In the year 2016, battle lines were drawn. I’m not just referring to on-screen, where heroes fought other heroes in Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016), but also off-screen amongst the fans. One of the great benefits of the internet is that it gives fans around the world the opportunity to connect and share their enthusiasm for particular elements of popular culture. In this case, however, that connectivity quickly gave rise to tribalism. The tribalism, of course, gave rise to a cohort of “trolls” a very vocal minority of fans who revelled in stoking the flames of division and in their madness, turned those fanbases toxic.
These are the people who boycotted the new female-led
Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016), finding any excuse to fault the film rather than recognize their obvious misogyny. These are the people that find any opportunity online to praise the uneven success of the DC Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) at the expense of the massively successful, industry-changing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), because they claim everyone must be a fan of one or the other, never both. They angrily turned on the Star Wars films after the surprisingly challenging Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017) failed to align with their carefully constructed expectations. They boycotted Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019) and its star, Brie Larson, after Larson called for more diversity in blockbuster films and film journalism. They launched a petition for HBO to remake the final season of Game of Thrones because they did not like it as much as the previous seven seasons.
Certain themes have emerged in toxic fandom over the years: a hatred of diversity, a hatred of women, a staggering level of entitlement, the ridiculous idea that new installments in a beloved series somehow diminish or destroy previous installments, and inferiority complexes. Although it had been simmering for decades, 2016 was the year the world learned just how toxic pop culture fandom had become.
Disney was often at the centre of this storm of negativity. The studio cracked the blockbuster code in the 2010s and became the dominant force in popular cinema. Historically, Disney’s main success stemmed from their animated features, either from Walt Disney Animation Studios or Pixar Animation Studios. Success in animation has ebbed and flowed over the years, but the ’10s were certainly a high point.
Live-action Disney features were less reliable, give or take a
Pirates of the Caribbean-level success, but that all changed with some key acquisitions. Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment in late-2009, and began distributing Marvel Studios’ MCU films in 2012. Also in 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm and thus, Star Wars. The studio released Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015), the first Star Wars film in over a decade, and made plans to expand the Star Wars cinematic universe along the lines of the MCU.
Out of the top ten highest-earning films of 2016, five were distributed by Disney. The top film of 2015 was a Disney film and the top two films each year have been Disney films since 2016. These blockbusters are typically new installments of Star Wars or the MCU. The 2019 box office will not break that trend, with
Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019) and J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (December 2019) are sure to top the year’s box office.
This level of success is unprecedented in Hollywood. Naturally, it breeds detractors. There are truly problematic implications to Disney’s years of dominance in popular culture, particularly after the acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019m which I will discuss at length in later articles. But these implications are not the focus of toxic fandom. Instead, toxic fans attack Disney, its films and its success, with wild conspiracy theories. They claim that Disney’s success is due in part to bribing film critics to positively review Disney films and negatively review their competition, such as the DCEU films. Less outlandish theories claim that professional film critics are not bribed, but instead are too intimidated by Disney’s success and rabid fanbase to honestly review Disney films, and praise the films to appease the masses.
More likely, of course, is that films distributed by Disney are generally well-made crowd-pleasers that merit positive reviews. Toxic fans also decry Disney’s supposed political agenda to introduce diversity, of gender, race, sexuality, into the overwhelmingly straight, white, male domain of blockbuster films. These fans consider diversity either an attempt to indoctrinate audiences with identity politics or to cash in on more diverse audiences at the expense of white men. The toxic fans never think of increased diversity as a genuine attempt to more accurately reflect the demographics of the world in which they, too, live. Again, these toxic fans are a minority, but they have become incredibly vocal online.
This is all a preamble to position Captain America: Civil War as a reflection of the time it was released. The film centres on heroes battling each other over an ideological dispute provoked by the actions of a crafty agent provocateur in the background. Friend turns on friend, and no easy resolution is reached. So, in its own way, the narrative reflects online fan culture. It was even originally scheduled to be released the same day as Batman v. Superman, the DCEU version of hero-on-hero conflict. This posited the two films as directly in competition, and their respective performances as a referendum on DC vs Marvel.
