Marvel seems to have figured out the superhero movie formula. Ever since The Hulk (which was was a bit of s stinker) every single-hero movie has been a gradual improvement over the previous one. I think part of the success is the established shared continuity which allows new films to build on mistakes, or success of previous entries. Whenever something doesn’t work or doesn’t sit well with the audiences, it gets aggressively retconned and “corrected” in the next installment, while things that do work get referenced back giving the Marvel Cinematic universe feel large, complex and interconnected. It is a magical universe of infinite possibilities that allows them to blatantly defy the conventional Hollywood rules and expectations.
Most blockbuster movie franchises never get past the second sequel. Even much beloved, and once ground-breaking Nolanverse Batman re-imaging keeled over in the third installment. Marvel Studios have nine movies and a TV seires already in the bag which are either direct sequels to each other or very closely connected sharing same characters and themes. They have four more movies currently in production and another dozen in early planning, or drafting stages. The only movie franchises that even come close to this kind of output are the “cult classics” such as Nightmare on Elm Street (9 movies) or Friday the 13th (12 movies) which roughly have been releasing one sequel or re-imaging for each new generation of horror fans coming of age for the last 30 years. Marvel built their movie library in less than a decade, and unlike above-mentioned horror series (each of which had a number of atrocious flops and low budget cash-grabs), pretty much every installment was an absolute box office slam dunk, and an instant favorite both among the fans and movie critics. This is unprecedented. The techniques Marvel is using right now to make sweet, sweet love to our wallets every summer will be studied and taught in film schools of tomorrow.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is yet another example of how Marvel Studios seems to be incapable of screwing up. Against all odds and all expectations they continuously find fresh and new things to do with their flagship heroes. Iron Man 3 was pretty much what you might have expected from an Iron Man movie. Thor: The Dark World was an interesting thematic escalation that showed logical progression and character development both for the main hero and Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most beloved villain. The latest Captain movie is a little bit of a re-invention, mostly because it has to be. The First Avenger was a cheerful rah, rah, go America patriotism and Natzi punching which was exactly what it needed to be to make the origin story work. But now that Steve Rogers is in the twenty first century and there are no more Natzi’s to punch, what do you do with him?
Marvel decided to put him in a Bourne Identity style spy thriller and surprisingly it works surprisingly well. Steve Rogers not only has to deal with the culture shock of living in the future, but also with being a soldier in a world which does not have designated bad guys anymore. Instead of fighting Nazis he now works for SHIELD where no one seems to be capable of ever telling the truth, everyone has an agenda or a secret mission and nothing is what it seems. He has to sink or swim in the sea of lies, subterfuge and secret plots. Does this work change him? Does it make him jaded? Nope.
Even while in midst of an escalating internal SHIELD spy intrigue Rogers sticks to his boy scout morals, and remains a beacon of idealism and honesty. You would think that someone like that would be eaten alive by the seasoned spies and career lairs but the exact opposite actually happens. Captain is far from being naive, and his unshakable moral compass works like spy kryptonite. Against all odds, this approach works, and it works amazingly well. It is really refreshing to have a likeable, relateable and morally unambiguous hero to not only exist but also persevere in a jaded and cynical environment of a modern spy thriller.
The movie is darker and grittier than any other Avengers offering so far. It grapples with actual topical real world issues such as morality of preemptive strikes against “potential future threats”, implications of allowing powerful top secret intelligence organizations operate without oversight, dangers of drone warfare and drone policing escalation and etc. But despite heavier subject matter it never feels pondering and gloomy like that awful recent Superman film. Captain doesn’t brood or skulk – he punches evil in the face, and this is why we love him. This is why he is the hero we need, and the hero we deserve.
Personally I am sick and tired of seeing the brooding anti-hero archetype being shoved into every super hero property out there. It was cool back when Nolan’s Batman did it the first time around, but the gritty, overwhelming realism quickly overstayed it’s welcome and became insufferable by the third movie. Captain America is a breath of fresh air: he is neither Bond nor Bourne nor Batman. He is a man out of time, and a character seemingly taken from a completely different movie. He doesn’t play spy games: he smashes through the conspiracies. He is the antibody that aggressively attacks and destroys the disease that plagued both SHIELD and Hollywood super hero adaptations in general.
Granted, making your characters nuanced is generally a good writing advance. Steve Rogers can at times be a bit one dimensional, or even somewhat dull. There are some, like New York Magazine’s Abraham Riesman who think Captain should be more of a jerk to make him more interesting:
Cap remains a fundamentally dull character on screen and in the comics: He only grips us because of his place in a larger story, not because his character is inherently fascinating.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Captain America has the potential to be much more interesting — but only if he’s a jerk.
While on the surface this might seem like a common sense advice, I don’t think I agree with it. In fact, I think Riesman’s ideas to improve Captain by making him a sexist, racist, homophobe (because, hey that’s a thing they did in that Mad Men and Rogers is sort of from that kind of shitty time period) is so awful I won’t even dignify it with a proper rebuttal. I’m fairly sure it is self explanatory why we shouldn’t turn a hero who wears stars and stripes as part of his costume into a hateful bigot. But let’s read between lines and pretend Riesman did not just write an essay begging Hollywood to be more bigoted and exclusionary (as if it needed any excuse). Let’s pretend his advice was just about adding conflict and nuance to one dimensional superheroes. I still don’t think it works.
Internally conflicted, nuanced protagonists don’t seem to work really well with the comic book hero narratives. Batman is a notable exception, but for him the internal turmoil is big part of the source material. Other heroes do not typically have this sort of baggage, and tacking it on actually diminishes them as characters. It backfired horribly in Man of Steel and it continues to suck out the fun out of each and every single Spider-Man reboot Sony feels compelled to churn out on an annual basis to keep their licenses from lapsing. I think as audiences we have had our share of overpowering, depressing, gritty realism, and we are done with it. We want our superheroes to be larger than life, and fight crazy space monsters rather than struggle with existential dread. The Avengers was the most successful and most beloved super-hero feature yet, and it didn’t even have an ounce of grimdark and despair. It did not need it. It wasn’t appropriate.
But if you want to make a film that is darker and more serious in tone and topic matter, do it the way The Winter Soldier did: juxtapose it against the larger than life superhero. Pepper your gritty settings with occasional idealists, optimists and selfless heroes. While such characters may seem dull on paper, they really stand out in the finished product. In a setting where everyone is jaded, morally compromised and dead inside someone like Steve Rogers becomes interesting precisely because he is more normal, adjusted and easier to relate to. Or, you know, don’t do any of these things and let Marvel continue dominating the box office until super heroes go out of style.
What did you think of the movie? Let me know in the comments.