The title of “Captain America: Civil War” is deceptive. Captain America may have slightly more screen time than his fellow costumed crime-fighters, but Marvel’s latest blockbuster is a sprawling ensemble thriller that expects the viewer to keep track of a dozen superheroes. This is par for the course. Beginning with “Iron Man” in 2008, Marvel – a comics publisher turned multimedia giant – has made a point of linking its films together, so that a minor character in “Thor”, say, will pop up in “The Guardians of the Galaxy”, and someone in “Ant-Man” will mention an event from “The Avengers”. Overseen by Kevin Feige, the President of Marvel Studios, the characters all share the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe.
From the company’s perspective, this corporate synergy is a means of turning each film into an advert for all the other films. From the superhero fan’s perspective, it allows for richer, more involved narratives. The downside is that the films are rarely satisfying as stand-alone narratives: in order to make sense of “Captain America: Civil War”, you need to have seen not only the previous two “Captain America” instalments, but the “Iron Man”, “Ant-Man” and “Avengers” films, too.
The crux of the new movie, though, is that some of the Avengers believe that they should be governed by a United Nations committee, while the others believe that they should remain independent. Naturally, this leads to a climactic – and delightful – punch-up between the 12 main characters, the only flaw being that it’s almost impossible to remember who is on whose side. For confused viewers everywhere, here is a guide to six of the central superheroes, most of whom were co-created in the 1960s by Marvel’s former president and head writer, Stan Lee.
Captain America (Chris Evans)
Captain America was one of Marvel’s earliest superheroes. Indeed, when the shield-throwing paragon was devised by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, the company still went by the name of Timely Comics. And he was timely: on the cover of his first issue, he socked Hitler on the jaw. Captain America’s alter ego is Steve Rogers, a frail but brave Brooklyn boy who went into two-fisted action against the Axis after receiving a dose of “super-soldier serum”. The character fell out of fashion after the war, but was revived by Marvel in 1964, when Lee justified his unchanged appearance – and his anachronistic, uncomplicated patriotism – by saying that he had been in suspended animation in a block of ice since the 1940s. As well as being a comics icon, Captain America was the first Marvel superhero to be in a film, having had his own black-and-white Republic serial in 1944.
Iron Man (Robert Downey junior)
Lee claims that he conceived the character of Iron Man to epitomise everything his readers would despise in the 1960s: Iron Man’s Howard Hughes-alike alter ego, Tony Stark, wasn’t just a wealthy industrialist and playboy, but an arms manufacturer. However true this story may be – and you have to take Lee’s self-mythologising with a pinch or two of salt – Iron Man was as much a product of the cold war as Captain America was of world war two. Introduced in “Tales of Suspense” in 1963, he flew around the globe in his robotic armour, battling Communist agents. Five decades on, he is by far the most beloved character in Marvel’s film empire, thanks largely to the twitchy charisma of the actor who has made the role his own, Robert Downey junior. Whenever he is in a scene – cocky, voluble, glamorously dishevelled – the other Avengers become his supporting cast.
Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)
The Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics. Created by Lee and Kirby, he debuted in issue 52 of “Fantastic Four” in July 1966, a few months before Huey P. Newton called his organisation the Black Panther Party. (This coincidence could explain why the character was briefly renamed the Black Leopard.) There is some debate as to how much of a sociopolitical step forward the Black Panther was. After all, he wasn’t a New York-based vigilante, like Spider-Man and company: he was T’Challa, the exotic king of the imaginary African nation of Wakanda. And, of course, he had the word “black” in his name. But even a token black superhero was better than no black superhero at all – and the Panther continues to break new ground. His solo film, directed by Ryan Coogler (“Creed”), will be released on February 16th 2018. (Yes, Marvel likes to plan ahead.)
Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
No relation to the Black Panther, the Black Widow (aka Natalia “Natasha” Romanova) was depicted in “Tales of Suspense” in April 1964 as a Russian spy in an evening dress who made life difficult for Iron Man. But she soon squeezed into the regulation skintight outfit of a superheroine, and defected to America to join the Avengers. In the films, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t bother with a Russian accent, but the character is still popular enough for fans to ask why she – unlike Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, et al – hasn’t been given a film of her own. More controversially, the character was omitted from most of the merchandise that accompanied the release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” last year. Even Mark Ruffalo, who plays Bruce Banner/The Hulk in the “Avengers” films, tweeted his disappointment that he couldn’t find any Black Widow toys for his daughters.
Falcon (Anthony Mackie)
If the Black Panther was the first major African superhero in US comics, the Falcon was the first African-American. (Luke Cage and Blade would follow shortly.) Anticipating the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, Sam “Snap” Wilson was initially a Harlem resident who wore a bird-shaped medallion and an open-to-the-navel costume. (This uniform had, mercifully, been modified by the time the character transitioned to the big screen in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in 2014.) The Falcon went on to become Captain America’s sidekick, and in the current films he seems content to stay in that lowly position. But in a recent run of Marvel comics, Wilson took on the mantle of Captain America: proof that comics are more progressive than Hollywood movies.
Spider-Man (Tom Holland)
Before Marvel began making its own films, it leased the rights to many of its characters to other companies: Fox has dibs on the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, Sony has Spider-Man. But Sony’s last Spidey film, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, went down so badly that the company abandoned plans to construct their own cinematic universe around him. Instead, Sony agreed to share control of Spider-Man with Marvel, which is why the character was brought back into the fold in “Captain America: Civil War”. Taking over from Andrew Garfield, who had the title role in “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel, Tom Holland plays Spider-Man as a nerdy, naïve teenager who says “awesome” a lot. This millennial version is quite a change from Garfield’s wisecracking cool kid, but it has its roots in the original conception of the character as a schoolboy with the same hang-ups as his youthful readers. His own film, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, is due in July 2017.
Captain America: Civil War out now