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How Marvel films like Captain America: Civil War became the world's biggest TV show

With all TV's strengths and weaknesses.

Captain America: Civil War
Captain America drops in for the season premiere of Marvel Cinematic Universe, season three.
Marvel Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Viewed in complete isolation, the plot of Captain America: Civil War makes little to no sense.

The movie's three acts — which roughly boil down to "Cap learns of the Sokovia Accords and refuses to sign them," "Cap and Tony square off over Bucky," and "Tony fights Cap and Bucky over other tragic events" — keep shifting the characters' goals in a way that seems designed to make you forget what was happening in the previous act. It's a kind of cinematic sleight of hand.

In fact, I'm not entirely sure why the movie believes Captain America has a justifiable argument against the government's proposed oversight of superheroes. As presented in Civil War, his view seems to be, "Powerful individuals should have no oversight, and because I love my friend Bucky, he should not be subject to the rule of law, even though he killed a bunch of people. (Also, we should get to high-five.)"

Iron Man's opposing argument — that superheroes have been responsible for too much inadvertent death and, as such, should be subject to government regulations — is far more sensibly laid out, at least within Civil War's two-hour, 27-minute running time.

But this is where things get tricky. In short, judging Captain America's anti-regulation argument based only on what we see in Captain America: Civil War isn't fair to Cap, because Civil War isn't designed to be viewed in isolation.

When you think about where the character has been in earlier Marvel films — and especially when you consider the fact that he spent his last solo movie, The Winter Soldier, battling Hydra agents who had infiltrated the US government at all levels — his leeriness about being subject to oversight makes a lot more sense.

Maybe you can see what I'm getting at here: The Marvel movies are the world's most expensive TV show.

Marvel is much better at making big-screen TV than anybody else

The cast of Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't exactly teeming with women.
The Avengers films function as pseudo–season finales for Marvel.

Marvel Studios

I'm far from the first person to advance the argument that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is like TV. Heck, I've made this argument many times in the past myself. But something about Civil War — especially as compared with the much clunkier X-Men: Apocalypse and Batman v Superman — made me realize that Marvel is better at making big-screen TV than just about anybody else.

Once you start to think about the MCU as a TV show, a lot of the common criticisms people tend to level at it take on a new context. For instance, you don't have to look far to find complaints that Marvel's films are formulaic, or lack the visual spark of other blockbusters, or shoehorn in story elements that don't exactly fit but are necessary to set up future films. But all these characteristics are fairly typical on television, where a director's influence is much lower than that of the showrunner.

In the case of Marvel's films, the showrunner is probably producer Kevin Feige, though he's hired others to take on the sorts of supervisory roles a co-executive producer might hold on a TV series. For instance, Joss Whedon — a great TV showrunner himself — oversaw much of Marvel's so-called "Phase Two," while Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have written many of the company's recent releases. (For more on how Fiege, Markus, and McFeely collaborate, read this piece by Vox contributor Peter Suderman on Marvel's approach to connecting all of its films.)

But Feige is essentially the visionary behind Marvel's entire slate. And from his perspective, many of the complaints occasionally lobbed at Marvel's films become strengths of the MCU as a whole. The idea that Marvel's films are less artistic expressions and more pieces of corporate product — though I would push back against that criticism — makes less sense if you view the MCU as one big TV series.

After all, when you tune in to an episode of your favorite show, even if it's a stylistically adventurous one like Rectify or Mad Men, you have a very broad sense of what you're going to get. And that's even more true for a show like NCIS or even Game of Thrones, which has more or less turned "expect the unexpected" into its unofficial tagline but tends to employ a fairly narrow set of filmmaking styles. On television, a consistency of vision across multiple installments is viewed as a strength. So why is it a negative in film?

Or maybe I'm more likely to feel this way because I still primarily write about television. Thinking of a story as emanating from one all-controlling producer isn't that unusual to TV critics (or, I guess, to a movie critic from the 1940s, when producers held much more power), but it's a very different approach for film critics, who are used to thinking of the director as the most important person working on any film.

Yes, I suppose if we imagined that Marvel actually were a TV show, it would simply be a pretty good one, rather than a standout.

It's easy to picture these films breaking down into something Game of Thrones–esque, with every one of them checking in on various characters and their individual side stories, before bringing everyone together in the finale (or, rather, an Avengers film). (This would, I suppose, make the Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel's equivalent of Game of Thrones' Daenerys Targaryen — both separated by long distances from everybody else.)

But transforming an extremely profitable film franchise into what is more or less a solid TV show, one that seems to have delighted millions, isn't nothing.

