The ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier earned $259.8 million in North America and $454.7 million in other territories, adding up to $714.4 million worldwide. It was the seventh-highest grossing film of 2014, with a net profit calculated to be in the region of $166.2 million. The film set several opening day records and held the number one spot at the box office for three consecutive weekends. That’s what you would call a commercial success.
As far as critical response went, it was judged generally as having gotten the balance right between suspense, action and political awareness. Many found that it combined action with character development seamlessly, managing to blend cliffhangers and comedy, character and conflict.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is examined in full in the book How Stories Really Work to see what made it so successful on so many levels. Some key points of that analysis are examined here, without using the special terminology employed in that book.
Of course, a well-known Marvel Comics character like Captain America has a fan-following numbering in millions anyway, and so attracts the attention of movie-goers who were hooked into watching anything coming out of the Marvel cinematic universe after the phenomenal success of The Avengers, one of the top-grossing films of all time. So we already have an audience who will camp outside the theatre on opening night to see the film first; and we already have an interested public, not quite as desperate but nevertheless gripped by the ongoing saga that unfolds throughout the Marvel films.
What else does the film do to attract even more people and then satisfy them?
(Spoiler alert: you may not want to read further unless you have seen the film…)
1. It focuses on the right protagonist.
Steve Rogers, the eponymous hero of the story, has not only lost his parents by this film, but his whole time period, 1940s America. He's survived being frozen and has awakened to a whole new world as shown in the comics and in the initial film in the series, Captain America, the First Avenger. For audiences less familiar with this background, we see audience concern triggered in the opening scenes when Rogers demonstrates his naivety regarding modern concepts like the internet when making friends with Sam Wilson. Rogers becomes the protagonist for all the audience precisely because he is the figure in the story who attracts most of the reader’s attention with his losses.
The story is set up to be driven by this character’s emotional deficit. Based on this, we should expect that towards the end of the film, Rogers will 'rediscover himself' - in other words, he will have that vacuum filled, at least partially. And that is what we do find.
2. The story makes good use of the inherent tension in the most universal story question: 'What happens next?'
As soon as anyone starts writing a story based on sequence - which is just about any story - the big question for any reader or audience member is what is the next occurence in a chain of occurrences? The gap or missing answer to that question draws the reader on. Where the expertise comes in is in constructing a sequence which the reader cares about. Thus, we see the our sympathies for the central character established first, as described above, in the opening scene. Then, in the action sequence set on board a ship at the beginning of the film, it is the fast-paced placing of one short scene after another which draws the viewer along: who will win the next hand-to-hand combat? How will the apparently overwhelming odds be overcome? How will Rogers defeat Batroc without his shield? and so on. It wouldn't work as well if we didn't already care about the Rogers character as the prime sympathetic figure.
This is typical of all action films or stories based on simplistic action. Though we are accustomed by certain conventions that come as part of the Epic package that the hero will beat up the bad guys, the scene’s power comes from our lack of knowledge of exactly how that will happen when the bad guys seem to have the upper hand.
3. The odds are stacked against the protagonist from early in the story.
Power comes not only from the unspoken question ‘What will happen next?’ but also from its associated question ‘How will it happen?’. Audience attention is gripped more powerfully whenever the odds are stacked against the protagonist - which occurs in almost every story, as you may have noticed in your own reading or viewing. The reason that these odds are increased is usually given as ‘it escalates the drama or tension’. What is actually happening is that having the protagonist face greater and greater barriers acts to magnify the unknown in the reader’s or viewer’s mind generated by the question ‘What will happen next?’ and this is what draws the reader or viewer on.
Fights, chases, hunts, quests: these are all typical ways of gripping the audience with unknown outcomes. These give the story momentum.
4. The story uses mystery effectively and expertly.
Dragging a reader or audience along with a series of unknowns in terms of action is often not enough. What spices things up or takes things to the next level is the next mechanism, based on the question:
'What is really going on?'
It is the additional, unexpected uncertainty of not knowing exactly what Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, is doing in these early scenes of the film that sets up the mystery. By hacking into the enemies’ computer and downloading data, she seems to be doing something contrary to what Rogers is doing, and of which Rogers is unaware. This is a mystery: in this case, unknown intentions in a character leading to a puzzle which sucks in our attention even more. Rogers discovers Romanoff has another agenda: to extract data from the ship's computers for Nick Fury, Rogers’ boss and the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency which employs him. The resolution of the 'What happens next?’ -good guy beating bad guy in physical combat - is underpinned quickly by this unexpected mystery.
5. The story escalates the unknowns rapidly.
That underlying mystery is what carries us forward into the next scene when Rogers returns to the Triskelion, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters. He confronts Nick Fury who is not forthcoming, which prolongs and deepens the mystery. Rogers is then briefed about Project Insight: three Helicarriers, giant airborne destroyers, linked to spy satellites, designed to preemptively eliminate threats. While these are impressive visually and as a threat, they don’t remove the questions we and Rogers have, but only serve to amplify it: what are all these heli-carriers for? Their presence taps into underlying forces and deeper concerns to do with personal freedom, life and death- and so raises the stakes and the tension and drama in the story.
6. The story uses character archetypes and moral questions precisely.
It’s no accident that it’s Nick Fury who gives Rogers this briefing: Fury is after all the ‘old man with a stick’ in this story. It’s his function to outline the deeper vacuums of the tale, as described in How Stories Really Work. It’s also here that we glimpse our first real moral problem: Rogers questions whether Project Insight is the right thing to do. As an audience, our own morality is engaged and the story gains meaning.
