Marvel’s Civil War? Huh. What is it good for?

I was going to take a break from geek media this week. I really, really was. Even started a different post yesterday. And then… well, and then this happened. In short, Marvel announced that Captain America 3 will feature Tony Stark, and will kick off (or possibly be) an adaptation of their 2006 event miniseries, Civil War.

Let me sum that up for you. After a group of superpowered youngsters trying to launch a reality series attacked a group of super villains in Stanford, Connecticut, leading to a massive explosion next to a school, the US government decides that maybe all these super heroes shouldn’t be running around unregulated and passes a law requiring anyone with powers to register their identity and powers.

I know, right? After a national tragedy the US government attempts to pass laws restricting the thing that made that tragedy possible. What kooky impossible scenario will those comic writers come up with next?

Anyhoo, Tony Stark leads the pro-registration charge, feeling that this law is both necessary and inevitable. Captain America isn’t sure about this, seeing it as encroaching on the liberties of his friends and allies, and when he’s informed by SHIELD that he either rounds up all of his friends who don’t register or gets shot full of tranq darts and thrown in a cell right about now, he goes on the run and forms the resistance.

Since the book was called “Civil War,” I think you can guess where things go from there.

You can see why Marvel Studios might be eager to bring this Captain America/Iron Man slugfest to the big screen, since despite its many flaws and frequent shipping delays it remains one of the biggest Marvel events of the last 10 years (not that the recent ones are anything to brag about, but still). And you know what? I’m not even going to speculate that they decided to do a movie about Iron Man and Captain America fighting because DC is doing a movie featuring Batman and Superman squaring off. Gonna give Marvel the benefit of the doubt here, and say that either this was already the plan when Batman V. Superman was announced, or they honestly don’t give two shits about what Warner Brothers and DC are up to, because why would they need to?

But maybe they should have given this one a little more thought. Because there are some real problems in trying to adapt it.

Here’s some examples.

Need actual armies for a war

The comic Civil War featured two entire armies of super heroes going at it. Dozens of A and B list characters at war in the streets while dozens more C and D list characters got rounded up by Iron Man’s forces. And as a reminder, one of the key issues involved divulging their secret identities to the government.

Right now, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has eight super heroes.


Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Falcon, and War Machine/Iron Patriot. Three of them don’t even have powers, and not a single damned one of them has a secret identity. Hell, three of them were government employees until SHIELD shut down, and one of them works for the military!

But that’s not entirely fair. Between now and May of 2016 that number will go up a bit. Between Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and the launch of Daredevil on Netflix, they’ll be up to… let’s see… 12 super heroes. And one, maybe two secret identities.

Still not quite enough for a war, is it? Yes, they could introduce a wave of new super heroes through Agents of SHIELD… but will they? Will they really? They’ve shown no interest in doing that so far, and Agents of SHIELD might not last past this season if their ratings keep sliding. Which is a shame, because unlike this time last year, they really don’t deserve to be cancelled.

But it doesn’t really matter how many C-list heroes Agents of SHIELD introduces. There will still be some glaring absences.

They can’t do half the story

Here’s some key plot points from Civil War that the movies can’t realistically use.

