Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Can Superhero Movies Get Smaller?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier does its best work when it keeps things relatively simple. Do superhero movies need to get smaller?

This article contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is currently the subject of considerable praise and unprecedented April box office success. With visuals ripped directly out of the pages of specific Marvel comics, Captain America: The Winter Soldier seems designed to cement Marvel’s reputation as the studio that actually listens to the fans and honors its source material. But historically, devotion to comic book visuals does not a fine film make, and the truly remarkable moments of Captain America 2 come in its more grounded moments, even those that are action-heavy, rather than its more traditional superhero movie climax.

Having already realized the impossible dream with The Avengers, Marvel’s unofficial gameplan for Phase Two has been to not make superhero movies so much as appropriate genre films with superheroes in them. In that regard, they have achieved somewhat mixed results. While Iron Man 3 is every bit as much a Shane Black action piece as it is an Iron Man movie, Thor: The Dark World, despite the presence of Game of Thrones veteran Alan Taylor at the helm, only occasionally felt like the authentic sword-and-sorcery flick that it should have been. The upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie looks like many things, but a superhero film isn’t one of them. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, however, has been touted by Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige as a “70s political thriller masquerading as a superhero movie.” Whether it actually is or not is another story (at best, it may be the other way around), but it’s clear that, as far as superhero movies go, this one mostly has its feet planted on the ground.

The “comic book movie” as a genre didn’t exist in 1978 when Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie was released to a $300 million (in 1978 bucks!) worldwide box-office take. Superman: The Movie was simply another high-profile science fiction film released in the wake of Star Wars…albeit one with a caped protagonist and a secret identity. Superman: The Movie shifts gears from stately, serious science fiction (a Krypton realized by Star Wars’ production designer John Barry) to Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia (a beautifully photographed Smallville), to a Metropolis that is quite recognizable as late ‘70s Manhattan, bustling with sharp, witty dialogue and comedic timing.

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Richard Donner famously had the word “verisimilitude” hung on the wall of his Superman production office, indicating his desire to ground this most fantastic of characters in as “real” an environment as possible. It worked. While Superman: The Movie remains the godfather of all modern superhero films, somehow, perhaps because of the diminishing returns of future installments of that franchise, it failed to ignite a successful superhero movie craze. Instead, it feels more at home in that parade of the post-Star Wars science fiction and fantasy film boom that includes somewhat less distinguished company like Krull and The Last Starfighter (both fine, fun films, but not exactly timeless classics).

Contrast Donner’s (and Marvel’s) hybrid genre approach with the last great superhero movie boom, which began with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. Batman was as much a big-budget realization of Burton’s expressionist sensibilities as it was a comic book adaptation. While the intention of Batman was to create a new vision of the character in the popular consciousness, one as far away from Adam West as possible, and more in line with the borderline personality popularized by Frank Miller, it was still every bit as stylized (and removed from reality) as the 1966 Batman TV series. 

Batman was quickly followed by 1990’s Dick Tracy. While the Dick Tracy of the newspaper strips was a hard-nosed crime-solver with a cadre of hideous bad guys that would make Batman wince, the film was a mostly bloodless, almost surreal affair, boasting a remarkable (almost literal) four-color production design and deliberately artificial sets, costumes, and matte paintings. The nameless city created by Richard Sylbert for Dick Tracy is the brightly colored counterpart to Batman production designer Anton Furst’s sprawling, nightmarish Gotham. But while Batman’s production design recalled Fritz Lang and even hints of H.R. Giger, Dick Tracy’s was no less elaborate, but considerably less detailed, specifically tailored to create the illusion of an actual comic strip come to life.

Somehow, within those two films and their subsequent box-office success, the idea of the “comic book movie” as a genre unto itself took hold. This newly-minted genre, whose hallmarks were summer release dates, all-star casts, insanely large merchandising campaigns, and hyper-stylized visuals, became the norm for any project with comic book origins, whether they were appropriate or not. For a decade or more, it seemed that it was a requirement for every superhero adaptation to have an enormous backlot city with oil-slicked streets, deadly serious heroes, over-the-top villains, and a Danny Elfman score. The Flash TV series, for example, which aired on CBS in 1990-91, featured a character who didn’t necessarily lend himself to such operatic conceits, yet found himself operating in a garish, Gotham-esque city…with a rather cumbersome rubber suit for a guy who gets around by running. There were very few exceptions, notably Joe Johnston’s woefully underappreciated The Rocketeer, but for the most part, this was what we were given.

