Do you notice anything… off about that article title? Is it slightly polarised?
Polarisation is the name of the game at Marvel Studios these days though, with Captain America: Civil War just around the corner and the whole world waiting with baited breath to see the clash of two heroes. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started selling ‘Team Iron Man’ and ‘Team Cap’ t-shirts and throwing us all back into the Twilight era… scratch that, someone’s definitely already made those. In any case, hype is in the air. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say this is one of the most highly-anticipated movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a lot of this seems to be coming from the pure joy of a movie that looks really good after the disappointment that was The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant Man, which I’ve seen about two people talking about.
How can we be sure it’s going to be good? Well, it’s in the hands of the Russo Brothers, the creative team behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a high-quality movie that ensured their place as gods upon the mountain… especially compared to other creative devils like Joss Whedon, who betrayed and enraged everyone with the cluster-mess of Age of Ultron. The anti-Whedon backlash in the wake of Age of Ultron was nothing short of stunning, and a little frightening, and that same energy is now swinging the other way to praise and delight over the Russos and their work. They will bring Good Writing™ back to the MCU. They are the heroes we need.
Now, I’m not saying I don’t think they’re good—they did a damned good job on Winter Soldier on a technical level and clearly love the source material to bits—but we shouldn’t be too quick to put people on pedestals. Civil War has just as much potential to be a heroic mess as Age of Ultron did, because it’s actually facing a lot of problems from the get go.
Problem #1: The work being adapted can’t be adapted into the current continuity without becoming a mess, but execs are pushing for it anyway
I don’t know much about comics, being a Filthy Casual trying to judge the MCU movies on their own merit, but what I do know about the Civil War arc is that it makes no damn sense to simply slot it into the movies now. It mostly revolves around policies about superhero identities, and revealing them to the public… which really isn’t an issue in the MCU, where the Smithsonian held an exhibition about Steve’s life, Tony’s first movie literally ended with him telling the world “I am Iron Man”, and Thor is… well, he’s just Thor. There he is.
The other big dramatic draw of the Civil War also isn’t present in the MCU: Tony and Steve’s friendship. Them butting heads in the comics was such an emotional shock because it had years of camaraderie and developed, complex character dynamics to build on and take down… the movies don’t. From what we’ve seen, Steve and Tony have kind of stopped bickering like they did in The Avengers, but as for a relationship status, they’re just kind of workmates. You know, they save the world together and stuff, and when they see each other in the Avengers Tower they ask how the kids are doing and if they watched the game on Sunday, and then go about their business. Would they go out of their way to hang out? It’s not entirely evident. And that doesn’t add up to generate the same heartache and tension that an arc like Civil War would need.
Some executives, I can only assume, really liked the idea of doing Civil War though, because it’s such a popular and prominent comic arc. So they tasked the writers to wriggle it into a story where it doesn’t fit, or, at best, wear “Civil War” as a hat while they wrangled together a story that vaguely fits into the themes. As long as it generates hype. Either way, it’s put pressure and limitations both on the characters and the world of the story… much the same way meddling executives put pressure on the Age of Ultron and Avengers writing teams to fit in as much Popular Rated Fun and reliably successful material as possible, which naturally puts a strain on the creativity of the writers. Much in the same way having all those superhero cameos does, which brings me to…
Problem #2: So. Many. Characters
Despite this supposedly being the next Captain America movie, we have a lineup of about sixteen “main” characters. Bucky seems to be the main source of conflict in the movie—or is the human embodiment of the issue, anyway—and from trailers and writerly hints it’s implied that the main emotional crux of the story will be Steve and Bucky trying to reconnect and, you know, deal with the baggage they’ve built up over the past 80 years or so. Which follows on nicely from The Winter Soldier, since the biggest question that left us with was “what the heck is going to happen to Bucky? Will he ever remember who he is? Is remembering the same as re-becoming Bucky Barnes? Can he and Steve ever truly reconcile and if they do, what will it mean if one of the nation’s heroes brings one of its most feared assassins home for dinner?”
This looks like it will all be there in Civil War… it will just be there among the business of about ninety other characters.
