04 April 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Captain America and Springtime for Hitler

Every Friday last summer we dove into the Road to a Blockbuster - an effort to predict the cultural, commercial, and critical success of every big movie that came out during the sunny months. Why Summer? It's big, it's loud, it's fun - it's time for every big studio to vy against each other not only for the most bank, but for who can culturally dominate the national conversation at any given zeitgeist. Which of these movies will we still be discussing ten or twenty years from now? Which will have enough cultural engagement and influence to become a really significant part of the national film discussion?
Actually by far the most interesting part of
this whole affair is what Chris Evans thinks
of the nonsense
.

In the last few years, Marvel Comics and Disney have threatened this concept. At least as it has stood for the last forty years. Under the umbrella of the Avengers franchise tag, Marvel has set forth a slew of films that don't really matter on their own. In twenty years no one is really going to care or even distinguish between Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Beta Ray Bill: Asses of Fire (2021). Every film seems obsessed with being good, but not great. Marvel changed the way studios handle blockbusters forever, but now it's not enough to have a single memorable film or franchise - but you need a conglomeration of tepid releases that simultaneously homogenize massive swaths of new releases and monopolize studio development interests and release dates decades ahead of time.

Thor: The Dark World was probably the worst of this. Besides being incomprehensibly stupid regarding its plot, MacGuffin, and backstory, its world-building didn't really add anything to its characters. Sure it set Loki on an interesting path, but it was more bridging a gap between The Avengers (2012) and whatever is next in the pipeline. Same with Iron Man 2 (2010), which existed more as a building block for other works than its own movie. These kind of interstitials used to be handled by comic books or other inconsequential tie-ins. Now we have to watch a whole movie that feels less important than the Avengers "phase" bookends. It's the future of movie-making, though, and it gets asses in seats.

This is in itself an extremely roundabout way to mention that I'm not at all that excited for Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014). Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), was probably the weakest of the "Phase One" Marvel movies, despite its marvelous cast from top to bottom, handful of really impressive hero moments, and its ability to make the literally eternal boyscout Steve Rogers into a genuinely interesting character. It instead always feels like hackneyed film, not for its over-the-top 40s-style song numbers and period authentic chocolate milkshake-style dialogue. As F/X has recently begun playing the film ad nauseum, its faults have become more rapidly on display - even with a coat of surface-level freshness, its tropes are familiar and the film does little to innovate from a cultural standpoint. It strives for coolness over inventiveness. Safety over intrigue.

So now I've shredded both the film's first installment as well as the entire reason for its being and rationale for release. The second films in each of the main franchises that make up The Avengers - Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America have been among the worst Marvel has ever done. Iron Man 3 (2013), with its nods towards finality, exploration of villain tropes, and manifest of Shane Blackisms, was salvageable. Is that what it takes? Or will the good reviews centering around The Winter Soldier prove to contain merit? Can Marvel buck their first sequel trend of horribleness?

By all accounts, The Winter Soldier will center around the return of (SPOILER - kind of. Unless you've read a Captain America comic, ever) perennial sidekick Bucky Barnes as an unfrozen brainwashed Soviet Agent. Or probably some other Agent. Hell, maybe just a Putinist Russian Agent, it's the same thing at this point. It also features S.H.I.E.L.D. getting massively fucked up, a possible exploration of the military industrial complex, and it even looks like glimpses of Mark Millar's Civil War, judging how the Captain seems to disagree with and rebel against S.H.I.E.L.D.'s legal dubiousness. Does Steve Rogers become a superhero equivalent to Edward Snowden? Will this be the most relevant film of all time?

I think that makes the difference. Iron Man 3 works on its own as a solid action movie. The Dark World doesn't work as anything but a reason to remember who Thor is in between Avengers trips. If The Winter Solider can remember the former and explore the heady themes I've proposed in ways that avoid delving both into camp and Nolanesque over self-seriousness, I think it can have some cultural clout. It's already received plenty of critical love. Commercially, even though an April release is a bit of a gambit, my guess is that this does fine. Even though I thought The Dark World was inconsequential, people loved this thing, and everyone is completely gaga for all things Marvel right now. This will do fine.

So, what's it going to be? Do you have a little Captain in you this evening?

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