  1. Spider-Man unmasks. The one big jaw-drop moment of Civil War was Spider-Man revealing his identity on public television, because Iron Man said he had to. There is some rumbling that Sony and Marvel might be nearing an agreement regarding Spider-Man, which would allow Marvel to use Spider-Man in their team-up movies, but Peter Parker had been Tony Stark’s right-hand man for months prior to Civil War in the comics. Tony Stark had become his friend, boss,  and mentor, and that’s how he convinced Peter to unmask at all. Even if Marvel and Sony figure this out, they’re not going to be able to establish that bond between Age of Ultron and Captain America V. Iron Man: Dusk of Shwarma. Not unless they do some serious rewrites to Ant-Man.
  2. Tony Stark builds a super human prison in the Negative Zone. As part of the overall theme of “Tony Stark embodies the worst elements of the Bush administration, but we pretend it’s okay that he won for some reason,” Tony Stark built a prison to lock up all the unregistered super heroes in something called the Negative Zone. No, you don’t know what that is. Nor do the majority of the people who watch Marvel movies. So I can’t see them fitting it in. And odds are Fox is going to claim they own it, because it’s linked to the Fantastic Four. Hey, that reminds me…
  3. The Fantastic Four split up. Mr. Fantastic was on Tony’s side from day one, but Invisible Woman and Human Torch sided with the resistance and the Thing decided to emigrate (he didn’t get far). Aside from Cap and Iron Man being at each other’s throats, the Civil War splitting up Marvel’s first family was one of the big emotional beats. And since Fox would rather release a Fantastic Four movie they seem weirdly ashamed to talk about than give the rights back to Marvel, kiss that plot point goodbye. Why did Susan leave Reed? Well, it had something to do with…
  4. That clone of Thor that killed a fellow hero. Iron Man’s side accidentally drew first blood when their cyborg clone of Thor went a little nuts and killed Goliath, a fourth-string Giant Man knock-off. The only reason they had a clone of Thor is that the real Thor had been missing for quite a while, as Marvel had taken the character off the bench for a few years. So even if cyborg clones were something the Cinematic Universe did… and I guess there’s no reason it couldn’t be… why would they have a clone of Thor when the real Thor is right there? Unless he dies at the end of Age of Ultron or something–holy shit are they going to kill Thor in Age of Ultron? It would explain why they aren’t even talking about a third Thor movie…
  5. The Punisher joins Cap but Cap doesn’t know how he feels about that. Doesn’t sound like much of a plot point, but that is literally all that happened of note in issue five. Civil War spent three issues treading water and then crammed all the plot into one big fight scene in issue seven. But anyway, Marvel does own the Punisher again, but they’re not doing anything with him. Unless he turns up on Daredevil (he should), nobody in the Cinematic Universe knows or cares who the Punisher is, so this would be even less of a plot point than it was in the books.

So, yeah. Can’t do any of that. Well, maybe the Thor clone. And the problem is…

There’s not much plot left

Once you’ve taken out Spider-Man unmasking, the Thor clone killing Goliath, the Fantastic Four breaking up, the Negative Zone prison, Spider-Man switching sides, and the X-Men not giving a fuck, there’s barely any plot left. All you really have is Iron Man fights Captain America until the Real Heroes of 9/11 tackle Captain America and shame him into surrendering.

No, I'm not kidding. Yes, it was that ham-fisted.
No, I’m not kidding. Yes, it was that ham-fisted.

And is that really a whole movie? Is it?

Seriously, Civil War was the second most underwritten Marvel event in recent memory (the most underwritten was Secret Invasion, but that’s a whole other rant). Seven perpetually delayed issues with four issues’ worth of story and a hackneyed ending in which Iron Man happily sails a helicarrier into the sunset because normal people didn’t seem to mind all that terrible stuff he did, so it must have been okay. It set up interesting stories, as the Avengers were split into two teams, one team being anti-registration fugitives, and it led to the death of Captain America, but Civil War itself was all sizzle, no steak.

But when did Hollywood start minding that.

Moving along.

The actual plot doesn’t make any sense with the cinematic Avengers

So two things have to happen for this story to get going. Tony Stark has to support a government bill clamping down on super heroes, and Captain America has to oppose it. And both of those things have some problems through the lens of the Cinematic Universe.

Why, why I ask you, would the Tony Stark of the movies go along with this? It makes no sense. No sense at all. This isn’t the comic book Tony Stark who was Secretary of Defense until Scarlet Witch got him fired (yes, that’s basically what happened). This the movie Tony Stark, who basically flipped off a Senate committee while declaring he’d “privatized world peace.” The Tony Stark who, upon joining up with everyone on the SHIELD helicarrier in Avengers, spent as much time trying to figure out what SHIELD was up to as Loki. The Tony Stark who, we’re told, founded his own private spy agency in the wake of SHIELD’s collapse in The Winter Solider.

This is a Tony Stark who gives zero fucks about what the government thinks is best. Unless something in Age of Ultron happens to seriously change his perspective… and yes, I admit that it could… this Tony Stark seems completely unlikely to start chasing down Bruce Banner or Steve Rogers because some senator or general asks him to.

And then there’s Captain America. Cap opposed the registration act because of its violation of civil liberties, especially the “round up everyone who doesn’t give us their secret identity” part. But with no real secret identities in play, what’s driving this act? One theory I’ve heard is the whole “Your powers are too dangerous to be unregulated” angle.

Okay, I was just kidding around in the intro, but everyone sees how this then becomes about gun control, right? And Captain America would be the figure leading the charge against gun control. That’s… problematic. Captain America is always used as the face of what’s morally right in Marvel projects. Maybe it’s because I’m not from a flyover state, but given all the mass shootings that keep happening in the US, having their moral center on the other side of this issue is… well, it’s uncomfortable.

