The following contains no spoilers but general discussion of the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment has become so successful at this point that it's almost difficult to remember what a gamble it really was at the beginning. Not simply a franchise of movies, but a collection of franchises focusing on multiple comic book characters that would occasionally appear together, cross over with each other, and otherwise reference and influence each other. Elements of continuity that had been essential to comic books for decades were put it up on the movie screen. With Disney+, that universe has expended even more with the addition of TV series, and with its newest entry, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the MCU has gone back to its comic book roots like never before.
As I write this, I've only seen the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but even having only watched that initial installment, I actually felt like I was reading something out of Marvel Comics, which hasn't really been the case before. That statement is both a compliment and criticism, as there are benefits and costs to structuring a story like a comic book, and the new Disney+ series looks like it will enjoy some of those benefits while also potentially suffering from the costs. Let me explain what I mean.
MCU Movies Aren't Comic Books, They're Graphic Novels
The above may seem like it's splitting hairs, and yeah, it is to a degree, but each MCU movie tells a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's more akin to a graphic novel, which, in many cases, consists of a collection of several comic books in a row. When read all together it tells a story, but can also easily be broken down into a series of story beats/issues that tend to rely heavily on continuity. A single comic book doesn't tell readers the whole story, and picking up random issues off the shelf to read out of sequence likely wouldn't make any sense without the surround context.
Comic book continuity is how companies like Marvel and DC keep audiences hooked into reading. Really good writers can end stories not just on cliffhangers but sometimes in the middle of scenes themselves, and they make fans wonder what happened before the moments in question and keep us all interested in what's going to happen next. In a nutshell, this is exactly what Episode 1 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is all about. If you've watched all the MCU movies before now, you'll know where things start for these characters, but the first episode is entirely a set up for what is to come in a way that can still attract the unfamiliar. The premiere features some exciting implications, but it feels overall unsatisfying in a way that previous Marvel efforts have not. To be blunt, not a lot actually happens.
WandaVision, While Episodic, Was Still More Self Contained
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wasn't the first Marvel Cinematic Universe television series, of course, We just finished up the lovely, bizarre adventure that was WandaVision, and that genre-gender certainly did have a serialized story that played out across multiple episodes. There was the obvious and far-reaching "What is actually going on here?" question that lasted the entire series. But that wasn't the only point of interest.
WandaVision's structure, that of the half-hour sitcom, made each episode still feel largely self contained even while leaving plot threads for viewers to pull on from week to week. Each episode had us looking forward to the next to see where things would go, but it never felt like the story got chopped off in the middle. Sometimes we got cliffhangers, but that's not quite the same thing. Just like a sitcom, WandaVision was a collection of individual stories, not simply parts of a whole.
What The Falcon And The Winter Soldier Lacks In Plot, It Makes Up In Character
However, while The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may feel like a chopped-up story from a plot perspective, that's not to say that there isn't major value in some aspects of this comic book comparison. Specifically, the TV show allows the story to slow the hell down and dig into some deeper character development. The MCU has become so big and introduced so many characters (who themselves so frequently appear in other movies) that there has barely been time to get to know everyone beyond largely surface impressions. It's difficult to truly care about all these characters when we get so little time to spend with them. I'm not sure that either Falcon or Bucky are most people's favorite characters in the MCU, largely because they've never been given time to shine before now.
But the duo certainly gets that shine-time here. With just that first 45-minute episode, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier unravels who Sam and Bucky are as human beings, and is already much more of a character study than anything we got in the first decade of films. A large part of the reason the plot doesn't really get going in that first episode is because we really spend some quality emotional time with these characters on top of the ass-whupping shenanigans. That's one thing that traditional comic books do well that the MCU has never really had the chance to do, especially with the protagonists that have yet to get their own movies or TV shows.
I'm fairly certain this aspect of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as a series is a feature, and not a bug, so I'm not worried about what's to come. This is all no doubt exactly what the people who made the series wanted to accomplish. If that wasn't the case, Disney+ could have broken with tradition and released the entire series at once, allowing viewers to watch all of the story as a whole if they'd so choose. But they did not.
If I feel like it, though, I could fire up any MCU movie on Disney+ right now and enjoy it as a standalone piece of entertainment, and I could even do that with many episodes of WandaVision. However, I can already tell that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a series that, if I ever return to it later, I'll need to rewatch the entire series as one or not at all. If the rest of the series plays out as Episode 1 has, it just won't work as a series of individual episodes. It's a graphic novel, broken into pieces for easy consumption, and while that gives the show a lot more freedom in many ways, it also makes me feel the way I did when I read comics, buying the new issue and then waiting a month to see what happens next. At least in this case I won't need to wait quite that long.