The shift back towards the more naturalistic approach of Superman: The Movie arguably began with Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films (perhaps not coincidentally produced by Lauren Shuler-Donner) and, to a lesser extent, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. For one thing, these franchises allowed their characters to function in actual daylight for a change. Singer in particular tried to ground the X-Men’s traditional themes of discrimination and persecution in a real world setting, with historical roots and political implications. Raimi’s Spider-Man films, on the other hand tended to split the difference between recognizable Manhattan locations and hyper-stylized set-pieces in the climax. What both did admirably, though, was balance the necessities of blockbuster storytelling with a reverence for the spirit (if not always the letter) of the genre’s visual appeal.

It was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the reinvention of the Batman franchise that had collapsed under the weight of its final two films’ excesses (they took the conventions of the “comic book movie” genre that the franchise invented to its impossible conclusion) that signaled a renewed desire to tell stories WITH superheroes, rather than simply stories ABOUT them. By the time its sequel, The Dark Knight hit screens (the same year as Iron Man), Batman’s world owed as much to Michael Mann’s Heat as it did to Jerry Robinson and Bill Finger’s early Joker stories from the Batman comics, while Heath Ledger eschewed the scenery chewing that had been a trademark of most “comic book movie” villains (Ian McKellen’s Magneto and Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus were two other merciful exceptions) in favor of a performance that drew on everything from Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio in the original Dirty Harry to Tom Waits’ stage banter.

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You could arguably take Batman and the Joker out of costume entirely in The Dark Knight and still end up with a compelling thriller. Still, even this, while a cut above the rest, to be sure, wasn’t free of certain generic conventions. Batman is forced to make the “impossible choice,” a plot device so well-worn that it should be retired forever from superhero films. At least here, things don’t work out the way they usually do, and choices do have consequences. Hints of The Dark Knight‘s genre-first (but not necessarily superhero first) approach can also be seen in 2013’s Man of Steel, which did its very best to present Superman, particularly his Kryptonian roots, in as pure a science fiction environment as possible.   

Marvel Studios, from the first Iron Man film onward, have shown little interest in the idea of the comic book movie as a genre unto itself. While most of the Marvel Phase One films were necessarily beholden to certain conventions of superhero movie storytelling, mostly a function of the necessity of telling origin stories, they have rarely made attempts to portray the “real world” that their heroes inhabit as anything but that (fantastic realms like Asgard and the 1940s Saturday matinee sci-fi of Captain America: The First Avenger are understandable exceptions). There may be more and more heroes and villains, but the world, even the fantastical elements of it, all maintain a certain internal logic and visual consistency.

But somewhere between the death of the “comic book movie” as a genre driven by overstylized visuals and attempts to replicate comic book storytelling techniques on the screen (notably in Ang Lee’s Hulk and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen), the “comic book movie” has found itself trapped in a new cycle, one that isn’t solved by simply grounding the characters in more realistic worlds. The presence of a superhero now seems to mean that each film has the desire top the last one, usually in the form of an ever larger CGI brouhaha, each resulting in more collateral damage than the last. The stakes have become entirely too high, even in superhero movies which, by nature, feature larger than life characters.

Which brings us back to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which relies even less on elaborate sets and stylized direction than the already restrained Marvel films are known for. The film instead opts for Washington DC landmarks and other outdoor locations (after decades of claustrophobic and nocturnal Batman movies, it’s such a relief to see superheroes routinely operating in daylight) and easygoing performances. So while this one has almost nothing in common visually with the comic book movies of the last big boom, it still ends up raising the stakes higher than the relatively introspective story requires.

For the vast majority of the film, Captain America isn’t even in costume, relying instead on Chris Evans’ honest, charming, and direct performance, which owes as much to Christopher Reeve’s iconic Superman as it does to any comic book interpretation of the character. Were a viewer to wander in on a screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier any time after it’s first fifteen or twenty minutes and before that final half-hour, there is a chance, however slight, that for at least a little while, they might not realize they were watching an explicit adaptation of a comic book superhero story. While it never quite reaches the “political thriller” levels that Marvel was aiming for, its down-to-earth aesthetic and naturalistic performances make the superhero movies of a decade ago feel hopelessly old-fashioned by comparison.

In fact, little about the film feels like a traditional superhero movie until the climax, which is an unfortunately predictable affair, involving a seemingly arbitrary countdown, 20 million innocent lives at stake, and a video game like quest to insert one thing into another thing in order to prevent bad things from happening. It is, quite probably, the movie’s only major misstep, and feels out of place after a subdued (by superhero movie standards) first two hours. Without this, Captain America: The Winter Soldier would feel like a very different, and certainly no less exciting, movie. 

