Comic book superheroes mean business

A secene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier
A secene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier
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The billion-dollar industry of comic-book blockbuster movies is a serious business. Just ask the stars, writes Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.

Amidst the larking around and general tomfoolery at the London launch of the latest entry in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe were a few considered thoughts on this modern movie phenomenon.

For Anthony and Joe Russo, the sibling directing duo behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the focus is on plugging their product. The ensemble cast – Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan – answer banal questions with as much wit and humour as they can muster.

But the entire septet is aware that they are at the heart of a mightily mushrooming franchise that keeps on growing. Just as Marvel comics once took over the world’s newsstands, so their films are taking over cinemas.

Iron Man, Hulk and Thor will soon be joined by Superman and Batman. The Avengers – the collective term for these super heroes – are striking at the heart of 21st century cinema-going. And their weapons – forget the gadgetry – are truth, honesty, loyalty and goodness.

The Marvel fanbase is built on males and females but, it has to be said, the majority are young men of a certain age. Or perhaps more realistically they are men of all ages who, deep down, retain the capacity for childlike wonder.

It would be wrong to liken the films – they seem to be breeding, such is their number – to juvenilia. Instead their mass-market appeal is strengthened by the casting, the budget and the hardware on screen.

The first Captain America movie saw World War Two warrior Steve Rogers emerge into a very different world seven decades after the end of the one he knew. But if the world has changed, his values have not. He’s still a good man fighting the good fight.

“We always liked the more complicated version of the character,” says Anthony Russo. “He starts the movie off in a very vulnerable place. We see what that means to him on a character level: to have missed 70 years and woken up and found that nobody from his old life is around anymore.

“It’s a very isolated place, a very vulnerable place. His relationship to the other characters in the movie is even more important because he has nobody.”

Evans, playing a muscle-bound relic racing to catch up of 70 years of progress, music, arts, romance and the evolving nature of American foreign policy, describes Rogers as a good man “in a vacuum”.

“He has morals and values and hopefully you can put him anywhere – whether that’s in the 40s or the modern era or whether it’s a period film or a gritty political thriller. Hopefully the qualities of who he is will somehow still shine through.”

Global audiences’ familiarity with the series, its interconnecting stories and characters allows the Russos and their fellow directors – Joss Whedon, Kenneth Branagh, Shane Black – the latitude to explore more of their characters.

Thus cinemagoers don’t need to be ardent comic book nerds to grasp the relationships and backstories of Captain America, one-eyed Avengers chief Nick Fury (Jackson) or the enigmatic Black Widow, played by Johansson. “She definitely comes from a really dark past,” says Johansson of Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow.

“I think she’s really had to desensitise or dehumanize to be able to do and see some of the things she’s seen and participated in willingly. I think she’s just now grappling with the fact that she may be experiencing some trauma from that – or at least she has some feelings about things. Maybe she doesn’t sleep so well at night…”

It’s easy to mock actors when they approach such characters with the seriousness of Olivier tackling Hamlet. But the comic book fraternity is a big one and it demands such an approach from those breathing plausible life into their heroes.

Someone who’s made no secret of his love for this genre – he openly badgered George Lucas for a role in the Star Wars sequels – is Samuel L Jackson. Now 65 he’s at the heart of a franchise that arguably matches Lucas’s Star Wars universe for fan appeal and longevity. Jackson brings a blend of gravitas, psychology and extreme violence to Fury, a futuristic super-spook – part ‘M’ from the Bond movies, part Captain Kirk (he likes to get his hands dirty) and part Wild West sheriff.

Not for Jackson the overt seriousness of his younger colleagues. He’s too old – and way too cool – for that. But he has the character of Fury nailed. “I approach it all in the same way. You show up, you look at the relationships, what’s going on, take it all seriously and still have as much fun as you can on the inside of it. I’m really glad that we saw more of Nick and what happens with him, how he reacts to situations but as usual he’s always trying to be three steps ahead. All of a sudden when he finds out he’s been used, it kind of weighs on him to find out why. Use the tools that he has at his disposal to have that happen. Part of that has to do with subterfuge and diversion, even down to fooling and hurting his most trusted compatriot.”

Inevitably attention is turned to action. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is built upon it. Thus stuntwork and tightly choreographed fight sequences give the fans what they want. Everyone has their moment. And some come off better than others.

“I’m forever wounded from these movies. It’s part of the process,” laughs Johansson. It falls to old hand Jackson to explain the drill. “I use my stunt man extensively! [You] stand there, they throw a punch, you duck out of the way. They fight. You get up and go ‘Urgh!’ and then run off. That’s it. Believe me, it’s good for you!”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out now.