Everyone in Hollywood wants a cinematic universe. Universal is starting one based on classic movie monster series like The Mummy and Dracula, while Paramount is banking on Hasbro franchises including Transformers and GI Joe. Their plans, and those like them, draw groans from fans of cinema, but the efforts of some to recreate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) shouldn’t detract from how daring, bold and fantastic an experiment Marvel’s has been.
For Marvel’s world of superheroes the concept of a cinematic universe makes perfect sense, as it does for DC Comics and Warner Bros. But while the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) trudges through the thick oil slick of Zack Snyder’s angsty gloom, the MCU continues to succeed through faithful characterisation and an understanding of the hope and optimism that underpins superheroes in all their guises.
Money-making potential aside, there two key benefits of a cinematic universe. Firstly, an interconnected series can lend support to lesser known characters and make them successful — Guardians of the Galaxy being the prime example . There’s also the long-term benefit of being able to pull together the various threads for event movies like Captain America: Civil War.
Marvel’s latest begins with catastrophe as an Avengers mission goes awry. As a result, the United Nations forces upon these heroes (as much as the UN can force anything upon anyone) a piece of legislature that demands they sign up and answer to them. Apparently they’re quick to forget how these guys stopped a full-scale alien invasion of Earth.
Riddled by the guilt of numerous personal fuck-ups, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is for signing up, whereas Captain America (Chris Evans) stands firmly against the idea of The Avengers answering to anyone but themselves.
As the debate winds on, a plot emerges concerning Captain America’s oldest and closest friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) — aka formerly brainwashed Hydra assassin The Winter Soldier — sending Cap and those fighting by his side on a collision course with Iron Man and those fighting by his. Bucky’s place in the film reduces him to little more than a human MacGuffin, and that’s a problem. He only shows a little character in the second half of the film, but not nearly enough to warrant all the fuss being made over him. It weakens Cap’s argument when he claims to fighting for a good man the audience seldom sees.
Comparisons to Warner Bros and DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are inevitable. They’re both films that concern themselves with the collateral damage superheroes leave behind and, of course, involve an almighty scrap between fan-favourite good guys. Snyder’s Dawn of Justice fails because (awful script aside) it crams too much set-up and explanation in as it rushes to get to the action.
Civil War meanwhile is informed by years of character set-up, proving the benefits of a cinematic universe that nurtures an enormous cast of characters and let’s relationships between them grow in a somewhat organic way. The very fact it’s been eight years since we first met this Iron Man, and five years since we met this Cap, instantly makes their fight meaningful. What they’ve been through on their own and together, makes it dramatic.
For all the characters that appear however, this isn’t another Avengers film. Captain America’s name is there in the title, and it’s very much his story. Civil War continues the thread that ran through the character’s first outing and 2014’s The Winter Soldier, continuing to depict Cap’s growth and evolution as a character who was at first a loyal servant of his country and is now running against the establishment.
There are moments when Civil War starts to strain under the weight of its place in a cinematic universe. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are absolutely shoe-horned in to create particular moments, set things up for future films and help the plot from point A.6 to A.7 — but they’re all so great in their roles that they attribute to the overall fun. The film would be leaner without one or two of them, but if they make the film more enjoyable, how much does it really matter?