Beyond that, the success of Civil War as the highest-grossing film of 2016 worldwide demonstrated the pop culture dominance of Disney and fuelled Disney’s detractors. Beyond even that, Civil War began, and set the tone for, “Phase 3” of the MCU in a bold, unexpected manner that would only have occurred under the safety of Disney’s cultural dominance. The 13th film in the MCU is arguably the first in the series to require previous knowledge to properly enjoy. Prior films had done an efficient job of explaining characters and concepts to potential new viewers. Civil War, with its twelve superheroes whose motivations and actions are directly informed by at least eight previous films, made the necessary assumption that viewers would do their homework beforehand. Even with all the success, Marvel Studios may not have risked this assumption without the backing of the Disney machine, and that would have hampered their ambition.
The ambition on display is impressive. The filmmakers behind Civil War deconstruct and challenge the established tropes of the superhero genre. They begin by addressing the common criticism of recent blockbusters that they tend to climax with highly destructive battles. Civil War deals with the consequences of these climaxes. Also, the villain is a shadowy, cerebral threat rather than a physical one. He exploits the insecurities of the heroes and attacks them with difficult truths, which ultimately makes him one of the more low-key but successful comic book film villains ever. The climactic brawl of a dozen heroes inherent to the premise of Civil War occurs at the end of the second act, and is certainly the greatest comic book spectacle seen on film up to that point. But this spectacle gives way to an unexpectedly personal and emotional third act climax with no easy resolution.
This subversion of expectations is made possible and much more satisfying by the eight years and twelve films full of strong storytelling and stellar character development from the MCU. The MCU has always put characters above all else, and Civil War is the fruits of those labours. It is the emotional culmination of a dozen previous films, akin to the season finalé of a television series. But it also acts as the “season premiere” of the next phase of the MCU. This phase consists of eleven films that broke down and redefined what audiences expected from blockbuster superhero films, and continued Marvel’s reputation for refusing to make safe, easy narrative choices even after massive success.
In this way, Civil War exemplifies the best qualities of Marvel Studios films. Without a doubt, Marvel’s narrative risk-taking would not be possible without the safety net provided by their parent company, Disney, and its ongoing success. Marvel added to Disney’s success as Disney’s success allowed Marvel to take risks.
Captain America: Civil War takes its title and several important story beats from the Marvel Comics crossover event, Civil War, published from May 2006 to February 2007. During that time, the events of Civil War played out in nearly every Marvel Comics book, but the central story was told in the titular seven-issue series written by Mark Millar and drawn by Steve McNiven. In the story, a team of young, inexperienced superheroes irresponsibly attack a group of powerful supervillains, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people in a small Pennsylvania town. The incident catalyzes a growing sentiment in the United States that superheroes should have government oversight and accountability, requiring them to register, train and operate as official law enforcement agents, or retire from crime-fighting.
The legislation splits the superhero community down the middle. Tony Stark/Iron Man leads the pro-registration side, wanting to implement the inevitable legislation responsibly. Steve Rogers/Captain America leads the anti-registration side, fearing that it will put superheroes at risk and force them to act as political puppets. The central conflict is therefore ideological, a debate over freedom vs security, rather than a villain or world-ending threat more typical to comics. Ultimately, Steve surrenders after seeing the damage caused by the conflict, and he is later assassinated on the way to his trial.
Civil War was a massive cultural and sales success for Marvel Comics, with its plot points and impact reported in mainstream news outlets. At the time, I had been reading mostly older comic books, but the success of Civil War encouraged me to start collecting current comics, something that I still do to this day. I owe much of my interest in comics to Civil War.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely previously wrote Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011), Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) for Marvel, and they began writing the third Captain America film in late 2013. In early 2014, after impressive test screenings of The Winter Soldier, Joe and Anthony Russo were hired to direct the next Captain America. The original intention was to continue the plot threads of The Winter Soldier in a more conventional sequel. Other MCU heroes were included as adversaries for Captain America in an adaptation of the “Madbomb” storyline, in which a villain creates a device that turns people against Cap. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige suggested that the filmmakers adapt Civil War instead, which made the film much more interesting. Heroes would fight not because of artificial, contrived hostility, but because of character-based ideological disagreement.
