Spider-Man, Civil War, and the power of lowered stakes in Marvel movies

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When Spider-Man: Homecoming was announced as a joint venture by Sony and Marvel Studios, followed shortly thereafter by Tom Holland’s Spidey appearance in Captain America: Civil War, the collective hope of every spider-fan everywhere was that finally, finally we’d get a Spider-Man movie that felt like the comics we’d grown up on. And, based on the fairly overwhelming positive response to the film, it seems like we got that. But aside from the spot-on depiction of Peter Parker, there’s another reason why the movie felt so much more like the comics. Be advised, spoilers ahead.

The Vulture, played by former Bat and Birdman Michael Keaton, is a refreshing change of pace in the world of super-villains, especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is notably lacking in many solid baddies. In older, more cartoonish superhero stories, the villains might be cackling, hand-wringing monsters of men who just wanted to do evil. In more modern stories, especially anti-hero centered ones, we’re challenged to see the villains as heroes in their own minds. That they think they’re out to save the world and must simply break it more before they can rebuild it better.

What we get in the Vulture instead is a man who is not evil, and is self-aware that what he is doing is a crime. He doesn't have any grand scheme or megalomaniacal plans; He’s just a blue-collar worker who feels bitter about how the rich make it impossible for anyone else to get rich and has turned to crime as a way of making a buck. If he can low-key stick it to Tony Stark in the process, all the better. The only aspect that makes him a step above a common criminal is his use of high-tech equipment to pull off heists and sell weapons. That's it.

That right there is the key to making this movie feel way more like reading a comic. The stakes are significantly lower than they have been in most of the other Marvel films. There’s no infinity stone threatening some aspect of reality, no sentient computer program that has hacked the world and plans to drop a small Eastern European nation from the sky, or elf-like gods from another dimension looking to shroud reality in darkness. It’s a villain with an easily identifiable axe to grind, and a goal that is obtainable, at least within the confines of a movie where a boy can walk on walls. The ramifications of his weapons hitting the streets are dire, but that's why it takes a superhero to stop him instead of a SWAT team. 

By giving him a far more believable antagonist, Spider-Man gets character-driven conflicts to play with. Instead of focusing simply on stopping some mega-powerful, all-threatening villain, we see him struggling with himself instead. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a movie about a teenage boy eager to save the world, but who eventually comes to term with the fact that he can do the most immediate good protecting his own neighborhood and the world close around him.

This feels so much more like picking up a random arc of a comic book. You can totally imagine the story of Homecoming taking place over the course of six issues in a series, and then being neatly bound together in a trade paperback. It’s the story of Peter investigating criminal shenanigans, following up on leads, and eventually confronting the villain to stop a heist, all while trying to keep his identity secret from Aunt May and possibly still get a date with his crush. That right there is a standard comic arc. Save that big stuff for milestone issues and crossover events which, in the MCU, is basically what the Avengers are for. If you start the series with earth-shattering events, then you don’t have much else to do when you come back for a sequel. This matters for the future of the franchise.

Thankfully, the MCU powers that be were aware of this, and the genius move of Civil War is that despite sharing a name with one of the biggest events in Marvel’s comic universe, they actually managed to tell what was ultimately one of the smallest stories that Marvel has put onscreen yet.

Yes, there’s a villain in Civil War (Zeno), but he has absolutely no goal in the movie other than tearing the Avengers apart. The scope of the movie may be world-wide, but when you strip it all away, the true conflict between Steve and Tony. Everything else is just set dressing for what is an extremely personal story of a disagreement between these two men.

That combination of lowering the global stakes and raising the personal ones in Civil War paid off. The rift between Captain America and Iron Man at the end arguably has as much weight and impact to the future stories as the Sokovia Accords. We see the ripples of it already in Homecoming, and will likely have even more when we get to Black Panther.

The big question moving forward into the next phase of Marvel projects is: Will they be able to dial back the carnage and tell more stories that land closer to home the way Homecoming, Civil War, and even Ant Man did? Captain America was able to scale back the world threatening threat of Hydra from the first two films for Civil War, but considering Asgard was in peril in both early Thor movies, Taika Waititi and company had little choice but to plunge it into Ragnarok for the third film. Given the news from SDCC that Captain Marvel will deal with the Kree war against the Skrulls, it’s hard to imagine her film will be small in scale either.

Will the ‘single arc’ Homecoming approach be a fluke in the MCU storytelling pattern, or will Marvel risk giving smaller stories to more of their heroes as they expand in the next phase? And if they do continually plunge the whole world into imminent danger, how long will it be before audiences will grow bored of the impending, but ultimately always preventable, apocalypse?

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