The problem with Marvel adapting CIVIL WAR for their movies, and how they can overcome it

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If it feels like just about everybody on the internet has been gabbing non-stop since yesterday’s reveal that Marvel plans to have Iron Man and Captain America go head to shellhead in an adaptation of their acclaimed “Civil War” storyline in Captain America 3, that’s probably because everybody has been. Including us. “Civil War” is a major story arc that not only featured a ton of really cool moments and shocking reveals, but also changed the landscape of the Marvel comic book universe for years, and the potential for it to do the same to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has left geeks like me positively giddy.

But as excited as I am to see this momentous story being tackled, I have to admit that the more I thought about it the more I realized that Marvel seriously has their work cut out for them if they want to pull this off successfully. Let me share some of my thoughts with you (and anybody from Marvel who happens to see this – hey, I can dream!) and hopefully you’ll understand where my trepidation is coming from.

For those of you not familiar with “Civil War”, let me give you a brief rundown of the background so we’re all on the same page: When a team of young, D-List heroes known as the New Warriors try to bump up their fame, they decide to capture the (literally) explosive villain Nitro, with all their exploits being filmed and broadcast live as part of a new reality TV show. Unfortunately, they bungle the capture, causing the volatile Nitro to explode violently, wiping out several city blocks and in the process killing 600 civilians, 60 of those being children.

This event comes on the backs of several major superhero throwdowns in densely populated cities (including a violent rampage by the Hulk), much like what we saw in the Battle of Manhattan in The Avengers. This proves to be the tipping point of public sentiment when it comes to superheroes, causing the government to propose a Superhero Registration Act that compels any masked vigilante to register with the government – including revealing their secret identity – so that they can receive training, and be assigned to government mandated teams where their particular skills are needed.

Tony Stark aka Iron Man, seeing that this form of governmental super police is the only way for the future, becomes the champion of the act, whereas Steve Rogers aka Captain America feels that it is an infringement not only on civil liberties but also heroes’ right to protect their loved ones by adopting a secret identity. With the two men drawing their respective battle lines, the superhero community is split down the middle as Cap and his supporters are branded as outlaws, and pursued by Stark and his supporters.

I won’t go any further so as not to spoil the story for anybody, but there is one moment that needs to be discussed. At the time of the Civil War breaking out, Peter Parker aka Spider-Man is actually working for Tony Stark, and even boasts a new high-tech “Iron Spider” costume designed by his boss. In one of Civil War’s most pivotal moments though, Stark convinces Spider-Man to publicly unmask in favour of the Superhero Registration Act, in the process drawing a ton of support for Stark and co.

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This is a landmark moment in the story, and one that you would hope would make its way to the movie adaptation. There is a problem here, of course. That being that Spider-Man is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with his film rights reins currently being held exclusively by Sony (although recent rumours suggest that may change). Naturally, the response would just be that Marvel can substitute Spidey for some other masked hero, but that leads us to the actual biggest problem with adapting Civil War: There are no masked heroes in the MCU.

Clearly, at this stage of the game, there has to be, but it’s just that we’ve never really met them. All the heroes (of any serious consequence) that we’ve encountered thus far either have a civilian identity that is public knowledge (a la Iron Man and Captain America), are actually secret agents that don’t hide their faces (Black Widow, Hawkeye), or are just demigods who go by their real name (Thor). And even in the upcoming Phase 2 stuff, the only masked hero on the cards is Ant-Man, and traditionally he’s never hidden his civilian identity.

So how will the Superhero Registration act even kick off, if there are no masked people creating chaos to justify the initial creation of the act? Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as much improved as its been, has thus far produced a grand total of zero new masked heroes. Sure, we’ll be seeing a handful of them – like Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist – showing up in Marvel’s planned Netflix series, but with the first, Daredevil, only showing up about mid 2015, most of them won’t be introduced yet by the time Captain America 3 rolls around.

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In short, Marvel’s biggest problem is that despite how they’ve pioneered this massive shared universe that every other studio and their dog now want to copy, they actually don’t have a proper shared universe. Not really. Thus far it’s essentially Tony Stark and friends and some other guys with a tree and a raccoon out in deep space. There’s no living, breathing superhero world underpinning it all that will be needed to truly do Civil War justice. Yet.

Because like I mentioned, the four Netflix series will go a long way to showing the ground level of the MCU, and could be the perfect breeding ground for bringing in more heroes, even if it will mostly be too late. So too, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to also start upping the superhero ante. Now don’t get me wrong, I definitely do no want to see the currently damn good show regress to a superpowered-freak-of-the-week format, but they’re in a prime position to start introducing and interacting with some of these heroes that must be out there operating under the radar.

The only confirmed movies on the schedule before Captain America 3 is next year’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. It would be ludicrous to expect Ant-Man to shoulder the burden of laying all this groundwork, when it will already have its formic hands full with introducing a brand new hero that tends to elicit snarky sniggers from the uninformed public. That just leaves Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which already seems to have its fair share of story and characters to get through. The likeliest outcome would be for both these movies to just offer some sort of fleeting glimpse at the broader world showing how heroes are coming out of the woodwork.