Tony Stark is the third point in the main character triangle as far as I can figure, which is only natural given that the whole Tony vs Steve flim-flam was the big deal about the Civil War arc. So unless he’s to be played as a shadowy antagonist (which wouldn’t make much sense to do, seeing as the whole Civil War flim-flam was also about weighing both sides equally and asking the audience to decide who was right in their own minds) Tony is going to need ample screentime and emotional development too, which takes it away from Steve and Bucky.
And Natasha, who will naturally also be in conflict, especially if she’s on Tony’s side, which will leave a lot of questions to be answered about her friendship with Steve… not to mention Hawkeye, who she’s also besties with, The Hulk, who she’s apparently in love with (still puzzling over that one), Thor, Scarlet Witch, Ant Man, Falcon, Vision, Rhodey (who had better not die, or there will be real trouble on several counts), and a host of new characters including Black Panther and another gosh darn Spiderman reboot.
In an ensemble piece, each member of the team needs to have something going on story-wise if not a full emotional arc—and indeed there’s a lot to work with given that Wanda has just lost her brother and is re-knitting her entire sense of purpose, everyone’s still reeling from what happened with Ultron, and Bruce and Natasha are apparently (apparently??) going IKEA shopping together to furnish their happy lovenest. Wait, except that Bruce vanished at the end of Age of Ultron, didn’t he? My God. That’s even more complicated.
And Black Panther and Spiderman (Spiderman! Again! Let him rest!) will need to be introduced properly, because even though this is being broadcast to a world that already knows who Spiderman is (three! Reboots! In fifteen years!) assumed knowledge is no excuse for leaving information out of the story, and indeed this is being broadcast to superhero fans whether they’ve come from comics or the animated shows or the three billion other Spiderman movies, so they’ll want to see him done justice. Of course, this is inevitably in-franchise advertising for the Black Panther and Spiderman movies that are to come, but if they feel like crummy cut-outs it might put people off. And Marvel is gathering as much of our nerd money as it can to its dragon hoard, so nobody wants that.
It may be a case of too many superheroes spoiling the broth. It’s rare and a little strange to make such an ensemble-based story idea the basis for a one-superhero movie, so this can really only lead to one of two things: the ensemble drama will detract heavily from Captain America’s drama, making it not feel like a Cap movie at all; or the Captain America drama will take precedence over the ensemble drama, and we’ll be left wondering why the ensemble fighting in a parking lot were all there in the first place.
Either way, with a cast that big and the focus supposedly meant to be on one set of characters, somebody’s going to get left behind. There’s only so much time in a movie, and lord knows, even in a 25-episode show you can’t allocate development and depth to every member of a cast of say, more than ten. So unless you’re really clever with your time and resources there’s a guarantee that some, nay, most “minor” characters are going to end up written in shortcuts and stereotypes and/or forgotten about entirely. Which, badabing, was exactly the problem I and a lot of people had with Age of Ultron—there was barely space for the whole cast on the movie posters, let alone in the screenplay, leaving what little time characters did have spent… rockily, at best.
Problem #3: Let Tony rest
I said this in my Iron Man reviews, but guys… Tony had a great character arc, and it was nicely resolved. To drag him into more conflict will mess around with that, and, to wrangle him into his position as pseudo-antagonist, his characterisation is going to have to be messed with. He’s done, guys. Let him go. Let him retire.
Problem #4: That’s not even how movie writing works
To blame all of Age of Ultron’s problems singularly on Joss Whedon is incorrect and unfair—even if he was first-billed, he doubtless had an entire writing team behind him, not to mention a soundstage full of other contributing staff, the actors, the editors, and the aforementioned meddling executives tapping him on the shoulder saying they want this or that to fill the Cool Quota and ensure they hoard as much nerd money as possible. The movie is not his baby, he is one of many co-parents, and putting him specifically and him alone on the chopping block is not entirely fair.
The same way bowing to the Brothers Russo isn’t entirely fair or correct. Look, I love their work and I think they’re cool guys—this is exactly why I’m afraid that they’re being put on such a pedestal. If Civil War is disappointing, everything will come down on them, personally, like a tonne of bricks, and I don’t want that.
I hate to sound cynical, but I dare not stock too much faith in anything at this point. I’m just going to go into that cinema with an open mind, moderate expectations, and the knowledge that even if everything goes to hell, at least I’ll see Bucky Barnes again.