Captain America: Civil War and the Future of Marvel Phase 3

Now that we've had our first look at Captain America: Civil War, we consider why this one is so important to the Marvel Universe.

Warning: This article contains potential spoilers for a number of upcoming Marvel Phase 3 movies.

It’s difficult to qualify any comic book related announcement as a “bombshell” these days. They all stoke a virtually identical amount of outrage and/or excitement. But when word got out that Robert Downey Jr. would take on a signficant role in Captain America 3, and when that film’s title was confirmed as Captain America: Civil War, well, you can imagine how excited fans might get. Then things got even crazier when Marvel and Sony struck a deal to share Spider-Man, allowing him to appear in this movie, too.

Captain America: Civil War arrives on May 6th, 2016. It happens to be two years before the next central Marvel film, Avengers: Infinity War – Part I, which won’t get here until May of 2018. This will almost certainly be the last time we’re going to see Iron Man and Captain America on screen together for at least a two-year period. More importantly, this one will truly set Marvel Phase 3 in motion. 

Just a little background for the uninitiated, Civil War was a massive comic book event that spanned dozens of Marvel Comics titles between 2006 and 2007. It is exactly what that title indicates: a civil war between the heroes of the Marvel Universe. On one side, we had Tony Stark, who, with the best of intentions, gets behind a government mandated superhuman registration act in an attempt to get costumed adventurers regulated, purportedly preventing future tragedies. In the case of the comic book story, this worst case scenario was put in motion by a reality show gone wrong involving a team of young superheroes. 

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On the other, we had Captain America, who felt that such sweeping legislation was a violation of civil liberties, and a generally slippery slope. The heroes of the Marvel Universe took sides, did a fair amount of soul-searching, and went at each other. We’ve already seen Steve Rogers take a similar stance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so suddenly, the central conflict of Civil War makes perfect sense in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Just for some context, here’s the official synopsis of the movie version:

Captain America: Civil War picks up where Avengers: Age of Ultron left off, as Steve Rogers leads the new team of Avengers in their continued efforts to safeguard humanity. After another international incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability and a governing body to determine when to enlist the services of the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers while they try to protect the world from a new and nefarious villain.

Now, on with the show…


Cap’s civil libertarian stance was nicely established in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it looks like the seeds of Tony Stark’s position were sown in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The same well-meaning but misguided instincts that backfired on Tony in Age of Ultron will probably lead to him deciding to use his considerable fortune and political influence to help prevent such meddling from screwing up the world again. We’re left with a relatively maverick Captain America on a collision course with a paternalistic superhero nanny-state creating Tony Stark.

The key here is going to be making Tony Stark’s position sympathetic, something which the Mark Millar/Steve McNiven comic never quite managed to do (although the argument can be made that Stark was mostly doing damage control for an imperfect law). Marvel’s entire marketing campaign hinged on a “whose side are you on” tagline, despite the fact that anyone with a functioning soul was firmly in Captain America’s corner by about page six. The trailer indicates we might be seeing a more nuanced argument than we got on the page, with Tony backing what he sees as reasonable government oversight, perhaps motivated by the guilt he feels over the chaos Ultron caused.

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Conventional wisdom has dictated that the logical extension of Captain America: The Winter Soldier would be some variation on the “Death of Captain America” (and the introduction of Bucky Barnes as Cap), there’s no reason Civil War can’t get us there, too. In terms of timing, both of those storylines were nicely intertwined. There’s little chance of an immediate resolution or happy ending in Captain America: Civil War. In fact, much of Marvel’s Phase 3 is spent wrapping up current franchises (with Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok) and introducing new characters such as Doctor Strange and Black Panther. In fact, Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) is going to make his first Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance this time around.

There was a bit of a roster shake-up at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and that’s only going to get compounded by whatever we see in Civil War. There is virtually no way that the main Avengers roster emerges from Captain America 3 unscathed, and that means there’s an even smaller chance that Avengers: The Infinity War Part I is going to be any kind of “traditional” Avengers movie. One way or another, it’s a safe bet that somebody else will be holding the shield in that one (it could be Bucky Barnes, which would be the logical progression from the comics Civil War takes inspiration from, or the Falcon, as we’ve seen in more recent comics).

Chris Evans is nearing the end of his Marvel contract, so it might make sense to make his final outing as Cap a “triumphant return” scenario, after he has been taken off the board for a movie or so. Similar logic might apply to Robert Downey Jr’s presence here, too. Variety believes that part of the reason for Robert Downey Jr’s beefed up role in Captain America 3 was simply to find a way to keep him involved in as many Marvel films as possible without the necessity of having him carry an Iron Man 4 (or 5, or 6). Come to think of it, Tony Stark: Director of SHIELD has a nice ring to it, and there’s some precedent for that in the comics, but that seems like a longshot, at best.

And while there’s no doubt that Downey is the heart of this entire franchise, guys like Chris Evans and Hemsworth have carved out a nice chunk of the fanbase for themselves. The longer they can be seen as involved (and the only thing better than a big sendoff is a big return), the more secure the suits are gonna feel. As Marvel begins to branch out into lesser known characters in their stable, it will help to keep the big guns under contract both to add a little name recognition where necessary, or to step back in for a film of their own should the line start to falter.

The news that Spider-Man is now open for business with Marvel Studios allows a more faithful version of this story to be told, as well. In the comics, Spidey found himself torn between two of his heroes. He starts off working for Tony Stark, and even unmasks at a press conference in order to show his own faith in the Superhuman Registration Act. It’s certainly a “big moment” but it won’t be a factor in this movie, since the central conflict doesn’t seem to revolve aorund secret identities. I wrote about Spidey’s place in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe right here.

Despite its lofty ambitions and political pretensions, the comic book version of Civil War quickly collapsed under its own weight. If Marvel has proven anything recently it’s that they have the ability to boil these stories and characters down to their essence, magnify what works, and discard the rest. The basic clash of ideologies between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers doesn’t necessarily need to involve an entire team of Avengers in order to create the necessary dramatic tension. But for now, we know that in addition to Cap, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther, we’ll have the Falcon, the Winter Soldier, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Vision, and Hawkeye along for the ride.

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That doesn’t even take the villains into account. You don’t really expect Tony Stark to be a villain, do you? Daniel Bruhl is on board as Baron Zemo, while Frank Grillo’s Crossbones will return…this time with a skull mask. We still don’t know who Martin Freeman is playing, other than the hints he has dropped about being something of a wild card working for the US Government.

It will all be worth it if we get to see this scene realized on screen…

Captain America: Civil War will hit theaters on May 6th, 2016.  You can see the complete Marvel release calendar right here.

This article originally ran on October 29th, 2014. It has been updated to reflect new details about the film.