Why this kind of serialization is a natural fit for Marvel

Captain America: Civil War
Marvel can introduce Black Panther in one film, then "spin him off" into his own series.
Marvel Studios

Film franchises have existed for ages and ages, of course.

But for the most part, the modern film franchise (which I would define as any film series released post–Star Wars in 1977) is subject to directorial whims. Even the ones with consistent directors — Steven Spielberg on the Indiana Jones films, or Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight trilogy — aren't really trying to tell big, sprawling stories but rather more episodic tales that appear to add up to a whole.

Take Star Wars, which qualified as Hollywood's "most TV-like" franchise before Marvel came along. That franchise pales in comparison with the MCU when it comes to degree of storytelling difficulty, mostly telling one story that follows the same set of characters across several movies. (George Lucas, the "showrunner" of the first six Star Wars films, drew his inspiration from old movie serials, cheekily evidenced in Star Wars' opening text crawls.)

The very nature of the MCU means it's heavily influenced by comics. All of its films are populated by comic book superheroes, and many of the stories they tell are loosely based on comics sagas. Plus, the whole idea of splitting off heroes into their own stories and then bringing them together for crossover events is a direct lift from the way modern superhero comics are published.

But comics have the benefit of frequency on their side. Most superhero books are published once per month, on a relatively regular schedule, and they come out year after year after year, if sales hold steady. Most TV shows might air in weekly installments, but, especially in this cable age, they air for a fast and furious number of weeks before leaving the air for a year.

Marvel's innovation, then, has been to take the basic idea of how superhero comics are structured and coat it in TV paint.

The storytelling is much more TV-like, in terms of how individual films are structured like "episodes" of a TV show (with roughly similar stories, even — for a long time, you could accurately describe every Marvel film as "a fight at the beginning, a fight in the middle, a fight at the end, all linked together with snark"), and in terms of how they assume your past knowledge of the characters' exploits. Again, that's true of comics, but it's much more true of modern cable television.

And there's always the sense with Marvel's films that the company constantly has one eye on the whole, sometimes to the detriment of the parts — by far one of the most common complaints about television in the Netflix era.

This is why other superhero movies shouldn't try to play Marvel's mega-franchise game

Captain America: Civil War
The gang runs into battle.
Marvel Studios

Examining this also explains why the recent efforts of other superhero movie makers — like Warner Bros. (Batman v Superman) and Fox (X-Men: Apocalypse) — fall so short of Marvel, even though they're produced like more traditional films. The simple fact is that those studios have failed to grasp how Marvel's pseudo-showrunner model allows for the kind of big-picture thinking this sort of mega franchise requires.

Sure, Warner Bros. has Zack Snyder working on many of its films, while Fox's X-Men team-up movies, at least, have a somewhat consistent directorial voice in Bryan Singer. But Snyder and Singer are primarily steeped in film and the way movie stories have always been told.

Singer is perhaps the best director of superpowered action on Earth, but when it comes time to have Apocalypse dovetail with story threads from the earlier X-Men: First Class (which was directed by someone else entirely), both Singer's direction and Simon Kinberg's script rely on hackneyed devices and clumsy storytelling, usually involving poorly inserted flashbacks.

Snyder's Warner Bros. films, meanwhile, seemingly start from the assumption that people have come not to see an individual story but a long series of teases for other ones. It's like he knows what he needs to do but can't focus on the task at hand.

TV certainly isn't immune to that problem, but shows that get caught up in high-concept premises and big-picture thinking before doing the necessary legwork to establish characters and their relationships tend to be canceled.

I say all of this not to suggest that film franchises resembling TV series is necessarily a good trend. For as much as I generally enjoy the Marvel movies, I'm disheartened by the possibility that their particular form might take over the film industry. Marvel has clearly tapped into something, but to replicate it would require aping the company's entire corporate structure, something other studios are ill-equipped to do.

The world will always need solid standalone films, ones that don't promise lots and lots of other films to come and largely tell single stories that may leave tiny breadcrumbs for future stories to pick up and follow. Hopefully they'll be helmed by directors who are more interested in putting their own stamp on the material, even if it clashes wildly with some house style.

But I also don't think it's the end of the world if Marvel continues on as a huge, hypercompetent behemoth. Maybe it's because I'm a TV critic first and foremost, but there's a reason TV has stolen so much of the cultural conversation over the past few decades. There's something legitimately exciting about the way the medium tells stories when it's good, and if nothing else, Marvel's success shows the film world could learn from that.

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