They’re going to make this movie. It’s going to be a hit, especially if rumours that Cap 3 is slowly becoming Avengers 2.5 are true. But it’ll have to be a HUGE hit to pay for all the additional cast it needs. And I thought that somebody should be bringing up all the ways in which trying to make this story work on screen is flawed.

Cinematic universe or Cinematic multiverse?

It is, as Hardison from Leverage often said, the Age of the Geek. And nothing drives that point home like the massive surge in superhero properties being adapted to the big and small screens. There are those in the media questioning whether the market’s getting saturated, but my opinion remains largely unchanged:

I'm pretty much okay with it.
I’m pretty much okay with it.

The two largest players in the superhero market, Marvel and DC, are developing two very different tactics to exploit this.

Marvel, as anyone in western society is now aware, has the Marvel cinematic universe, a series of interconnected films that range from “kind of okay” to “amazing” in terms of quality, but “acceptable” to “massive hit” in terms of box office. After Guardians of the Galaxy became the year’s biggest success story (beating out Captain America, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Transformers) despite having no A or even B list characters, Marvel Studios is seen as pretty much bulletproof at the box office. They’re also trying to expand into television, but Agents of SHIELD’s so-so reception and slow-bleed ratings mean it’s come the closest to being their first failure, it remains to be seen how Agent Carter will do at midseason, and their Netflix series are still at least a year away.

DC, on the other hand, is swiftly moving to dominate the television landscape. Arrow is into its third season, and now has a spinoff in the Flash; Gotham has opened strong on Fox; Constantine and iZombie are still on the way; and deals are in the works to bring the Titans and Supergirl to TV next year. If even half these projects achieve Arrow-level success (the first step towards Smallville-level success, something I am defining here exclusively by its ten-year run and not how warranted said run was), DC will be dominating the TV market. On the other hand, they haven’t had a movie that’s an unqualified success since 2008. Since The Dark Knight, they’ve managed “moderate hits that aren’t fondly remembered” (The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel) and “outright failures,” (Green Lantern, Jonah Hex), with their next big movie raising a few concerns.

But who’s dominating which medium isn’t what I wanted to talk about. No, it’s clear that both companies want a piece of all the pies. The difference in tactics comes down to how their various properties are interacting. Marvel and DC have taken different paths here, with Marvel bringing all of their film and TV projects into one shared universe, while DC has built a Chinese wall in between film and television, and with their shows already spread across three networks (five by next year if everything goes forward), that looks to get worse before it gets better.

So let’s take a look at each strategy. See how they stack up.

Pro for Marvel: Everything is connected!

Well, everything except Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. You know, the A-list properties.

This is slightly harder to describe than I thought. Let’s try a story.

There’s a moment in Batman Forever when Bruce Wayne asks newly orphaned Dick Grayson what he’s going to do next. “The circus must be halfway to Metropolis by now,” he says. And so excited was Young Me in that moment, that quick little reference to Superman’s home city, that I barely even noticed how wooden Val Kilmer’s delivery was, and briefly forgot how ridiculous this movie was in general. And this is something Marvel movies manage each and every time. They are filled with references to each other and Easter eggs pointing elsewhere in Marvel lore.

And if one quick reference to Metropolis can brighten Batman Forever, imagine what that can do for movies that are actually fun, like Iron Man or Captain America. Or, to a lesser extent, Thor. And when all the various characters get to interact in one movie? Well, The Avengers happens. A massive success that everyone loves. Yes, okay, getting Joss Whedon to write and direct it certainly helped. Just throwing all the characters into one movie and hoping it works out isn’t a recipe for The Avengers, it’s a recipe for the largely reviled third X-Men movie.



That said, the interconnected Marvel Universe is also a demonstrable cash cow. Not only was the Avengers a massive success, every single movie since then has enjoyed a bump. Iron Man 3, Thor: the Dark World, and Captain America: the Winter Soldier all out-grossed their predecessors (something not every superhero franchise has been able to say lately), and Guardians of the Galaxy rode the Marvel name to box office supremacy.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is working so well that everyone wants a piece of the action. Warner Bros./DC is trying to bolt right to the big money by fast tracking Justice League instead of spending the time/capital on individual franchises. Despite the demonstrable diminishing returns on their current Spider-Man plans, Sony is trying to build their own cinematic universe off Spider-Man and his various… villains? That’s the plan? Really? That is going to crash and burn so hard… Fox is rejuvenating the X-Men (and releasing a Fantastic Four movie they seem weirdly reluctant to talk about), and Universal is trying to get into the game by making a connected universe out of Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein. Which could work…

…or it could not.

