What the Marvel Cinematic Universe Owes Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow helped launch Hollywood into the current era of comic book-inspired films...

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the retro-futuristic 2004 adventure drama based on the serials of the 1930s and 1940s and in the style of Golden Age comic books, is considered one of the first major Hollywood film to be made almost completely digitally — with only the main actors (notably, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie) and some sets that are actually real.

More than a decade later, this visually-unique movie may be largely forgotten by mainstream audiences, but its influence on the comic book blockbuster world remains…

A movie that looks like Golden Age comics…

In many ways, Sky Captainwas the first real modern comic book movie — even though it’s not a straight comic book adaptation as it has no single source material.

While Spider-Manand X-Menhad already hit the mainstream scene when the film debuted, Sky Captainwasn’t just about adapting the content of the comic book world, but adapting the aesthetic. I would argue that it is the first mainstream, big-budget film to do so. While other comic book-inspired movies were playing by the rules of a more “grounded” cinematic style, Sky Captainwas making its own rules and embracing everything pulpy. (Its robots were directly inspired by the 1941 Superman-inspired short The Mechanical Monsters.) 

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Speaking to Film Freak Central about the influence of Golden Age comic book creators, director Kerry Conran said:

The work of those artists and writers was really the template for us. To some extent we stole from it, to some extent we expanded on it — hopefully, we added enough of our own sensibility. We tried to approach it almost as though we lived in that era and were just another group of artists trying to make a work comprised of those pieces and inspirations. We wanted the film to feel like a lost film of that era. If we’re a footnote in the history of pulp art and Golden Age comics, that’d be enough, that’d be great. If we even just inspire some people to go back and investigate some of that stuff, we’d have done enough.

Fifteen years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the biggest, most lucrative film franchises of all time. I would never argue that the MCU owes most of its success to Sky Captain. I would argue that Sky Captaintested the comic book-y film waters in a way that made later movies — most especially Captain America: The First Avenger— possible.

Let’s talk about the similarities between these two movies…

Embracing the optimism of retro-futurism…

Sky Captainand The First Avengerhave some very literal similarities that hint to the less tangible connections the two movies share. Both have the 1939 New York World’s Fair as a direct influence. Steve and Bucky even attend the event (even though it is anachronistically set four years later in the world of The First Avenger) before Bucky heads off to war. It’s the place where Steve meets Dr. Erskine and his journey into becoming Captain America truly begins.

For Captain America,the World’s Fair is a hint of what’s to come, with the celebration’s theme “The World of Tomorrow” a clue that Steve will soon be thrust into new worlds — both retro-futuristically through his experience with the super serum and more literally when he wakes up in the 21st century at the end of the film.

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As for Sky Captain,the influence of the 1939 New York World’s Fair is built into its very DNA. Kerry Conran, the film’s mastermind, was inspired by Norman Bel Geddes and Hugh Feriss, designers who contributed exhibits for the 1939 event. And the film took the fair’s theme as part of its own title. Speaking to Film Freak Central about the decision, Conran said:

The title refers to the World Expo and the spirit of that was looking at the future with a sense of optimism and a sense of the whimsical, you know, something that we’ve lost a lot in our fantasies. We’re more cynical, more practical… I think what this film attempts to do is to take that enthusiasm and innocence and celebrate it — to not get mired in the practicality that we’re fixated upon today.

Though they are very differently rendered in Sky Captainvs. Captain America, the two films share a larger interest in 1930s/1940s New York City. They both start their journeys there (before heading off on an international adventure). Both have scenes set in Radio City Music Hall and in New York City movie theaters.

New York City represents the tangible stake to be protected at all costs in both films. It is the place Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan must save at the beginning of Sky Captainand the place Steve “Captain America” Rogers saves at the end of The First Avengerby plunging the attack plane into the icy ocean.

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Of course this isn’t just about the inspiration of the World’s Fair — lots of films have no doubt found inspiration in this event — but about the deeper theme of retro-futurism it represents. In a sea of post-apocalyptic stories and gritty adaptations, both Sky Captainand Captain Americaare tapping into a very different, much more optimistic perspective.

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They are tapping into a past representation of the future as something to look forward to rather than be afraid of. This future (somehow still trapped in our past) has scary technological advancements, but they are met with wonder as well as fear — and that wonder makes all the tonal difference in the world.

A celebration of all things pulpy.

One of the most delightful aspects of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrowis Angelina Jolie’s Commander Franky Cook who gets to shout things like, “Alert the amphibious squadron!” and wear an eyepatch that in no way hinders her ability to fly an aircraft or shoot down enemies. Apparently. It’s not hard to see the similarities between Franky and the MCU’s own eyepatch-wearing, helicarrier-touting Nick Fury.

But, past the superficial similarities between these two competent, in-charge, and slightly aloof characters, they both represent a commitment to the pulpier aspects of Golden Age comics and mid-century serials. Sky Captainand the MCU are not adapting their inspiration through a filter of gritty realism, but rather embracing many of the sillier aspects of the source material. 

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This pulpiness extends to The First Avenger‘s villain. Like Sky Captain, the main antagonist is straight out of WWII-era adventure films. Vaguely German scientists are on both sides of the good-evil divide, with maniacal men as the chief antagonists who think they know what’s best for the entire planet.

In Sky Captain‘s case, Dr. Totenkopf — which literally mean “death’s head or skull” in German. In The First Avenger‘s case, Johann Schmidt’s Red Skull. All you need to do is take one look at Hugo Weaving as a Voldemort-like Red Skull-face and you know that The First Avengerisn’t afraid to go full-on camp. Just like Sky Captain

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Thinking about Sky Captain in a post-MCU world…

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a film that both feels like a hundred other cinematic experiences you’ve had before and like nothing else you’ve ever watched. Rewatching Sky Captainin a post-Marvel Cinematic Universe world is a particularly interesting experience.

If it were released today, Sky Captainwould still be a weird, incredibly imaginative film, but it might also find a larger audience amongst movie-goers much more comfortable with comic book adaptations that embrace campy tones and pulpy content. 

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Sky Captain might also be treated with a bit more reverence in a movie-scape where so much looks the same, especially when it comes to comic books movies. A movie-scape where one of the two major comic book film franchises adapts Golden Age comics primarily with a decidedly post-9/11 nihilism, completely ignoring the optimistic futurism that originally made these stories and characters work. (Though Wonder Woman and DC’s new direction complicates this characterization.)

For the mainstream viewers who did see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrowwhen it first came out in 2004, the film gave a glimpse into a movie future that was only a few years away: a world of comic book adaptations that was possible of so much more with the progression of digital visual effects and one that reimagined Golden Age comic book classics in all of their pulpy glory.

For this, if nothing else, Sky Captainplays an important role in film history and deserves to be remembered.

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Kayti Burt serves as a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. A long-term lover of all things science fiction and fantasy, she is an unabashed defender of the power of speculative storytelling and a proponent of sentimental TV. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.