This article contains general spoilers about the sixth episode of 'The Falcon and Winter Soldier.'
The finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had all the action and drama you’d expect from the last act of a Marvel film. It also featured a lot of the place-setting that’s become increasingly common as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten bigger. Just as the end of Age of Ultron introduced us to “new” Avengers like Scarlet Witch, Vision and Falcon, episode six of the Disney+ show had Sam claiming the mantle of Captain America and Bucky finally achieving some kind of emotional closure, among other plot developments.
However, with very few exceptions, the majority of the episode was really just tying up plot threads introduced in the series itself. The Flag Smashers are gone, Zemo’s back in jail and John Walker is no longer Captain America. If someone were to skip this series and move straight into the next Cap movie, they wouldn’t have missed a beat; the last time they saw Sam Wilson, Steve had given him the shield and all it stands for, with Bucky happily supporting this choice. So what if Sam doubted his choice, passed on the shield, got Bucky super pissed off at him, and there was another dude filling the role for a while? The end of The Falcon and Winter Soldier put almost all of the characters back where they were at the end of Endgame, with a little more character development under the hood. Plot-wise not much has changed (with the exception of Sharon Carter).
It has always been a curse of transmedia projects that you could never guarantee your audience has seen all the content. The first X-Files film came out in the gap between seasons five and six, but the new episodes couldn’t really acknowledge much had happened in the intervening time as the film was still in theaters and not on home video, meaning there was a significant chunk of the audience who was still out in the cold. Star Trek films always came out after their respective series had ended; even though there were still two shows on the air after the end of The Next Generation, we didn’t see any of the DS9 or Voyager characters in a TNG film until 2002’s Nemesis. (The EMH appearing in First Contact doesn’t count, nerds.)
When the Marvel Cinematic Universe first started to emerge, it felt like we were promised something different. The movies would tie into each other, sure, and it was assumed people were going to see each and every one of them in order. It was only when the MCU made its way to television that it really got interesting as a transmedia project. Agents of SHIELD was going to show us what life was like day-to-day for ordinary SHIELD agents, fill in the gaps between films and flesh out the universe… but then it didn’t. What we got was a fairly standard “threat of the week” show with the occasional appearances of B-list film characters and, while the events of some of the movies trickled down into Agents of SHIELD from time to time (like the Hydra reveal), the show ultimately had no impact on the films. If you never watched Agents of SHIELD, Phil Coulson is still dead to you.
With that precedent set, future Marvel shows didn’t even bother with the pretense. Sure, all of the Marvel Netflix shows were set in the MCU and would occasionally reference things like the Battle of New York (from the first Avengers), but the heroes were still roped off in their own distinct corner where they only interacted with each other. Hulu series like Runaways, Cloak and Dagger and Helstrom also occupied their own standalone places. And, despite the fact that it made sense plot-wise to have all of the television characters appear in the big battle in Endgame, the Russos made the decision to leave them out as to not confuse the audience (though James D’Arcy’s Jarvis from Agent Carter made a brief cameo earlier in the film).
The practice of keeping things standalone made a lot of sense when the various MCU shows were scattered between networks and services. But that’s why the Disney+ announcement was so exciting: Not only could Marvel assure that every show and film would live in the same place, but the programs were no longer beholden to licensing restrictions that limited characters to one show or the movies only. The Marvel Disney+ shows were touted as bringing the movie heroes and their respective big budgets to the small screen.
That’s been true so far for WandaVision and The Falcon and Winter Soldier, which revolved around significant supporting players from the tentpole films. No, we weren’t going to see Thor or the Hulk charging into battle, but characters that were previously second-fiddle got a lot of character development, stepping up into more prominent roles in the Marvel Universe. At least, it was supposed to be that way.
If you look at the upcoming slate of Marvel films, they’re all focused on heroes that have yet to make a TV appearance and probably never will: Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Spider-Man, Thor and Captain Marvel. The Scarlet Witch is supposed to make an appearance in the next Doctor Strange movie, but it still operates somewhat independently from WandaVision, with even star Elizabeth Olsen saying she was unaware of the film’s plot while shooting the Disney+ show.
While all the Marvel films and the new shows will share a home on Disney+ going forward, it seems they’re still going to be segregated for the same reason that transmedia always has: You can’t assume your audience has seen everything. One would hope that means the movies will become more standalone as well, since we’re nearing 30 films in the franchise and it’s a lot for a newcomer to take in. If they don’t and the shows continue to be self-contained, the promise of a TV universe on par with its cinematic counterpart will remain unfulfilled.