Continuing Comics in Cinema: Continuity and Universe Building

It can be said that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a watershed moment in the relatively young life of Marvel Studios (and comic book movies in general). While it proved that a film based on a comic book character could be adult, it also proved it can be relatively believable. A lot of the technology in the movie was very advanced, but not completely out of the question. All the characters were relatively human, with the exceptions of both Captain America and Winter Soldier. Nick Fury and Black Widow held their own in combat; Falcon didn’t fear using the exo-skeleton wings to soar through the air in the face of danger; Alexander Pierce wasn’t afraid of the powers around him and the special forces within S.H.I.E.L.D. were more than willing to fight both with and against Captain America.

All of the above is what made Captain America: The Winter Soldier such a great movie and proves that Marvel’s (and other publisher’s) films can be successful if they’re more grounded in reality. The ironic thing is that Marvel may ultimately want to put more comics in their movies, in terms of storylines and characters. Every film released by Marvel Studios (as well as the X-Men and Spider-man franchises) draw upon source material found in past issues of the respective comics; for instance, Iron Man 3 drew largely from the Extremis storyline. The storyline in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is even loosely based on the Secret Warriors in “Dark Reign.” Yet that’s only the beginning of where things get interesting.

Chris Evans is reported to have signed a six-picture deal with Marvel Studios. He’s already fulfilled three of those in Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s presumed that the next two Avenger movies and the third Captain America movie will satisfy his contract and he’s been non-committal past that. Sebastian Stan on the other hand (who plays Bucky) has a nine-picture deal with Marvel Studios. He’s already fulfilled two of those with two Captain America films, which leaves seven more. Fans of Captain America know that Steve Rogers is killed at one point in the comics (shortly after Marvel’s “Civil War”) and the role is taken on by Bucky Barnes, who is, wait for it, the Winter Soldier.

Killing Rogers in a future film (most likely the third Avengers) would be a massive story swerve for all the fans who don’t expect him to die, most of whom don’t really read comics to begin with and don’t know to expect it. Because it’s a comic property though, there’s a mantra that there’s always other characters ready to step up and play the part. In this case, Rogers would die and be replaced by Bucky as Captain America, continuing the franchise while simultaneously rebooting it. This would also allow Marvel to keep costs down in terms of salaries, as they would have Stan at a lower rate than Evans because Stan came in for a “lesser” part. It’s something that could easily be scaled to all of their other movies as well, effectively maintaining their universe and rebooting it every so often (much like they do in the comics).

Part of the reason such a move would work (for some characters) is because it’s the characters themselves who carry with them years and years of personality and values already established. Nothing against Evans as Cap or Stan as Bucky—both are phenomenal in their roles—but Captain America is bigger than the man behind the mask and that’s sort of the point. The character epitomized patriotism; the fact that he’s Captain “America” is really because he as born out of World War II propaganda to begin with. Strip away the America leanings and call him Captain Nationalism if you really want to, as the main point is that the character believes that people should be free and governments shouldn’t go to obsessive lengths to ensure that freedom.

That was the crux of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as Cap feared the police state that S.H.I.E.L.D. was inadvertently moving society towards, all in the name of safety. The character is a symbol of whatever characteristics are projected onto them by either the person him or herself (Batman, Iron Man) or the society they protect (Captain America, Superman). There was a big to-do about Superman denouncing his American citizenship in the comics a few years back, but the thing is, he’s more important as a symbol of freedom and justice for everyone and not just America. As long as the character in the film’s title is in the movie, people will see it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a great movie. In fact, it would be great even if there weren’t the Marvel ties, capitalizing on decades of character build-up and familiarity and the recent wave of superhero films smashing box office records left and right. At its core, the film speaks to many societal concepts, made especially pertinent in today’s world with the recent NSA revelations and it really harkens back to another era of filmmaking with plenty of espionage and social commentary. For a movie that’s supposed to be pretty mindless (it is based on a comic book after all right?), Captain America: The Winter Soldier taps into a cultural zeitgeist and transcends its source material, much like The Dark Knight did a few years ago. Marvel has proven that they can make solid films that don’t rely entirely on the character’s name in the title, but there’s good bet they want to do a lot more than just that.

They want to show viewers what it’s like to read the comics and if that means making some seemingly crazy decisions when it comes to characters, then so be it. There’s something of an adage in comic books in that no character is truly “dead.” In fact, many of the times a key character is killed for the sake of an increase of readership, only to be brought back in a future issue. It’s not likely that the pattern will be mirrored exactly on the big-screen, but considering publishers like Marvel have nearly a century of source material to draw upon and plenty of actors chomping at the bit for a role in a Marvel film, don’t be surprised if current incarnations of characters are killed on-screen and replaced by another actor. It’s all continuity after all.