The easiest way to differentiate the overwhelming crop of superhero films from Marvel Studios and DC Comics (via Warner Brothers) is to say that Marvel films are more fun and colorful whereas DC is more grounded and brooding. And as the trailers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice have proven, their streak of grimacing and angry heroes will continue.
But it’s been nearly eight years since Marvel Studios changed filmmaking forever. Their success is unprecedented but after this summer’s offerings, a disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron or the better-than-expected-but-still-just fine Ant-Man, many critics are starting to argue that the limitations are starting to show. Ant-Man was the most formulaic Marvel film yet, showing the three-act structure that seems to be the basis for most of their films. But more than that Marvel films seem to back and forth from being fun and adventurous (Guardians of the Galaxy nailed this vibe perfectly) to surprisingly poignant and hard-hitting (Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
While Marvel is appreciated more for its lightheartedness, I think it is at it’s best when it gets a bit darker. I’m not arguing that there isn’t room for Marvel to be fun. There absolutely is. But next year’s Captain America: Civil War is a film that will take itself very seriously. You need a very deft hand to go from silly to serious without missing a beat, and historically Marvel has been inconsistent in that department. Joss Whedon injected a light touch in The Avengers but was obviously forced to shoehorn in an obligatory The Dark Knight-seriousness in the sequel. To be fair to Whedon though, it’s clear studio pressure got to him. And subsequently broke him.
As it stands the Captain America films are the best, and Cap is Marvel’s best character. The Winter Soldier was hard-hitting, mature, and actually raised some decent ethical questions for a comic book movie. Winter Soldier asked Cap where he drew the line between security and personal freedoms. It was nice to see him do the right thing. But more importantly, Winter Soldier also asked a question that was bigger than “Who would win in a fight between Thor and Hulk?” That kind of question felt like the entire first half of The Avengers. Winter Soldier was the kind of real philosophical and ethical dilemma we face in reality, the kind that audiences can benefit seeing play out in a dramatic scene. In fact, for those reasons, I’d argue that Captain America is the better version of Superman on screen today.
The last film to ask an ethical question on that level was Iron Man. If you go back and revisit director Jon Favreau’s beginning of the MCU, you see a film that does a decent job of keeping superheroics identifiable. This was in 2008. We were in both Iraq, Afghanistan, an election cycle, and The Dark Knight hadn’t come out just yet. On the surface, Iron Man is a very capable superhero origin story that fits neatly in Marvel’s three-act structure. But the movie missed an opportunity to get a bit more morally gray.
The protagonist is Tony Stark, played to perfection by Robert Downey Jr. When we meet Stark at the opening of the film, he is captured by terrorists and being “tried” for his crimes against humanity. In that scene, our hero is powerless, scared, and identifiable as we’ve unfortunately seen too many real videos of Al Queda or ISIS doing the same thing. While we sympathize for Stark in the opening of the film, we later get his backstory. The truth is, he’s not that great of a guy. He is a genius, but his wealth is inherited, and it is built on manufacturing weapons in the war on terror. We later learn these weapons have been sold under the table to terrorists, shattering Tony’s naive world view that they only did business with the U.S. Military — the good guys so to speak.
In October of this year, a Doctors Without Borders hospital was caught in friendly fire, and civilians were killed. The incident is being investigated as a war crime, but it shows that this conflict has real casualties that extend beyond soldiers or terrorists. War is hell. Horrendous things like that happen.
And Iron Man had some commentary on this. But in retrospect, there was room for more.
I’d argue that Captain America is the noblest of the Avengers. In many ways, he is Marvel’s analog to Superman in that both are raised on the belief in America. Iron Man isn’t so black-and-white. In the film, Stark is horrified that his weapons have killed American soldiers. He himself has nearly been killed by terrorists. And he is bound by his company to keep up the cycle of violence he is so complicit in. He eventually decides to take matters in his own hands. He cannot redirect his company’s path, and his second-in-command has a vested interest in keeping the weapons business alive. So he goes rogue and builds the suit that started it all.
But for many years it’s obvious Stark was willfully ignorant of his company’s doings. He gleefully sells bombs to the U.S. military and initially refuses to acknowledge that he is responsible for collateral damage. In Iron Man 2 he has rebranded himself as the man who “successfully privatized world peace” but it is clear he is overcompensating for something and it isn’t hard to see Tony as using his same smarmy business attitude, just for a better purpose.
Perhaps Iron Man was bound by the fact that it was a superhero film. Again, it came out months before Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Audiences in 2008 still saw superhero films as glorious visualizations of their comic books and not an outlet for meaningful social commentary. In addition, the film was rated PG-13, thus limiting how raw it could get.
Tony Stark is now ostensibly a hero. What little dialogue we get from him in the Captain America: Civil War trailer suggests that he has learned both from his past in Iron Man, as well as his considerable screw up in Age of Ultron, that he believes in limits. Time will show how much of his past motivates his decisions in the film, but with the Russo brothers directing I feel confident the character motivations will be real.
Nevertheless, Stark is dangerous. In the comics, he is prone to alcoholism. In the films, he is a self-professed mad scientist. He is aware of the damage he has done, and he’s unnerved by it. Iron Man 3 smartly gave him PTSD after the events of The Avengers. Stark is scared of everything. He is scared of the power his fellow Avengers hold, he is scared of what could come to earth at any second, and he is scared of himself as well.
I’m not a screenwriter, so I can’t say the best way to accomplish this. But Civil War is going to be an important film for our two characters. We will see a clash of ideologies. But I still feel that Iron Man should have gotten a bit darker than it did. That’s not to say that Stark’s one-liners or the colorful aesthetic of L.A. should be cast side. But like any good sad clown, I think Stark should be responsible for more pain and should harbor more guilt. This will only make his clash with Cap hurt that much more, because this is a good man who is inadvertently responsible for many bad things, and it might give us more depth. The film I’m confident will still be great, Downey has handled this character perfectly. But so much of Stark’s past is just as important as what he did in the films, that it feels like a missed opportunity. On the surface, Civil War is another “who would win in a fight” but this time, it isn’t about who is stronger, but who is right.