Last night, news broke that Robert Downey Jr. is close to reprising his role as Marvel Studios cinematic universe linchpin Tony Stark in 2016’s Captain America 3. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s plan for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Variety reports, is apparently to use Cap 3 as a springboard for the studio’s superhero properties going forward by adapting Marvel Comics’ 2006 “Civil War” crossover story line for the third phase of Marvel’s movies. Let us pause for a moment and try to appreciate that we live in a world in which the not-yet-consummated deal for Iron Man to costar in the third (THIRD!) Captain America movie is the lead story in Variety. And what a weird, wacky world it is. If the deal happens, it would appear to be part of an ambitious long-range plan that, on its own, seems like something out of a comic book.
Now, as mentioned, the deal is not yet done. Presumably, it can still hang up or otherwise fall apart because Marvel Studios1 is somewhat famed for being cheap, while Downey is — in his capacity as the original and most indispensable film Avenger — fantastically expensive. Downey’s haul from The Avengers alone was reported to be in the neighborhood of $50 million, and, according to him, Marvel Studios was not exactly thrilled about cutting that check. “They’re so pissed. I can’t believe it. I’m what’s known as ‘a strategic cost,’” Downey told GQ in 2013.
Which is owned by Disney, which owns ESPN, which owns Grantland, which pays me.
The Variety story mentions that Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter straight-up wanted Downey’s role excised from Captain America 3 after the star agitated for a bigger part that would, naturally, garner a bigger payday. Apparently, Perlmutter was talked down by Feige, who sees “Civil War” as the ideal jumping-off point for Marvel Studios’ “Phase 3” slate of films.
Enough with the business stuff. So: What is “Civil War”?
“Civil War” is a Marvel Comics story line written by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven. It ran as a seven-issue limited series, but also tied in with virtually every title under the Marvel banner, to varying degrees. Of the numerous crossover events Marvel Comics has produced since 2000, I think it’s fair to call “Civil War” the most impactful. The changes wrought by “Civil War” rearranged the Marvel Comics status quo in significant ways and drove narrative developments for several years thereafter.
It starts off with a D-level superhero outfit called the New Warriors on the trail of some powered-up criminals who escaped from Rikers Island some months prior. The Warriors, with a reality television crew in tow, have tracked the supercriminals to a middle-class suburb of Stamford, Connecticut. The New Warriors are out of their league, and one of them even mentions as much — one of the escapees almost took out the Hulk once! But the second season of their reality show has been disappointing thus far, and any qualms about a disparity in power level are overruled. Bring these criminals in, the thinking goes, and the reality show will be a hit and the New Warriors regarded as a serious outfit.
It goes bad right from the start. One of the escapees, Coldheart (twin mystical swords, high-tech armor), notices the costumed weirdos and television cameras lurking in the woods beyond their safe house’s backyard and warns the others. The New Warriors — element of surprise blown — pounce, and a standard comic-book donnybrook breaks out, with costumed characters crashing through windows and getting punched through doors. One of the escaped prisoners, Nitro (power: to turn his body into an explosion) makes it to the street, and tries to hoof it out of Dodge. Namorita (Atlantean, cousin of Namor the Sub-Mariner, super-strength, flight) spots him and tackles him into the side of a school bus parked in front of an elementary school. Nitro, quite naturally, responds by exploding.
The resulting explosion reduces a portion of Stamford to a smoking crater and kills as many 900 people, including every soul at Stamford Elementary. Nitro’s explosion also kills the New Warriors, to which the public response can be fairly summed up as: “Good.”
Shocked by the carnage, and weary of the seemingly endless and incredibly destructive heroes-versus-villains-versus-aliens super battles, the public demands accountability from its ostensible protectors. Obviously, banning superheroes outright is a nonstarter: At any time, there are thousands of superpowered criminals just waiting for the right time to strike, and that challenge must be met. You just can’t leave the barn door open when Doctor Doom or the Green Goblin or Thanos are out there. But if normal citizens, in certain states, have to pass background checks to own firearms, which they then have to register with the government, then shouldn’t superpowered individuals — living weapons, really — have to register themselves with the government and undergo training in the proper usage of their heightened abilities?
Thus, the Superhero Registration Act is pushed through Congress.
The registration act, as you can guess from the title “Civil War,” splits the superhero community. Iron Man, always an old-school, arms-dealing, law-and-order man, becomes the leading figure for the pro-registration side. The pro side has the numbers, and includes She-Hulk (a lawyer, what do you expect?), Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), Spider-Man, Hank Pym (Ant-Man), Mr. Fantastic, Black Widow, and many others. But Captain America — the onetime rah-rah 1940s Boy Scout who in recent years has questioned his government’s motives more often than not — is fervently anti-registration. Cap quickly becomes the rallying point for an underground resistance movement that includes Iron Fist (pretending to be Daredevil; long story), Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Doctor Strange, Winter Soldier, Sharon Carter (Agent 13), Black Panther, and personal Marvel deep-cut fave Night Nurse.
Just looking over some of the names involved — and, again, those are nowhere near the only characters who take up for their respective sides — I think you can see where Feige is coming from and what he’s aiming for. By 2016 and Captain America 3, the current crop of film Avengers will be approaching the ends of their contracts, getting long in the tooth, or maybe just plain getting tired of playing Norse gods, Russian superspies, and roided-up soldiers. Ant-Man is in production. Casting for Doctor Strange is ongoing. Marvel’s Daredevil is filming for streaming release on Netflix, as part of a deal that includes three other shows revolving around Marvel Comic’s street-level characters, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones. And there are persistent rumors that Captain Marvel and Black Panther scripts exist somewhere within Marvel Studios’ developmental pipeline. “Civil War” provides a ready-made narrative framework that can be used not just to tell a cool story, but also to transition in new characters while offloading the old.
How? Well, without spoiling things, in “Civil War,” some pretty major characters die. One very major character is killed and has his (OK, it’s a he) mantle taken up by someone else. These characters already exist in the film universe, and the real-life contractual details regarding the actor who plays the character who dies would seem to suggest an exit looming for the film version.
The biggest changes Marvel will have to make in bringing “Civil War” to the big screen involve its comics properties whose film rights are owned by other studios. Helpfully, with the exception of Wolverine, most of the X-Men (whose movie rights are owned by 20th Century Fox) are at best tangentially involved, and therefore easily taken to the chopping block. Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four (also owned by Fox) plays an important role for the pro-registration side in the comics, but I think you could give his parts to either Iron Man or Ant-Man or some mixture of the two without sacrificing any story beats. Spider-Man (Sony) is the only non–Marvel Studios character whom you really have to include, so as to not drastically change the story. Funnily enough, Entertainment Weekly recently reported that high-level preliminary talks between Marvel Studios and Sony regarding an undefined Spidey-sharing program are already under way.
There are still a lot of moves left to make, and surely not all of those moves will come off. But it certainly seems as if Marvel has road map and intends to turn a movie trend into an institution.