Are Marvel’s Ensemble Movies Too Much of a Good Thing?

Following The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, is Captain America: Civil War one ensemble movie too many?

Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has been establishing itself into a bigger and greater force since the release of the first Iron Man in 2008. Four years later the first ‘phase’ of movies culminated in the momentous ensemble ‘The Avengers’, bringing together some of the world’s most iconic superheroes on the silver screen for the first time. Phase Two continued with sequels to successful franchises, a new instalment in Guardians of the Galaxy, and a second Avengers film: Age of Ultron. In 2016, eight years after the MCU began, Phase Three begins with Captain America: Civil War.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited for Civil War. It’s one of my favourite graphic novels and so far there has been little in the MCU, including the TV series, that I haven’t enjoyed. But does the ever growing series of film need another ensemble movie so soon?

The first Avengers film was so impressive because it hadn’t been done before. It was a groundbreaking (well, in the realm of summer blockbusters) attempt to bring not only a huge host of iconic comic book characters to the screen, but big name actors too: up and coming stars such as Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth alongside Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson. Not only that, but writer and director Joss Whedon managed to do it well. The audience cared about the characters too, having seen them introduced one by one in their own films- interesting stories that, despite setting up the overarching story of Thanos and the Tesseract, stood up as films in their own right.

The second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, is an enjoyable blockbuster but far busier and sloppier than the first. No new characters are introduced as a result of their own standalone film- the only new IP in the MCU’s film slate for Phase Two was Guardians of the Galaxy, and that franchise’s characters haven’t met the Avengers (yet). Apart from that we just saw sequels to Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. So when they all teamed up again it didn’t feel like anything particularly special, just a repeat of the last film with even more explosions.

Yet, despite the clear success of introducing characters through their respective solo outings, they introduced no less than three Avengers characters in Age of Ultron: Vision, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. I understand that none of these are big enough characters to warrant their own film, but to be brought into the universe so quickly, particularly in the Vision’s case, leaves them feeling quite hollow compared to their on-screen counterparts.

“Oh, the Vision’s a good guy? I have no idea who he is, or why I should give a fuck.” — Anyone in the cinema that hasn’t studied up on the comics.

And now, with barely a release since Age of Ultron, Marvel are heading into Civil War, an ensemble picture so busy with superheroes that almost everyone has forgotten that it’s actually a Captain America film. I mean, it’s going to be so busy that they actually needed to put a scene at the end of the Ant-Man credits because it won’t fit in the film. Captain America and Falcon find Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier from Captain America 2) trapped in a dingy room. That story arc, apparently so important only a film ago, has been wrapped up in a scene only the most die-hard fans will ever see. No matter what Marvel and Disney say, Civil War isn’t Captain America 3; it’s Avengers 3.

And speaking of Ant-Man, it took such a charmingly simple and relatively stand-alone film to bring to light how impactful Marvel’s ensembles aren’t now. Not the most successful film ever, granted, but it demonstrated how fun an origin story can be. Aside from one scene shoehorned in by Marvel executives it sticks to simply acknowledging the MCU’s existence, and it told a much more interesting story as a result. Each series used to have its own sense of style and humour until they became just one part of the Avengers series; Ant-Man proved why the smaller films are so important, and why all these films were loved in the first place.

But Ant-Man wasn’t hugely successful, and there’s a fair chance that a lot of people that saw Age of Ultron will go see Civil War without that palette-cleanser. What was presumably a film about the search for the Winter Soldier has been morphed into a new Avengers title, with more superheroes than even featured in Age of Ultron.

For reference, here’s a list of characters appearing in Civil War:
Iron Man, Ant-Man, Black Widow, Captain America, Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, War Machine, Spider-Man and Black Panther, the latter two being introduced for the very first time. That’s not to mention smaller characters being brought back- Agent 13, General Ross, the rumoured Bruce Banner/Hulk and much wished for Daredevil- or the villains; CrossBones and Baron Zemo.

Is that really what we want or need? As great as the story might be, as great as it might be to eventually see, do we need such an epic film so soon after Age of Ultron? The fact that so many characters are being brought together has little impact even on me, a massive Marvel fan, because I’m numb to it. It doesn’t have the hype of finally seeing everybody together; it’s just another film so soon after the last. And much like Age of Ultron there’s only one new character introduced to the mix from a previous solo outing- Ant-Man- and two new characters somehow introduced during the busyness. I know Spider-Man and Black Panther will get their own solo films down the line, but how are we supposed to become invested in any emotional level if they’re just two new faces amongst a sea of regulars, without enough screen time to be fleshed out, focussed on or developed?

I’m glad that the rest of Phase Three seems to address this issue, and actually introduces new characters into the mix. After all, the contracts and ‘trilogies’ of the main characters will draw a close by the time this phase finishes in 2019 and they’ll need some interesting franchises to keep bums in seats. But it also brings opportunities to make original and interesting films that, whilst fitting into the larger Marvel universe, tell their own stories.

Superhero films are just fantasy and action films where the protagonist has (or sometimes doesn’t have) special powers. There’s no reason why audiences should grow tired of the genre, unless studios keep giving them the same thing. Doctor Strange promises to be really dark and really trippy, delving into other dimensions and all sorts of weird stuff. Spider-Man will make a return to the ‘teen flick’ style. Captain Marvel will actually feature a female lead (shock horror). And when these characters finally appear in an Avengers ensemble film, we’ll actually care about them.

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