Monday Morning Studio Exec is a weekly summer column that examines whether the latest blockbusters succeeded in the goals of the franchise, financially and creatively
The most important moment in Captain America: Civil War was a line of dialogue so seemingly offhand that I don’t even remember which character actually said it. “Tony Stark first revealed himself as Iron Man eight years ago,” or some version of that, was the line, and it was the first time we’ve had a timeline inflicted upon the characters of the Marvel Cinematic universe. Prior to that, how quickly the events in these films succeeded one another was anyone’s guess. Knowing each film happens in the present, with the chronology between them proceeding in real time, is a game-changer, because it means we also know that the character of Tony Stark is now eight years older than he was when we first met him.
The implications for this revelation are huge. What has enabled Marvel to publish new Iron Man stories every year since 1962 is that drawn characters can be drawn the same age forever. What has enabled MGM to also pump out new James Bond movies since 1962 is by pretending the character never ages, and recasting when necessary to preserve that illusion. The MCU has now clearly announced they won’t go this route. When Robert Downey Jr. is too old to play Iron Man, that means Tony Stark will be too old to be Iron Man within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel and Disney have spent eight years and billions of dollars building this shared cinematic universe, and the revelation that they won’t recast their characters when the actors simply get too old to play them means that the continuation of this new business model will require even more ingenuity and risk-taking than building it.
For the Disney studio execs, this has to be mildly terrifying. To be fair, finding a new actor to fill Robert Downey Jr.’s iron boots was never going to be an easy prospect, just as finding a new James Bond is. But everything’s relative, and finding new actors to play Iron Man, Captain America, and now Spider-Man is certainly an easier prospect than finding new characters to anchor your universe around. Marvel currently has their cinematic slate planned through 2020, which is the end of Phase Three, and initial Phase Four plans are expected to be revealed in the next year or so. But what will Phase Six look like, when Marvel has had to retire all of their lead cinematic characters? Sure, Thor’s a God, so he can be recast and remain looking Thor-like, and Spider-Man’s only a teenager at the moment. But who else will these movies revolve around in 15 years? When franchises were isolated, you could always just reboot one any time, as we’ve seen with Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and so many others. But as soon as you tie them all into the same shared universe, you can’t just restart one without blowing up the whole thing.
For now, we should all have faith in Kevin Feige, the architect of this universe. The 12 Marvel movies have almost all been varying degrees of good, and some have been great. He’s also shown a willingness to embrace offbeat characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy, who weren’t even appearing in comics at the time the movie was green lit. But that still felt like an aberration. For Feige to navigate an MCU without Iron Man, Captain America, and other franchise anchors that have been aged-out, dusting off buried gems like the Guardians will have to become the norm. Feige might have to somehow make viable franchises out of forgotten Marvel titles like Omega the Unknown, Sleepwalker, and Darkhawk.
Luckily for Feige, those are all problems for another decade; the MCU is eight years old now, so it’s not quite time to discuss how it’ll spend its college years. Besides, America may be in a post-nuclear apocalypse by then.
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Through 12 releases, we’ve basically seen two kinds of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies—the ones that have largely been allowed to be their own film, and the ones that seemingly exist chiefly to get the universe from Point A to Point B. The first two Captain America flicks definitely fit in the latter category, and Civil War certainly has a lot of that heavy lifting to do. But this is also a movie that really works on its own terms, and is perhaps the best balancing act we’ve seen between those two methodologies.
The easy comparison here is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the atrocity that we were all forced to sit through just six weeks ago. Both films obviously pit the chief characters of their respective universes against one another, and would therefore seem to be participating in equations with a lot of common denominators. But as soon as you get the “vs” and the release date out of the way, the comparisons are already over. In Civil War, the ideological conflict is real, while in Dawn of Justice, it’s so ludicrous that the climactic fight had to immediately disable Superman’s speaking ability just so reason was incapable of prevailing. In Civil War, the conflict was ushered along behind the scenes by an Eastern European secret agent who wanted revenge; in Dawn of Justice, the conflict is basically openly officiated by Mark Zuckerberg, for no apparent reason other than sitting courtside is cool and rich-guy-like. In Civil War, Spider-Man’s origin is avoided because we all know it, and he’s introduced in a more creative way; in Dawn of Justice, we had to watch Thomas and Martha Wayne get killed yet again.
I could go on, but what’s the point? Good movies don’t deserve to be so carefully measured against bad ones, and Civil War is a good movie. Its elephant-in-the-room flaw is that it’s too long. Mark Harris once questioned whether these comic book movies, once they hit all the requisite Easter eggs and set up future installments, still had time to be actual movies. Now we know the answer: sure they do, as long as they’re 2½ hours. But having said that, there’s nothing really here that feels like it shouldn’t have been. The presence of Spider-Man and Ant Man weren’t plot necessities, but they did create a better movie. Black Panther, on the other hand, felt like he did have to be here.
Civil War enjoyed an opening weekend gross of 181 million dollars, which is the fifth best all-time. It’s about 10 million shy of what the previous Avengers movie opened with, but 15 million more than Batman v Superman, which had several advantages: it came first, it featured bigger, more iconic characters appearing together in a movie for the very first time, and it didn’t have to contend with a comic-book-movie-unfriendly holiday like Mother’s Day.
The most important thing for studios and summer blockbusters isn’t to make a great movie; it’s to avoid making a terrible one. Civil War unanimously achieved that, as well as every other goal it aimed for. It impressively expanded the Marvel canvas by bringing Ant Man to a much larger audience via what might be the film’s most enjoyable scene, and Spider-Man and the Black Panther aced their screen tests. Now all Feige has to do is stop all of his actors from ever aging.