Why Marvel's MadLibs Style Of Filmmaking Is Bad For Storytelling

When Cinema Blend sat down with Captain America: The Winter Soldier writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they discussed specific plot details of the blockbuster sequel. The writing duo chatted references, sequel ideas, inspirations. But what stuck out was a curious lynchpin to the Winter Soldier experience. When asked about how they brought the plot together, Markus revealed,

"Sometimes it’s just images. [Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige] wanted helicarriers crashing. So, we were like ‘Okay, if helicarriers are going to crash in the third act, what kind of story would you tell to get there?’ and that kind of generated the whole inside program in the story."

Inspiration has many muses, of course, but this storytelling approach isn't the safest method. There's probably more to this story, but the way Markus tells it, they honored the request from a producer (and studio chief) for some crashing planes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier by basically building an entire movie around a special effect. Nerds with good memory will recall producer Jon Peters bullying screenwriters (including Kevin Smith) that his Superman film should feature a giant spider, despite arachnids having nothing to do with Superman or his mythology. That spider later showed up, in mechanical form, in Wild Wild West, a veritable laundry list of random producer requests that make no sense.

Feige claims he has a map in his office of every Marvel movie until 2028. And because there is a strict continuity, these films may not have a director or writer, but they have an intended ending, and a list of elements that please Feige (and Marvel). It's a mentality these films have had for awhile now, much to the grumblings of a select few fans: Iron Man 2 was the first Marvel film to bore the responsibility of introducing the Black Widow and the presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. People complained. People went. But that material dragged down the core story, which was so small it might as well be nonexistent.

Now, those complaints have died down, just as The Winter Soldier has gone on to become Marvel's most in-jokey and reference-heavy film yet. There's trouble within the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. In the meantime, there's a reference to Dr. Strange. Here's a hint about the future of the Winter Soldier, which will NOT be seen in this film. Robert Redford reveals that Iron Man does birthday parties. Garry Shandling's Senator Sterns from Iron Man 2 is a bad guy; if you didn't seen Iron Man 2 (which you shouldn't have to see to appreciate The Winter Soldier) then his presence makes zero sense. Later, there's a post-credits sequence that might as well be in nerd Esperanto, introducing two characters who have absolutely nothing to do with Captain America. At the film's close, it's important to know that Agent 13's name is Sharon. Check your Marvel Handbook, kids.

Of course, these additions are mandated, probably on very specific orders from Kevin Feige. Now that we've heard Dr. Strange's name, we know he'll pop up in a movie soon. The Winter Soldier, like all of these characters, is basically invincible: when he is seen alive at the end, it only promises what a follow-up will be like. Redford doesn't know it, but his line is basically a billboard reminding audiences that their billion dollar hero is still out there, and not retired like Iron Man 3 suggested. While Markus and McFeely march ahead on their screenplay, Feige has index cards with these sorts of suggestions.

Why does it feel like this is all being decided on a whim? Whatever the case, it's treating movies like MadLibs. The absurdly long climax of The Winter Soldier honors Feige's wish to see helicarriers crashing, but it doesn't make much sense. Are we to believe the villains placed all their eggs in one basket and didn't have a backup plan to "massive city-wide ships that destroy?" Does the visual of the crashing helicarriers symbolize anything other than collateral damage? Worse yet, it bisects the action needlessly, simply isolating Cap's fight with the Winter Soldier while Black Widow and Nick Fury stand in a room with Redford's Alexander Pierce and talk, trading empty threats. By the time Anthony Mackie's Falcon and Frank Grillo's Brock Rumlow are trading blows, it reeks of, "We needed something for these characters to do, since we had to emphasize the falling helicarriers and the story no longer needs these two."

The film's core idea – that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a corrupt 21st century organization emboldened by fear, one that Cap ultimately must fight – is a good one. But the title was announced years ago, and it's supposed to emphasize The Winter Soldier's story. And yet, the character is a pawn in his own tale, filling a role that almost any brainwashed soldier (Rumlow?) could fill. This is another case of Feige taking over: for The First Avenger he signed Sebastian Stan for nine films, with the intention of introducing The Winter Soldier. Ultimately, it didn't matter that he had nothing to do, and that HYDRA poisoning the military-industrial complex has no relation with the idea of Cap's childhood friend being a nightmare mirror image of himself. They signed Stan for a reason, and they were dead-set on taking advantage of that reason.

Ultimately, the fans dig it, and the critics are generally favorable towards Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But watching the film can be dizzying. On one hand, you've got the Feige-endorsed teases for other films, the references to the rest of the Marvel universe, callbacks to earlier films. On another, you've got filmmakers like the Russos, clever guys who nonetheless stuffed the picture with their own pop culture influences, including Community cameos, WarGames references and a particularly distracting Pulp Fiction gag. These elements, on their own, are enjoyable, even cute ideas. But when you're trying to make a tense, contemporary spy thriller (or a high fantasy film, or an adventure picture like Iron Man), maybe you need to focus on story, stakes, and character. Don't worry – it's the Marvel universe. There are always opportunities to crash helicarriers.