The Marvel movie franchise has a bad reputation for being associated with movies that are essentially overpriced, overdone blockbuster fodder. It’s imagined to be loved exclusively by stringy comic book nerds and those of “low-brow culture.” With the tedium of each new Marvel movie hitting the big screen like clockwork, it’s easy for people to disregard the franchise with a cavalier “Eh, those movies don’t really appeal to me.” But what most people fail to realize is that the Marvel movie franchise, dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a highly complex, endlessly fascinating, extremely impressive and revolutionary feat of moviemaking that defies cinematic structure and explores deeply resonant societal themes.
While superhero films, or adaptations of comic book characters, have been around since the 1930s, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, is radically different than anything that has come before in film. Structurally, the MCU is designed as a web with an intricate interweaving of origin stories, sequels and ensemble films that introduce and feature different players throughout the expansive network of films. This unorthodox structure gives the franchise a puzzle-finding feel that challenges viewers to search for and spot different heroes in different movies. Like pieces on a larger gameboard, the MCU works as a massive universe in which the characters exist, with each movie exploring a different part of that universe. While all this seems chaotic and slippery, the franchise is actually meticulously planned. The MCU timeline is easily accessible online, where the details for a four-phase cinematic opera are laid out. The sheer breadth of planning — starting with “Iron Man” in 2008 and continuing with untitled films set to release as late as 2028 — demonstrates franchise construction on a completely new scale. And while characters and emotional nuance can easily get lost in the haze of an entity that large, the MCU stays grounded with clear development and emotional arcs.
What makes Marvel so brilliant is that in the midst of juggling a massive ensemble of different characters, backstories and motivations, the franchise is able to craft distinct personalities for each character and weave them all together. Instead of being one-dimensional, each hero is shaded with nuance. Iron Man isn’t just cocky and impulsive but is rather a detail-obsessed genius with a confused moral compass whose narcissism is bred from daddy issues. In its ensemble films, sharply written dialogue works to seamlessly blend each character’s personality so that they both stand out and blend in.
The MCU is an unprecedented beast of a movie franchise, with structural and story elements that keep viewers locked in, waiting for the next piece of the puzzle. While the MCU is a revolutionary media entity among franchises in general, it’s also remarkable within the genre of superhero narratives. The MCU is not merely a large collection of traditional hero vs. villain, good vs. evil storylines. Marvel examines and challenges heroism, morality and fantasy in ways that are unparalleled in texts of the superhero genre.
Superhero narratives, rooted in comic books, are defined by a few classic tropes. Of course, there is the hero, a morally righteous protagonist committed to the fight against an equally insidious villain. There is a clear binary between good and evil, and these moralities are uncontested. Superhero movies are heavily laden with action, dynamic fight scenes, big explosions and chaos in the name of justice. They exist clearly in the realm of fantasy: The hero possesses a heightened ability that sets him or her apart from the masses and can wield this power freely. These tropes are integral to the superhero narrative, and they serve to create distance from reality. Superhero films generally reflect the thematic tradition of comic books, mirroring the moral binaries of comic book heroes.
Destruction plays an interesting and integral role in superhero films. While it may seem obvious to think about, every hero fight inevitably involves destruction. Superhero films in the mid-2000s used relatively old-school effects to blow up a building or a city block, adding visually compelling elements to a climactic fight scene. In “Batman Begins” (2005), Batman destroys a monorail line while the train drives into a parking structure and explodes. In “The Dark Knight” (2008), the Joker detonates a string of bombs that blow up an entire hospital. Destruction is understood as a natural and entertaining part of the genre that heightens the actions and suspense of the scene.
Advancements in CGI special effects allowed for more complex and dynamic fight scenes moving into the 2010s. Bigger explosions and more precise detail meant new possibilities for mass destruction on a completely different scale. Magneto in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014) lifts an entire baseball stadium and floats it around before sending it crashing into the cityscape below. In “X-Men Apocalypse” (2016), the X-Men raze the entire city of Cairo to the ground, leaving it completely decimated. What’s interesting is that in every superhero film there are no discussions about the loss of life, infrastructural consequences or acknowledgment of any kind of damage and chaos following the battle. And with contemporary superhero movies playing out on an international or intergalactic scale, the lack of acknowledgment of destruction becomes more apparent and more fantastical.
Here is where the Avengers franchise completely revolutionizes the superhero genre. With its meticulous of films and phases, Marvel initially reflects the tropes of its genre, only to then deliver a climactic movie that challenges thematic taboos routinely left out of the narrative. There are three pivotal battles in the franchise that all involve massive amounts of destruction: in “ Avengers” (2012), the team fights Loki and his alien-insect army, destroying large chunks of Manhattan in the process; In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), Captain America and Falcon send government airships crashing into Washington D.C.; and in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), the Avengers fight Ultron while he lifts the entire city of Sokovia off the ground. These three films in the Avengers narrative arc involve crucial moments of character development, shifting team dynamics, introduction of new characters and the evolution of villains. But in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), these moments become the fulcrum upon which the progression of the narrative balances.
