It’s been eight years in the making, but Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s biggest movie yet, is out this week. It’s all led to this since Iron Man came out in 2008, and it’s fitting Iron Man started it all since he’s a main player on this film. Everyone might be talking about Spider-Man and deservedly so, but Iron Man is a big part of the reason this film is successful. It has less to do with the character himself and more to do with the fact that he is there to play off the other characters.
Civil War is going to be called the best superhero movie ever by a lot of people. First and foremost, it’s a great movie, not just a great superhero movie, which many of its peers can’t claim to be. It also does a lot of difficult things well–it manages to make Spidey great again, it suitably gives the heroes something to fight for, and manages to stuff a ton of memorable character moments throughout. Perhaps above all though, Civil War proves, without question, that less is not more when it comes to stuffing heroes into a film.
It’s pretty clear one of the biggest superhero movie blunders is over-stuffing them with villains. Batman and Robin and Spider-Man 3 are two that stick out as failures because of the overabundance of bad guys. Because there are so many, the characters’ motivations and personalities are as thin as toilet paper. So why does Civil War work so well, despite having so many heroes? It’s simple: Marvel has slowly built all these characters in their own films over the past eight years, allowing the big team-up movies like Civil War to do a cursory check-in to carry their stories forward. After the check-in is established, the story continues as if it never stopped.
The fact that there is only one “villain” in this film is telling in why it works. Instead of establishing a group of villains, the film established multiple threats–one of which is a villain, but government and policy are just as much a threat to our heroes as any one man. That gives the film a threat that is understandable and also one that is grounded in reality.
If done well, Marvel movies are essentially perpetual action stories that we can get really invested in because the characters matter to us. Civil War director Anthony Russo recently commented on the airport fight sequence, that’s deservedly the hallmark of the movie trailers, explaining action is purposeless without good characters:
“Joe and I always say that our guide through action is always story and character. We’re always driving right at the character beats, or else the action beat doesn’t work.” With character in mind, and hours upon hours of screen time building them, the action is more meaningful.
Since so many characters have been established up until this point we have more reason to care and your interest and buy-in is exponentially higher when there are more characters on screen. Marvel has proven they can make these movies with more heroes per film work and they better not stop. It’s a sign they’re aware this is working when we learned Hulk will be in the next Thor movie. Thor by himself is alright, although in my opinion his previous two films faulted due to them highlighting him alone. But the buy-in is much greater with two.
Some might argue Spider-Man doesn’t need to be in the film and maybe they’re right as long as there’s another hero to replace him. The fact is, adding a whole new character makes this film stronger as it creates a new element for the other characters to riff off of but also builds the Marvel character pool too. It helps that Spider-Man is a fan favorite. When he appeared on screen the audience hushed and I could even hear gasps. He has an effect on people that no other hero brings and he doesn’t even have to speak to make people giddy. That said it’s the writing of this film and the dialogue and interactions created that make it work so well. Another character may have filled the same spot and been just as effective.
There are plenty of character interactions that pander to the fans, but also do well to add complexity to the characters. One that works incredibly well is between Scarlet Witch and Vision. Scenes that have multiple characters still manage to stick a knowing glance between them. They seem to be binding and it’s a moment that’s quick but efficient while the bigger story moves forward. They have many more moments like this in the film. It makes scenes much more economical and there are many more moments like it between other characters too.
Of course this requires good writing and I’d wager balancing the action, story, and threats is more than enough trouble for other movies and studios. Add in 10 or more heroes and it’s probably an insurmountable task.
After seeing Civil War I’m of the mindset that I don’t want my superhero films with fewer than two heroes. Hell, I want at least four. Civil War has shown us (and hopefully DC) that making a superhero film with just one hero isn’t going to cut it. They’ve managed to stimulate us beyond what one hero can sustain. From following multiple character arcs, to seeing different super powers working off each other, Marvel has proven superhero movies do better the more complex they get. In explaining the complex airport scene, Anthony Russo shares the sheer number of things going on:
“Here’s what’s complex about that sequence. Number one, the number of characters. So you’ve got an over-arcing story that you’re telling in that sequence where it’s one side versus the other, but then you’ve got individual stories you’re telling, about every character.” Why would we want anything less after seeing this?
Not only does this film balance all the heroes incredibly well, but it introduces a new one too. The character dynamics are incredibly fun and interesting and the threat is meaningful, which creates an experience that never feels unearned. The product Marvel delivered this week has raised the bar, and we can’t go back now.