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That would certainly help, but still won’t alleviate the problem entirely. This is why I think that Captain America 3 is not going to adapt “Civil War”, merely the start of it (at least that’s the only way I see this working out). We’ve been hearing the rumours that The Avengers 3 will see a team of new Avengers led just by Iron Man, while Cap and the rest of the old gang will be off doing something else until they eventually come back in a follow-up, all-out team-up flick the next year. What if that “something else” they’re doing is busy being on the run from Stark and co?

Captain America 3 could start off by introducing this newer, more heavily populated superhero world, and have it build up to the actual “Civil War” portion which only kicks off in the movie’s later stages, ending on some climactic battle that sees Cap’s team splitting off. The Avengers 3 would then see Iron Man’s team tackle some threat in their absence, while this rumoured follow-up event movie would then finally see the two teams start off by going head to head, but then being forced to reconcile as they have to team up to take down an even bigger threat. A bigger threat like, say, Thanos and his newly assembled Infinity Gauntlet?

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[UPDATE: I’ve appended some of the ideas that came out of the discussion in the comments below, which is nothing more than wild conjecture but still fits what we know, and – most importantly – sounds really cool]

After communing with the spirits, reading some tea leaves and throwing some bones, we’ve also come up with an alternative hypothesis on how this whole thing could play out. Instead of the tragedy wrought by the New Warriors and Nova being the inciting incident for the Superhero Registration Act, it can in fact be some kind of devastating event(s) that transpires in The Avengers: Age of Ultron which – coupled with the near destruction of Manhattan a few years earlier, as well as the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. – would turn public sentiment sour at the start of Captain America 3. Iron Man, as the inventor of Ultron, is wracked with guilt due to his part in what has transpired and is thus inspired to spearhead the SRA to ensure nobody else repeats his mistakes.

Steve Rogers doesn’t agree with the way in which the SRA is implemented though, and soon a disagreement escalates into hostilities and the two start off their “Civil War”, but one that is more on an ideological level and a much smaller scale than in the comics, to cater to the reduced cast of character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are rumours that at the end of Age of Ultron we would have been introduced to some new faces like Captain Marvel and possibly Black Panther, and these new recruits, along with Ant-Man and Doctor Strange would perhaps side with Iron Man, while the old guard backs up Captain America.

In the mean time, the Guardians of the Galaxy have their second adventure which ends with them eventually facing off against Thanos, who is hot on the trail of remaining Infinity Stones/Gems. They may overcome whatever else is in their path, but they can only slow Thanos down, not stop him completely. So the Mad Titan and whatever cronies he has heads to Earth where the last remaining gems are, possibly in the hands of Doctor Strange (total guess there, but he seems like the perfect person to dabble in such stuff), with the Guardians hot on his tail.

The Avengers 3 would see us finding the Marvel landscape now caught up in war proper as more and more super-folk flock to Iron Man and Captain America’s respective banners. After a series of protracted battles, Cap’s team is driven underground. And just as both sides are busy licking their wounds, Thanos’ forces arrive causing even more chaos, as they go after Iron Man’s “official” team of Avengers, who are still reeling from the previous fight, to get the last remaining Infinity Stone. While initially it looks like the Avengers’ is still going to triumph, despite the odds, something happens so that at the end of the film Thanos ends up with the last Stone anyway and uses it to craft his Infinity Gauntlet.

The rumoured follow-up film that comes out the next year then starts out with Thanos at virtually godlike power levels. The size of this threat forces both sides of the Civil War to make amends, put aside their differences and work together to fight Thanos. But even with Iron Man and Captain America fighting side by side again, it’s barely enough to contain Thanos who now essentially has the power to rewrite reality at his whim. But luckily some reinforcements arrive in the form of Peter Quill, Gamora, Rocket and the rest of the outer space gang. With all the heroes now assembled, they take the fight to Thanos and after one seriously big brawl they emerge victorious.

But before the victory celebrations commence, Tony Stark  – yes, Stark and not Steve Rogers, because this is exactly the type of subversion of expectations and established storylines that Marvel has loved pulling in their movies – is assassinated by somebody who holds him accountable for some tragedy that befell them during the Age of Ultron fiasco. Captain America is so disheartened by what has happened that he decides to hang up the shield and just become plain old Steve Rogers (maybe even become head of a rebuilt S.H.I.E.L.D. like he did in the comics for a time) passing the Captain America mantle to Bucky, thus starting off a new age of heroes.

[END UPDATE]

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Combining elements from several iconic stories into one narrative is exactly the type of thing Marvel has been doing with their movies thus far, and a combination of “Civil War” and the “Infinity Gauntlet” saga would certainly not just get the fans hyped, but would totally justify spanning it over multiples movies, as has been rumoured. This also ties in perfectly to this morning’s rumour that Anthony and Joe Russo, the directing brothers behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America 3, will be helming The Avengers 3 and 4 instead of Joss Whedon, as they will then essentially be shepherding this story from inception to resolution.

Now admittedly, all of the nearly 1500 2200 words(!) you’ve just read is nothing more than my comic book fanboy ramblings, but it makes a certain amount of logical sense, even if I do say so myself. Who knows, Marvel may not have this all figured out yet, and I just gave Kevin Feige the solution to his problems.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: October 15, 2014

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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