Part 2 – Captain America Civil War: How to Build the Superhero Movie
By Jacob Krueger
Part 2 - Captain America Civil War: How to Build the Superhero Movie
In the last installment of this podcast, we discussed the engine that drives a superhero movie, and the challenges for writers of action and superhero spec scripts, of juggling the need to build that kind of engine, with the goal of organically introducing a new superhero into the world in a way that allows the audience to fall in love with them.
That begins with not only looking at the character’s superpowers, but also at their weaknesses. And it also means a real personal exploration of the beliefs in you that those superheroes represent: the way you, as a writer look at the world.
And of course, the same concept applies to character driven dramas, indie films, biopics, and true-life story adaptations as well. So often, we fall so deeply in love with our own characters that we’re not willing to look at their weaknesses. We allow them to find themselves so quickly that we have no room to develop the structure of their story. We turn them into superheroes, and then can’t figure out why it’s so hard to construct a powerful structure for their change.
Oftentimes this is because we see a bit of ourselves in our main characters, and rather than looking deeply at ourselves, and our problems, as people who need to change, we instead inadvertently turn our characters into the infallible heroes we wish we could be. Rather than shaping their own stories through their flawed and painful choices, they become victims of circumstances, just like we often feel ourselves to be, puppeted around by the external maneuverings of our plot rather than the visceral emotional needs that drive them. Rather than driving the story, they end up being driven by it.
To write a movie that turns an unknown character into someone that feels like a real hero, you need to write a character that people are going to connect to on a primal, visceral, personal level. You have to create a structure that uncovers their flaws. And you need to take that character on a journey that changes them, and hopefully that changes the audience that connects to them, forever.
To give shape to that journey, and make it more than just a bunch of plot wrangling and external manipulation, you need to think about theme. You need to think about truth: what this is really about. You need to be writing from your soul because you need to connect to other people’s souls. You need to make them fall in love with your character and you need to do it in a way that’s going to deliver a specific genre experience, the genre experience that you want to see on screen.
You have to think about the feeling the movie delivers, the feeling that draws you to the story. What’s the specific nature and tone of your story, and how is that reflected in the action sequences? An action sequence in Deadpool should feel different than one in Spiderman or Batman. And the action sequences in your movie should feel so inextricably linked to character and theme that they couldn’t be switched out to any other movie.
If you think of Captain America: Civil War, there is a kick-ass action sequence every couple of pages. And you’ll need to deliver that too, feeding the main thing the audience is coming from in a way that delivers both spectacle and structure, outdoing yourself with each salvo, and building towards a climactic explosion like the culmination of a big fireworks show on the 4th of July.
And finally, you’ll need to deliver the engine, Your own unique formula, the blueprint of which is imprinted in each moment of your spec script, just like if you were writing a TV comedy series or TV drama series. You will need to create your own kind of blueprint that’s unique to this particular story, these particular characters, this particular structure.
These are the challenges of writing superhero movies. So, if you are interested in writing superhero movies, what do you really need to be studying? Yes, you need to be studying action like we teach in our Craft classes. Yes, you need to be studying character like we teach in our Write Your Screenplay classes. Yes, you need to be studying emotional needs like we teach in our Meditative Writing classes. But you also need to be studying TV Drama. If you want to write a superhero movie, take a TV Drama class.
So how does this work? How do you do a better job when writing your spec screenplay than the professional writers do on the movies that you are seeing in the theaters? How do you accomplish all of these conflicting and challenging goals? Well, to understand that, we have to talk about some of the things that are not great about Captain America: Civil War.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot that is great about Captain America: Civil War, especially by action movie standards. Primarily the action sequences are really well designed. They are spectacular to look at, they are fun, they are exciting, they are visually gorgeous. And they feel like the franchise. It’s a really well done superhero movie in that way.
The other thing that’s really great about Captain America: Civil War is everything is very clear. And this is important in an action movie, where you are reaching out to a vast vast audience. We understand what the goal is, what the intention is of each character and at each moment. We understand where each character stands in relationship to the overall goals driving each side in the movie. We understand what each character wants and we understand why they are fighting each other. We understand what the goal of those fights are, and I do think these writers did a very good job of keeping the love in these relationships alive between these characters. These are all characters who love each other, who have been pushed against each other in an ideological crisis.
