Captain America and The New Fate of the Superhero Genre

By  · Published on April 8th, 2014

Marvel Studios

What is the most basic difference between a movie like Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel? The way my mind works, I have long considered Steve Rogers and Kal-El to be similarly positioned in their own respective universes. Both are stronger than regular men, both were dressed with America in mind and both are leaders of their own superhero groups (The Avengers and The Justice League, respectively).

So why is it that one hero got a movie last year that was shrugged off as “not as good as it should have been” while the other appeared this past weekend in a film that’s a potential game-changer for the genre? It’s simple: it’s all in the approach. One wanted to be a superhero movie, the other did not.

The traditional “superhero movie,” a genre born around 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, has a singular goal in mind: it’s about superheroes and supervillains. The epic war between good and evil as told in the comic books. Filmmakers have attempted to give us faithful adaptations with characters and stories we may already know from the comics, so their greatest challenge has been making those movies accessible to mainstream audiences. More often than not they keep it simple and stick to the hits. From excellent films like Spider-Man 2 (2004) to messy experiments like Green Lantern (2011), the results have varied widely.

It’s not even limited to one studio. Warner Bros. found a filmmaker in Christopher Nolan who could make Batman into a dark, gritty, expansive trilogy that audiences loved because the characters were so fleshy. And in the case of Heath Ledger’s The Joker, unnerving. On the other end of the spectrum, Marvel and Sony let Sam Raimi go one story and one villain too far with Spider-Man 3. No single executive team has been immune to the chaotic nature of adapting decades of comic stories into big screen successes.

Until Kevin Feige and the Marvel Studios team. Although, even Marvel Studios started out by making basic superhero movies like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. It wasn’t until later that we realized they were playing a larger game for The Avengers, which was a neat trick. But where do you go after you’ve told the origin stories and brought your heroes together for a wild rumpus in New York? How do you keep your audience engaged, both the hardcore and the mainstream? You stop making “superhero movies” and you start making movies that happen to include superheroes. The difference sounds subtle, but it’s not.

Marvel Studios

“[Marvel] said they wanted to make a political thriller,” explained co-director Joe Russo in a recent interview. “So we said if you want to make a political thriller, all the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience…That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant.”

That’s exactly what Marvel was given by Joe Russo and his brother Anthony, a solid political thriller that also included elements that you might find in a comic book. As they have moved into their second phase, these seem to be Marvel’s next staples: genre films instead of superhero movies.

They tapped Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor to make them a medieval war movie in Thor: The Dark World. And The Winter Soldier, it’s one hell of a proper action thriller. A full-speed man-on-the-run story with layers of intrigue and violent stakes. It’s got roots in the “Winter Soldier” comics written by Ed Brubaker, but it’s also got roots in our own reality with its themes of privacy and the nature of sacrificing freedom for safety in a high-tech modern world. Placing a man out of time in the middle of that battle with his classic sense of right and wrong makes for some unexpectedly thoughtful story moments. It’s so well-constructed that in The Winter Soldier’s third act, it isn’t hard to forget that Steve Rogers is a super-soldier. We’re lost in his battle for what is right, it doesn’t matter that he’s stronger and faster than everyone else.

This brings us back to the inherent difference between The Winter Soldier and Man of Steel. It’s clear that I’m not the only one thinking about this. But while others dissect individual scenes and character actions, I’m concerned with the intent of the teams behind the film. Marvel’s next-generation superhero story started with a different goal. They wanted a political thriller. Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. are still trying to lock down a good superhero movie with faithful adaptations where good battles evil. Their first attempt was a retelling of Superman’s origin with better effects. It didn’t offer us anything more.

Marvel is changing the game by looking for that added variable. They make medieval war movies and political thrillers. They are hiring filmmakers that work well in these genres, not only filmmakers who know how to handle big set pieces (The Russos proved that, moving from TV to Marvel’s biggest action movie yet with impressive form). From what we can see, they’ve hired James Gunn to deliver a space western the likes of which we haven’t seen since Star Wars in Guardians of the Galaxy. They have Edgar Wright making a heist movie with Ant-Man. Beyond that, who knows.

All we know is that their approach has shifted. And that could in turn mean the expiration of a genre known as “superhero movies” in favor of good genre fare that includes exceptional characters. It’s a change that is perhaps the most exciting thing to happen to the blockbuster landscape since the birth of the superhero genre itself.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)