It appears that Marvel Studios, and their partners (Paramount, Disney), have begun to take their Avenger superhero properties in the same narrative direction as the Marvel comics themselves. They no longer exist as separate films, or even separate franchises, but a web of intersecting characters and story arcs that can only be fully appreciated through a familiarity with the others. You never know what character is going to pop up in what film or how one film's results are going to influence the storyline of the next. Though this is a novel (and extremely lucrative) approach, its stands to pose some very significant problems when it comes to the narrative integrity of each individual film. Namely, how to keep each individual film an independent, self-contained narrative that can be followed and enjoyed all on its own, and how to maintain the unique identity of each franchise instead of succumbing to the homogenization that comes from blending things together. Fail to do this, and each movie will no longer be so much an individual film, but only another monotypical episode in an extremely expensive soap opera.
Marvel's latest installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier tries to achieve some separation from the pack by swerving its plot and tone outside the typical superhero box – with debatable results. Winter Soldier does this by employing what could be considered a clever trick – or a cheap and lazy one, depending on who you may ask. Though this trick may make Winter Soldier seem very fresh from one perspective, it can be incredibly stale from another.
First off, Winter Soldier is nothing like its predecessor Captain America: The First Avenger. If you removed the title character's name, you would not even be able to tell they are part of the same franchise. Personally, I am happy about this since I did not care much for the first installment. The First Avenger seemed content connecting the superhero-origin dots in the kind of corny, formulated high adventure that went out of style when Spielberg stopped making them in the early 90s. In complete contrast, Winter Soldier is not even a superhero film. Sure, it has superheroes. It contains the fantasy elements found in every superhero film in terms of its action and characters. But in terms of its plot, Winter Soldier is really a POLITICAL THRILLER masquerading in superhero clothes.
Genre-swapping can be a neat trick. Keep in mind that we are talking about genre-swapping, not genre-mixing. Swapping genres means a story presents the external, superficial traits of one genre while following the internal structure of different genre altogether. When done well, genre-swapping can result in what appear as fresh and original films. Star Wars may have been set in space, but in terms of its themes and narrative, it had nothing in common with contemporary science fiction. It took the superficial traits of sci-fi and layered them over the internal structure of the fantasy sword-and-sorcery subgenre. The Coens' The Big Lebowski may seem like a slacker comedy on its surface, but underneath that surface, it operates by the rules of a classic film noir.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier has mixed success with this strategy. This is mostly because it does little more than trade one tired formula for another. Anyone familiar with the political thriller subgenre will have no problem spotting all the standard elements: an organization with god-like power, a conspiracy from within, the morally questionable mentor figure, the villain who is but a pawn of the true evil, and the hero stuck in the middle who must go rogue to become an enemy of the organization which he was once loyal. It is basically the same story arc as every season of “24”, except Jack Bauer can run a lot faster and has far stupider fashion sense. The fact of the matter is that genre-swapping does not automatically create something new and original on its own. It has to be done right. To that end, anyone attempting to create such a film should follow three pieces of advice:
#1 COVER YOUR TRACKS
Swapping genres will not impress an audience if it is too obvious that you are simply taking the clothes off one group of cliches and putting them on the body of another. To put things a different way, Captain America: The Winter Soldier tries to take the cap off of a blue pen and put in on a red one and pretend it is writing in a whole new color. It is not. It is still the same old red ink. Winter Soldier does very little to hide how it borrows most of its content from the political thriller. The plot hits all the same marks and the cast of characters have all been adapted to the standard political thriller roles. The only differences are the level of fantasy given to the story world and the way the political thriller's usual chases and moments of violence/suspense have been expanded into full-blown superhero-style action sequences.
To work best, the two genres must be allowed to intermingle – not in their totality, but in the place where the two meet. It is where peanut butter meets jelly. We have the story's deep internal structure, and layered over the top is the story's external world. It is where the two meet that can make such a story feel unique. The traits inherent in the surface genre should be allowed enough influence over story events that they cause the internal genre to adjust how it executes its own rules. For example, most casual viewers of The Big Lebowski never notice how closely the film's plot follows the classic model of a film noir. In fact, it takes effort to really see the noir under the surface because the execution of that model is constantly being subverted, undermined, and flipped on its head by the slacker comedy elements visible on its surface – most notably a protagonist who couldn't be a more bizarre fit for the internal genre. The noir underneath must adjust to these incongruous elements into something off its usual center. Thus, Lebowski does not seem to be a noir trying to be a slacker comedy, or a slacker comedy trying to be a noir, but something completely new. The blue ink meets the red and creates an entirely new color.