This is exciting. And yet, the movie is not moving. The movie does not hit you emotionally. It makes you think a bit about politics, which is more than we’ve come to expect in an action movie. But you are going to shed no tears during the movie, and about an hour and 45 minutes in, even though you’re still being dazzled, you are starting to get bored. There are no emotional stakes of the movie. You’re not really rooting. You’re only being entertained.
And that might be okay if you are Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely and have been hired to come aboard an existing franchise like Captain America or like The Avengers.
But it’s not okay if you’re an emerging writer, writing your own spec superhero movie about a character who isn’t part of an existing franchise or an existing fan base. A character we don’t already love.
Taking a chance on a new writer, and a new superhero, is a huge risk, especially on movie this big. Because if it doesn’t work out, somebody’s going to look at you and ask “who the hell was this guy that you hired”.
And that means the only reason why a producer takes a shot on a young writer, buys a script, options a script, develops a script with a new writer who doesn’t have the huge resume and the huge powerful agent is because that writer is able to generate in them a feeling that they’re not used to feeling. Because that writer is able to give them something they’re not used to seeing from the professionals.
In order to do that, you have to be writing from a place of truth. You have to be getting your own personal truth on the page, your own personal voice on the page. And you have to be doing so in a way that creates an emotional response in your reader. It is not enough to just create a dollar-sign response, because your spec script, your spec characters who don’t exist yet in the minds of the American audience, don’t have dollar signs attached to them.
You have to create an emotional response so that your reader can make an emotional decision. The logical decision is to work with an established writer. The emotional decision is to work with the writer who made you feel something. You know this is true in your own life.
We make all kinds of irrational, dangerous decisions based on our emotions. We make choices because of love. We make choices because of passion. But when it comes to logical choices, on a movie this big you cannot win that battle.
And this is the biggest gap in what Captain America: Civil War is achieving. Because even though the movie is very clear, it doesn’t actually make a hell of a lot of sense emotionally. And this is really a shame.
Because here’s the thing, you should be writing superhero movies, especially if you’re a serious writer. We need more serious writers writing superhero movies, because these are the movies that everybody in the world sees. These are movies that shape our beliefs about the world.
Think about how The Dark Knight was used to make people think about the Patriot Act and terrorism. Think about how Avatar was used to take an American audience and put them in the shoes of the Iraqi people at the height of the Iraq War. These movies, even though they are often silly, are extremely powerful. They change the way that we view the world. They change our belief systems.
And it’s a shame with Captain America because with everything that works in this very successful script, they really had an opportunity to go for it thematically. They had actually two opportunities. Because there are actually two different questions that the movie is asking. But, unfortunately, because the movie is asking two questions, it doesn’t ask either of them fully.
The first question is “Do we need to always do what seems right to us? Or, do we need to accept limitations on our own individuality, in order to be a part of a healthy society?”
That’s a really powerful question, especially in the middle of the election season that we’re seeing right now. Are we going to do what is right for the individual, or are we going to do what is right for the world? And what’s really right anyway? At what cost do you say no to your free will? And at what cost do you assume that you’re right even if you’re wrong? These are really profound questions, and I wish that the had done more than just raised them. I wish the movie had really asked them.
The problem is the movie doesn’t. Or at least it doesn’t ask them fully. And to understand why, you need to understand a concept called Hegelian Dialectical structure. We usually think about Hegelian Dialectical structure when we’re thinking about much more complicated movies than Captain America: Civil War. For example: a movie like There Will Be Blood is based on a Hegelian Dialectical structure.
Hegel was a philosopher, not a screenwriter, and Hegel said that if you took a thesis, something you believe in, such as “We always have to do what’s right,” and you take an antithesis, something you also believe in, something that is mutually exclusive but that is also true in some way, such as, “In order to have a functioning society, we must obey the laws even when we think that they’re wrong.” If you take these two ideas, and you bang them up against each other, you end up with a synthesis. A synthesis that is neither the thesis, nor the antithesis, but something in between that is one step closer to the truth.
But in order to do that, you have to weigh both sides equally. The good and the bad need to be equally weighted. Think about the Joker’s threat to Batman. Think about the decision Batman has to make when he uses the Patriot Act system to do something wrong in order to accomplish something right. That’s Hegelian Dialectical storytelling.
