Captain America: Civil War is not a unified story, but that makes it more realistic.
Captain America: Civil War could be a much shorter movie that only focused on its core conflict. It could also have almost all of its fantastic elements removed, and be a noir story about two soldiers unified by loyalty. It could also be a realistic movie about the political struggle between bureaucrats and the people that work underneath them.
The core story of Captain America is the conflict between Captain America, the soldier who wants to get things done, and Iron Man, the bureaucrat who sees a need for centralized control and planning. After a mission goes awry, there is political and personal tension between the two friends as they debate the relative merits of centralization versus independence. That by itself is a debate that happens every day in real life, not just in the military, but in hospitals, schools and any other organization. On top of that, there is a second, more personal story: part of the reason the mission went bad is the presence of Captain America’s friend Bucky, who was brainwashed but now says he is innocent. If it was another person, Captain America might not believe this story, but he believes his friend. So he has a conflict between his duty as a soldier and his loyalty to a friend. This core conflict, of a soldier caught between responsibility and obedience, and between duty and loyalty, could be communicated in a much shorter, more integrated film, and it might increase the dramatic tension.
But during the film, we also learn about the origin of the Black Panther, a young diplomatic prince who watches his father die. We have the minor character Ant-Man, showing up to wisecrack. We have the Vision displaying cosmic powers. And we have the central set-piece battle in the middle of the movie, where two conflicting teams of heroes have a “friendly” fight that borders on the slapstick — while destroying an airport in the process. And we have the introduction of Spider-Man, who in his few scenes manages to steal the movie. What could have been a spy movie with a few fantastic elements is transformed into an obvious super hero movie where the main conflict is interrupted by the stories of other characters. This is not a story, but just a piece of a story.
Reading Comic Books in Hypertext in 1986
Around the age of six or seven, I begin to read comic books in earnest. Before that, I was only able to pick up an issue and have a low focal-length reading of the plot. When Super Man fought Lex Luthor, you had the good guy, the bad guy, they fought, and the story was resolved with a heroic victory. But then I started reading Marvel comics and, with a mind that was only starting to understand the connections of the larger world, I started trying to fit the pieces together. Marvel comic books were peppered with asterisks informing us how the story referred to past events. Spider-Man and Daredevil would be chatting about foiling a bank robber, and they would drop a casual aside, that apparently referred to an adventure they had in space. Wanting to understand that, I started a notebook where I took note of all these other stories I would have to read, running to pages of hundreds of references. I told myself some day I would read the entire history. This was a rather ambitious project: I was six or seven years old, with the attendant lack of budget, and with reprints and collections not yet available. But every once in a while, looking through a bin of 10 cent or 25 cent comics, I would find a tattered back issue that revealed a little bit more of the story.
This was all by design. Stan Lee plotted the Marvel Universe to be an interconnecting world from the beginning, both because the numerous tie-ins between stories would want to make people buy more comics, and because it seemed to be something the writers and the artists had fun with.
It is fun for readers as well, both to see characters interacting in unexpected ways, and in the very fact that an unshown story is more evocative than an available one. To think that the stories I was reading were the sequels to stories I did not have access to made them more intriguing.
Real life is unrealistic: Literary fiction versus genre fiction
In literary fiction, the type of books that win Pulitzers, and the type of movies that win Oscars, the protagonist has to settle the central conflict in the same world that they start in. Say we have a movie about a boy growing up in small town Iowa who feels estranged from the macho culture of his small high school and can’t live with the demands put on him by his traditional family. In the structure of Literary Fiction, he has to solve these problems with the emotional and cultural tools at his disposal: he learns to be brave enough to stand up to the pressure to conform, or he learns to forgive his parents for their overbearing attitude, finding the understanding that they were a product of their own environment. Or in a more political and social work, we get a polemic on the social and political forces enforcing conformity in small town America. But the story has to be finished in the world it started in.
In different types of genre fiction, this would be settled differently. In a romance novel, maybe the boy would learn that the reason he didn’t fit in was he was really adopted and his real parents were royalty. In a horror story, he might join up with a group of vampires. And in a Marvel comic? He would escape his background by getting bitten by a radioactive spider, or volunteering to become a super soldier. The conflict in the “normal” world is settled by leaving the “normal” world.
Why the expanding and linked story-telling used in the Marvel Universe, both comic and cinematic, is more than just a sales gimmick or lazy writing, is that while it breaks the conventions of Literary Fiction, it is not unrealistic in the real world. Maybe radioactive spiders and super soldier serums aren’t real, but young people do escape their world to go into space, to go to Antarctica, or to become secret agents. To insist that the only resolution to a narrative is in the world that it begins with is contrary to experience. And while it might seem that the central character driven arc of Captain America: Civil War, between Steve, Bucky and Tony Stark, be settled on its “own terms”, the “interference” of the stories of Prince T’Challa, Peter Parker, Wanda Maximoff, and others is true to life. Because our lives and our stories, no matter how dramatic, are not self-contained narratives. The sweetest love story and the most bitter tragedy can be just the background of someone else’s day, and so it is here, where the central story, by the end, becomes the prelude for (at least) three other stories that the audience is left anticipating.