How Captain America: The Winter Soldier gets the 'dark' superhero movie right

The latest offering from Marvel Studios is not only one of its best films yet. It's also a textbook example of how to tell a grimmer superhero story and still have a hell of a good time.

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for Captain America: The Winter Soldier ... obviously. 

I've written recently about my skepticism when it comes to taking superheroes -- and often genre cinema in general -- into "gritty," "dark" territory when it doesn't seem called for, so I was especially skeptical when a fellow writer, who happened to catch an earlier press screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier than I did, told me the film wasn't just one of Marvel's best, but also its "darkest movie yet." I was hoping for, and expecting, another laugh-laced Marvel action extravaganza, but what if I didn't get it? What if Winter Soldier let me down with a take on Cap full of angsty growls and heads hung in muted, faux-nihilistic contemplation of the end of the world?

When you really think about what you're seeing, there's a lot of pretty dark stuff in this movie. Black Widow's cool exterior cracking as she mourns the (apparently) dead Nick Fury was the one that hit me hardest, but you also have Sam Wilson counseling veterans, Steve Rogers visiting Peggy Carter -- the woman he could have spent his lost years with -- as she dies in her bed, the unfolding HYDRA conspiracy revealing to Cap that everything he thought he was fighting for was, in some way, a lie, and the proposed mass murder of millions at the heart of the whole plot. It's a movie that forces Cap to contend with a harsh truth of the 21st century: That you can't always tell the bad guys by the swastikas on their uniforms anymore. Oh, and one of the villains is Rogers' presumed-dead best friend, who was systematically brainwashed and transformed until he couldn't even remember who he was anymore. When you let all that sink in, things can get dark, and it's darkness with a very human edge. Cap can't blame Malekith for his issues. 

I knew the movie was going to be OK, though, as soon as I saw Cap running laps around Falcon. The "on your left" gag worked so well -- as a device to illustrate Cap's absurd athletic ability, as a way to make us comfortable with the impending friendship of Cap and Falcon, and, most importantly, as a way to show us that Steve Rogers is so sincere that he'll keep saying "on your left" as an apparent courtesy even when no one can possibly miss him -- that it hooked me instantly. What followed was two hours of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and the film's cast deftly balancing the heavy issues on Cap's mind with the fast-paced fun we've come to expect from Marvel Studios cinema. 

So, how did the Winter Soldier crew achieve this while also telling Marvel's heaviest story to date? Well, as I see it, they did it by understanding a simple truth about superheroes that other filmmakers simply miss sometimes. Now, I'm not opposed to a good dark superhero story. I'm a tireless evangelist for Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, even when its attempts at operatic darkness get a little bonkers. I think the dark superhero film is great, if done well, but when it's done poorly the darkness is all you see. Take Man of Steel. There are, believe it or not, a number of things I truly love about that film (the raw display of Kryptonian power, for one thing, and the winningness of Henry Cavill's smile the few times he was allowed to use it for another), but it didn't connect with me, not because it was trying to tell a serious Superman story, but because it never stopped screaming Look how serious this is! at me. It seemed to have no faith in the timelessness of its hero, and tried to compensate with muted colors, battles filled with shouting and sorrow, and a whole host of scenes that forced Kal-El to contemplate who he was and who he wanted to be over and over and over. It seemed to be a movie not about a superhero, but about how seriously the filmmakers were taking said superhero. When that happens, all the fun of being a superhero slips away, and I don't know about you guys, but I didn't get into Superman (or Batman, or Captain America) because of the potential to tell dark stories with them. I got into them because being faster than a speeding bullet sounds, well ... cool as hell

Which brings me to that simple truth I was referring to. Ready? Here it is: 

Superheroes are not realistic.

I don't care how many deep, philosophical conversations Clark Kent has with his adoptive father, he's still a flying alien with heat vision, Batman's still a guy who dresses up like a bat (even with all of the supposedly realistic tactical trappings of the Nolanverse), and Captain America's still a guy carrying a shield made of "Vibranium." They are all supposed to be larger-than-life characters, caught in larger-than-life adventures, and their humanity comes from both their heroism and the moments in between the crazy battles with supervillains. 

And here's another truth: We're all cool with that

The Avengers didn't make a billion dollars because of its gritty take on the Hulk or its grounding of Thor (Get it? Because he uses lightning, and if you ground ... never mind, moving on). We go into these movies, or we should, with the understanding that these are superhumans, and their job is to save the world. Think how awful your job would be if you weren't allowed to quip or smile or take time to banter with your coworkers now and then. Now imagine that same sad scenario when applied to The Avengers. Imagine that movie as nothing but grunting and punching against a dark sky. Imagine Winter Soldier as nothing but a deep conspiracy movie in which no one can trust anyone and everyone walks through every moment wrought with nothing but paranoia and terror. Not a very fun movie, right? But when you accept the idea that Captain America is an inherently over-the-top creation (I mean, we're talking about a dude whose first-ever appearance on a page was him punching Hitler in the face), and you accept that the audience is already along for that kind of ride, you can have fun with even the darkest ideas. Winter Soldier reveled in that. It gave us Cap and Natasha bantering about dating even as they were trying to save the world. It gave us an Apple Store Genius who was blissfully unaware that he could get caught in crossfire at any moment. It gave us laugh after laugh deftly interlaced into the highest action and the heaviest drama, and it made the film feel like more than a superhero spectacle. It made the film fun

Captain America: The Winter Soldier gets that, Marvel Studios gets that, and that's why I can't wait to see this movie again.

What do you think? Did the latest adventure of Cap strike the right balance between darkness and humor? Do you prefer your superhero movies grounded a la the most recent Batman trilogy, or more willing to embrace the fantastic? Sound off in the comments!

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