Captain America Civil War: How to Build the Superhero Movie – Part 1
By Jacob Krueger
Captain America Civil War: How to Build the Superhero Movie - Part 1
This week we’ll be looking at Captain America: Civil War by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
It’s interesting to talk about superhero movies because there’s been a big change in the way these movies are built. One of the things that we’re starting to see is that superhero movies, just like other big budget action movies, are actually being built more like TV Drama Series than they are like Feature Films.
Just like TV Dramas (and TV Comedies), rather than being built around a traditional character driven structure, these huge budget superhero and action movies are built around a concept called an engine.
In a TV Series, the engine is a kind of unique formula, developed by the writers, that guarantees that the series can run for a very long time, creating the same feeling in each episode in a slightly different way.
In these mega-budget franchises, the engine works similarly, allowing each “episode” to set up the next. A byproduct of this effect is that an individual action movie is no longer designed to create a cathartic effect that leaves the audience with a sense of completion. Rather, it is designed to leave the audience craving more, with untied strings in each installment setting up the next episode in the franchise, which will once again replicate the same engine in a different way.
As I’ve discussed in my TV Podcasts, this is exactly the way a TV drama series would be built. If you think of a series like Breaking Bad, for example, each episode is built around the same engine.
In each episode, we are going to watch the same kind of thing happen in a different way. In Breaking Bad, we’re going to watch Walter White grow just a little bit more corrupt. We’re going to watch Walter White manipulate his adoring former student Jamie into compromising his own morals. We’re going to watch Walter White get further estranged from his wife. We’re going to watch Walter White lie. We’re going to watch Walter White slowly move from the reluctant criminal to a man who has to recognize the fact that he loves crime.
And over each season we’re going to watch Walter and Jamie confronted with a different aspect of building a business, starting with being a start-up dealing with a low level crazy street thug antagonist, and moving up to deal with the cartel and ultimately to deal with corporate America as their business grows to a different level in each season.
So the idea is, once you have an engine, you know what the audience is coming for. And all you have to do to generate ideas is to figure out how to reshuffle the same cards, so that the engine can be replicated in each installment.
And this is exactly what we see in Captain America: Civil War. A very simple engine, based on very simple formula that The Avengers actually came up with quite a while ago. A formula they came up with for a really good reason.
You see, writing superhero movies is really frickin’ hard. It’s nearly impossible. And the reason it’s nearly impossible to write a good superhero movie is that superheroes are, well, super. They are pretty much all powerful. And most of them, not all of them, but most of them, are pretty much all good.
So you’ve got good people with indestructible powers doing indestructible things. In the beginning of the Ironman franchise they figured out pretty quickly if you want to write Iron Man, you’ve got to get him out of his suit. Because as long as he is in his suit, he is so indestructible that pretty much nothing is hard. And when nothing is hard in a movie, nothing is exciting.
The same thing was true with The Amazing Spiderman, if you remember my podcast on that film, you know even with that incredibly bad-ass villain, the writers still struggled to come up with circumstances big enough to actually challenge Spiderman, to actually force Spiderman to change.
So when you try to write The Avengers, with that many superheroes all working together, coming up with a villain big enough to actually challenge them is nearly impossible.
And so what the team behind The Avengers realized was: what’s actually exciting is not watching The Avengers fight bad guys. Because, the truth is, The Avengers are just plain tougher than any bad guy you can throw at them. What’s exciting is actually watching The Avengers fight themselves. Because only the superheroes are big enough and bad enough and emotionally connected enough to actually cause a threat to one another.
And you’ve seen this engine now replicated well, and replicated poorly, in many superhero movies. We’ve seen it replicated, many people feel, poorly in Batman vs. Superman. We’ve seen it replicated in several Avengers movies. And we’re now seeing it replicated again in Captain America: Civil War to what most people agree is much better effect.
So this is an engine, just like in a TV Drama, a simple formula, and an area of creative exploration, out of which to grow each installment of the franchise, in order to create something that feels the same, but is also different. So let’s talk about how that formula works?
The formula works like this: a huge threat is uncovered, then something happens that pins the good guys against each other. The good guys fight each other and then ultimately the good guys come together to defeat the evil threat.
This is the structure that we’ve seen in almost every Avengers movie, this is the structure of Captain America: Civil War, and, most likely, this will be the structure of the next installment of the franchise.
Just like in a dramatic series, or just like in a comedy series, if you want to generate the next episode of The Avengers, all you have to do is refer to the engine—the unique formula that makes the series go!
First you ask “okay, well, what’s the threat?” In the case of Captain America: Civil War, the threat is there is some evil guy who is somehow manipulating the Avengers. There is an accord that needs to be signed which may threaten the existence of the Avengers. And, oh, there may be five more winter soldiers who are really, really, really bad guys.
So you’ve got your threat. The next thing you need is you need to figure out: what is the plot device that’s going to force the Avengers to fight each other. Because if the Avengers stop fighting each other, it’s just too easy for them to win. So what is a plot device that’s going to force them to fight each other? You need some kind of motivation that forces them to end up on opposite sides of a problem; and then you need the structure by which they will eventually come together to defeat the threat.
This is the structure of an Avengers movie. This is the engine.