The problem with the Hegelian Dialectic in Captain America: Civil War is that the two sides are not equally weighted. On the one hand you have what seems like a reactionary, genuinely stupid accord which is obviously being put forward by a bunch of really corrupt idiots, and which, honestly, only an idiot would sign.
And in order to justify Iron Man’s signing it, an external force is used; a theme about guilt. And it’s true that Iron Man is motivated by guilt and there’s a long history of establishing that. There’s a way that the theme of his guilt could fit into the Hegelian Dialectical theme of submitting your will to the good of society versus acting on your own individualism, and the writers really try to do so. But the question isn’t really getting asked, because the Sokovia accord is so stupid.
What’s stupid about it is that it’s not going to help anybody. Nobody rational can believe it’s going to help anybody the way that it’s put together. In fact it is very, very clear, painfully clear, that it’s only going to create pain. And even as Iron Man tries to play by those rules, he’s doing it for a purely intellectual reason. He doesn’t even follow the rules in the way he tries to enforce them!
So even though we understand that Iron Man feels guilty because he’s killed somebody (which he’s done a lot). Even though we understand that he feels guilty and we understand that he’s making choices out of guilt, we also can’t help but recognize that he’s not making smart choices out of guilt, he’s making dumb ones.
And those who follow Iron Man have even less motivation. It’s not clear that anybody actually believes in this accord. In fact it seems like all of them don’t. They are simply trying to do the thing that seems practical at the time: that seems easier. Their side of the argument is argued without any real conviction. Neither they, nor the writers, actually seem to believe it.
Instead, all of the weight is put on the other side of the argument, the side that the writers, and every fan of the Avengers already believes. All the weight is on the argument of Captain America because everything Captain America believes is actually right. His friend, Bucky Barnes, The Winter Soldier, in fact has been framed. And potentially, if The Avengers follow the accord and don’t get to Siberia in time, a bunch of horrible super-beings are going to be released upon the world.
To make matters worse, the act that got them into trouble in the first place was not their free will hurting other people; it was just bad luck. They saved the world from a biological weapon that we have to assume, could have wiped out a country and unfortunately lost a building in the process. That’s a shame, but quite frankly, a pretty reasonable trade.
So what happened is all the evidence ends up on one side- it ends up on the thesis that the writers believe. Whereas the people on the other side are acting out of mostly stupidity, and being manipulated by politicians who can’t even mask their own corruption and self interest.
And as a result, a real dialogue never happened in the movie.
And, of course, this unfortunately is also a mirror of our political process. Because rather than having a real debate, we have two sides shouting soundbites at each other, assuming the other side is stupid, and not actually listening to what the other side is saying. A political process that assumes that one side is completely right, and the other completely wrong, and therefore ends up in a constant gridlock, unable to ever reach a synthesis.
In this way, while attempting to attack a real political issue, using the incredibly powerful media of the action movie, Captain America: Civil War inadvertently dives right around the real issue, and not only shortchanges the political debate, but also the emotional one.
Just like the flawless Superheros who represent them, when we try to turn our beliefs into flawless super-arguments, we rob ourselves of our ability to actually test those beliefs, and we rob our characters of the ability to truly change.
And this is why we don’t feel anything, and why we don’t leave the movie feeling moved.
Everything makes sense once you accept that Captain America believes this and Iron Man believes that, but the emotional truth of those choices and the logical truth of those choices are not equally weighted.
It’s like saying global warming versus no such thing as global warming: 99% of scientists believe in global warming. It’s not an equal argument.
So, this is what you want to do as a writer. If you want a great, great story, write a story that tests your beliefs. If you want to turn Civil War into a great movie, turn it into a movie that tests Captain America’s beliefs.
In order to do that you have to punish your character for doing the things you believe in.
You ask yourself, “What are the biggest flaws in my way of thinking?” And you have to punish the character by using those flaws. You have to attack your own belief system until you start to doubt yourself.
You want your antagonist to have, at the very least, an equally powerful argument, but, at best, one that may be even more powerful than that of your protagonist.
