a supporting role in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but only time will tell if it’s a significant part or an exciting cameo. It does make sense that Rhodey would appear in this narrative, as he is kind of the heir apparent to Iron Man, in the same way that Sam Wilson could be the next Captain America. War Machine’s entire history is too long to recap here, especially since most of it probably won’t matter, but he is basically to Iron Man as Falcon is to Captain America: a loyal sidekick with some neat tech and heroic resolve.

Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre)
Remember the awesome first action scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier on the ship? In that sequence, Cap and Black Widow infiltrate a freighter that’s been hijacked by mercenaries led by a man named Georges Batroc. The leader of the bad guys had a solid fight scene with Cap before being captured, and Georges St-Pierre has revealed in an interview that he’ll appear in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

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What You Need to Know for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier