How Marvel's 'Civil War' May Win the War Against Superhero Fatigue
by Dan Marcus
April 18, 2016
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America and Iron Man are currently at odds, fighting tooth and nail for their own respective ideologies. However, in the playing field that is the superhero genre, some are arguing that superhero movies are starting to become a tad predictable, their routine less super. They are familiar with Cap's shield and Iron Man's armor with some saying they just don't have the gleam they used to have. Marvel's greatest heroes might be facing a new battle altogether: fatigue. This isn't a battle just facing Marvel, but all superheroes alike. While Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC's own answer to that debate, might have proved a bit more polarizing than originally intended, Marvel's Captain America: Civil War proves that superheroes still have a bit more fight to them – and here's why.
When Marvel Studios' Captain America: Civil War opens in theaters everywhere on May 6th, it will be Marvel's thirteenth superhero film since 2008. That's not counting the numerous X-Men films (from Fox), Spider-Man films (from Sony) and Batman films (from WB) that seem to be coming out in almost regular rotation since about 2002 or 2003. Ever since the superhero boom that kicked off with Blade in 1998, superhero movies have steadfastly increased in volume almost every year. Most recently, there have been some – including filmmaking maestro himself Steven Spielberg – that have predicted a forthcoming 'superhero fatigue' given all the superhero movies coming out every year. Marvel themselves have even established a 'formula' of their own: strong origin stories with weak villains (unless it's Loki), inferior sequels (I'm looking at you, Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World) and a narrative now so complex these movies no longer really can stand on their own. The complex narrative of the films has now started to resemble the intricate, interwoven narratives of the comics. Basically: If you miss an issue, you're screwed.
Speaking of comics, as a disclaimer: I admit that I'm not the biggest Marvel fan. I actually grew up mostly reading DC comics, such as Batman and Superman. While I also read X-Men as a prepubescent teen, I never considered myself a fan of Marvel until my later adult years, when I started getting into Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run or Brian Michael Bendis' run on Spider-Man and the Avengers. So before even getting into this, please note that I'm probably more biased as a DC fan, but I will openly admit when Marvel hits a home run – like they did with Civil War. I had a chance to watch Captain America: Civil War not only once, but twice thanks to advance screenings, so I've had an ample amount of time to digest Marvel's newest foray into their superhero world. Before going into Civil War, I was admittedly worried the film would get hampered down by too many characters, too many story lines and too much humor (you know what you did, Thor: The Dark World). However, having seen the film twice, I can safely say Civil War works tremendously well, pushing the narrative forward in new and exciting ways, all the while introducing new characters and subplots that I personally can't wait to see explored in spin-offs and standalone films.
While Marvel's tendency to tell a bigger overarching story can have its limitations, Civil War is actually an example where Marvel's long-running connectivity among their films works to their benefit. As a result of seeing these characters evolve and grow over many films, directors Anthony and Joe Russo don't waste any time re-introducing these characters to audiences. If you haven't seen Ant-Man and you don't know who Paul Rudd is playing, well, that's your fault. While that might get frustrating for audiences who haven't seen every last Marvel Studios film, the Russo Brothers don't care and that's part of the charm of Civil War.
The other benefit besides a lack of set-up is the fact that if you've been following these movies, you've been following these characters. There's an innate joy in seeing Chris Evans' Steve Rogers interact once again with Sebastian Stan's Bucky or Scarlett Johannsson's Black Widow. These characters have a well-established history and the actors playing them have a well-developed chemistry. The conflict between Rogers and Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, for example, is so thrilling and ultimately so heartbreaking because you've been following these characters for eight movies now. You don't want them to fight. You want them to set aside their differences and grab a beer, but you know in the back of your head that's not how this is going to go down. I can guarantee you Civil War wouldn't have worked so well if it wasn't playing on the history between these characters – but that works in the film's favor. However, beyond that history, does Civil War stand on its own shield or does it need J.A.R.V.I.S. to help tell its story effectively?
The answer is: Yes, and no. The main conflict of Civil War partially rests on the events of previous movies, such as The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. As a matter of fact, an important plot element of this particular film – the Sovokia Accords – is a direct response to the last Avengers film. However, Civil War doesn't spend a lot of time dwelling on the events of those movies. Instead, it focuses more on the current conflict – a conflict of ideologies between Rogers and Stark. While it certainly helps to know where these characters are coming from – Rogers and what he's seen in World War II, about not being answerable to any known entity or organization – and Stark and what he experienced in the very first Iron Man, wanting to be accountable for his actions – you don't really need to know that in order to understand why these characters feel the way they do. The film admittedly does expect you to know these characters like you would a long-term friend, but the film also presents some excellent reasoning for why these characters think the way they do now. It's a strange example of a film being unable to stand on its own two feet without what came before, but also trying its damnedest to work despite what came before – if that makes any sense.
The film truly exceeds, however, when it follows the progression of what transpired in The Winter Soldier, the last Captain America film (also directed by the Russo Brothers). The central conflict of Civil War rests on what has made these Captain America movies truly work – the relationship between Cap and Bucky. Their friendship is the heart of these movies; it's what makes them tick. In the comics, the conflict in the Civil War storyline was governmental registration. The conflict here is different, building on what happened at the end of The Winter Soldier. It rests on the beleaguered but good intentioned shoulders of Captain America, not wanting to give up his best friend even if that means going to war with people who he'd rather not go to war with. That's part of the charm of Rogers as a character, though: He truly believes in what he stands for. He'll throw a punch even if he doesn't want to, because he's a man of conviction. When he says, "I can do this all day", it actually means something. You understand why Rogers does this, even though Bucky is a character who you're not entirely sure about even after he seemingly has turned sides.
While Civil War is not as narratively focused as The Winter Soldier, it does an excellent job at picking up where that film left off. If anyone was worried – myself included – that Civil War would feel like Avengers 2.5, well, you can rest easy. Civil War is definitely another Captain America film first and foremost and it works best when showing the lengths Rogers will go to protect his best friend. Especially how that makes Rogers come into conflict with Stark. It creates some of the most emotional, heart-wrenching tension out of any Marvel Studios movie to date.
So, in a nutshell, that's what makes Civil War stand tall amongst what has come before. While other Marvel Studios and comic book movies often feature adversaries that are weak in comparison to everything else, Civil War knows the main conflict is between these characters that we've grown to know and love. While there is a villain in Civil War doing things we expect this person to do, it doesn't hinder the main story at all and doesn't feel shoe-horned in as other villains might have in other Marvel or superhero films. The conflict feels like a natural progression of what came before – even with some big additions to the mythology, including Spider-Man's long-awaited entrance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the introduction of Black Panther to the proceedings.
If anything, the film is a touch bloated and overstuffed, but the film is also so damn fun to watch – with some truly spectacular action scenes – that any faults of the film don't hit you until far after you've seen it. I've seen the film twice now and it worked the second time just as well as it did the first, faults and all. That's just further evidence of some very strong filmmaking from the Russo Brothers. If you were at all worried about how Avengers: Infinity War - Parts I & II (due 2018 & 2019) were going to handle all 67 characters supposedly in them, you can breathe a bit easier now. Those films are in very capable hands.
So, are Steven Spielberg and others right? Are we suffering from a superhero fatigue? If Captain America: Civil War is any indication, these characters still have a lot more left to them - especially as long as the writers/directors can handle them and the storylines correctly. Civil War proudly circumvents many conventions of the genre and is a film not hindered by what has come before, but empowered by it. Yes, these films are becoming like comics, where if you miss an issue (or in this case, a film) you might be a little lost – but hey, that was inevitable based on connecting these movies together and creating a cinematic universe, which is what Marvel has done. The only time 'fatigue' comes in is when these movies aren't done right – when they feel like lifeless slogs that you have to endure, as you're sitting there just waiting for what you're watching to end. And that's not a diss on Warner Bros and DC, by the way. I can say that about many Marvel movies, DC movies and all other superhero movies in-between.
Captain America: Civil War proves there's still battles to be fought and wars to be won in the superhero genre – and thanks to the very talented Russo Brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, that fight still wages on. So what do you think? Do you think Captain America: Civil War will help defeat superhero fatigue or only make it worse? Sound Off in the comments below!