Robert Downey Jr. signed on, placing the focus of the film on Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. It explores their growth as characters over twelve films and their personal conflicts that are brought to the surface. Despite its big battles and extensive visual effects,Civil War is a strong character piece. The history of the characters and the choice of source material made it far more complex and interesting than a run-of-the-mill superhero film.
The cast of previously-introduced heroes was assembled, ballooning the scale to bigger than any Avengers film, and the film was nicknamed “Avengers 2.5”. Additionally Civil War introduces two significant heroes to the MCU, setting up the future as it deconstructs the past. Black Panther, Marvel’s most significant non-white superhero, represents a character with his own agenda, and affected by none of Tony and Steve’s history. Spider-Man represents a new generation of superheroes. He idolizes the established characters, particularly Tony, and is dragged into a conflict that he does not fully understand. Spider-Man has been Marvel’s most popular character for over fifty years but his previous films, distributed by Sony, prevented his inclusion in the MCU.
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier (© 2016 – Marvel Studios / IMDB)
In November 2014, a hack of Sony’s files revealed, among other things, that the studio discussed sharing the film rights to the character with Marvel Studios. This occurred as Sony was fumbling The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Webb, 2014), and they hoped that Marvel could apply their popular, character-driven, faithful approach to the character. After the hack, negotiations resumed and Spider-Man’s inclusion in the MCU was announced in early 2015. In an unprecedented deal, Marvel’s flagship character would appear in new Sony-produced solo films and Marvel Studios team-up films which would all be set in the MCU. Black Panther and Spider-Man were the future of the MCU but they were introduced to support Civil War‘s grand character drama between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier establishes that James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), best friend of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), survived his apparent death in the Second World War to be brainwashed by the evil organization Hydra to be an assassin. In between missions, he is reprogrammed and put into cryogenic freezing. In that film, Hydra is destroyed and Bucky is freed from their control. Captain America: Civil War, however, opens before the fall of Hydra, in 1991.
Bucky is awakened and prepared in a Hydra facility for his latest mission. He runs a car off a forest road, and retrieves blue pouches from a tree trunk. The people in the car are not shown and, therefore, seem unimportant. This scene is shown in more detail two other times in the film, but its first appearance in the beginning achieves two things. First, Bucky’s prominence in the opening sequence establishes that Civil War will be focused primarily on Steve Rogers, no matter how many other heroes appear in the film. This is a continuation of The Winter Soldier. Second, the blue pouches and what they represent begins a brilliant, subversive misdirect that plays out in the third act of the film. For now, they are an intriguing mystery.
After the Marvel logo, the film shifts to the Avengers on a present-day mission in Lagos. The sequence begins with Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), one of the newer MCU superheroes, being coached through surveillance by the most experienced Avengers, Steve and Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), while Sam/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) watches from the rooftops. They intend to prevent the theft of a biological weapon from a local lab by Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), a Hydra henchman from The Winter Soldier. The sequence is a showcase for these four Avengers working as a unit, using their considerable strengths and teamwork to stop Rumlow’s team.
Steve, the clear leader, easily fights through the henchmen, as Sam flies around and attacks using his high-tech wingsuit, Wanda uses her telekinesis, and Natasha uses her impressive fighting skills. The stunts and practical effects on display in this sequence are spectacular, demonstrating that the Russo Brothers have not lost their eye for clear, visceral action in Civil War‘s grander scope. The mission ends when Rumlow attempts to kill Steve in a suicidal explosion. Wanda briefly contains the explosion with her telekinesis and sends it up into the air, away from the crowded Lagos marketplace. It instead severely damages a building, and many people die.
