'Captain America: Civil War' and What's Next for the Marvel Movie Formula

The most hero-filled Marvel movie to date kicks off a new era for the studio.
The most hero-filled Marvel movie to date kicks off a new era for the studio.

Sure, it seems exciting from the perspective of previews at D23 Expo in Anaheim, but by the time it hits theaters next May, Captain America: Civil War will be the subject of much speculation for Marvel, following up on previous concern subjects Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. The studio should probably start getting used to that feeling now.

The concern for Civil War is two-fold; first, it pits the popular heroes against each other to an extent that goes beyond the tantrums in the Avengers movies to date, raising the possibility of alienating the audience to particular characters moving forward (Also, it does so following the release of Warners' Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, another intra-hero battle movie). Second, it's by far the most hero-filled Marvel movie to date, including the introduction of at least two new characters — Black Panther and Spider-Man — who will anchor their own subsequent releases. There's a lot of pressure to not screw this up and sour the audience on the next generation of Marvel heroes straight out the gate — but doing that while also servicing the existing fan-favorites may be an impossible task.

What's strange for Marvel, however, is that almost all of its upcoming releases could be argued to be "risky gambles" for the studio for the next few years. After Civil War, the next release is Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange, which will come with a round of "Can Marvel make a supernatural movie?" speculation. 2017 sees Sony's Spider-Man reboot, which has an air of "Will anyone still care?" after the earlier attempts at making the character work, as well as two relatively sure things, Thor 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and then 2018 plunges the studio into a risky gamble maelstrom: Black Panther ("Can Marvel sell a black action lead to mainstream audiences?"), Captain Marvel ("Can Marvel sell a female action lead to mainstream audiences?") and Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 ("Have audiences had enough of these superheroes by now?").

What started with last year's Guardians of the Galaxy as "will this be the movie that breaks their streak of hits?" had — by the time Ant-Man was released — mutated into an unspoken "surely this is the movie that breaks their streak of hits." 

Part of this attitude undoubtedly comes from an overfamiliarity with the Marvel formula, which is admittedly beginning to feel a little worn by this point — the break from the white hero formula due in 2018 would have been welcome this year, and almost certainly increasingly so in 2016 and '17. As studio president Kevin Feige has pointed out in the past, Marvel is in a difficult place right now, where it has to balance the innovation necessary to survive with staying true to its brand enough to please the existing fanbase. While Marvel as a studio could use the diversity that a truly out-there Doctor Strange would bring, such a movie might break the all-important belief that every movie matters equally. What happens when you break that core belief in your audience?

(Another reason for the appetite for Marvel's destruction is the same one that fueled Marvel's rise in the first place; the audience loves underdogs. The longer Marvel remains utterly dominant at the box office and in the superhero genre, the more people will want to see someone else succeed instead. Whether Warners can convince enough people that it's an underdog in this race will be interesting, of course.)

Looking over the next few years of Marvel releases, the studio begins to feel more like a Jenga tower — something that's continuing to reach ever higher, but with every new level, feels increasingly likely to fall apart. Watching it happen, there's the fight between the excitement and desire to watch it grow, and the schadenfreude at the thought of watching it tumble. After all, nothing can last forever — not even with Earth's Mightiest Heroes trying to hold it all together.