Captain America: Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo recently told (opens in new tab) Den of Geek that they think of their upcoming tale of heroes vs heroes as a "psychological thriller." And based on the trailer (opens in new tab), it looks like it'll be unlike anything we've seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) thus far. But don't worry - these constant genre changes, shifting from film to film, are actually a major part of what makes the Marvel movies so damn fun.
We've gotten not one, but two superhero movies per year from Marvel since 2013, and six spaced between 2008 and 2012. Logic - and some critics - would dictate we should be getting sick of these by now. But Captain America: The Winter Soldier nearly doubled its predecessor's earnings at the box office. Guardians of the Galaxy, the film critics feared would be Marvel's first major flop, is the studio's fourth-highest grossing movie, ranking just below Iron Man 3 and the Avengers movies. Even Ant-Man was successful enough to warrant a sequel. So what's going on here?
Simple. Marvel Studios is keeping audiences' attention by making each MCU project reflect the stylings and tropes of a different genre. Kevin Feige, the man in charge of the MCU, told IGN (opens in new tab) late last year that this is intentional. "I've said it a lot: I don't believe in the comic book genre. I don't believe in the superhero genre. I believe that each of our films can be very different. … They all happen to be based on Marvel characters and Marvel comics, but from a genre and a cinematic perspective, they're all very unique."
Let's look at the first Captain America film. With its deliberate hokeyness and '40s aesthetics (plus, you know, all those Nazis), it felt not unlike the pulp adventures of Doc Savage and Indiana Jones. Many scenes are filled with a warm, sepia tone that evokes the nostalgia of old photographs. Wide, sweeping shots of battles make us feel like Cap is fighting against an immense, overwhelming force.
Contrast this to The Winter Soldier. The plot is one of subterfuge and paranoia. No longer is this a plucky adventure about a scrawny kid from Brooklyn, it's a morally gray spy movie, reminiscent of Cold War mystery flicks like All The President's Men and The Manchurian Candidate mixed with the action of a James Bourne. Action scenes are close and tight - uncomfortably so at times, such as the elevator fight - to increase tension. The film is tinted in cold hues, which makes us feel much like Cap; alone and unsure of where to turn, surrounded not by humanity, but bureaucracy.
It's not just the Star-Spangled Avenger that gets this sort of treatment, either. Ant-Man brought a crew together and centered on Scott Lang's life as a thief to give us Marvel's first heist movie. Guardians of the Galaxy told a tale of misfits from across the galaxy uniting to stop a malicious force capable of destroying planets, not unlike many other space operas. Mark Ruffalo has said (opens in new tab) that he thinks the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok will be a buddy picture (think movies like 48 Hours or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). The list goes on.
This is why the MCU works. Compare Marvel's current worldbuilding with efforts of the past, like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, or the Christopher Reeve Superman films. While each of these movies was expertly shot and starred some of the hottest actors of the time, by the third iteration they were starting to fall apart.
That's because while the series may have introduced elements like a new love interest or personal drama, they were still very much superhero movies. At their core, these movies told the same stories they always had, with a rotating cast of villains to fight against. There's only so many times we can watch someone in spandex and/or a cape run through a city and punch their way to a solution. Making each MCU project a different genre of movie avoids this pitfall, hence its continued success almost a decade on from the first Iron Man.
Praise the MCU for its excellent production values, spectacular setpieces, spot-on casting choices, and its interweaving, carefully-constructed mythology all you like. But Feige has the right idea, and the lineup to prove it. Marvel's superhero movies continue to be popular because we're not going to the theater to see superhero movies; we're just going to see good, interesting movies. It just so happens that these ones have superheroes in them.
Image credit: Marvel Studios/Disney