How to Make a Great Superhero Movie: Hire a Comedy Director

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If you look up the filmographies of Anthony and Joe Russo, directors of the new (and very good) Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’re not going to see much that screams SUMMER TENTPOLE ACTION MOVIE MAKERS. Their only two previous features were the mostly unseen Big Deal on Madonna Street remake Welcome to Collinwood and the mostly unloved Owen Wilson comedy You, Me and Dupree. And then you will find lots and lots of television comedy, everything from the monkey-doctor comedy Animal Practice to more acclaimed programs like Arrested Development, Happy Endings, and Community. The natural assumption is that the powers-that-be at Marvel who handed the Russo brothers the keys to Captain America were taking a big chance. But Marvel has reached a point where it’s actually more unusual for them to pick conventional action directors for their films — in fact, what’s making their big-screen efforts stand out from the blockbuster pack is their tendency to place them in the hands of, when you get down to it, comedy filmmakers.

After all, if you go back to the beginnings of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ll find the first two Iron Man movies helmed by Jon Favreau, best known previously as director of Elf and writer/star of Swingers. Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Firefly stood out from the genre pack by inserting copious doses of character-based humor, and that slant is what made The Avengers so special. Shane Black made his name on Lethal Weapon, but presumably got the Iron Man 3 gig based on the uproariously funny (and sadly under-seen) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a detective comedy that also helped Robert Downey Jr. land the original film in the franchise. Next up from Marvel is August’s Guardians of the Galaxy, from writer/director James Gunn (whose previous credits include two superhero spoofs, Super and The Specials), which looks to take an even broader comic tone. And outside the Avengers-centric universe, you have Spider-Man films from Sam Raimi (whose genre work was always distinguished by a cockeyed sense of humor) and (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb.

But the Russos come to the franchise with the most straight-up comedy on their résumés — which seems appropriate, since by this point, the Marvel Universe is becoming (and this is meant in the most complimentary manner possible) something of a big-screen sitcom. This flavor became prevalent in The Avengers, and the film was better for it; writer/director Whedon was dealing with characters that had been introduced in five previous pictures, the cinematic equivalent of walking into a sitcom writer’s room in the second season. The audience knows who these people are, their backstories and personalities, so positioning them against each other — exploring the tension between (for example) square-jawed Steve Rogers and cynical Tony Stark — presents limitless possibilities for not just conflict, but character comedy. And the middle hour of The Avengers is basically an ensemble comedy, which is the element of that picture that plays best.

In Black’s Iron Man 3 and the Russos’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and, to a lesser degree, on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show), we’re returning to familiar characters like Stark, Pepper Potts, Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury (plus a couple of others I wouldn’t dream of spoiling), and we don’t have to spend a lot of time on exposition; we know who these people are and what their ongoing story is, so we can get right down to the action. And don’t get me wrong — despite the lack of such credits, the Russos do action very, very well, from the tight hijacked-ship set piece that opens the movie (particularly the inventive, almost John Woo-ish gunplay of Black Widow) to a bruisingly well-executed car chase during an attempt on Fury’s life to a beautifully built and breathtakingly executed elevator fight scene.

But even the action beats have a sense of humor; the filmmakers seem particularly taken with Captain America’s speed and indestructability, which they use not only as a motor for action sequences, but as sight-gag fodder (there are plenty of long takes of him just running really fucking fast, and I can’t explain why it’s so funny, but it is). In fact, about the only humorless sequence in the film is the big, rip-roaring climax, which (like the endings of Avengers and IM3) feels strangely hollow and arbitrary; this viewer, for one, was more interested in the character-based stuff that came before, and in all three films, it feels like the writers and directors were as well, and the blow-shit-up ending is just something that needs to be checked off.

In any case, the lighthearted, geek-friendly, let’s-not-take-this-all-so-seriously approach seems to be working for Marvel (and one they abandon at their own peril) — not only in establishing a distinctive cinematic personality, but in positioning themselves opposite DC, whose M.O. as of late has been a deadly serious tone, for better (the Nolan Batman movies) or worse ( Man of Steel ). Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers the superhero movie goods, but it does so with a grin and a wink, and that seems more and more like the right way to approach these things.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out tomorrow in wide release.