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Marvel’s Self-Aware Superhero Machine

Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

The superhero boom has officially reached its existential-crisis phase: In 2016, every comic book movie must double as a referendum on the state of the comic book movie. First, Deadpool cynically turned superhero fatigue into yet another massively profitable superhero franchise, raking in the box office even as it ruthlessly hamstrung audiences’ ability to take the genre seriously. Then Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, haunted by the twin specters of Sad Affleck and the similarly bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, became a critical scapegoat, an embodiment of everything that’s wrong with costumed crimefighters.

But now there’s Captain America: Civil War, arriving just in time to swing the pendulum back to cautious optimism. For the first time in what feels like ages, the rift between critics and audiences is (temporarily) healed. The kickoff of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ominous-sounding Phase 3 brought in $179 million in domestic box office over its opening weekend, and it’s rocking a 90 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — a threshold no superhero movie has met for almost two years.

It’s fairly obvious why. Civil War doesn’t just deliver on the pure nerd wish fulfillment of “what would happen if X and Y got in a fight,” heretofore the driving force of many a Comic-Con. The main conflict is basically an extended therapy session to work out the biggest failings of the superhero genre — not just Marvel’s, but also those of Warner Bros.’ DC, Fox’s X-Men, and even Sony’s lonely Spider-Man.

The two sides of the namesake civil war conveniently split the Avengers straight down the middle, and the squad gets to arguing about superhero oversight. Forty-five minutes later, Teams Pro (Iron Man, Black Widow, Vision, War Machine, and Spider-Man) and Con (Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Falcon, and Ant-Man) are fully formed.

But between the group participation and the concern with what its heroes are capable of, Civil War isn’t so much Captain America 3 as Avengers 2½: Sorry About That Last One. The mass destruction inflicted by a climactic battle has long been the superhero film’s most disturbing feature. Once accepted as a tradeoff for higher stakes — they may have wrecked the city, but they saved the world! — the returns have since diminished, bottoming out with Man of Steel’s tone-deaf 9/11 parallels. As a limited and very personal conflict between two heroes, Civil War addresses Ultron’s messy, incoherent final battle in the fictional country of Sokovia (the fallout motivates both Iron Man and this movie’s sorta-villain). It also proves that large-scale, borderline-ambient violence isn’t necessary for good drama. Pack in too much human suffering, too casually and too quickly, and it becomes a low hum in the background. Concentrate it in a few beloved leads and it anchors a movie.

Civil War is, in other words, a complete 180 from Ultron — and one that’s all the more remarkable for coming just over a calendar year later. In the time it takes Warner Bros. to reschedule a single movie, the Marvel Cinematic Universe pulled off a radical pivot. In retrospect, Ultron now looks less like a creative failure and more like part of a thematic long play, something it was almost certainly not intended to be at the time. By folding Ultron into the MCU’s larger narrative, they’ve figured out a way to retroactively make a dip in quality look intentional.

The upgrades don’t stop there, either. Civil War atones for many sins. Marvel heads off origin-story fatigue by including Black Panther’s here, rather than in his own movie in a couple of years. The studio mercifully trusts its audience to know who Spider-Man is after two reboots in a decade. A full dozen characters feel well served, effortlessly solving the Rubik’s Cube that broke Joss Whedon and bogged down Batman v. Superman. And it’s actually funny (as opposed to 17th-round-of-script-doctoring funny), though that’s expected from directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who came up through three of the best sitcoms to air this century.

Marvel isn’t the only franchise that’s attempting this kind of revision on the fly — it’s just the only one pulling it off. Batman v. Superman, after all, gestured at a similar moral reckoning before dropping it like so much Metropolis debris. And a much-needed dose of levity is exactly what’s behind those widely reported Suicide Squad reshoots. Thing is, those come off like clumsy retooling, where Civil War’s twists, largely left out of the marketing, are a pleasant surprise. (Publicity: Another front where Marvel is miles ahead.)

Civil War showcases a Marvel that’s the most surprising thing a meticulously planned, multibillion-dollar studio can be: nimble. Kevin Feige’s empire isn’t just the shiniest collection of brand names in the game. It’s also the most adaptable, and just like in nature, the blockbuster complex that evolves is the blockbuster complex most likely to outlive its competitors. With at least nine (!) more movies to come and billions of dollars in revenue on the line, Marvel will have plenty of chances to put that agility to use. Because if 2016 audiences are already tired of 2013, all we know is that 2019 audiences will want something else entirely.

This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 11, 2016.