And this is different from how you build a normal movie. A normal movie is built for cathartic effect. A normal movie is built to take a character that we have not met before, that we are not yet in love with, on a journey that changes them forever: a journey after which their life can never be the same again.
Whereas in a TV Drama, or in most of these Action Movie franchises, most of the change happens in the pilot, the first episode. And thereafter, the structure grows not out of change, but out of replication. Not because this is better (audiences almost always react more viscerally to stories of change, because they tap into our primal impulses to changes ourselves) but because it’s easier! It’s easier to create endless sequels if you know the formula you have to replicate each time.
This is one of the reasons why, when it feels like a franchise is losing steam, so many of the sequels have turned to origin stories. Because these origin stories can be much more dramatically constructed. Once you’ve got superpowers, and come into your own as a hero, there’s not very far you can go in your development as a character. You’re already perfect. Sure, you can be exposed to some Kryptonite and lose your powers, hole up somewhere and renounce your powers, or suffer from technological malfunctions in your all powerful device. But once you’re already that super, there’s not much room to grow.
The origin story, on the other hand, takes place before the superhero has made the big change. And this is an exciting time in a superhero’s life because the character does not yet have his superpowers. The character is going on the journey to discover them, and in doing so, discover who he or she really is.
In today’s market, if you’re writing a spec action movie, or spec superhero movie, your screenplay has to not only deliver the kind of journey that allows an audience to fall in love with your character, but also has to act like a pilot for a TV show. It needs to at once take the character on a journey that changes them forever and set up a blueprint for future episodes that allows a producer to read the “pilot,” just like reading a pilot for TV drama series or TV comedy series, and recognize how they can make sequels to that movie for the next 20 years. And that engine can’t just be a formula ripped from existing franchises, it needs to be an engine that develops the “unique value proposition” of your new superhero—the thing that your superhero delivers that no other superhero can.
The engine of Deadpool is different from the engine of The Avengers, which is different from the engine of Superman, which is different from the engine of Batman. And if, like the writers of Superman vs Batman, you try to steal the engine of another franchise and apply it to your own, you’re not going to end up with a super-franchise. You’re going to end up with a super-dud.
And the reason you’re going to end up with a super-dud is that audiences can already get that feeling, and that formula, from another franchise. For your franchise to have value, it needs to give them a feeling, and a formula, they can only get from you.
And that’s not true just for action movies. It’s true for any movie based on a formula. For example, for years, Blake Snyder used the unique “Save The Cat” formula he’d created to make millions of dollars, essentially writing the same movie over and over again in different ways. It’s a whole different argument about whether that’s a creatively satisfying path, but for him, it certainly was a commercially satisfying one. Each of his scripts had that “Blake Snyder Feeling” and producers knew what they were getting when they bought one.
But when he published his book, suddenly everyone was writing those “Blake Snyder” movies, and after an initial spike in popularity, it soon turned into a pretty big backlash. Suddenly the same formula that made Blake Snyder stand out (because it was unique to him) was having the opposite affect on those who followed it, making their scripts feel predictable and pedestrian.
As a new writer, breaking into this competitive market means creating your own formula. So you can deliver not a unique character, but also a unique structure. That begins with creating a compelling hero that reflects some truthful aspect of yourself, that we haven’t seen in other films in the genre.
But once you’ve established the foundation of that truth, there are also commercial considerations you have to take into account: feeding the genre monster with heart-stopping action sequences and visual spectacle, taking the character on an emotional journey that makes us root for them and see the world through their eyes, and at the same time, delivering the engine that will convince investors that this isn’t just a one time opportunity, but a real franchise worthy of their super-investment.
This means, in many ways, your spec superhero movie needs to be better than the superhero movies you’re going to see at the theater. And there is a very specific reason for that.
The superhero movies you are seeing at the theater are based on characters that we already know and love. They’re based on characters that we have fallen in love with over years, that we have grown up with in our childhoods. We are already fans. So, we don’t have to fall in love with those characters to care.
But when you introduce a new superhero into the universe, you need to create a different kind of structure and a different kind of formula because we’re not fans yet.
It’s like the difference between seeing your child in a school play and feeling like your child is the most talented person in America, and seeing someone else’s child in a school play and feeling like “oh my G-d do I have to sit through this?”
So it’s important to understand, regardless of the genre of the movie you’re building, that to get an audience to fall in love with a new character, you’re going to need to build a much more powerful structure than you would for a character they already are rooting for, who they’ve grown up knowing in comic books and other films. And that means looking not only at their strengths, not only at their “superpowers,” but also at their weaknesses.
Tune in for the next installment of this podcast, in which I’m going to be exploring some of the strengths and weaknesses of Captain America: Civil War, and how they relate to many of the challenges we all face in writing or rewriting a spec script, whether it’s a spec superhero movie, or a film in any other genre.
I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. We make this podcast available totally free and with no advertising at all so if you got something out of it, please go to iTunes and write us a review. You can also find a complete transcript of this podcast on my website, writeyourscreenplay.com. And if you’d like to study with me in New York City, online, as part of our international retreats, or our one on one ProTrack mentorship program you can learn more about that at our website writeyourscreenplay.com.