Although I enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier quite a bit, quite possibly more so than any Marvel film other than (predictably) The Avengers and (surprisingly) Iron Man 3, I won’t be writing a straight review of it. Enough has already been written about how it shakes up the fictional universe begun with the first Iron Man film and about its overtones of ’70s political thrillers, which don’t actually hold up all that well except on the most superficial level.
Suffice it to say, I liked the film – but mostly I like what it does, and what the Marvel movies have been doing, which as far as I know is pretty unique to cinema. Worldbuilding is something that so far has been done best in long-form formats: Tolkien, for one, did a magnificent job of it in The Lord of the Rings, but he has hundreds and hundreds of pages to do so as well as several other books to contribute to the creation of Middle-earth. Series in various media also have a lot of potential when it comes to worldbuilding, whether we’re talking about comic books or TV series. Some films have done the same, but it’s probably not the format’s main strength: you have examples such as the Star Wars series, but on the whole creating interesting worlds that live and breathe takes time, and the genres that lend themselves to worldbuilding (e.g. fantasy or sci-fi) also tend to produce plot-heavy – and setpiece-heavy – films that simply don’t have the breathing space that makes for the successful evocation of fictional universes.
In the Marvel films, the makers have succeeded at this by creating a network of characters and events that relate to each other yet still result in individual stories. You can watch Captain America 2 without knowing what happened in the Iron Man films, The Avengers or even the first Captain America movie, but having an idea of what happens outside the confines of this one film adds a sense of scope that the usual SFX of Mass Destruction don’t have. As I was watching the movie, I wasn’t thinking of sequels, prequels and franchises: I was thinking that here was a world that’s alive beyond any individual entry. What is going on in Captain America 2 resonates beyond Cap’s story. Even if the stories being told are still pretty basic, predictable tales of superheroics – and no, Robert Redford does not make this film Three Days of the Condor – there’s something exciting to the way the Marvel films have come to suggest that there’s plenty of space to be coloured in beyond the lines of Captain America 2 or Iron Man 3 or The Avengers. To me, it feels there’s a world out there, and it exists whether we’re presently looking at it or not – and that may be one of the best things that can happen to a fictional world.
It also presents a storytelling challenge, because I’d argue that in the long run it gets boring if every single story told within this universe is about averting some world-shattering calamity. That’s one of the strengths of serial formats: they give the storyteller space to tell the smaller stories too. Not every Marvel comic is about some super villain’s latest plot to destroy New York, the Earth or the universe. Look at something like Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Angel: yes, there are Big Bads and plot arcs, but there are similarly more intimate stories. Does Hollywood have something similar to offer? Can there be Marvel movies that aren’t about defeating this bad guy or stopping some major evil plot? Or will we get to the point where each and every one of these films is essentially the same story given a slightly different coat of paint based on which superhero has the lead part? If this happens, all the world-building will fall flat, because at this point the universe no longer feels like one and begins to feel like a Setpiece Generator. There have already been hints of this, for instance in Thor: The Dark World‘s “Let’s destroy London!” climax. Here’s hoping that Marvel can continue to build on what’s most intriguing about this project and that they avoid having created a world that lives and breathes only to bore the hell out of us.