As always, the Marvel Cinematic Universe sets the stage for future adventures with a sinister new surprise in the post-credits scene.
There was a lot of work to accomplish in this final installment of "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" on Disney+, and to their credit the MCU masterminds behind the madness managed to wrap things up pretty nicely.
They also established a major new status quo for several characters -- some expected and some very surprising -- as Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe begins to take shape.
By the end of this hour, the identity of the new Captain America moving forward was firmly established. There was also another major Marvel hero revealed as well as a very interesting and exciting new villain. Plus, what about those Flag Smashers?
As if they didn't have enough to worry about with the so-called terrorist organization, Sam and Bucky found themselves again coming face-to-face with disgraced former Captain America John Walker. Even Sharon Carter showed up out of Madripoor and right in the middle of the action.
Before we could get to any of that, there was plenty more action and destruction and even death. In fact, there was more action in this final episode than probably in all of the previous episodes combined. It felt like the first half was one big, long fight scene.
Full props to the fight choreographers and the cinematographers, stuntmen and -women and everyone who had a hand in bringing to life an epic battle between the Flag Smashers and our titular heroes, not to mention everyone else who wanted to get in on the action.
In a callback to the first episode, Sam spent much of his time during the fight sequence in the air, trying to stop a helicopter full of hostages. Karli's group had managed to get the Senators about to vote on forced resettlement divided into several groups and were in the process of taking them all hostage -- or killing them -- you know, whatever sends the message.
While he was getting very innovative with strategy aloft, Bucky was taking a substantial beating at the hands of several super-soldiers. And then John Walker shows up, still puffing his chest and outraged over the death of his best friend Lamar.
It says a lot that Karli did apologize for killing Lamar, but did so by saying, "I don't want to hurt people that don't matter." She's so blinded by her end-goal at this point, she's not even seeing people as people. "One world. One people" isn't real if there are people who don't matter. Isn't that the problem with the GRC, that they've decided who does and doesn't matter?
Karli doesn't realize that she's already so far beyond her mission, even her own minions are following her reluctantly at best. Had things turned out differently, they might have abandoned her or turned on her outright by the end of the hour. As her fanaticism and violence he escalated, they've balked and pushed back several times, but never quite walked away. This week, it felt like they were closer than ever.
Thankfully for Bucky, John's focus was exclusively on Karli, so the enemy of my enemy is my friend became the rule of the day and suddenly they found themselves reluctant allies. John has remorse, too, for his own actions, but it seems to be deeper than Karli's. He still sucks, overall, but that's also true to the Marvel Comics version of him. That dude also sucks.
In the end, the good guys inevitably won the battle, and the boys even tricked Karli's allies right into a trip where they were all promptly arrested. By the end of the hour, though, we're all pretty sure they escaped, right?
Zemo may have been listening to that broadcast of their transport exploding and killing all of them in the blast, but he knows a thing or two about villains escaping. And that soldier did drop a "one world, one people" on them as he locked them in. They're totally alive, which is certainly interesting.
These are Flag Smashers and super-soldiers who are not captured and now on the run. They believe in Karli's mission, but they were reluctant participants as things got darker and deadlier. So where do they stand now? What will become of them, and where will they inevitably pop up?
The rule of thumb in comic book reality is that heroes and villains are only dead if you see the body, and even then it's iffy. As an example, Karli's super-soldiers? No body, there's no way they're dead.
But for Karli herself, her fate was much more permanent. Sam tried everything he could to get her to put down her weapon, give up the fight, but Karli couldn't do it. Sam resisted striking out at her even after he showed up on the scene moments after Karli had shot Sharon.
In the end, it wasn't even Sam that was able to take Karli down. She was about to pull the trigger and put him down when it was Sharon who managed to take down the burgeoning super-terrorist. Theirs was a very cool fight, though, with Sam proving very clever with his propulsion engines and wings in off-setting his lack of super-soldier serum to be able to stay competitive in these hand-to-hand tussles.
Karli's final words being "I'm sorry" was both cliché, but also a meaningful testament to her state of mind. Moments before that, she was practically begging Sam to fight her, fight back, give her a reason to continue being angry and want to kill him. She was so indoctrinated into her own narrative she was seeing enemies everywhere and she needed to see him that way.
If he won't fight her, then what? He'll listen to her? He'll want to work with her, hear out her concerns? She'd already convinced herself that none of that is possible, that death and destruction were the only ways to accomplish her goals. To accept anything else is to accept that maybe she needn't have taken things as far as she did, kill the people she had.
That was something she didn't want to live with, so she needed Sam to be the same enemy she'd already decided everyone in a position of power was. She needed that in order to live with herself, and he wouldn't give it to her. So perhaps in her final moment, she saw the possiblity that there was another path. She was just too deep into her fanaticism to see or acknowledge it.