The fallout is disastrous. Wanda, the most inexperienced but most powerful Avenger, caused the deaths of innocent people, including humanitarian workers from the African nation of Wakanda. It calls into question the validity of an independent group of super-powered individuals making their own rules and fighting throughout the world. These sentiments are delivered to the Avengers by the United States Secretary of State, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), reprising his role from The Incredible Hulk (Letterier, 2008) in a completely different context. He compliments the actions of the Avengers, but also calls out their irresponsible behaviour. He shows footage of the destruction caused in Manhattan (in the climax of Whedon’s 2012 The Avengers, Washington, DC (in the climax of The Winter Soldier), the fictional nation of Sokovia (in the climate of Whedon’s 2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Lagos.
Most blockbuster films end with no comment on the loss of life or destruction that would have realistically resulted from the climax. Civil War is a film about consequences, starting with the consequences of blockbuster climaxes. This approach didn’t come out of nowhere. There seemed to be a moratorium on city-wide destruction in blockbuster films for several years after the September 11 attacks on the US but, at a certain point, filmmakers ramped up the destruction again. Advances in visual effects allowed for property to be destroyed in increasingly creative ways, and the so-called “destruction porn” became a talking point in film criticism. Civil War allows Marvel to address the criticism.
Ross reveals that 117 countries in the United Nations ratified the Sokovia Accords, declaring that the Avengers must have international oversight. If anyone refuses, they must retire or face prosecution. In the ensuing discussion, Avengers James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are logical about the need to sign the Accords, the need to acquiesce to this global concern about their actions. They convince Natasha, but Sam is against it. And then there’s Steve and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who take opposite sides in the debate, beginning the central conflict of the film. Their arguments develop organically out of a combined seven previous film appearances over eight years, a culmination that gives the rest of the film remarkable emotional resonance for longtime MCU fans.
Steve began as the quintessential patriot in the Second World War-set Captain America: The First Avenger, before being frozen in Arctic ice for seventy years. He continues his fight in the present-day starting in The Avengers, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds him growing weary of soldiering. He feels out of place in the modern world and wants to stop fighting. Over the course of that film, Steve discovers that Hydra has infiltrated the United States’ power structure, which shakes his patriotism and disillusions him to modern-day politics.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve resigns himself to life as a soldier, but only within the context of the Avengers, which he largely controls. The Accords mean international and political oversight, which he now distrusts, and losing control of the Avengers, which have kept him in the fight. Add to that the death in this film of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), his wartime crush whose death reminds him of the life he missed after the war, and it seems like the perfect time to retire. Steve decides not to sign the Accords, to get out instead.
Paul Rudd as Scott Lang / Ant-Man and Tom Holland as Peter Parker / Spider-Man (IMDB)
Tony has never handled the consequences of superheroics as well as Steve. As a lifetime soldier, Steve doesn’t celebrate destruction or loss of life in battle, but he accepts them as unfortunate inevitability. It must be minimized, but cannot always be avoided. Tony is not a soldier, and his experiences since becoming Iron Man have haunted him. Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) explores his post-traumatic stress following the events of The Avengers. In Age of Ultron, Tony develops an artificial intelligence to proactively defend the world, removing the need for the Avengers. Unfortunately, that A.I. becomes psychopathic and tries to destroy all life on Earth by raising then dropping a city on the fictional country of Sokovia.
In Tony’s first scene in Civil War, he uses holographic technology to relive and correct his behaviour the last time he saw his parents, right before they died in a car accident. We also learn that his longtime partner, Pepper, has left him. Tony is in an emotionally fragile state due to unresolved PTSD, guiltm and a recent break-up. He wants a way to assuage his guilt. One more emotional blow could put him over the edge. And then he is confronted by Miriam (Alfre Woodard), who blames Tony for the death of her son, an America student killed in Sokovia. Woodard is searing and powerful in her one scene, calling out Tony for causing collateral damage and death. When the Sokovia Accords similarly call out the Avengers, Tony leads the charge to sign them. He decides emotionally, based on guilt and the need to “fix” his mistakes.
