Captain America: Civil War – Building a Cinematic Universe

After a hugely successful theatrical run, Captain America: Civil War is heading to Digital HD on 30th August, with a release on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D coming the following week on 5th September. Captain America was a smash hit at the box office earlier in the year, with it becoming the highest grossing film worldwide in 2016 so far, and received mass critical acclaim. But with the superhero genre becoming so competitive, what is it that makes Captain America: Civil War, and by extension the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so successful?

By the end of 2016, six superhero blockbusters will have released, with two titles coming from all three of the major players in the genre today: Marvel Studios, Warner Bros’ DC films and 20th Century Fox’s X-Men Universe. With only Marvel Studios’ own Doctor Strange left to be released, it appears as though Captain America: Civil War will be the year’s favourite comic book movie. One reason for this could very well be the fact that Civil War is the thirteenth film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, and the fifth film starring the titular Captain America. This means that by the time Civil War released, the audience may have developed a sense of loyalty to Marvel’s brand, knowing that in general their films are successfully entertaining ones, allowing most to feel at ease buying tickets to their latest film. A familiarity with the protagonist certainly does not hurt either, as the audience have had plenty of opportunity to get to know Captain America (Chris Evans), also known as Steve Rogers, and watch him grow. The audience can see Rogers develop from a scrawny kid desperate to serve America into an iconic superhero who will oppose his country in the name of freedom. The same journey can be applied to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, also known as Tony Stark, who begins his story as a reckless playboy who learns over the course of the films that he needs to be more responsible to protect the public, to the point where he will now willingly work with the government he once opposed and face off against his friends to ensure they are kept in line. However, there is clearly more to Marvel’s success than establishing brand loyalty as can be seen with the warm critical reception Captain America received.

Part of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably the quality of filmmakers that Marvel Studios employ. Anthony and Joe Russo return to direct Captain America: Civil War after they wowed audiences in 2014 with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and they crush it again, even with the expanding cast list. Marvel Studios may have had some history with directors leaving projects, such as Edgar Wright’s infamous departure from 2015’s Ant-Man before Peyton Reed stepped in, but this seems to be the studio ensuring that they have a director who shares their vision and is a good fit for the project so they can trust the property to them. The direction in the MCU feels like the studio trusts the various filmmakers, allowing us to feel the director’s specific vision in each film, such as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, with only minor elements feeling like they came from studio notes such as scenes that establish or connect with other areas of the Marvel Universe. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that is shared across the other cinematic universes right now. Warner Bros. rarely feel confident with the directors helming their blockbuster superhero films to the point where the editing is frequently cited as an issue as it becomes clear that studio intervention has caused scenes to be ripped out of the final cut. The very existence of an Ultimate Edition of Batman v. Superman, coupled with Jared Leto admitting a high volume of Joker scenes were cut from Suicide Squad and reports that the final cut of the film was taken away from director David Ayer begs the question if the studio actually trust the directors they are bringing on board and if they have a positive relationship with them.

Suicide Squad

An additional benefit to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is that they have a tremendous lead on the competitors in the market. Marvel Studios first introduced their universe in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, and took four years to establish key characters in the universe and gently establish connectivity, such as with Robert Downey Jr.’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk or the appearance of S.H.I.E.L.D. in both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger following its first appearance in Iron Man. Only then did Marvel play their ace card by combining their various franchises together in Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble, and the rest is history. With DC starting their ‘Extended Universe’ in 2013, they were already five years behind on Marvel, and thus decided to organize their plans different. In 2017, Justice League will be released before key characters such as The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman appear in their solo films. It’s a slightly different approach, but not necessarily a wrong one. After all, Marvel pioneered one way of forming a cinematic universe but there’s no evidence it’s the singular way to do it. Unfortunately, films within the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) often struggle with trying to give the audience too much information at once. An often condemned scene in Batman v. Superman involves a character viewing video files on each member of the Justice League, introducing the characters to the audience early. A large portion of Suicide Squad is dedicated to one character describing the history and personality traits of each member of the Squad one by one to another character on screen, and to the audience. These sequences never feel natural and seriously harm the flow of a film.

