This weekend brings us the long-awaited Captain America: Civil War. Or Avengers 2.5 or Iron Man 3.5 or Marvel Movie 13 or however you want to look at it. And you will want to look at it. $25 million in previews says you do, and $12 of that being mine says you want to as well. It’s not just one of the better Marvel films ever — which by default makes it one of the best super-hero films ever — it’s also a exhilarating refutation of everything DC tried to do with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And what it’s trying to do with its cinematic universe in general.
Really, the only way this could be worse for DC is if they’d stuck to their original release date and we had Civil War and BvS in theaters on the same weekend. The $166 million opening for BvS certainly would have been diminished (although the likely monster weekend in store for Civil War would have been too). And having Marvel’s example directly opposite it would have been so glaring, so deafening, the relatively disappointing $326 million it’s earned so far would have been very much in doubt. Because given the choice between going back to a gloomy, brooding place-setter of a film that’s a rushed attempt to build a universe and going back to a bright, exciting, energetic culmination of eight years of storytelling, you can bet audiences would make theirs Marvel.
The thing that most underlines the differences between the two films is in how you feel about the battle between their respective headliners. BvS seems built as nothing more than a delivery system for the moment Batman and Superman fight. We’re given a good two hours of build-up that we mostly don’t care about, the undercard we sit through with varying degrees of patience while we wait for the main event. We want to see these two guys go at it. It’s film as bloodsport, WWE fantasy booking. And when it comes? It’s over almost as quickly as an early Mike Tyson fight, except without the satisfaction of someone actually winning.
In Civil War though, the final brawl between Captain American and Iron Man is something you don’t want to see. You don’t want it to have to come to this. Yes, there are fights before that one, but nothing that ever feels like it couldn’t be walked away from, or forgiven with hindsight. But those same fights also lay the groundwork for their final battle. Whereas the climax of BvS is the exclamation point on a boyish shout, the final fight here is the last chapter of a novel we’ve been watching for eight years. It’s action in service to the story rather than being the sole reason for the story to exist.
In the end, Marvel gets the difference between theme and tone. You can deal with all the weighty, depressing subject matter you want. But you don’t have to make your audience slog through the mud to get to your point. In fact, if you give them some highs along the way, those lows you’re aiming for will hit them all the harder. For all its flash and dazzling super-hero fights, Civil War is a tragedy. It’s about the death of ideals, and how the death of one friendship may be the price of saving another. Above all, it’s not simply about two icons fighting each other for our bread and circuses. Civil War is about something. And about it in a way the current DC brain trust can only dream of.