Captain America: Civil War is, by all outward appearances, a movie: It is being shown on the big screen in cinemas around the world, features major movie stars, and was produced for the ungodly sum of $250 million. But what is shown on the big screen features few trappings of the traditional film, especially when it comes to the story structure laid out by Joseph Campbell, whose blueprint for cinematic storytelling has become a sort of bible for filmmakers and cinephiles.
Over the past eight years, Marvel has released 12 increasingly complex and interconnected superhero films, with solo adventures giving way to team-ups and crossovers. Movies such as Iron Man (2008) and its sequel (2010), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Thor (2011) provided fun on-ramps for casual audience members unfamiliar with the comic book heroes, and The Avengers (2012) was a simple enough team-up that introduced the group dynamic, with each character corresponding to certain archetypes, pre-existing knowledge was not necessary.
Marvel’s 13th film, Civil War, is the byproduct of many plot points spread out over the previous dozen movies. It’s the company’s largest and longest extravaganza, but even at two-and-a-half hours, it is so stuffed with new characters and set pieces that it has no time to explain backstories, beyond some new information presented in purposely vague flashbacks. It references tragedies, mistakes, international incidents, rivalries, brain-washings, love stories, and battles fought in the films that preceded it, but there’s little explanation as to what they actually mean.
If you haven’t seen Captain America: Winter Soldier, you’ll be baffled as to why Cap is so desperate to protect his angry, brainwashed pal with the metal arm — or why his angry pal with the metal arm is brainwashed in the first place. Without Avengers: Age of Ultron, you won’t understand why Tony Stark is all mopey, or why he’s now kinda sorta a bachelor, or why Vision is now a purple guy wearing Dockers. There’s no explanation for where the hell Ant-Man comes from, or how he and Falcon seem to know each other. The list of unexplained references goes on and on.
Perhaps most shockingly, there’s no real resolution at the end of the movie, beyond a promise for future adventures. It’s a smart move; with a cash cow like this, you always want to leave the audience excited for more. But for movie buffs, the disintegration of the three-act structure is jarring, and as an individual experience, the movie, as fun as it is in places, is a bit dissatisfying. There’s not even real emotional arcs for most characters at this point, because they’ve spent so many films developing their current personas. We’ve been dropped into a moment in time, more than taken on an emotional journey.
Captain America: Civil War is more like a gigantic installment in an ongoing, serialized television show. Comprehension — and even enjoyment — is predicated on the previous episodes; imagine dropping into Game of Thrones this season without having ever watched it before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s sort of a baffling strategy for a company that wants to appeal to the widest audience possible.
Even more baffling: it’s working! Captain America: Civil War made $180 million over the weekend, which nearly doubles the $95 million that Winter Solider made. This installment had the advantage of being absolutely filled with superheroes, unlike the more traditional solo Winter Soldier film, but still, it’s an impressive number (though it falls short of the last giant Marvel team-up, Age of Ultron). Critics raved about the film, too, in part because they’ve been required to see all the previous movies.
Still, it’s hard to believe that the audience won’t drop off as the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets more complicated and cluttered. We have now entered “Phase Three” of the MCU, which will introduce even more heroes, including Doctor Strange, who will bring a whole new dimension to the franchise. The next Avengers film, Infinity War, will bring in the Guardians of the Galaxy and, likely, the events that happen in the next Thor movie.
By that point, there will be way more than 24 hours worth of movies to binge, or about the equivalent of nearly three seasons of Game of Thrones. It’s just about impossible to understand what people are speaking about when discussing Westeros, and it’s soon going to get to that point with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Until they reboot it, anyway.