Marvel’s ‘Civil War’: What It Means
By Phil Boothman.
News broke this week that Robert Downey Jr, in the course of evading giving a straight answer to all questions about Iron Man 4, was secretly signing up to appear as Tony Stark in Captain America 3, currently slated for May 2016. While this would have been enough to set the internet alight all on its own, the accompanying news that this was Marvel’s attempt to introduce elements of the classic story ‘Civil War’ into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) damn near melted my Twitter feed.
But what is the significance of ‘Civil War’, and why was it such big news?
The story arc of ‘Civil War’ revolves around two separate and conflicting factions of superhumans in the Marvel comic book universe coming to blows over an official government motion called the ‘Superhuman Registration Act’. This comes into being after a skirmish between a group of dangerous supervillains and a team of rookie superheroes results in the deaths of a huge number of civilians, including a school full of children: the government decides that superhumans are too dangerous to have running around doing whatever they want, and decides to encourage them to register their secret identities and bring them under control, allowing them to operate as they previously did, but with the explicit permission of the government.
Some superhumans agree, others disagree: however, the main representatives of the two sides are Tony “Iron Man” Stark on the Pro-Registration side, and Steve “Captain America” Rogers on the Anti-Registration side. Stark believes that superhumans should be properly trained and policed, otherwise they could run rampant and hurt more innocent people; while Rogers insists that if the government gets to control heroes, they also get to decide who the villains are, and fears that the heroes he surrounds himself with would be forced into doing the government’s dirty work. Stark’s Pro-Registration allies, including Reed “Mister Fantastic” Richards and Hank “Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Yellowjacket” Pym, start to hunt down and imprison the Anti-Registration heroes, and essentially all hell breaks loose.
Even once the event had come to a close, with Captain America giving himself up after seeing that the conflict was causing more harm than good to civilians and the general public, the ramifications were felt for years: not least Spider-Man’s semi-willing revelation of his own secret identity, which had a lasting effect on subsequent Spider-Man stories. It created a rift in the Avengers which took years to heal, and even then alliances were shaky at best; it placed Stark at the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., a position which he was subsequently leveraged out of by Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn; and it changed the political climate of the comic book universe dramatically.
‘Civil War’ was an epic, defining event in the Marvel comic book universe, and it was bound to make its way to screens sooner or later. But the news certainly raises far more questions than answers, and there are a lot of issues to address before May 2016 comes around.
For example, and this is a big reason why a lot of people thought ‘Civil War’ would never happen in the MCU, the vast majority of heroes seen so far have been completely open and public about their identities: Captain America has a whole museum exhibit dedicated to his personal life, Thor doesn’t even have a secret identity, and Stark shouts about his alter ego in public every opportunity he gets. The closest we have to characters with ‘secret identities’ are Black Widow and Hawkeye: the former of whom had all her dirty secrets exposed to the government at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; and the latter doesn’t seem overly concerned with keeping his own identity a secret. So in order for a ‘Civil War’ film to work, a lot has to be done to establish a world of superhumans who want to keep their identities a secret, and others who want to put their abilities to work in aid of the government.
Of course, it’s possible that the Netflix shows leading up to The Defenders could play some part in this narrative, as Daredevil and Iron Fist at the very least seem like they would prefer to keep their secret identities a secret; and it’s more than likely that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would play some part in setting these events up, as we’ve seen more individual superhumans in that show than in the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe combined.
Another big question is that of motives: the comic book version of Tony Stark is shown as a considerably more ruthless, arrogant and manipulative character than the movie version, having crossed moral and ethical lines on multiple occasions. Justifying the MCU’s Tony Stark, previously portrayed as fairly anti-government and pro-hero, becoming the poster boy for a movement that would likely endanger the privacy of a large number of people, is going to be a hard sell. Not to mention the fact that Stark is set up, in most people’s eyes, as the villain of ‘Civil War’, and audiences are likely to struggle seeing fan-favourite Robert Downey Jr becoming a bad guy.
Then there’s the other big question on nerd’s lips everywhere: what the heck is going on with Thanos? We all previously thought he was being set up as the villain of Avengers 2, but Joss Whedon firmly put the kibosh on that when he announced that film’s subtitle and villain; then it became a common assumption that he would be showing up in Avengers 3, fully Infinity Stoned (by which I don’t mean really, really high) and ready to tear our heroes down. But if ‘Civil War’, or at least a ‘Civil War’-inspired event is going to be the next big thing after Age of Ultron, where does Thanos fit in?
Perhaps he will wait until the conflict has split Earth’s superhuman community down the middle and then swoop in for the kill, forcing the Avengers to reunite in order to stop him? Or perhaps he won’t even show up until Avengers 4: after all, he has shown himself to be really bad at actually collecting any Infinity Stones so far, he might need an extra couple of years to put them all together.
Whatever happens, setting up a ‘Civil War’ in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a big job, and one which a good proportion of the fanbase could do without, as while it was huge, it remains a fairly divisive crossover event among comic book fans. There is a lot of groundwork to be laid over the next couple of years, but fortunately Marvel currently has enough irons in various different fires that there is plenty of ground to lay that work upon.
Are you ready to see Iron Man as a villain? Where do you think Thanos fits in? Will ‘Civil War’ work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Let us know in the comments!