Spoiler: he was an archangel the whole time. There was no need for that.

On the other side of the fence…

Con for DC: Everything is in a silo

Meanwhile, everything DC is doing is compartmentalized. There’s the new cinematic universe they launched with Man of Steel, and are trying to kickstart into full Marvel mode through Batman V. Superman: Cameos of Justice. Then there’s what’s known as the “Arrowverse,” the CW TV universe that started with Arrow and has expanded into the Flash. Constantine’s off on his own on NBC, and Gotham isn’t tying into anything.

Nor should it, really. I mean, they snuck in a Queen Consolidated Easter egg in the second episode, but really this show should take place at least a decade before Oliver’s fateful voyage on the Queen’s Gambit, 15 years before his return to Starling City.

So no, Stephen Amell’s Arrow and Grant Gustin’s Flash will not be joining Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and the rest of the BvS cameos in the Justice League movie. Nor will John Constantine be swaggering into Starling or Central Cities. Which is a little sad in its own right, but there’s a bigger problem.

Have separate continuities if you want. DC is often built around the idea of a multiverse anyway. It’s the fact the characters from one continuity seemingly can’t appear in any of the others for fear of confusing the audience or whatever that’s killing us.

Smallville was banned from having Batman or Bruce Wayne appear. They brought in Green Arrow, Flash/Impulse (long story), Cyborg, Hawkman, Aquaman, Black Canary, the Legion of Superheroes, even Booster Gold… but never Batman, because they didn’t want to mess with the films. And now Batman, Superman, and their respective cities are verboten to the Arrowverse. Reportedly, the producers of Flash were told to cut a Luthorcorp Easter egg from the pilot, and it remains to be seen what sort of crackdown on Bat-verse references is going to spill out of Gotham being on the Fox network.

There is some small hope that it might be less stupid going forwards. The president of the CW network teased the possibility of Arrow crossing over with the proposed Titans series heading for TNT. And Supergirl will share a showrunner with Arrow and Flash (besides the ever-present Geoff Johns), and its network, CBS, is from a corporate perspective the CW’s older, more successful brother, both of them being owned by Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics. So there’s some talk that Supergirl might not necessarily stand alone like Gotham or Constantine.

Except how would either of those even work? Arrow has had zero mentions of Batman, Gotham, Wayne Enterprises, anything (the leaked pilot of the Flash does, but it remains to be seen if that lasts until broadcast). How do you have a Titans show, starring Batman’s ex-sidekick Nightwing, cross over to a show where Batman doesn’t exist? Moreover, there are no aliens in the Arrowverse. They just introduced superpowers on the Flash, but neither series is currently touching aliens. So how do you have Starfire? And if there’s no Superman in the Arrowverse, does it even make sense to have Supergirl?

And it doesn’t even have to be like this. When Superman Returns came out, Smallville was still on the air. Whatever prevented Superman Returns from being the franchise launcher they hoped, people being confused by the multiple Clark Kents wasn’t it. And the producers of Gotham certainly aren’t planning to pack up and call it a day when Batman V. Superman opens partway through what they hope to be their second season. And their animation division keeps cranking out product regardless of what the characters are doing in live action.

Marvel can’t have Spider-Man or the X-Men turn up in the Avengers because they sold the film rights in order to keep the doors open after the comic crash in the 90s. Warner Bros. doesn’t have that excuse, yet they act like that anyway. And it’s maddening sometimes.


Con for Marvel: Everything’s connected, but nobody’s talking

The Marvel cinematic universe has introduced film and TV audiences to a nitpick comic fans have known and traded for years: “Why wouldn’t [x-character] call [y-character] for help?”

Happens all the time. “Superman could have stopped the riot in Arkham Asylum in five seconds. Why not call him?” Or, one I asked recently, “Captain America is the head of SHIELD, why is he letting a crooked weapons developer and the general in her pocket push Iron Man around like this?”

And while answers exist (Batman is able to protect Gotham because the criminals are afraid of him, not because they’re afraid that he’ll tell on them to Superman if they’re too mean), the single greatest argument against this nitpick is “He was busy, read his book.” Of course Captain America couldn’t bail out Iron Man, he’s been going through hell with the Red Skull. Of course Wonder Woman couldn’t come to Gotham, she’s been dealing with civil war on Olympus for months. Of course Green Lantern hasn’t been around to help the Justice League, shit is falling apart out in space.