Sharp writing ensures that even first-time MCU viewers can understand Steve and Tony’s positions, as do the excellent performances by Evans and Downey. Both actors are so comfortable in their roles that their performances seem natural and effortless. But the emotional weight of their choices in Civil War is much clearer after watching the characters grow and change through the previous films. Steve Rogers began as the ultimate patriot, and Civil War makes him a rebel. Tony Stark figuratively spat in the eye of a Senate oversight hearing in Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010), and now has become the superhero figurehead for political oversight. Tony used to act out of pure self-interest, but now he attempts to be selfless and to serve the collective good. Steve used to be purely selfless, always willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but now he chooses independence and a self-serving desire to find a normal life.
These are deep, fundamental character shifts that play out gradually over many films, right up to Avengers: Endgame. Steve and Tony are the dual protagonists of the MCU, and their character arcs lead them to gradually trade places across twenty-two films. Civil War is the film where they trade places on their respective arcs, establishing this film the crux of the entire MCU from Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) to Endgame. It’s fascinating to watch and a remarkable achievement from the storytellers at Marvel Studios.
The Sokovia Accords push Tony to be responsible and Steve to retire, but the Civil War cannot leave it there. Of course, another major wrinkle arises. The Sokovia Accords are presented by King T’Chaka of Wakanda (John Kani) at a meeting of the United Nations in Vienna. A car bomb detonates, killing many people including T’Chaka, and surveillance footage indicates Bucky is the culprit. This launches a worldwide manhunt for Bucky, as well as a mission of revenge by T’Chaka’s son, and now King of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Bucky is the one connection Steve has left to his old life, and protecting him is the only thing that could convince him to stay involved. Not signing the Accords, however, makes his pursuit of Bucky as Captain America illegal. Steve decides to act selfishly, to protect his old family from his new family, and Sam helps him.
Scene from the airport fight. (© 2016 – Marvel Studios / IMDB)
They find Bucky in Bucharest, but must fight T’Challa as Black Panther to get to him. The sequence once again demonstrates strong action direction from the Russos. From an inventive fight down a stairwell, to a kinetic foot chase through a highway tunnel, the action does not disappoint. It also showcases Black Panther in action for the first time on film, which is extra exciting given the character’s immense popularity soon after.
Rhodey stops the fight, and arrests Steve, Sam, Bucky and T’Challa. They are taken to a UN facility where Tony makes another appeal for Steve to sign the Accords, rendering his actions legal. Bucky’s cell is infiltrated by Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the shadowy villain of the film, whom I will discuss later. He uses an old Hydra notebook to activate Bucky’s brainwashing, causing him to brutally fight his way out of custody. I like this action scene primarily for the opportunity to see Tony, Steve, Natasha, Sam and T’Challa all fight Bucky out of costume. Street clothes give the sequence a surprisingly fresh flavour.
Steve escapes with Bucky, and questions why Zemo might have targeted him. Bucky reveals that there were five more super-soldier assassins trained at his facility in Siberia, and that Zemo must want to reactivate them. The super-soldiers are linked to the blue pouches Bucky retrieved in the opening scene of the film. Steve realizes the danger of five more brainwashed assassins under the control of Zemo, and resolves to go to Siberia. But first, he must recruit a team. Tony anticipates another confrontation with Steve, and he recruits his own team. This sets up two of the greatest moments in the MCU.
It seems that Tony has been keeping tabs on new superheroes and Spider-Man, operating in Queens, New York for the past six months, has piqued his interest. Sixteen-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns to his apartment to find Tony chatting up his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) before a more private conversation in Peter’s bedroom. Holland is a spectacular Peter Parker, and he has immediate chemistry with Downey. They bond over technology and the guilt driving them to help others. The introduction of Spider-Man in Civil War smartly allows the MCU to avoid retelling his origin for the third time in fifteen years, assuming that audiences understand the character.
