Badger: Okay, I’ve seen it. But rather than comment on it at any length, I’m just going to toss out a topic question. Why was Captain America: The First Avenger such a great movie, while most of the Marvel products since then—Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Agents of SHIELD, and The Winter Soldier—were such great disappointments? Would it have been smarter for them to call it quits after The Avengers?
Vole: The problem is that all of the sequels suffer from a lack of a central theme. Superhero origin movies have a built in theme—the hero discovers and comes to grips with his power. Or, as in Iron Man, the hero creates and comes to grips with his power. The hero must deal with public perception as well as deal with an external threat. In a certain way, it’s a coming of age story where the character is an adult but the hero is an infant. The infant is forced to grow into his powers incredibly quickly so he can deal with the external threat while the adult must find a way to reconcile his existing life with this growing, demanding infant hero.
The basic problem is that the coming of age storyline is over when the credits roll for the first movie. Yeah, you can still have the tension from reconciling the hero and the regular person, but there’s only so much you can do with that while also presenting an external threat during a two hour movie.
Essentially, superhero movie sequels must have some kind of underlying theme to keep the movie from devolving into little more than a series of connected action scenes. I think the most successful superhero sequel I’ve seen was Superman II with Christopher Reeve as Superman. In that movie, the tension between hero and man was made central to the entire plot. Superman wants to be with Lois and even gives up his power to get his wish. This purely human act of pursuing happiness unintentially gives General Zod and his two followers free reign over the earth. Only by sacrificing his own future will Superman be able to ensure a future for the rest of humanity. It’s powerful stuff and, despite a bunch of powers which tended to irritate Superman purists, makes for a very good movie.
Of the movies you listed, only Iron Man 3 comes close to providing a central theme—Tony Stark trying to deal with the after effects of the climactic battle in The Avengers while dealing with the usual external threat. (As a side note, I wish at least one of these heroes would have had trouble reconciling the considerable loss of innocent life which must have taken place during that that battle. Entire buildings collapsed in the middle of a work day in downtown New York City. Despite the necessity of their defense, surely at least one of the heroes would be overwhelmed by the deaths caused during the battle!)
Which brings us to The Winter Soldier, where the writers almost got the central theme right. It was staring them in the face and was even the subject of the first scene involving both Cap and Nick Fury. (In case this ends up being published for public consumption, mark this section as “Spoilers.”) Cap and Fury argue over, essentially, the American ideals of freedom and liberty versus the ever-expanding surveillance state, which watches us 24/7 under the guise of protecting us. The rest of the storyline is tailor-made to take this theme and run with it. Instead, we get the barest of nods to it. A compelling theme—made all the more topical as a result of the recent revelations of NSA spying on American citizens—is replaced with ever more dangerous action scenes.
The movie also manages to blow the human interest subplot of Cap and Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier. (Everyone already knew that, didn’t they?) This is a major gut-punch to Cap, one he is determined to rectify. But other than a few lines tossed away, there is nothing further about this huge development until the two of them face off in the big battle at the end. We get the cliche “I’m not going to fight you” bit and that’s about all there is to this subplot. I don’t want to see Cap sitting around brooding about it—that’s not his style—but it should get a lot more attention than it does.
Two incredible opportunities for character development and human drama were introduced in The Winter Soldier, and both of them were squandered. But we did get some really great action scenes instead.
Anyone who reads this will probably think I didn’t enjoy the movie. I did. But it was so disheartening to see the wasted opportunities. In the right hands, the movie could have been epic. Instead, it was merely good.