#2 If you are going to combine two genres, DO BOTH OF THEM WELL
Swapping genres does not mean you can ignore the requirements of one genre for the sake of the other. When swapping genres, the storyteller must pull double-duty. He or she must meet the visual, tonal, and character requirements of the surface genre; the narrative, structural, and thematic requirements of the internal genre; do them both well; and execute all of this so the elements of the two sides support and enhance each other, not distract or undermine.
The Winter Soldier serves its surface genre pretty well. The action sequences are top-notch. It does an excellent job of absorbing the audience into its fantasy universe. And its choice of characters,
though they have been fit into typical political thriller roles, maintain the larger-than-life personalities of their source genre, keeping them far more than plot-functional archetypes.
However, as a political thriller, The Winter Soldier is rather mediocre. Though its plot hits all the proper notes for its first three-quarters, apart from the superhero element the story offers nothing a viewer has not seen a dozen times before. It's a purely by-the-numbers affair. Furthermore, the story is advanced on several occasions through coincidences and questionable plot contrivances that would cause a normal political thriller (being a genre more grounded in reality) to instantly lose credibility. This usually occurs whenever Winter Soldier tries to inject story devices from its surface genre that do not fit well with an otherwise pure political thriller. The most egregious case is the revelation of the identify of the Winter Soldier. Though this kind of too-corny coincidence that may be common in the comics, it stinks like a wet turd in the more logically-grounded political thriller.
However what ultimately causes Winter Soldier's political thriller plot to result in a less than satisfactory end is the same malady found in many political thrillers: the execution of the big conspiracy. Conspiracies are difficult things to pull off narratively. They must be complex enough to be a mental puzzle for the audience, yet still be clear and simple enough for the audience to follow without confusion. Furthermore, there is the issue of stakes. Unless the audience is orientated well to understand and, more importantly, care about what is at stake, the conspiracy will feel like much ado about nothing. The Winter Soldier struggles to get the audience to really care about the stakes behind its conspiracy; and in terms of its plot, errs on the side of simplicity in the end. When we do finally learn what the Big Evil is really up to, it turns out to be little more than a cheap contrivance to set up the obligatory ultra-battle that comprises Winter Soldier's final act. This brings us to the third principle of genre-swapping:
#3 FINISH THE RACE ON THE SAME HORSE WITH WHICH YOU STARTED
If you start a story following the internal model of a certain genre, stick with that model all the way to the story's end. Do not fall back or revert to the surface genre just because it becomes convenient or when things get too hard. Under its surface, Star Wars remains a sword-and-sorcery story throughout, ending with the young warrior's destruction of the evil warlord's impenetrable fortress. Lebowski also maintains its noir model, ending with a classic detective's inquest (of course, this is followed by a long comic denouement, but even it retains its noir elements). The Winter Soldier on the other hand all but abandons its political thriller model as it enters its third act. This was no doubt because, as a superhero franchise, it was felt mandatory to end with the kind of explosion-filled CGI schmozz expected from the surface genre. All elements of the political thriller then became secondary concerns; no longer even attached to the story's protagonist, but instead delegated to supporting characters (Black Widow and Nick Fury) in a way that is often clumsy and underserved. With a political thriller setup and a superhero film end, The Winter Soldier's third act is less than completely satisfying to either genre. The political thriller we have followed for ninety minutes is allowed to wither. Meanwhile, all the big superhero set piece action feels to be a lot of “Sound & Fury Signifying Nothing”since it had not been set up in the first three-quarters of the film in the way it would in a more traditional superhero film to provide the proper build-up and attached emotional content. One has to wonder what kind of original, and possibly more satisfying, end Winter Soldier might have had if it had stuck to its political thriller guns all the way to the finish.