Captain America: Civil War and the Marvel Genre

Let’s face it, Marvel is now a genre of film, or rather a subgenre of the superhero blockbuster.

Captain America: Civil War is the 13th film in the seemingly endless Marvel Cinematic Universe. This Universe is now so coherent and has become, as a collective, so formulaic that each new Marvel film pumped out easily blends in.

We establish genres merely as a way of categorising films that are comparable in narrative elements, techniques and elicited emotional response. They have their own liberties as well as limitations – you’ll see a story about an American flag-attired superhuman fighting bad guys in a Marvel film, but you probably won’t see one about three intersecting love triangles on Valentine’s Day. Weird example, but what I’m trying to say is that that the superhero genre can only go so far by its own definitions, and the Marvel subgenre is no exclusion.

Marvel films have become so predictable (for better or worse) in terms of these genre elements that if one of its products manages to subverts expectations it should be heralded. Captain America: Civil War is that film.

Everything that eventuates in this film feels like a natural progression from every plot-line or character beat it establishes, as well as every major narrative and character arc that has come before it. Marvel have built a coherent universe with believable high stakes – especially when these stakes develop from deep-seated, intimate issues – and Civil War is its best champion to date, in this respect. That’s a fantastic achievement in its own right and, supremely, satisfying. But the clever way in which Civil War uses expectations of its own genre to augment the impact of these intimate stakes is worth noting.

Cam Williams over at Popcorn Junkie makes an interesting point that the film only succeeds “within the boundaries of what has become the serviceable and acceptable standard for a Marvel film”. I mostly agree with these comments; even when Civil War outshines other films in the Marvel family, it’s a familiar set of emotional responses that are elicited. In this regard and in many others, Civil War is just another Marvel film – that is until ‘being a Marvel film’ becomes a crucial red herring underlying its entire premise. The film uses its own genre tropes to distract you from a plot twist that isn’t a typical Marvel plot twist, or superhero film plot twist for that matter.

*Spoilers for Captain America: Civil War beyond this point*

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Opening Civil War, and returned to throughout the film, is a fragmented sequence in which the Winter Soldier/Bucky (Sebastian Stan) ambushes a car carrying five super soldier serums. Why does this scene bear so much significance? We later learn (alongside Captain America) that these serums were used to create five other super soldiers, now in cryosleep, that have the potential to cause a global catastrophe and Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is apparently planning on awakening these soldiers.

That sounds like a typical Marvel plot development leading up to a predictable grand finale confrontation, right? Well, if you’ve been paying attention it’s not too difficult to figure out that there’s more to this situation than we’ve been shown.

In a surprising turn of events, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr.) discover that the squad of five deadly super soldiers have been killed by Zemo, who in fact has alternative motives. He’s lured the two Avengers to him, intending to turn them against each other. We learn at the same time as Tony that his parents were driving the car that the Winter Soldier ambushed that night, killing them in cold blood. Tony becomes turbulent and wants revenge against Bucky while the Captain wants to protect his friend.

“I don’t care, he killed my mum”, Tony says as he attacks Bucky at full throttle.

That line is devastating; it’s so real and honest that it hurts. The power of this moment comes by virtue of the emotional and narrative beats seeded throughout Civil War. It’s an unexpected culmination of events that hits harder than watching any fight with a squad of five deadly super soldiers would (thank god).

What Civil War manages to do, which no other Marvel film has, is play on an audience’s familiarity of its genre to surprise and ultimately unearth the deep-rooted emotional affairs at its core. In this regard, Civil War is a success by way of daring to wander beyond the boundaries of what has become the acceptable standard for the Marvel genre. However, the boundary has just been pushed ever so slightly further out and a new standard has been redefined for the genre. Future Marvel films should take note.

Captain America: Civil War ★★★★

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