Now, with her fight over, the path was laid bare. There could have been another way. No one would have had to die, including her. At the same time, though, perhaps her death and all those she killed in the name of her mission is exactly why change is possible. There is something to be said for it taking extremely drastic circumstances -- usually directly aimed at them -- to jolt people out of their determined path and open their eyes to another possibility.
It was Sam who helped open their eyes, and he didn't do it with his fists, his wings or even has fancy new costume. Sam had put on his version of the Captain America costume, a nod to when he wore the title in the comics, but he didn't embody the role until after all the physical fighting was done.
He truly became Captain America when he stood up to the Senators who were ready to go right back in and do exactly what Karli and the Flag Smashers were trying to stop, vote on the forced resettlement of all those people who'd relocated during that five year period when half the population was blipped (thanks, Thanos!).
The Senator was right in that it's a complicated situation, but Sam pushed back for them to try harder. Don't try to solve a problem created by a mad god by acting as a mad god yourself. Take a look at the fanaticism of Karli, at the legions of followers she has and ask why so many people believe in her message and vision?
They called Karli a terrorist, what are the people that are going to be forcibly resettled, even as they did nothing wrong, going to think of the armed GRC soldiers who come in and strip them from their homes.
Sam got them to reconsider their approach not through brute force or threats, but through diplomacy and giving the kind of speech you might expect from Steve Rogers. Only Steve could have never given this speech, because the fact Sam is a Black man in the stars and strips was such a key part of it.
Here, suddenly and again, is a Black superhero for little children of color to be able to look up to. And what better message for everyone than when he said, "The only power I have is that I believe we can do better." Sometimes that's all it takes.
He may not realize it, but this moment may be as important as the arrival of "Black Panther," and in some ways, it may be even more significant for American children because not only is this a Black American hero, this is a Black hero who is the symbol of America. It is the symbol of our diversity, and how that diversity of cultures and experiences (good and bad) is our identity and our strength as a nation.
If this series was about determining and establishing once and for all who was worthy to carry the shield and become the new Captain America -- a question very well answered by Sam Wilson's closing speech -- it didn't stop there.
Bucky may have been in the running to sling the shield (he's done it in the comics), but his story nevertheless found a satisfying conclusion, for now. He finally stopped doing the right things for the wrong reason and came clean to Nakajima about his role in his son's death.
It appears to have cost him that friendship, as well as the possibility of anything romantic with bartender Leah, but it was nevertheless the right thing to do. Even though it comes with grief, Nakajima got answers and with that comes closure.
By the end of the hour, Bucky had left a gift for his therapist that he had completed his book, thanking her for her time and help. While he may forever carry the guilt of what he did as the Winter Soldier, he's taken an important step in moving forward with his life. Where that takes him is unknown, but you know fans are hoping we haven't seen the last of him.
As for the other major characters in this series, it certainly looks like there is much more to come for both John and Sharon. The former officially adopted his comic book U.S. Agent costume and name, thanks to a design tweak and support form Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Valentina.
She made it clear that the world is heading into more of a moral gray area, anyway, and that's not suited for Captain America at all. But a U.S. Agent could serve that world very well.
Valentina herself is an interesting engima, as we can't help but wonder what she wants with a U.S. Agent, and if it stops there? Could she be building a counter-Avengers? Hopefully, there's more in store from both her and John as he tries to redeem his public image and himself as a proper hero.
And then there's Sharon. When Sharon killed Karli, she did so for more reasons than just to save Sam. She'd also been revealed as Madripoor's Power Broker, the show's worst-kept secret. She'd even had to kill Batroc to keep this secret. With Karli's death, the secret stayed dead and buried.
In the post-credit sequence, we saw Sam coming through with his promise to get her a full pardon and even reinstated in her government position. In a dramatic departure from her comic book counterpart, Sharon accepted this pardon only to reveal she's not giving up her old life at all.
Instead, the Power Broker is going to be using Sharon's access to move all kinds of government weaponry, intel, secrets and more to the highest bidders. Suddenly, she's one of the most intriguing new villains of Phase 4. Surely, there's more to come as she works in the background as an opportunistic villain while ingraining herself into the government's and Avengers' trust.
With the level of quality coming from these Disney+ series thus far, we'd be just as happy to see Sharon's or John's stories continue on the small screen as the big. At this point, the decision should probably just be based on how big of a story they want to tell.
Phase 4 appears to be about growing diversity among the heroes of the MCU, but equally as exciting is the expansive and increased storytelling possibilities afforded by this relationship with Disney+.
While series like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and the Netflix street-level heroes were always technically MCU, they never really felt like it. Now that it's all under the Marvel Studios production banner, everything carries the same weight, which only makes the MCU more robust than ever.
Ten years strong, and they're still finding ways to keep things exciting and unpredictable!
Next up for Disney+ is "Loki," which will likely stray more toward the "WandaVision" end of the spectrum, playing with time travel and alternate realities and starring the version of Loki who altered his own path in "Endgame" by escaping custody and vanishing.
The six-episode series is set to begin June 11, and it is the first Disney+ MCU series that has reportedly begun early development work on a second season.