In Network, the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film, the main character is a news reporter who starts off the movie by having a mental breakdown on the air. He shouts, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” And all through the world, people start to rally around him, realizing they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. And as you’re watching the movie, you’re starting to say to yourself, “You know what? I’m mad as hell and not gonna’ take it anymore!” And of course this is what Paddy Chayefsky believes, because he’s big ol’ liberal and he’s mad as hell and he doesn’t want to take it anymore either.
And Network shed some political light on a lot of things that are happening in our media now, that were taking root way back in the ‘70s. But because Paddy Chayefsky is a great writer, instead of overly weighting his argument, what he does instead is this: he marches his main character into the network CEO’s office, where the network CEO gives a brilliant, belief-shaking monologue that begins, “You have meddled with the forces of nature,” and goes on to explain to the main character exactly why everything that he and our audience has come to believe is wrong.
And at the end of that monologue, the main character says, “I have seen the face of G-d.” And this is an incredibly powerful argument. This is an argument that crashes up against the full force of the opposite side and then tests to see, “Can my theory survive that? Can I move through that or do I have to change that? Do I have to reach a different synthesis that is a little closer to the truth? Do I have to change my own worldview just a little bit?”
This is what we really want to do with an action movie, not just because making this kind of choice structurally will take our audience and our characters on a profound journey of change, and not only for political reasons but also for emotional ones. These are the things that trigger the real questions in our audience- that create emotional reactions and emotional responses- that keep it from being all about popcorn and pyrotechnics, and make it feel real.
So the first challenge of Captain America: Civil War, and the reason you’re not feeling emotional payoff, is simply because the arguments are not weighted equally. They’re not truthful. There is no real motivation.
The second is that ultimately the theme changes three times.
We start off with a theme about guilt for Iron Man. But we then drop that theme in favor of a different one, which is about our responsibility to a governing body. Only to drop the second theme as well, in favor of a third, a far more visceral, theme that, unfortunately, hasn’t been set up in any way. And that far more visceral theme is about revenge. (spoilers ahead)
That theme asks the following question, through the story of Iron Man, a question that would be painful for anyone to wrestle with. What would you do if you found out that someone you trusted had betrayed you? If you found out that someone you had brought into your most sacred inner circle, had savagely murdered your parents when you were just a child? Had taken away something precious to you, and hidden the truth in order to gain your trust. What if you found out that one of your closest friends had known all along and not told you? Would it matter if your parent’s murderer had not been fully in control of their actions at the time, or would you still want revenge.
And this turns into a theme about responsibility and vengeance, which is a fabulous theme for an action movie, a theme that resonates with all of us. Are we responsible for our actions if we don’t do them consciously? Are we responsible for murder if it’s a mistake? Are we responsible for bad things that we have done if we weren’t aware that we were doing them? If we were responding to our childhoods or our experiences or our own past traumas? If we had not fully grown into the people that we would become? Can you ever move past the evil that you’ve done? At what risk do we forgo vengeance against the people who hurt us and at what risk do we take that vengeance?
These are powerful questions, and when you realize how powerful these questions are, you realize that they make all that plot wrangling around the accords relatively unimportant in comparison. In fact, had they chosen to build this story exclusively around this one theme, rather than trying to build all three, the writers could easily have cut the plot device of the accords completely out of this movie, and still generated an even more visceral engine to square the Avengers off against each other.
In fact, the inciting incident of this movie could have simply been Iron Man finding out that The Winter Soldier killed his father and his mother, and that this would’ve easily been a big enough thing to split the Avengers apart.
In order to create a Civil War for the Avengers, you don’t need a fancy document that doesn’t mean anything, and a bunch of political maneuvering that you’re not interested in. All you need is that one visceral thing. Iron Man wants to kill the Winter Soldier because the Winter Soldier killed his parents. And even though the Avengers love each other, they come down on different sides of this issue.
And suddenly you have a real civil war. You have a movie that actually means something, that actually asks a real question that we’ve all had to deal with because we’ve all dealt with betrayal. We’ve all felt our friendship groups splintered by wrongs that people have done, either willingly or unwillingly.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the accords should have been cut out of this film. A writer who was deeply interested in the political question of anarchy vs. government, and was willing to weight both sides equally and truly allow a dialectic to develop, could have used the accords to turn Captain America: Civil War into a profound exploration of politics, just like the original X-Men was a profound exploration of racism.