Tony’s talk with Peter convinces him of Peter’s potential, and this begins a relationship that will play out over Holland’s five film appearances so far. Tony offers to upgrade Peter’s suit in exchange for help against Steve. This is one of the best scenes in the twenty-three and counting MCU films. It is a sweet, funny two-hander between Holland and Downey, continuing the character focus of Civil War while adding some necessary levity.
What follows is the airport fight, nicknamed the “splash page” fight by the filmmakers. It’s a massive visual effects extravaganza that immediately was considered the greatest piece of superhero action ever committed to film up to that point. The sequence features twelve superheroes, all with unique powers, battling across an airport tarmac. The action is inventive and clear, the visual effects are seamless, and the sequence follows a clear three-act structure that makes it meaningful and not overlong. Beyond that, the whole sequence is heavily rooted in the characters and relationships that have developed over the course of the MCU. Like Tony and Steve’s character arcs, this sequence carries a much deeper emotional resonance when viewed as the culmination of twelve previous films.
Steve, Sam and Bucky are joined by Wanda, Clint/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who retired at the end of Age of Ultron, and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). This is Rudd’s first foray into the larger MCU after his introduction in Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) a year earlier, and he brings a funny, starstruck, “aw shucks” attitude to the character. Tony’s team consists of Natasha, T’Challa, Rhodey, Vision and Peter. Steve wants to take a plane to Siberia to stop Zemo, and Tony wants to stop him (clear objectives). The airport is evacuated (no civilians to become casualties) and the first act of the fight consists of fun little skirmishes between characters.
The fight enters the second act when both sides realize the other will not back down. The teams square off and begin the real battle, albeit with most combatants trying not to hurt each other too much. The fight enters its third act when Steve’s team realizes that they must sacrifice themselves to allow Steve and Bucky to escape. Scott grows into Giant-Man for the first time, Natasha betrays Tony to let Steve escape, and Vision accidentally gives Rhodey a life-threatening injury while attacking Sam. What starts as playful fighting (Scott even pauses to ask for “orange slices”) grows more serious as over time, complete with betrayals and casualties. The fight is stunning filmmaking and one of my favourite blockbuster sequences.
It’s a magical combination of exciting action and funny, well-drawn character moments that makes the sequence soar. Holland’s Spider-Man immediately emerges as the most comics-accurate version of the character ever on film. His boyish enthusiasm to please Tony, nonstop chatting and joking, and very subtle use of his spider-sense (or “Peter-tingle”) are all pitch perfect. Rudd’s Scott is another highlight, fighting Natasha and sabotaging Tony’s suit while tiny, then impressing even himself when he becomes a giant.
Then Peter suggests a plan based on that “really old movie”, Kershner’s 1980 Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, to take him down. Holland and Rudd give the impression that they knew they had limited time to make an impression and they go for it. They also provide welcome comic relief in a film that borders on being too serious. The other newcomer, Boseman, also makes an impression. Since T’Challa is not connected to these characters, and blames Bucky for his father’s death, he’s out for blood. This is unlike, say, Clint and Natasha. In the middle of a scuffle, Clint says “We’re still friends, right?”, to which Natasha replies “Depends on how hard you hit me.” The airport fight is primarily a family squabble, until it is not and Rhodey is left paralyzed from the waist down.
Daniel Brühl as Zemo (IMDB)
The sequence delivers the expected scale of superhero action inherent in the premise of Civil War. It’s the action climax of the film, but it occurs at the end of the second act. The rest of the film is far more interesting and unexpected, pushing Civil War into the upper tier of blockbuster filmmaking. Steve and Bucky escape, and the rest of their team is imprisoned in a supermax prison run by Ross. Tony receives intelligence confirming Steve’s concerns over Zemo, and disobeys orders to help Steve in Siberia. T’Challa secretly follows Tony. The film foreshadows another major action sequence: Steve, Tony, Bucky and T’Challa against the five secret Hydra assassins. But the heroes arrive to find the assassins dead, killed by Zemo while still cryogenically frozen. Zemo has a much different plan, much like the filmmakers.