Compare that with the large ensemble we see in Captain America: Civil War. Having so many major superheroes to deal with in one film could easily become a mess and detract from the key story involving Captain America, Iron Man and the Winter Soldier. However, because we have met the majority of these characters previously, and we have organically learned their personalities and seen them grow, Civil War can easily bring characters in, such as Hawkeye, have their contribution to the film and have them leave without the need for exposition. This allow the film to naturally focus more on the plot, and when the time does come to introduce new characters such as Black Panther or Spider-Man, it can do so with ease without being burdened with another half-dozen characters waiting for an introduction. This is, indeed, a factor that has plagued various superhero universes on screen, including Sony’s now dead The Amazing Spider-Man universe. Cancelled after only two instalments, Sony originally planned a web of films that would feature Spider-Man characters in interconnected films. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 even establishes characters ready for these future films to use, such as Paul Giamatti as the Rhino who would later have starred in a Sinister Six film. The end credits of the film even included graphics depicting the various characters that Sony planned to feature in the Sinister Six film. Unfortunately, many agreed that Sony were too focused on building a universe and forgot to make a great movie, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffered from a weak plot and by focusing too much on setting up other properties, resulting in extremely critical reviews that led to Sony’s plans being scrapped and the character being once again relaunched to fit in with Marvel Studio’s films.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Finally, one additional factor that allows Marvel continued success is the variety they incorporate into their various films. While the majority of films in the MCU do bear a similar tone, each property brings something different to the table from the rest that allows the colourful characters that grants them a distinctive voice within the universe. For example, Guardians of the Galaxy played out like a classic space opera, whereas Captain America: The Winter Soldier was presented more of a political thriller. Ant-Man was essentially a super-powered heist film, while Captain America: The First Avenger was a period war film. This is something competitors have tried themselves. Fox’s X-Men series received a distinctively different entry earlier this year in the form of the comedic spin-off Deadpool to great success. The DCEU has gone from a superhero epic with Batman v. Superman, into an anti-hero ensemble piece with Suicide Squad, with 2017’s planned Wonder Woman appearing to be a WWI period film and Justice League likely taking the form of an ensemble blockbuster epic. However, neither studio has done so to the effectiveness of Marvel yet, likely due to the inconsistency in quality of their various instalments. While Fox’s Deadpool was a great success, last year’s Fantastic Four which would have reportedly crossed over with the X-Men franchise had it been successful was a disaster by all accounts. None of the DCEU films have gone down so well critically, regardless of the tone or genre.

Perhaps therein lies the true secret to Marvel’s success in that there isn’t just one simple answer. Marvel Studios has created a universe of thirteen films where none so far have been considered critical disasters. Each film has slowly and strategically introduced character by character and allowed their motivations to progress organically to the point where a humongous ensemble cast of superheroes as we see in Captain America: Civil War is not only plausible, but actually becoming the norm for the studio following the wildly successful Avengers films. Kevin Feige, the head honcho of Marvel Studios, has spent a decade carefully placing each piece of the Cinematic Universe in place, ensuring that each one stands alone as a quality film but all serve the franchise as a whole. Each piece of the franchise has resulted in an incredible tower that Feige has constructed like Jenga; fragile and easily destroyed, but with enough care and attention it possesses the potential to grow, especially considering the excellent foundation Marvel Studios has created. However, Marvel’s competitors are all too eager to create towers equally as impressive, and rush the bricks into place regardless of quality only to be surprised when the tower quickly collapses. As long as people like Kevin Feige exist at Marvel Studios who are brave enough to entrust their precious properties with filmmakers and to strategically plan the franchise’s future, I see no reason why Marvel’s success won’t carry on for years beyond now. Captain America: Civil War is a testament to that, showing how much the franchise has grown in the eight years since Iron Man, and the characters with it.