In the wake of the first glimpse at Captain America: Civil War, Jess Ennis asks why everyone is so excited.
Allow me to preface the forthcoming article by assuring the reader that I enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron. At this point, I’m so deeply in Marvel’s pocket that I’d probably watch two hours of Captain America and Thor washing dishes. In fact, I’d love it.
This does not make me, however, blind to the truth. Age of Ultron, for a Marvel film, disappointed me somewhat. But news of Joss Whedon’s departure from the franchise, and the Russo brothers’ firm instatement as the universe’s probable lead writers gave me some hope beyond Age of Ultron – something entirely reinforced with this past weekend’s Disney D23 Expo, in which the first footage of Captain America: Civil War was shown to the audience and recounted with eager abandonment online. This, then, is more an attempt to make sense of the hole that Age of Ultron left in me, and a mediation upon the immense excitement that Civil War fills me with.
Why am I so much more excited for it than I was for Age of Ultron? In short: the Russo brothers.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, audiences were given a refreshing take on Marvel’s superhero universe. Where Avengers Assemble had been a fun caper, the Iron Man trilogy a rich-boy-with-toys (albeit with more substance than that) romp, Winter Soldier was gritty. It was political – a thriller, almost. It spoke of Soviet Russia, Neo-Nazism and, importantly, trauma and recovery of war veterans. It used ideas close to the heart of its audience such as government surveillance and mass warfare in order to make the film feel real. Yes, the lead character was a recently defrosted ninety year old super-soldier. But when Captain America’s surroundings were so reminiscent of the audience’s, his struggles almost microcosmic of modern society’s permeated fear, the story grounded itself. It was dark, tonal, and rooted in politically charged genres outside of the superhero genre that gave its story real stakes and its characters real weight.
Age of Ultron, by contrast, didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. This is most likely down to Joss Whedon’s inability to settle with one strong idea throughout, and his aims instead to address every character, no matter how fleeting or out of character these moments were. After Winter Soldier, though, audiences understood the value of depth over breadth, so his plot seemed flimsy and slightly disappointingly executed (Redbrick’s Kate Manzi also addresses this in her review of Age of Ultron). It might be honourable of him to attempt to give every fan a bit of information about their favourite character, but it makes for a scatty and unsettled viewing. Age of Ultron didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be, flitting between the humour of Avengers Assemble and the darkness of Winter Soldier without ever really finding its footing.
Whilst the Russo brothers’ directing of Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War 1 & 2 is music to my ears, what makes this an even stronger move for the MCU is their continued involvement with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote both Winter Soldier and Captain America: The First Avenger. What this gives us is not only a tonal shift, a move from the potential franchised complacency that Whedon might have brought, but stories given to us by writers who know their characters inside out. It was always a concern of mine that if Whedon were to have written and directed Civil War, Captain America himself might have become lost in the supporting cast of fellow Avengers, and the story that Winter Soldier started with Bucky Barnes forgotten in favour of more Tony Stark screentime. With Markus and McFeely comes an assurance that the instalment won’t forget its roots and will continue to develop strong and informed character arcs, something that, sadly, I thought Age of Ultron failed to do.
My final – and probably the most popularly shared – reason for excitement at the prospect of Civil War in the hands of Anthony and Joe Russo is entirely down to the nuanced development of Black Widow that came about in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. From her first appearance in Iron Man 2, audiences have been unwaveringly eager to learn more about her; comics tell us that she was a soviet agent and assassin not dissimilar to the Winter Soldier, that she was impossibly skilled and finely trained (in some stories, by the Winter Soldier himself), that her joining the Avengers was a complex form of repentance for her past mistakes. Avengers Assemble gave us one hint at this – “I’ve got red in my ledger.” – and very little more than that. She was almost non-existent as a character, a sharp one liner in a tight outfit, and frankly, it annoyed people.
Imagine our relief, then, when The Winter Soldier introduced her as a complex, layered character, a woman with immense strength but also vulnerability, neither of which solely defined her. She struggled to find her identity following her years constantly adapting to missions, she believed that friendship was something not afforded to her because of her line of work – and yet she was more than a match for the Winter Soldier, as the wonderfully directed fight scenes showed. The Russo brothers had given us the female superhero we desperately wanted and deserved.
But imagine further, if you will. Imagine young women flocking to see Age of Ultron, to see the rounded and subtly defined woman hero we all relished in Winter Soldier, only to find that Whedon had effectively destroyed her character development for the sake of bringing her back to the undervalued and uncared for state that Avengers Assemble left her in. He reduced her, once more, to the sexy catsuit and romantic storyline, shoehorning her into a romance with Bruce Banner that was so forced and underdeveloped that it was uncomfortable. His worst crime, however, was his offensive attempt to give her depth by having her call herself ‘a monster’. Why? Because she was infertile. He took what could have been an incredibly important piece of backstory, her time in the Red Room, and rejected the hundreds of interesting plot points that could have stemmed from it, and instead chose to label her as less than her fellows – and equal to the Hulk, destructive and abominable – because of her sterility.
For me and for many other female fans, this was the final straw for Whedon. He’d previously been neglectful and offensive towards her before, having Loki call her a ‘mewling quim’ in Avengers Assemble, but this was downright ignorant. He could have used any number of ideas that the Russo brothers introduced to be her identifying factor with Bruce Banner – if this was even necessary – and could have used this to further her character development, but didn’t. With this, primarily, I lost a substantial amount of respect for Whedon’s writing within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it also gave me a stark clarity as to the Russo brothers’ personal feelings about their characters. It taught me that if the writers and the directors value their characters, if they believe wholeheartedly in the realistic and well-rounded development of them, the film will have so much more draw. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was fantastic upon first viewing, but even more important in retrospect, and this helped me form a conclusion; one that, judging by people’s comments on the Civil War D23 Expo footage, I share with many others.
Simply put, it is this: a film is better when the writers and directors care about both the people they are writing and the people they are writing for. This is where I believe Anthony and Joe Russo will succeed where Joss Whedon failed.