Marvel marches on, but when will the bubble burst?

Captain America: Civil War is the latest staging post in Marvel's attack on the box office. Can it be stopped? Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and star Chris Evans talk to Tara Brady

Captain America and Iron Man face off in the first trailer for the highly anticipated 'Captain America: Civil War'. Video: Marvel Entertainment

 

Astrophysicists tell us that our universe is expanding. But can there possibly be enough dark matter for us to keep up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)?

The box-office figures and even the titles – stay turned for Avengers Infinity Part I and Avengers Infinity Part II, scheduled to hit your local multiplex in 2018 and 2019, respectively – suggest otherwise.

The numbers crunch thusly: the first Thor film took $449 million in 2011; the second, Thor: The Dark World, bettered that with $642 million in 2013. The first Captain America picture, made $371 million in 2011; the sequel, Captain America: Winter Soldier scored $714 million.

It’s a bubble that can’t possibly burst, right? That’s almost certainly true (for now) over in the MCU, where the 13th feature-length film from the imprint is about to open. Captain America: Civil War is the third film to feature the once unfashionable flag-waving hero in its title and the first film to emerge from under what the studio has grandly dubbed “MCU Phase Three”.

The superhero squabble of the title sees the Captain (Chris Evans) and assorted chums – notably Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – do battle with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and newcomers Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman).

Propaganda tool
It’s complicated: Having spent five movies blowing things up, Ultron-creator Tony Stark/Iron Man has suddenly developed a conscience and would dearly love for his crusader brethren to sign a UN accord that will bring them under governmental control. Captain America, meanwhile, does not wish to yield to authority.

Is this slightly more contemplative mood typical of what we can expect from Phrase Three, I wonder?

“I think it’s more specific to this movie,” says Anthony Russo, who co-directed Winter Soldier and Civil War with his filmmaking brother Joe.

“Captain America was created in the 1940s as a propaganda tool to help encourage support among American people for entering World War II. You can’t escape that. But as filmmakers and artists we’re trying to layer the storytelling and characterisation.”

It would not require Marxist cultural critic Slavoj Zizek to note that Civil War sees Cap beat up his pals for the right to act unilaterally. But Joe Russo points toward a more positive spin.

“If you support culpability for power structures and big government and government control, then you’ll probably support Iron Man. If you prize individual freedom above everything else, you’ll probably support Cap.”

Chris Evans is a little less sure about metanarratives.

“I don’t know that a lot of his motivations in this movie are driven by society or culture or anything like that. His MO has always been driven by what other people need. But in this movie it’s about what he wants.

“When we did the first movie, we became aware when we did press tours that some people were saying ‘Ooh. Captain America.’ But even though I am wearing red, white and blue, it’s not some jingoistic tale. I don’t think the traits of loyalty or honesty or selflessness are particularly American. Every culture shares those qualities. But maybe now, in this movie he’s being a little selfish.”

The huge stand-off at the centre of Civil War was partly motivated by the Warner Bros announcement that Batman would be doing slap-down with Superman. At the time of writing, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice has grossed $851,883,636, a figure that industry watchers are calling “disappointing”.

The numbers certainly fall south of the $1,519,557,910 grossed by Marvel’s The Avengers or the $1,405,413,868 take for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Suicide Squad, the next instalment from the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) will likely give the sequence a boost, but there are already mutterings that Batman V Superman director Zack Snyder is no longer in charge of Justice League and “reports” tell us that Suicide Squad has undergone reshoots.

It’s not as easy as the MCU makes it look.

“It remains to be seen if that model can be used by other studios,” says Anthony Russo. “You’ve seen a lot of studios trying and Marvel has been very successful. But it’s an unprecedented form of interconnected narrative. We have not seen Batman. We will. We’ve just been busy delivering our movie.”

Batman snub?
If Warner Bros are wondering why its estimates are off, it should note that none of the cast and crew on the London press tour for Civil War has seen their DCEU competitor.

“I’ve not seen the film,” says Evans apologetically.

“Hopefully if you watch our movie, it doesn’t feel like just another superhero film. It still has good characters. It still has a good story. All the explosions in the world aren’t going to save your movie if you don’t have good, meaningful moments in between the special effects. You need real struggles that real people can identify with while they’re escaping into the movie.”

The Russo Brothers will soon go into pre-production on the two Avengers: Infinity War films and remain hopeful that the MCU team will still be drumming up trade in May 2019.

“Going forward, it’s all about branded content,” says Joe Russo. “Television has been released from Nielsen ratings and cash-rich corporations. Netflix and Amazon have zero metric for their content other than whether it starts a cultural conversation or not. That makes space for adventurous and risky storytelling.

“So the problem the studios are facing is: what can we offer that will get you out of the house when you can line up House of Cards and spend your weekend doing that? What can we offer in a world of so much media to get your attention? Everyone is trying to brand their content so they can buy a piece of the calendar. So now Deadpool owns February and they’ll branch out into X-Force and other characters. Star Wars owns Christmas for the next 20 years. Marvel owns May and November.”

Tipping point
But surely there’s a tipping point? Right now, when we’re not being accosted by Marvel superheroes at the multiplex, the fourth season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD will soon be upon us, a second season of Marvel’s Daredevil was released on Netflix last month, and Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger will air on Freeform next year.

And then there’s the Lego videogame, the Marvel One-Shot short films, the Disneyland ride. Cinema and TV history tells us this can’t go on indefinitely.

During the 1980s, audiences couldn’t get enough of the macho muscle of Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger. By the 1990s, despite the tweaks and innovations of films such as Last Action Hero, the same genre needed to disappear for a spell before audiences cautiously welcomed it back in its postmodern Expendables form. Still, Joe Russo remains confident that the MCU can keep pace.

“The movies we know are two-hour closed experiences,” he says. “But that’s evolving. I think our children will have a much different understanding of narrative. One that’s informed by YouTube and Vine.

“The content they watch averages four minutes. Are they really going to be interested in two-hour storytelling? Or do they want interconnected universes where they can spend 10 or 20 years of their lives?

With Civil War we got a lot of value out of the emotional attachment the audience has with the characters. That’s purely a product of interconnected universe. Who knows where it’s going. When VR shows up, that will change everything. But it’s an interesting and exciting time.”

 - Captain America: Civil War is out now on general release

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