So, if it wasn’t clear already, the Marvel Studios is now officially really confident in their “shared universe” approach to their superhero movies. I mean, we’ve known that’s what they are doing from nearly the beginning, and we’ve been excited about it ever since Robert Downey jr. showed up in the post-credit scene of The Incredible Hulk. Avengers was built in many ways on the goodwill and anticipation that was built up by the various hero’s prior appearances in their solo films. And we fans have come to expect the gratuitous cameo appearances, like Chris Evans showing up Thor: The Dark World or Anthony Mackie’s Falcon getting a big scene in Ant-Man.
But Civil War takes it up a notch. Here is a movie that not only plays around with the idea of the shared universe, it fully revels in it. For the casual viewer, explanations are few and far between. This is a movie that assumes you know who Ant-Man is. It assumes you know the deal with the Vision, with Scarlet Witch, with Hawkeye, with the Avengers in general…in spite of the fact that none of them have ever appeared in a “Captain America” movie before. Not to mention all the stuff that actually does follow on from the last Captain America film.
Now for me, that’s all pretty awesome. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Marvel Comics, although I’ve read my fair share. I’m more likely to drown myself in pages of Superman or The Flash or The Legion of Super-Heroes. But I’m happy to admit that overall Marvel has kicked DC’s butt in the feature film department, ever since Hugh Jackman trudged into that road house, Tobey McGuire started spinning webs out of his wrists, and Robert Downey jr. began to give us his trademark snark (Christopher Nolan’s Batman films notwithstanding). So I’m completely hooked on this sort of ongoing universe-building. I loved seeing the debut of Black Panther, the re-imagining of Spider-Man, the nascent relationship between Vision and Scarlet Witch, the giganticizing of Ant-Man, and so on. I loved seeing a Marvel solo film that actually acknowledged that there are a whole bunch of other super-powered people in the landscape, and included the implications of that in its storytelling. It reminds me of the excitement that I imagine would have been there amongst Marvel fans in the mid 1960’s when this same sort of thing was happening in the old comics.
But there is some way in which all of this make Captain America: Civil War not a great “Captain America” film. Not as good as Winter Soldier, anyway. That movie also had a lot of elements to handle (Falcon, Black Widow, Nick Fury, Bucky) but only ones that had integral roles to play in Cap’s life. Here, there is a lot of stuff to distract from the core story. Cool stuff, fun stuff. But distractions nonetheless.
But yet, none of that took away from my enjoyment of the film–I had a great time watching it even if I can’t exactly say it was a “great” movie. The Russo Brothers make the fighting scenes awesome, carrying on one of their standout achievements in Winter Soldier. The multitude of characters were handled with a deftness and economy that should be making Batman v. Superman seething in jealousy. The performances are all good, the relationships dynamic, and it’s always a special treat to get another dose of Robert Downey jr.’s Tony Stark. There was so much fun in this world that even the normally fatal story problems didn’t really take away the exhilaration of watching it all unfold (eg. How did Zemo know all that stuff that stuff about the Winter Soldier and the death of Tony’s parents? Did Captain America really have to recruit a whole bunch of extra super-heroes just to help him run across an airport? Etc?)
And of course, it was a brave choice to reveal that the story isn’t ultimately about the heroes attempting to save the day, but rather simply failing to save the Avengers. Steve and Tony are at the heart of this conflict, but I can’t say I completely understand Cap’s ideology. Instead, the focus is on disassembling the team in preparation for whatever comes next. That’s okay, I guess, but it does turn Chris Evans from being the star of his own movie to being more of a sort of figurehead for the next chapter of the Marvel Super-Heroes. Not something I mind terribly, but I really hope that we don’t have to do this every time from now on. We’ve built the universe, now let’s just tell some stories.