Fury himself then develops his own attractive power, set up in his dialogue in the elevator with Rogers, suggesting a lack of trust in others from a past in which he has lost much. Note that he already has a trademark archetypal symbol, the wound or scar -his missing eye. That he then reveals that he doesn't know what is on the encrypted drive recovered by Romanoff connects him to the mystery too.
7. The story transfers its ‘protagonist power’ around.
Our attention is therefore literally glued to Fury: he has become a kind of protagonist for us as we move into the next scene. His inability to decrypt the data recovered by Romanoff magnifies the mystery even more. Fury becomes suspicious about Project Insight and asks senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to delay the project while he tries to find out more. The film’s audience are also tracking with the desire to find out more, which is what makes the next scene so powerful. On his way to rendezvous with agent Maria Hill, Fury is ambushed by whole squad of assailants led by the mysterious assassin (another mystery) called the Winter Soldier. Our sympathies now lie with Fury in his quest to not only solve the mystery but also simply survive.
8. The story magnifies the power of the antagonist in order to escalate things even further.
One of the key formulas explored in depth in How Stories Really Work is that the more antagonists there are, the more powerful they seem, and the more apparent force used against the protagonist, the greater our attraction towards him or her. The sheer power and apparent resources at the disposal of the Winter Soldier, and Fury’s helpless position, are designed to have one effect only: we sympathise more with Fury. If the assassin had worked alone, or had less allies, the tension would be less and we would care less about what happened to Fury; giving the antagonist the upper hand in a story always draws the audience towards the hero or heroine: readers and audiences love underdogs, for very precise reasons explained in the book.
9. The story has a powerful and interesting antagonist.
This leads to an important fundamental question: if a protagonist is redefined as the central point of audience sympathy - created using very specific mechanisms - what is an antagonist exactly?
An antagonist is almost a by-product of the necessity for the protagonist to appear sympathetic. Antagonists are usually defined as the opposites of protagonists, the figures with whom the protagonist struggles. Why? Why do almost all stories feature this figure (with remarkable similarities across the boards, as you can read more about in How Stories Really Work)?
Where the protagonist of a tale grows in terms of problems, the antagonist will have ever-mounting solutions. In Comedies and Epics, these solutions are enforced, unwanted, false; in Tragedies and Ironies they are weak, misguided or doomed.
The antagonist's purpose is hinted at in the early part of a tale, then grows in proportion. There are surprisingly similar patterns in all of literature to do with this.
10. The antagonist has an intimate connection with the protagonist.
In fiction, whether that is in the form of books or films or plays, the most successful villains are the ones most closely linked to the heroes or heroines in some way. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the antagonist is the Winter Soldier - his connection with the protagonist is that he used to be the hero’s sidekick, and he’s the only living remnant of Steve Rogers’ lost 1940s world.
11. Character archetypes behave exactly according to pattern.
Fury dies soon afterwards, despite Rogers’ efforts to save him. The figure that Fury represents in this story is a well-known archetype. That archetype dies in almost all classic Epic fiction, with the same effect on the protagonist, Consider these obvious examples: Gandalf/Frodo; Obi Wan Kenobi/Luke Skywalker; Dumbledore/Harry Potter.
His ‘unexpected return’ later in the tale is also true to form. Far from being a cliché, this adherence to exact archetypal patterns guarantees the story’s overall success.
12. Plot mechanisms are lined up perfectly and do what they are supposed to do.
The screenplay writers have really done nothing else than use (abundantly) the precise mechanisms described in detail in How Stories Really Work. These are then amplified further as the story proceeds. This isn’t an aimless progression - it’s heading somewhere specific:
To get audience commitment to the rest of the story.
What happens between readers and stories has been called many things in the past, including the 'willing suspension of disbelief', but it is every fiction writer’s first aim: to engage the reader (or in the case of a film, the viewer) to such a degree that they will 'go with' the rest of the story. They are committed to it; they have emotionally invested in it.
Now, as the film enters its final act, we as an audience are subject to a classic raising of the stakes: the Nazi organisation Hydra is about the reveal itself to the world and place millions of lives and the vital freedoms of society at risk. Everything has led to this point.
It’s a point which is usually aligned with the naming or outing or otherwise revealing the story’s real antagonist. Rogers and Romanoff realise what the audience have probably seen at least since Pearce named Rogers as a fugitive: that their enemy has been Pearce as a Hydra leader all along. There’s no point in keeping that mysterious any longer - to some degree, mysteries have been superceded. We now know the Bigger Picture which will carry us through to the end of the tale.
Could the story have worked without these mechanisms? Would the audience have accepted the 'Hydra threatens the world' scenario without the prior build-up?
The honest answer is yes, they probably would - but the film would have far less emotional power and the audience would have invested very little in the outcome. Protagonist sympathy, well-crafted action sequences, mysteries and moral problems have all helped produce an emotional commitment to the story where the viewers care far more about the final result than they otherwise would have.
That's the difference between a shallow 'good versus evil' tale which relies on a lot of assumptions and tries to jump straight into the Bigger Picture, and a story which acquires the participation of the audience or reader using various very precise tools. Lesser or simpler stories are built around a simple premise and nothing else - they depend on voluntary reader/viewer participation, if you like. More complex and more successful stories use every mechanism at their disposal to almost compel reader or viewer commitment.
This Marvel movie’s success at the box office and critically was no accident. The interaction between plot and character devices makes for a more satisfying finale and denouement. Less successful fiction operates with fewer tools and fails to connect them up in any meaningful way.