After the non-stop superhero team-up "The Avengers," Marvel Studios has done something different with each subsequent follow-up film: introspective action in "Iron Man 3, high fantasy in "Thor: The Dark World."
And for the April 4-releasing "Captain America: The Winter Soldier,"?
"We're making a political thriller," Anthony Russo, who directed the film with his brother, Joe Russo, told an assemblage of more than 100 domestic and international reporters during a press conference attended by CBR News last week in Beverly Hills. The Russos, joined by stars Chris Evans (Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Anthony Mackie (The Falcon), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) and Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier) alongside Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige explained that though the film stars a genetically modified superhero taking down a fictional intelligence organization, the film took inspiration from very real events.
"We tried to run at what's happening in the world today with the movie," Anthony Russo said. "We were thinking about what's going on in the world with preemptive strikes, the president's kill list -- the whole Snowden thing came out after we were shooting. We tried to make the movie reflective of our real world condition and our real world stakes, even though it's a fantasy expression of what that is."
The larger implications of the film was something particularly exciting for Jackson, who's played S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury since the first entry in the Marvel Studios canon, 2008's original "Iron Man" film.
"I realized when I was reading [the script] that it was a bit more than just a comic book feature," Jackson told the crowd. "I'm sure a lot of young people are going to be surprised when they get into the movie and watch it that they actually have to think about something other than what's going on. And that always excites me."
"The Winter Soldier" is about more than political intrigue, of course -- as evidenced by the trailers, a lot of stuff blows up, and that stuff has significant impact on Marvel's features going forward.
"The key to making these movies different and unique each time is to be able to move pieces around on the playing board, and to be able to subvert expectations," Feige told reporters. "In terms of the big event that happens in the movie that changes everything, that was part of the plan for quite a while, to mix things up and for the world to be very different in the beginning of 'Avengers 2' than it was in 'Avengers 1.'"
Feige praised the Russo brothers for having lofty ambitions and a clear vision for the film. The directors, best known for their work on acclaimed sitcoms "Arrested Development" and "Community," had only directed one feature before, the considerably less explosive 2006 comedy "You, Me and Dupree." Yet the duo said it was actually a smooth transition between genres.
"The process isn't very different," Joe Russo said. "We always say comedy isn't very different from action -- it requires choreography. So when you're doing a good comedic bit, it's all about the choreography and the timing of it, which isn't very different than stunt work, or a fight in a movie. It's all a dance. We didn't feel lit it was that big of a stretch for us. It felt like every day that we've been on set for the last 15 years."
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" further distinguishes itself by functioning as a full-fledged team-up story -- Evans' Cap is joined by Johansson's Black Widow, and, making his debut, Mackie's Falcon. Though it's a "Captain America" film, it's the most significant role in the franchise thus far for Johansson, following two previous live-action appearances in "Iron Man 2" and "Avengers."
"This is the first time that we've really gotten to see Natasha," Johansson said, distinguishing between her character's superhero alias and civilian identity. "We saw a little bit of her in 'Avengers,' and we saw a little bit of her backstory -- we'll see more of that in 'Avengers' 2'-- but in this film, we really get to see Natasha as a person who gets up, gets ready for working the morning, has a life outside out of her job. She has own reality outside of this."
The increased spotlight on Black Widow has furthered speculation that a Black Widow solo film -- which, if it happens, would be Marvel Studios' first solo female superhero movie -- may arrive in theaters sooner than later. Feige again confirmed that it's something being worked on, but not firmly in place on the studio's schedule.
"I think it could be great," Feige said. "We've got various outlines and ideas of where to take that. There's a big element that explores some of her backstory in an upcoming Marvel feature. So the question really is, when would we want to take her out of the ensemble to go and do her own thing? As you saw in this movie, as you'll see in 'Avengers: Age of Ultron,' she's kind of key to so much of the broader world."
Johansson made it clear during the press conference that she has a great deal of affection for the character, and a respect for how much Black Widow means to female fans -- especially young ones.
"One of the things that's attractive to me about the character is that she uses her feminine wiles as part of her job, but she doesn't rely on her sexuality or physical appeal to get the job done," she said. "She's extremely smart. She thinks on her feet. She's a leader. And she has a lot of foresight. Those are qualities that I think are wonderful to celebrate for young women.
"And of course, it's really rad for me to have my friends' kids kind of look up to that character, and dress up as her for Halloween, and play with the boys and be rough," Johansson added. "I always say, 'The Widow always wins.' And it's true. And that's a nice sentiment."
The addition of comic book mainstay The Falcon and his partnership with Captain America was eased, Evans said, by his familiarity with Mackie. The two have worked together before, in 2011 comedy "What Your Number?"
"I've known Anthony for a while now," Evans said. "We got along very well. We're very similar people. It was very easy having a repartee with him off-set, and I think that translates on-set. He just brings a certain type of spark that you need on film, and you need off, as well."
Another new element of "The Winter Soldier" is the presence of a genuine Hollywood legend -- Robert Redford -- in his first comic book-based movie.
"It's always such a treat when someone you look up to that much lives up to the expectation," Evans said. "He very easily could have come on set and hijacked the film -- not just as an actor, but given his past as a director, and experience, he very easily could have taken over. He showed up with the utmost professionalism, knew his lines. I think the first day we filmed, we shot till 1 in the morning, and he stuck around for my off-camera stuff. It was like it was his first movie."
"He's professional, he knew his lines, he wanted to do it, he wanted to try different ways, he wanted to make things better," Jackson added. "And that's a part of coming into the Marvel Universe. People come in, they see what we do, and they want to blend into it and make things better. As we continue to do it, things do get better."
For Stan, the titular Winter Soldier, it was a very different acting challenge than the one he faced in 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger," as he went from Cap's World War II battle buddy Bucky to the nearly silent assassin of this film. Despite the sharp left turn, Stan incorporated elements from his earlier performance into the "Winter Soldier."
"Most of the work on the character I had done before the first film, when I was first educated about it," Stan said. "I tried to implement some of the things in the first film, not knowing at the time, really, that we were going to be doing this film. When it came to the world that I was going to play in this film, even though it was a very different version of a character that we were introduced to, I still was trying to walk away from it having left some type of mix of the new with some of the old aspects that you would remember when you'd see it in its entirety."
Amid recent reports that Evans plans on taking a break from acting after fulfilling his Marvel Studios contract, the actor -- a veteran of multiple comic book-based movies, including the 2005 and 2007 Fox "Fantastic Four" films -- expressed gratitude for the Captain America role, and what it's meant to his career over the past few years.
"It's changed everything for me," Evans said. "Not just what it's enabled me to do outside of these movies, but it's so comforting knowing you're making good movies. It would be a nightmare to trapped in this contract when you're making films that you're not proud of. But Marvel has the midas touch. Every time you suit up, you know that you're making something of quality. It's rewarding on every level."
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" opens April 4.