The movies don’t have that. Avengers movies aside, we check in with Tony Stark or Captain America once every two years. Less than that for the Hulk. So we don’t have any idea what they’re doing between movies. So here’s a quick list of questions that arise when everyone’s movie is connected but nobody appears in each other’s movies because Robert Downey Jr. isn’t free. (Some spoilers for The Winter Solider and Iron Man 3)

  • Tony Stark’s house gets blown up by terrorists, after which said terrorists kidnap The President of the United States off of Air Force One, and nobody thinks that maybe SHIELD should get involved? Captain America has nothing to say about any of this?
  • Captain America has to bring down three heavily armed helicarriers in the Winter Solider, and for backup he brings Black Widow and some guy he met while jogging? This doesn’t seem like something that Tony Stark, the guy who helped design the helicarriers, or Bruce Banner, the unstoppable rage monster, might be useful for?
  • Actually forget them. Where the hell is Hawkeye? Black Widow finds out SHIELD is compromised and Clint Barton wasn’t her first phone call? They were partners! She joined the Avengers to help out Hawkeye for gods’ sake, and when their mutual employer turns on her, she doesn’t even try to get word to him? He even has experience bringing down helicarriers! Managed it with two fucking arrows!
  • And where the bloody hell is Thor since his last movie? He left Asgard at the end of the Dark World to hang out with Jane, and since then… what? Just bumming around Europe? “Pagan anarchists” (oy…) got their hands on an Asgardian weapon, an Asgardian criminal was on a rampage in the southern US, and Captain America was being hunted for treason, and Thor just doesn’t give a shit.
  • Everyone knows Coulson’s alive again, right? I mean, that’s got to be clear by now. He wasn’t exactly keeping his head down in the first season of Agents of SHIELD, and now he’s being publicly hunted by the US government. I have to believe Tony Stark would have noticed he’s not dead by now.

Swear to god, if they open the second Avengers movie with the team hanging out together and the implication that they’re in regular contact, fans would be within their rights to riot.

But that aside, there’s another problem with the Cinematic Universe’s approach.

Pro to DC: no one is beholden to anyone

The greatest flaw of Agents of SHIELD’s first season is that they didn’t have an interesting plot or an engaging villain for 15 episodes. Their money storyline involved the Hydra revelation from Winter Soldier, so they couldn’t really kick that off until after Winter Soldier had opened: eight months and sixteen episodes into the season. As a result, and I’ve said this before but it bears repeating, they hemorrhaged viewers and good will and only barely squeaked out a renewal thanks to corporate synergy making low ratings acceptable. The fact that they did nothing but spin their wheels up until that point is a whole other conversation, but the fact is their first season’s stories were beholden to the Winter Soldier’s release date. It remains to be seen what impact Age of Ultron will have, but for their sake, I hope it’s “none,” or at least “none until the third season” (if there is one, given that their second episode this season tied their series low point).

The Arrowverse doesn’t have that problem.

The Arrowverse can do whatever the hell it wants to do. We’re not going to connect to the Justice League movie? Fine, we’ll build our own Justice League with the Atom and Firestorm. Can’t use Batman? Fine, but we’ll borrow whichever of his villains you aren’t using. Ra’s Al Ghul’s available now, right?

In a strictly narrative context, they don’t have to hold anything back until the next movie opens. They’re not beholden to Zach Snyder’s plans. They can crossover as much or as little as they like, and when finale season rolls around, I imagine both Flash and the Arrow will be a little too busy with their own problems to come bail each other out.

Likewise, Gotham is free to play around. They won’t have to stick to someone else’s vision of Batman or the Penguin’s journeys. I doubt they’ll get too experimental, but they have some breathing room.

So while not being connected to the movies or several of the other series can be frustrating, it’s also the reason Arrow is thriving while Agents of SHIELD fizzled.

Also, nobody ever has to ask where Superman was during the Starling City earthquake.

Wrapping up

So the two strategies have their strengths and weaknesses. Linking all the movies works like gangbusters (a few narrative holes aside), but letting TV shows do their own thing seems to be working out better than chaining them to a movie release schedule.

Do I want to see Titans and Supergirl cross over with Arrow and Flash? Damn right I do. Am I afraid that the Flash won’t be in the Justice League? Damn skippy I am. But am I glad that they’re getting to tell their own stories on their own terms? You’d better believe it.