“Captain America: Civil War” is responsible for bursting the bubble of fantasy in the superhero narrative. At the start of the movie, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., “The Judge”) is confronted by a grieving mother whose son died in the battle at Sokovia. In this moment, for the first time, a hero is faced with the real and detrimental consequences of his actions and the unintended but severe consequences on human lives from unrestrained destruction. The tension between heroic action and unheroic consequence becomes the focus of the movie, and Stark’s enormous guilt drives his motivations for the rest of the film.
Soon after Stark’s crushing epiphany, the Avengers meet with Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, “Goliath”). Ross projects a video summary of the Avengers’ major battles but without the polished and self-indulgent perspective of their original play. Imagery of buildings exploding, cars crashing, people screaming and errant gunfire turn previously exciting action scenes into terrifying and traumatic warzones. Watching the clips, the Avengers all wear faces of realization and shame. This scene is crucial for so many reasons; It shows a direct interaction between heroes and government agencies and introduces a new perspective on the Avengers, what it means to be a hero and the consequences of unrestrained power.
Ross makes clear that up until now, the Avengers have “operated with unlimited power and no supervision.” He exchanges the word hero with the word vigilante, asking “what would you call a group of , enhanced individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders and inflict their will wherever they choose, and who frankly seem unconcerned about what they leave behind?” In an effort to curb the power of the Avengers, Ross introduces the Sokovia Accords, a contract that if signed would place the Avengers under United Nations jurisdiction. In order to impose a system of accountability and place limits on previously unrestricted power, a U.N. panel would have control over the team, deploying them when the panel deems it necessary. The document essentially strips the Avengers of their agency, but also curbs potential unforeseen consequences.
The significance of this moment, why it’s brilliant and unparalleled, cannot be understated. Here we see the first major integration of world powers in a fantasy realm, where the government has actual, sizable influence. For the first time in the superhero genre, we see an effort to impose accountability on superheroes who previously wielded power without restraint, or even the concept of restraint. This move has only ever been seen once before, in “The Incredibles” (2004), when injured civilians took superheroes to court, and a national law forced them into hiding. This is really the first instance of the powers of ordinary society curbing the powers of the extraordinary. But “The Incredibles” fails to take the tension between fantasy and reality further and ends up mostly concerned with the self-actualization of heroes.
The question of whether or not to sign the Sokovia Accords launches the Avengers into the main conflict of “Civil War” — a debate of accountability vs. free will. Tony Stark urges the team to sign because he sees unaccountability as the most dangerous threat to the Avengers and the world, and argues they can’t be allowed to continue without restrains or limits. Captain America, on the other hand, rejects the Accords, arguing that the contract places a limit on free will, and emphasizes his belief in everyone’s right to act as a free agent.
With this debate, the MCU tackles the morality of heroism and explores the philosophies of its heroes. Marvel demonstrates that it is extremely self-aware of the tropes of its genre, effectively subverting them by questioning and challenging what it means to be a superhero. Marvel complicates the binary between good and evil by spotlighting death and destruction at the hands of those who are considered heroes. Marvel also introduces the influence of real-world consequences on the actions and motivations of its heroes. Because these elements have never been approached in this way or to this magnitude in any superhero film before, Marvel is essentially constructing a new subgenre of superhero films: one that is preoccupied with the convergence of the real and the fantastical. The universal model of the franchise allows much more room for characters to interact and develop, creating a deeper level of familiarity between the characters and their world that makes the philosophical questions of “Civil War” possible, meaningful and believable.
There is also room for a deeper analytical interpretation of “Civil War” and the themes of the MCU. Subverting notions of heroism and moral absolutism is fascinating in the context of the long tradition of comic book heroes. But the debate between accountability and free will extends to more prevalent ideas in society today. The plot of “Civil War” can be read as an allegory for the debate between government surveillance and privacy and the question of surveillance as a necessary protection against terrorism or an infringement on civil rights. While it is common practice for films to reflect the societal themes of their time, Marvel is noteworthy for its simultaneous subversion of its genre.
The MCU is an elegantly intricate and completely fascinating piece of moviemaking that proves that complex narratives can exist in a blockbuster franchise. Marvel’s deconstruction and subversion of the superhero narrative are wholly unprecedented in the genre of comic book films and make watching these movies thrilling and deeply thought-provoking for both casual viewers, cinephiles and anyone in between.