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Crashing helicarriers into fictional buildings may seem like necessities for any film with a superhero in it, but…are they? After the wholesale destruction of several blocks of midtown Manhattan on display in The Avengers and the even more gleeful carnage wrought on Metropolis in Man of Steel, well…there’s only so many buildings you can knock down. At this point, the only real surprises would be if cities aren’t destroyed in the course of these superhero slugfests. And this may be the final hurdle for superhero movies to clear in their quest for the legitimacy that is (occasionally) afforded other genre flicks: they shouldn’t be afraid to keep the narrative small when it’s appropriate.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier does its best to hint at the dangers of the unchecked surveillance state, drone warfare, and the not-so-subtle hints that we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce offhandedly refers to the events of The Avengers as “after New York…” but he may as well have been referring to the World Trade Center attacks…but all of this is promptly obscured in another consequence free orgy of property damage. I’m not saying that it’s Marvel’s job to tell heavy-handed moral parables ripped from the headlines, but aside from lessening the impact of a superhero movie that might, for once, actually have something to say (rather than something fun to show us…which is just fine, mind you) it also distracts from what is otherwise a significant development in the Marvel film universe, one that not only casts previous events in a new light, but will have major consequences for future films and TV shows: the dissolution of SHIELD.

How much of Captain America 2’s $170 million budget went into that final thirty minutes? That money could have been better spent shoring up a few other less-impressive CGI sequences earlier in the film. The time could have been better spent establishing the depth that HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD and the scope of the real threat that an organization like that headed up by an individual like Alexander Pierce would be. It could have freed up space to use flashbacks (rather than expository dialogue) to detail more of the Winter Soldier’s career, and perhaps develop more parallels between the PTSD that men like Sam Wilson, Steve Rogers, and Bucky Barnes all deal with, something that was also touched on in Iron Man 3. Among the other achievements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the ability to create relationships and character beats that stretch across franchises, and with success after success under their belt, they’ve earned the right to take chances.

It’s not like there’s any shortage of action in the first place. The opening mission, involving Captain America and Black Widow tearing through a shipload of hapless terrorists, feels not only authentic, but helps to remind audiences of what happens when enhanced and highly trained humans go up against regular jerks. For movie fans, this sequence, as well as Cap’s Bond/Bourne like pursuit of the Winter Soldier that takes him over desks, across ledges, and through walls, are as well executed and exciting as any action movie connoisseur could hope for.

For comic book fans, Cap’s fight with Batroc ranks as one of (if not the) finest pure superhero/supervillain slugfests ever put on screen, as does his later bout of hand-to-hand combat with the Winter Soldier on the streets of Washington DC. One moment in particular, involving an uncostumed Steve Rogers charging machine gun fire with nothing but his shield to protect him is so evocative of the character’s comic book roots that nothing, no amount of slow motion, speed-ramping, or “comic book” mood lighting and set design could have possibly enhanced it. It takes up all of three seconds of screen time, and for Captain America purists, it’s unforgettable. All feel more special than any of the CGI spectacle of that last act.

The Spider-Man films continue to face this problem, as well. Historically, Spider-Man has endured as a character because of the reader/viewer’s personal connection with Peter Parker, and their investment in Parker’s daily relationships. Spidey’s greatest foes are almost exclusively creepy older men, many with animal or elemental science powers…and there’s always that lingering danger that Spidey is only one bad decision or missed subway connection away from growing up to be Adrian Toomes or Norman Osborn. These are the relationships and conflicts that drive Spider-Man’s world, and the anonymous body counts racked up by collapsing buildings are nothing compared to the very real danger that Peter’s friends and loved ones find themselves in every time he puts that suit on.

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Yet somehow, the Spider-Man franchise continues to try and top itself with each new installment. Was there a single Amazing Spider-Man ticket buyer worried that the population of Manhattan would find themselves turned into lizards…or was their actual concern for the fate of Denis Leary’s charismatic George Stacy? Would the film have grossed less than its $750 million worldwide take if the fate of all Manhattan wasn’t at stake? Probably not.

In recent years, filmmakers have finally stepped away from hyper-stylized sets and wardrobes and the apparent need to light every frame like the panel of a comic book, in favor of an understanding with the audience that these larger-than-life characters work best when operating in a world a little more recognizable as our own. Now may be the right time to break their addiction to the idea that every one of these films must also place millions of lives in peril and require international aid to deal with the consequences and cleanup. By allowing characters like Batman, Spider-Man, and Captain America to tell smaller stories, they will not only prevent the audience fatigue and backlash, but they’ll allow the larger stories necessary for characters like Superman, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, or (assuming we ever get there) Justice League to shine.

In any event, superhero movies, particularly those like Captain America: The Winter Soldier that aspire to tackle weightier subjects, need to take one last step away from the current conventions of the genre. With Marvel planning on releasing films through (at least!) 2028, not to mention their growing broadcast and streaming television ambitions, at some point their current blockbuster approach will have to evolve. It may be best to do it before this formula fails them. They staked their claim with Iron Man in 2008, lapped their competition (“on your left”) with The Avengers in 2012, and they will have to do it again before they’re done. And their competition, whether it’s at Fox, Sony, or Warner Bros. would do well to take note.

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