8 things comic book movies could learn from Captain America

Andy really liked the Captain America movie a lot. And he's found a series of things right with it that other comic book films could learn from...

Please note: There are spoilers for events in the film, so you may want return to this article after you’ve seen the movie.

Captain America: The First Avenger has finally hit cinemas and I have a confession: I loved it, with a passion and without reservation. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed many of the comic book superhero movies that have hit screens over the past few years, Thor, Iron Man, Hellboy 2, X-Men: First Class. Hell, I even liked Green Lantern for what it was. Except every one of those movies came with a ‘but’, a not quite perfect performance.

Captain America is the first superhero movie since The Dark Knight that I can’t complain about and have nothing to nitpick over (except, maybe, that it ended).  

With a potentially bright future ahead for other comic book-based films, it might help to illustrate where Captain America went right where other lesser films have gone a little wrong…

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Hire a director with a vision, and let him realize it

Captain America unspools with the confidence and momentum of a seasoned pro. Director Joe Johnston has had a fascinating history in moviemaking.. In his own directing career, he’s made some troubled productions watchable (Jurassic Park 3, The Wolfman), while creating  some bona fide gems (The Rocketeer, October Sky).

In many ways, it seems his whole career has led him to Captain America. Even more impressive, it appears as if Marvel actually gave him the time, budget, and autonomy to make the movie he wanted. The result is a film with a look, feel, and pulse that is unique and refreshing. You don’t feel studio meddling here. Just a story being told by a filmmaker who finally has the freedom to spread his wings and deliver a love letter to the rollicking serials he’s always loved.

Joe Johnston was finally given the opportunity to deliver the film I always knew he could, and he makes it look easy in the process.

Pick the best actor for the role

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I’ll admit that, since Marvel started producing its own movies, it’s done an exemplary job. Instead of sticking any famous face in the role for sheer recognition (Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider springs to mind here, cast by Sony rather than Marvel. That said, Cage was a long-time fan of the Ghost Rider character), the success of the entire endeavor comes down to choosing the right actor, who can bring the character to life in a way we’ve only imagined.

No one can deny that Robert Downey Jr. owned as Tony Stark. Chris Hemsworth similarly impressed as Thor. And now you can add Mr. Chris Evans to the list, as the perfect Steve Rogers.

By dropping the cocksure swagger he showed in Fantastic Four and Sunshine and embracing the earnest soul of Rogers, Evans shows a depth previously untapped. He’s brought Cap to life better than expected, making him forthright and sincere, without being cloying and corny.

In Evans’ and Johnston’s capable hands, Steve is the stand-up kind of guy we want to cheer for and go on this mission with. To think, we almost got Channing Tatum.

Give us a villain worthy of our hero

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In the current world of movie franchises, every film seems to be made with the footnote ‘We’re planning a trilogy’. Because of this overconfidence that ‘we’ll do that in the next one’ certain characters and stories are held back for the sequel the suits assume they’re going to make (Green Lantern is a perfectly depressing example).

Who remembers the villain in Iron Man? Let me help. It was Jeff Bridges in a bigger Iron Man suit. What about Iron Man 2? That time it was Mickey Rourke in another, bigger Iron Man suit, but with whips.

It’s been said that a hero is only as good as his villain, and this is even more true in the world of comic book movies. Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. And Captain America has The Red Skull.

Thankfully, instead of saddling us with some second stringer in this first go round, we get to see Red Skull, played by the incomparable Hugo Weaving, onscreen in all his diabolical glory.

As upright and honorable as Steve Rogers is, Weaving’s Johan Schmidt is as dubious, conniving, and despicable. And it’s awesome that Cap and Red Skull actually come face to skull a few times over the course of the film. It was an excellent way to introduce their legendary rivalry, as well as build the conflict of being the twisted mirror images of each other. I just hope we haven’t seen the last of Schmidt. He was a glorious bastard.

Supporting characters matter too

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If you take a moment to think about your favorite films of all time, be it Star Wars, Back To The Future, or Pirates Of The Caribbean (okay, maybe those are my favorites), how many other characters, in addition to the main character, stand out? Odds are that that list is pretty long.

You don’t just remember Luke Skywalker. You also fondly recall Han, Chewy, Yoda, R2, Lando, Leia, and so on. Johnston understands this, and fills his movie with memorable and entertaining secondary characters and, more importantly, casts them with talented and respected actors (a little trick also favored by our dear friend, Christopher Nolan).

So, we don’t just have Evans and Weaving doing all the heavy lifting. We also have Tommy Lee Jones at his dry witted best as Colonel Phillips. We have, Haley Atwell bringing an admirable strength and charm as Peggy Carter, who refreshingly never becomes the clichéd damsel in distress. We get Toby Jones as Dr. Zola, Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, and Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan. And, most importantly, every one of these characters gets their moment to shine and make their mark on the film. And before you jump on me for forgetting someone, I’ve saved the best for last, Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine.