Now is the time to discuss Brühl’s Zemo. The MCU prioritizes the development of heroes over villains, understanding that heroes carry the series from film to film. Civil War is the culmination of this approach but it’s criticized, like several MCU films, for its forgettable villain. Despite being low-key, however, Zemo is the most successful villain featured in the MCU up to that point. He was a Sokovian soldier who lost his entire family in Ultron’s attack in Age of Ultron. He wants revenge on the Avengers, but knows that he cannot do so through physical force. By studying Hydra documents leaked in The Winter Soldier, Zemo discovers a devastating truth that will tear the Avengers apart from the inside.
He bombs the UN and frames Bucky so that Bucky will be caught. He then activates Bucky’s brainwashing to learn about his mission from 1991, when he retrieved the blue pouches for the super-assassins. But the pouches and assassins were red herrings. More important is who Bucky killed to retrieve the pouches: Tony’s parents.
Zemo drew Tony, Steve and Bucky to Sibria to reveal this fact. Tony, already emotionally fragile, discovers that his parents were murdered by Bucky and it pushes him over the edge. Steve admits that he suspected the truth but didn’t tell Tony. For Tony, this perceived betrayal is made even worse when Steve defends Bucky. Bucky was brainwashed by Hydra, he didn’t know what he was doing, and Steve will not let Tony kill him. That is the ultimate betrayal. Tony and Steve’s relationship is permanently severed. The Avengers are torn apart. Zemo’s plan worked.
Civil War‘s most subversive trick is to set up a major third-act threat only to substitute it with a blindsiding emotional wallop. The film criticizes blockbusters for always ending with destructive world-ending threats, then ends with a brutal, visceral, emotionally-charged three-person brawl in an isolated facility. No punches are pulled, everyone is hurt. In the end, Tony demands that Steve leaves his signature shield behind, the shield that was made by Tony’s father in Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve leaves the shield, he is no longer Captain America, and limps away with Bucky. There are no neat, easy resolutions, just hurt feelings and betrayals. It’s a perfect climax to Civil War, but also to the MCU so far.
Meanwhile, T’Challa confronts Zemo. Zemo expresses his grief over his family, and his regret over killing T’Challa’s father before trying to kill himself. T’Challa stops him. He has seen what vengeance did to Steve, Tony and Bucky, and he wants real justice for Zemo. Zemo is arrested, but knows he succeeded. Tony returns to the mostly-empty Avengers headquarters to oversee Rhodey’s physiotherapy. Steve reaches out to Tony in a letter. He acknowledges and owns up to his mistakes, but does not really apologize for keeping the secret. He does offer an olive branch, a cell phone that Tony can use to call on Steve if he needs the help. Meanwhile, Steve breaks his team out of prison.
Civil War is criticized for ending with Steve’s letter. Some consider it a cop-out to offer a chance for reconciliation immediately after Steve and Tony’s split. Others think the film did not go far enough, refusing to kill any characters like in the comics. I think the ending works well. The film depicts a family torn asunder, brothers turned against each other. Killing anyone would have made it impossible to credibly repair the damage, to reassemble the Avengers. Repairing a family can be a long and difficult process, but it is usually possible. Plus, there have to be more Avengers films.
Captain America: Civil War is a tremendous achievement in blockbuster filmmaking. It culminates eight years and twelve films of characters and relationships to deliver an action-packed, emotionally-resonant superhero film. It also directly addresses specific criticisms of the superhero and blockbuster genre, deconstructing the genre that Marvel Studios had perfected to produce a much more mature, interesting, unexpected result. This film realizes the potential of a shared cinematic universe as well as Marvel Studios’ commitment to bold, challenging blockbuster filmmaking. They could have made a very successful, conventional third Captain America film. Instead they tore apart the Avengers and opened up the world of the MCU.
The success of Captain America: Civil War is even clearer in contrast to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, one of the other highly-successful superhero films of 2016. I mentioned that both films were initially scheduled for a May release, but Warner Bros eventually moved Batman v. Superman seven weeks earlier. Both films feature two lead characters from their respective universes fighting each other. Tony and Steve were well-established, and their motivations in Civil War draw from seven previous film appearances. This added not only credibility to their conflict, but an emotional resonance for viewers who felt invested in these characters.
