marvel civil war captain america iron man

With Marvel’s Civil War storyline making the jump to the movies, things are about to get interesting in the cinematic universe.

So, the bad guy (or, at least, the principal-antagonist) of Captain America 3 is… IRON MAN. And the film is either based-on, titled-after or both… Marvel’s Civil War storyline.

That’s a pretty big deal.

Well… okay. It’s as “big” a deal as it can be, under the circumstances. It’s both a feature and a bug of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that things can only get just so heavy, regardless of the circumstances. These are films based on adventure stories aimed alternately at 7-year-olds or nostalgic thirty-somethings that embrace that aspect of themselves more often than not, and as a result “stakes” are really kind of in flux. Yeah, Captain America: The Winter Soldier revealed that the U.S. military and intelligence services had been infiltrated for decades by what is effectively a Neo-Nazi paramilitary cult… but it’s not like some endemic/systemic rot in the American machine itself was to blame. It was mostly the schemes of a dead Nazi super-scientist’s brain living on inside a computer.

And besides, even if HYDRA had made their big evil plan work initially, eventually a curveball from one of the multiple gods, alien super-beings, etc, floating around out there would’ve changed the game a bit. Hell, pretty soon Doctor Strange will be running about, and if things get really bad that guy can just rewrite the time-space continuum to put things back in order. Point is, Civil War coming to the screen is as big a deal as can be in a universe where an alien invasion of Manhattan is just “that thing that happened that one time.”

Why?

Mainly, it’s because bringing even the barest outline of Civil War (i.e. “Captain America and Iron Man are enemies now”) to the screen is not only a type of story that the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t tackled yet, it’s a signal that Marvel’s grand cinematic experiment intends to keep diving deeper into the intricate eccentricities of their source material.

See, while Marvel Comics didn’t invent the idea of superheroes fighting each other, they were the publisher that made it into a brand. Marvel heroes are tiered (or teamed) off from one another by varying levels of societal acceptance and legal alignment (a product of their mainly coming to be in the social-tumult of the 1960s). So it’s not unusual to see (for example) upstanding, publicly-beloved, law-enforcement friendly figures like The Avengers bumping up against The X-Men, whose activities often skate significantly close to the edge of legality. Or for S.H.I.E.L.D., a government-backed military-espionage agency, going after ostensibly-“heroic” rogue elements like Punisher or The Hulk. Or for everyone to get into it with Spider-Man, because the universe just can’t cut that guy a break. Sure, Marvel heroes tend to have their “arch-enemies,” but they spend just as much time fighting each other.

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But thus far, the Marvel Studios movies have avoided that sort of thing, save for a few brief Loki-triggered misunderstandings in The Avengers. Mostly because a lot of the alignment-troubled heroes at the heart of these kinds of dust-ups like Spidey, the various mutants, and The Fantastic Four (the only heroes more publicly-beloved than The Avengers) are currently occupied at other studios. So Civil War as the plot of Captain America 3 is really one of quickest available ways for them to get there with the roster they’ve got now.

But what is Civil War?

Civil War was a universe-spanning Marvel Comics crossover event beginning in 2006 that stretched across seven issues of a main storyline, several side-story books and the corresponding series of almost every character involved in the conflict. The Short Version? It was an attempt to inject some thoughtfulness into the notoriously light-on-substance “all-out superpowered brawl” genre of event comics by expanding the “publicly-liked superhumans vs. publicly-disliked superhumans” format of X-Men to everybody.

The Long Version: It’s basically a superhero story about post-Columbine gun/media/culture-angst, at least as the jumping-off point for a hero-vs-hero battlefest. A group of obscure teenaged heroes get into a fight with some villains that gets out of hand, causing a massive explosion that destroys part of a small town and a school full of children. An outraged public drives Congress to pass a Superhero Registration Act, whereby individuals with super-powers (doesn’t matter if you were born with them or got them later) would have to register themselves like “human weapons” with the government, and anyone who wanted to use theirs for crime-fighting would have to obtain a federal license to do so… and reveal their secret identities (if applicable) to the public.

Some heroes (mostly older, socially-established ones like Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, multiple Avengers) grudgingly got on board with the idea for one reason or another, with Tony Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Maria Hill as the nominal “Pro-Registration” leaders. Mostly younger and more “renegade” heroes resisted the idea, and found “Anti-Registration” leadership in the seemingly-unlikely person of Captain America, who believed that superheroes should remain independent actors in order to act as a “check” on military/government/etc. corruption. This was a big deal, because in the comics Iron Man and Captain America aren’t just teammates, they’re practically life partners — best friends with a years-long history.

This was a big, big event at the time — probably the first comics-crossover to take full advantage of what was only starting to be called “social media.” Fans were encouraged to tag their forum posts and MySpace/Facebook pages with graphics indicating whether they were “with” Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. The overall story became a bit clumsy (superhero-crossovers are inherently goofy, so maybe not the best place to stage an allegorical civil liberties debate) but the ramifications were felt for years. Spider-Man pledged Team Stark, revealed his identity to the public, realized he’d been on the “wrong” side and had to go on the lam… which saw Aunt May rendered comatose by an assassin’s bullet to kick off the much-hated One More Day storyline. The Fantastic Four broke up (Sue took the kids and left Reed along with Johnny, The Thing quit America for France).

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But the biggest one: Captain America’s team was “winning” the last major battle of the war… until he realized that the average citizens of the Marvel Universe were against him because of the damage all the fighting was causing. So he gave up and turned himself in — only to be assassinated (he got better) on his way to court one month later, leaving Bucky Barnes (aka The Winter Soldier) to take over as the new Cap.

Yeah.

Obviously, most of that won’t (can’t, really) play out in a Cinematic Universe version of this story… but that’s not what’s interesting. What’s interesting (for now) is where it fits in with the various rumors and theories that have swirled about the future of the Marvel movies.

The biggest rumors/speculations of a post-Avengers: Age of Ultron continuity go like this: AoU probably has a “sad” ending (It’s the second movie in a big genre franchise, so think “Han in Carbonite”). Chris Evans plans to move out of leading-man roles to directing once his contract as Captain America is up. Avengers 3 might feature a new team of heroes in order to “save” Evans, Downey and Hemsworth’s last (contracted) Marvel roles for a hypothetical post-3 “mega-crossover” that wouldn’t merely unite Avengers but the entirety of whatever makes up The Marvel Cinematic Universe at that point.

That last one is the most pertinent, in my opinion: Maybe that type of event (still not “confirmed,” to be clear) could’ve been in the cards all along, but the game did change this summer. The “biggest thing” Marvel could do is no longer pay off Thanos or simply re-assemble The Avengers, it’s having the rest of the Marvel Universe meet the new megastars on the block — the Guardians of the Galaxy. (Let’s be clear on this point: The only image Marvel could put on-screen that would rival the first “assembled” shot from Avengers in terms of audience “tear the roof off” reaction would be The Milano landing on Avengers Tower.)

Thinking on it for myself, I imagine it’s entirely possible that Age of Ultron could end not only badly, but badly in a way that somehow divides The Avengers (and their various friends from their solo films) into differing “I’m with Steve”/”I’m with Tony” teams. Maybe those teams are the factions in Captain America 3’s “Civil War,” and whichever side comes out on top is the “new” team in Avengers 3 — with both teams (and everyone else, since “Phase 3” is mainly new characters’ launch-films) putting things aside to “come together” over whatever the next big issue is, either in Avengers 4 or the theoretical “mega-event.”

Either way, it seems like things will be getting very interesting.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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