Tucci took what could have been little more than a glorified cameo, brought gravitas, intelligence, and humor to it and, in the process, became the soul of the film. A pitch perfect performance. Did anyone walk out of X-Men: First Class singing the praises of Angel Salvadore? No need to answer that.

Theme music is important

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Quick, hum the theme to Superman! Easy! Now Batman! No problem. How about Spider-man? Now, X-Men (no, the cartoon theme doesn’t count).  The Incredible Hulk?

That got tougher with those last couple, didn’t it? Well, for the first time in what seems like ages, our hero has a triumphant, original, recognizable theme. Kudos to Mr. Alan Silvestri.

Let it be fun

It seems that every superhero movie is met with the comment from fanboys similar to ‘well, it’s no Dark Knight.’ I appreciate that The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. However, they’re entirely missing the point.

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The grim realistic approach that works for Batman isn’t right for every character (which is why I have such reservations about next year’s Spider-Man reboot, but that’s another conversation) and trying to force every hero into a dark and gritty place is missing out on the individual appeal of these icons.

Captain America is about strength of character, responsibility, and hope. I didn’t want to see a dirty, harsh war movie, with Captain America in the trenches stepping over the bloodied bodies of his fallen comrades. If I wanted that, I’d watch Saving Private Ryan.

Although there are moments of drama and humanity in the film (Erskine’s conversation with Steve before the procedure, being a sterling example), Johnston still wants, first and foremost, to give us a good time at the movies. So, the journey of Steve Rogers is filled with laughs, great character moments, and inventive action, all served up with the same enthusiasm as such thrilling pulp classics as Indiana Jones and Star Wars. It’s a rip-roaring old school adventure, with a valiant hero, hissable villain and we’re lucky enough to be on board for the entire ride.

Don’t peak too early

Let’s play another game, shall we? What was the best fight in Thor? The Frost Giant battle, right? When did it happen in the movie? About thirty minutes in. How about Iron Man? It’s got to be when he takes down the terrorists in Afghanistan. When was that? About an hour into it. X2? Nightcrawler’s siege on the White House, yes? When was that? Oh, it was the first scene in the movie. Do you get where I’m going with this?

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One of this film fan’s biggest rules of moviemaking  is simple: make the climax worth waiting for. There are some great action scenes throughout The First Avenger, the NYC chase, Bucky’s rescue, the Howling Commando’s montage, and the winter train. But it all builds up to the extended, final, action-packed sequence that starts with a motorcycle chase in the woods (a nice homage to Return Of The Jedi, by the way). That leads to a battle with a crew of Hydra agents inside the walls, Cap getting captured, the Commando’s entrance, a chase through the bowels of Hydra headquarters, another battle in the hangar, all culminating in the final clash aboard Red Skull’s bomber.

It’s a thrilling series of events that are easy to follow (no shaky cam here, thank the lord) and ever-escalating all the way until the ultimate showdown between our two titans.

We don’t just want to see. We want to feel.

I like loads of action, effects, and explosions in my summer movies, as much as the next guy. But here’s the thing. All of those pyrotechnics without context is like watching a fireworks show. It’s pretty to look at but, in the end, it’s nothing but a hollow diversion.

And in studios’ ever vigilant efforts to get into our wallets over the summer months, they’ve amped up the boom and pow and eliminated pesky little things like character and story (ahem, Transformers trilogy).

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Fortunately, Mr. Johnston is smart enough to realize that we have to care for and bond with Steve Rogers before he buffs up and starts kicking ass. He trusts us enough to allow a slow build during the first act, and introduces characters, situations, and the world before the first big action set piece. In lesser hands, this could be a slog, but it’s all handled so deftly that you don’t even notice that nothing’s been blown up yet (and no robots have humped any legs. Sorry, I’m done). Then, when you finally get to the spectacular fireworks you paid for, you care about it. Crazy, innovative stuff there.

Along these lines, the movie has something far too rare in recent action films, heart. You root for Steve to become the man he deserves to be. You believe in him because, as Dr. Erskine says, he’s a good man. He’s a hero who wants to do the right thing and that’s something we should all aspire to (as corny as that sounds).

In Steve and Peggy’s relationship, we actually get a superhero romance that doesn’t feel overly convenient or shoehorned in because studios feel we need a love interest. You actually see their feelings evolve over the course of the story. So, when the film ends the way it does, it stings. Not just for them, but for us as well, because we’re invested in it. It’s one of the most heartbreaking endings to a fun summertime romp I can remember, and the movie is stronger for it.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the final conversation between Steve and Peggy tore me up. Yeah, a stupid summer superhero movie actually brought out honest-to-goodness emotion in me.

Well, I think I’ve gushed about Captain America enough for now. Simply put, I found it to be a movie of unbridled joy, fun, and excitement. It’s everything that’s great about going to the movies and I truly believe that, over time, this film will stand up next to such classics as Superman: The Movie, Batman 89, The Rocketeer, and, yes, even The Dark Knight. It’s as it should be, because what red-blooded movie geek can really resist the star spangled man with the plan?

Read more about Captain America: The First Avenger here.

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