By contrast, Henry Cavill’s Superman was introduced in one previous film, Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013), and Ben Affleck’s Batman was introduced in Batman v. Superman, so the audience lacked the same connection to the characters. Even worse, many viewers did not support the characterization of Superman or Batman in the DCEU, adding to the disconnect. The ideological conflict in Civil War is clearly established, and Tony and Steve react in ways consistent with their characters’ development. Batman and Superman’s conflict is contrived by a supervillain, and never seems logical or credible. Batman v. Superman is clunky and overstuffed, despite featuring only the two titular characters and Wonder Woman.
Civil War is breezy and effortless, despite boasting a dozen superheroes. There are many similarities between the films, but this only accentuates the flaws of Batman v. Superman. Civil War paid off eight years and twelve films of MCU development, while the second film in the DCEU rushed to a similar premise in a misguided effort to catch up to the success of MCU.
But while the DCEU was struggling to get off the ground, the success of the MCU continued unabated. Captain America: Civil War earned $408 million in North America, a 50% increase in ticket sales from the last Captain America film. This was undoubtedly due to the inclusion of so many other MCU characters. The film earned nearly $1.2 billion worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film of the year. Four of Marvel’s Phase 3 films directly follow the events of Civil War.
Meanwhile, Marvel was so impressed by this film that they gave the screenwriters and directors the figurative keys to the kingdom, hiring them to write and direct the next two Avengers films back-to-back. In retrospect, Civil War is like an audition for those films, which continued to expand the cast, pay off earlier films, and balance stellar superhero action with emotional resonance.
Thus, Civil War successfully launched “Phase 3” of the MCU with an intelligent, deeply character-based, deconstructionist superhero film, setting the stage for the next slate of Marvel films to keep pushing boundaries, deconstructing the genre, subverting expectations, and breaking nearly every box office record. By the end of the Phase, many long-established characters had left the series, and the new additions were increasingly diverse.
Bold narrative choices, increased diversity and its contribution Disney’s box office dominance increasingly earned Marvel Studios the ire of the vocal toxic minority of fans. Despite what they may argue, none of Marvel’s exemplary blockbuster storytelling would be possible without the supportive safety net of Disney’s pop culture dominance in the late-’10s. Toxic fans are free to argue for safe, unchallenging, undiverse blockbusters. Meanwhile, the rest of us enjoy the great entertainment that the MCU consistently provides.
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Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan delivers Steve’s phone and message to “Tony Stank” at the end of the film. That is 26 cameos in 40 films.
- In the mid-credits, T’Challa agrees to cryogenically freeze Bucky in Wakanda while his people attempt to remove the brainwashing. He hopes this will make up for believing Zemo’s lies. The scene gives us a first glimpse of Wakanda, soon expanded on to great acclaim in Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
- After the credits, Peter explains his injuries to Aunt May (he fought guy named Steve from Brooklyn) before his high-tech suit from Tony alerts him to its additional features. The film ends with a promise that “Spider-Man will return,” indicating the level of excitement felt by Marvel Studios to have control of their greatest character.
- The film introduces Chadwick Boseman, Martin Freeman and Florence Kasumba, who would all appear in Black Panther
- This film begins Tom Holland’s extremely busy tenure as Spider-Man. Between Marvel’s team-up films and Sony’s solo films, Holland appeared in five films over four years, and he is not done yet.
- Marisa Tomei is introduced as Peter’s Aunt May, and would go on to appear in at least three more films
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order:
Civil War officially began Phase 3 of the MCU, but I believe another film acts as a better viewing order introduction to this Phase. That bumps Civil War to fourteenth in the viewing order.
1. Iron Man
2. Iron Man 2
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
14. Captain America: Civil War
Next Time: The X-Men series faces an apocalypse, and not just the villain.
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Editor’s note: This article originally published 11 October 2019.