"Captain America: Winter Soldier, " the latest exercise in character kitchen-sinkdom that is the Marvel Studios universe, did a few things in theaters this weekend. It was, most prominently, a major box office hit, destroying the April record by more than $10 million and, at $96.2 million, falling just short of the magic $100-million mark.
But it also did something else that is nearly unique in the studio's collection of films from comic books of yore: It was better than the original.
Like Tony Stark in a giant garage, Marvel has been building sequels as fast as it can gather the parts. "Iron Man" quickly spawned "Iron Man 2" and then "Iron Man 3"; "Thor" gave rise to "Thor: The Dark World"; and " Captain America" has now yielded "Captain America: Winter Soldier," offering a nod to the comics and Thomas Paine and also offering the prospect of other seasonally themed spinoffs ("Captain America: Autumnal Mercenary"?).
What it hasn't done with all these sequels is build something better than the original. "Iron Man 2" was a redundant collection of Stark witticisms and weaponry, and functioned in part as a setup for "Iron Man 3," which, though better than "2," itself was a further reminder of how removed we were from the novelty and freshness of "Iron Man." "Thor: The Dark World" took the fish-out-of-water pleasures of the original and clubbed us with a lot of head-throbbing action using the subtlety of its trademark hammer.
This wouldn't be surprising -- many sequels lose the creative momentum of the original -- if not for the fact that most of the superhero movies made by other studios actually improved on what came before.
"Spider-Man 2" was a leaps and bounds jump over "Spider-Man"; "X2" gave us much of what "X-Men" didn't; and "The Dark Knight" was a modern classic compared to the merely solid entertainment of "Batman Begins." By all accounts we're looking at a similar evolution on "Amazing Spider-Man 2" when that sequel comes out next month. [Update, 6:51 pm Monday: An earlier version of this post noted these were Marvel characters instead of superhero properties generally.]
The difference, as you may have already surmised, is that each of these sequels was directed by the same filmmaker as the first movie, which allowed not only for a continuation of style and themes but made for the building of an epic in the first place, a fulfillment of a single vision a director needed more than two hours to execute. (Why the third film tends to run out of gas is another question.)
"Captain America: Winter Soldier" was different than those Sony, Fox and Warner Bros. sequels. In keeping with the Marvel Studios sequel tradition of switching in directors -- in this case the TV-veteran Russo brothers -- "Captain America: Winter Solder" nonetheless managed to build on the original excitement and layer in some topical and not insubstantial conspiracy and privacy questions above it.
It wasn't the fulfillment of a vision but the result of new blood that made the sequel so satisfying -- an entirely different proposition.
Swapping out directors is a risky move, but the nice thing is that if you don't have a Christopher Nolan or a Sam Raimi, you can take a mulligan of sorts. There was no guarantee that directors whose only film credit was "You, Me & Dupree" were going to be able to pull off this “Captain America,” but there was also the refreshing possibility that they would do more with the character than Joe Johnston, who directed the first film, was able to do.
Marvel is making an (understandable) exception to its own rule with "The Avengers." On its face, that’s more in line with Marvel movies made by other studios, and offers hope that Joss Whedon can pull a Nolan or Raimi and make the follow-up better than original. But after this weekend, the sequel lesson may be that you don't need the same director to make it good, just a good director not to make it the same.
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