But it’s pretty clear that this is not where the real story lies for these writers, not really what they’re interested in. And when you are devoting that much screen time to something that is really just a plot device, there’s a good chance that you’re missing a real opportunity to push your storytelling deeper.
Oftentimes, when writing a screenplay, we start off and we have a device designed to create our engine, and is not until we get to the end that we realize what the real story, and the real theme, and the real engine is. And at those times, it’s incumbent upon us to go back and start building around the real theme from the very beginning.
Had Captain America: Civil War been built in this way, it would have been more than just a great action movie, which it certainly was. It would have been a great film. A film that didn’t just entertain its audiences, but moved them, and forced them to examine these real life questions in themselves.
But because the real theme doesn’t emerge until the very end, we are not prepared for it. It’s like starting a different movie three quarters of the way through. And this is why the ending doesn’t feel climactic. It’s why we don’t get that feeling of change and catharsis. It’s why it doesn’t feel like it matters. Because it doesn’t matter. Because this is not the thing that’s been driving Iron Man. It’s why the flashbacks feel forced in, rather than organic, because even though they’re attempting to set up the theme that the movie builds to, they have not been integrated into the plot or the motivations or the themes that are driving the rest of the movie.
So, some concepts to leave you with.
Concept Number 1: If you want to build a movie around a political issue, make sure to build the side you don’t agree with as strongly, or even more strongly than the one you do. This will allow you not only to convince people who believe differently than you, but also to take yourself on a journey that just might bring you closer to the truth, through a synthesis in your own beliefs.
Concept Number 2: If you’re between an emotional thing and an intellectual thing, go with the emotional thing. Because the emotional thing is something we’re all going to get. And if you follow the emotional thing, you’re telling a story that anybody can connect to. Whereas if you take the intellectual thing, the political thing, you start telling a story that only political buffs can understand and you lose the thread of that story, especially if you’re not really that interested in politics, which, based on the structure of the movie, the writers of Captain America: Civil War certainly don’t seem to be.
Concept Number 3: Whatever the worst thing is that could happen, it has to frickin’ happen!
Because for all it’s clean and clear execution, this movie not only misses an opportunity politically and emotionally, it also misses one structurally, that could have tied the other two together, and given it the kind of blockbuster ending that a script that was obviously worked on this hard deserved. (more spoilers ahead)
For nearly two hours (which is way too long) this movie has been warning us of the real consequences, and the real stakes, of this political debate. There are 5 more frickin’ Winter Soldiers! And they aren’t very nice ones. And if they end up thawing out in their hiding place in Siberia, all hell is going to break loose.
And just when it seems like the bloodbath is going to ensue (like the final salvo of a fireworks show), the Avengers show up, only to find that all the Winter Soldiers have been shot, and the only one left to defeat is a conniving scientist.
Now I understand why the writers didn’t go for it with a final battle sequence. The movie is already two hours long and they’ve got to end it soon.
But the length of the script is actually a symptom of the problem, rather than the cause. Because the plot is bloated with all the wrangling around those silly accords, because the writers are trying to preserve these political machinations in order to set the Avengers against each other, they end up cutting what could be the most exciting thing in the move: five all powerful Winter Soldiers that the good guys would have had to defeat, had the writers not chosen to execute them first.
Had those Winter Soldiers been alive, it would’ve forced Iron Man to go on a real journey in relation to the theme. He’d have to decide whether he’s going to rejoin his friends, even knowing that it meant working with an ally who killed his parents. Or whether he’s going to seek his revenge at all costs, even if it means letting the world burn.
You could see how this is so much stronger of a version of the same movie, and how it would bring all of the politics that the movie is trying to wrestle with to the surface: the real question of what it means to make peace with your enemies, and with people who believe differently than you do. And you can see how important that would be in the real civil war of today’s political landscape.
It’s great to have a movie that is clear, and it is great to have a movie that is understandable, and if you have characters that you love already and if you have a writer that you love already and you can tell a clear strong story (and Captain America: Civil War is one) you can get away with a lot of baloney.
But if you’re a new writer trying to introduce a new superhero into the world, you need a lot more than a clear setup and spectacular action sequences. You need a story that can move us and is going to move you.
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.