Long Live the On-Screen Comic Book

Let’s start with this: Captain America: Civil War is the best Marvel Cinematic Universe Film so far. If you want to say Avengers is still a nose ahead, that’s fine, but the baseline I’m working from is that the top tier of the MCU consists of Civil WarAvengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and I’d put them in that order.

Doubtless, these movies all benefitted from being at least five films deep into the MCU by the time they arrived in theaters, but the larger point is that two of them have used their position as a piece of something bigger to choose not to be movies, exactly.

Civil War and The Winter Soldier are structured like comic books.

And that’s really important, because comic books and movies are structured really differently. Most of the MCU movies, including both Avengers films, have ostensibly seemed to think of themselves as movies. Which is great. Iron Man adapted a comic book character to the big screen with a cinematically fulfilling origins story about a man who reforms himself to make the world a better place. Guardians of the Galaxy (a very imperfect movie in my eyes) has all kinds of tie-ins to the rest of the MCU, but it’s mostly just a revenge tale, a romping, spacefaring action movie. And as I’ve said, for all the culmination of what comes before that both of the Avengers movies represent, their stories are laid out predominantly as single unit tales of wonder.

That’s not to say comic books don’t have narrative backbones. They do, especially extended storylines or events like Knightfall or the comics version of Civil War. But take Knightfall, for example. Even in the midst of a macro narrative about the three-way fight among Batman, Bane, and Azrael, there are pieces which connect outside that story, and there are sections which are their own complete narrative taking place against that backdrop.

This is how comics work. It’s not uncommon for half a book to be devoted to a plot resolved within the issue, while the rest deals with an unrelated subject that takes a year and many issues to resolve. It’s very different from the singular focus of a movie.

But the two most recent Captain America movies haven’t been so much comic book adaptations as they have been comic books on screen. As I wrote in my review of The Winter Soldier:

…it didn’t bother me that Iron Man didn’t come flying in to help, because I recognize that there’s an artificial separation of heroes within the comic book medium. In that medium, it’s something that’s just accepted. And because The Winter Soldier represents something akin to an event run of comic books, it’s ok that there are characters that come in and out and plots that remain unresolved, because that’s how the medium works. We get the overarching plot of the run, plus some plotlines to revisit later. Again, this does not make for a good movie. The episodic nature of these story elements is frustrating when looking at this only as a movie. But as a piece of entertainment in the vein of comic book storytelling? I had fun with it.

Civil War leaned into this idea even more. Think about how segmented the story is. It opens with subplot about hunting down Crossbones, who only means anything to you if you’ve seen The Winter Soldier. There’s this romantic bit between Vision and Scarlet Witch that plays out. And of course, there’s the Spider-Man detour. That’s not even touching on Baron Zemo as this weird side actor who’s playing out almost entirely independent of the Sokovia Accords.

But it works, because each one of those pieces is compelling in its own right. Civil War is really a collection of independently compelling stories and characters loosely stitched together, plus a little extra focus on Captain America, but that’s exactly why the whole thing works so well. It’s like getting bonus movie because the film gives itself license to move fluidly from one plotline to another.

This only works if you’re invested in the “series run.”

The massive caveat in all of this is that to get all of the value Civil War offers, you have to have seen most, if not all of the MCU films. And the longer the MCU goes on, the bigger the ask that is.

As someone who likes comic books and superheroes, if not necessarily everything in the MCU, that’s a price I don’t mind paying too much (although throw many more movies of the Ant-Man/Thor/Captain America: The First Avenger/Iron Man 3 variety at me and I might reconsider). The more the MCU leans into this idea of making comic books on film instead of adapting comic books to movie conventions, the more I get out of it all.

But for others, this can be frustrating.

Obligatory MCU Ranking

Tier 1

1) Captain America: Civil War

2) The Avengers

3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Tier 2

4) Avengers: Age of Ultron

5) Iron Man

5) Thor: The Dark World*

*subject to change; one of the few MCU movies I’ve still only seen once

Tier 3

6) Guardians of the Galaxy

7) Iron Man 2

Tier 4

8) Iron Man 3

9) Ant-Man

10) Thor

11) Captain America: The First Avenger