In 2004, not long after the first two X-Men movies brought their mutant powers to multiplexes, Sam Raimi delivered one of the most emotionally affecting superhero films ever made: Spider-Man 2. Like the majority of mainstream Hollywood comic book releases that preceded it, starting with 1978’s genre-defining Superman: The Movie, Spider-Man 2 focused primarily on one individual, his desire to protect average citizens, and the challenge of reconciling that desire with his more “mild-mannered” alter ego. There was no team of heroes in Spider-Man 2 as there was in X-Men. It was a hero’s journey, singular, and one that struck a chord because, even though most of us can’t shoot spiderwebs out of our wrists, we can relate to the basic issues Peter Parker deals with, from his urge to lead a simple, happy existence to his wish that the love of his life would make a U-turn and head back into his orbit. Spider-man’s abilities may have been extraordinary, but his struggle was real.
In the dozen years since Spider-Man 2’s release, the comic book movie, as a genre, has grown even more dominant. At this particular moment — as Captain America: Civil War hits theaters with a fully loaded ensemble cast of Marvel heroes, including, yes, Spider-Man — it feels like the genre is officially entering a new era, one where the hero’s journey, singular, has been supplanted by the heroes’ journey, plural.
In 2016, superhero movies are all about groups, posses, teams. They’re focused more on squad goals and resolving intra-organizational squabbles than individual internal conflict or a single justice-vigilante’s hunger to help the average citizen. It’s a trend that coincides with studio efforts, pioneered by Marvel and now being duplicated by Warner Bros. and DC Comics, to build these films into so-called cinematic universes, where each comic-inspired sequel and spin-off narratively interlocks with the others, mimicking what comic books have long done. In a way, the act of enjoying comic book movies itself almost feels like being part of a club. If you don’t go through the proper initiation ritual — say, watching and fully absorbing most of the dozen previously released Marvel Cinematic Universe movies before seeing Captain America: Civil War — there’s a chance you’ll feel left out.
Consider the comic book movies that have been or will be released in 2016. Deadpool and Doctor Strange aside, you’ve got: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie preoccupied with the adversarial relationship between its two titular superheroes, and with introducing Wonder Woman as a gateway to a Justice League movie; Captain America: Civil War, which reunites most of the stars of the two Avengers movies, plus characters from other Avenger-adjacent works, plus two more Marvel favorites (Spider-Man and Black Panther), then pits them against each other; X-Men: Apocalypse, the next chapter in the X-Men origin story that adds even more young mutants (Jean Grey, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Storm) to the mix and, like Batman v. Superman and Civil War, deals with strife among its established heroes; and, in July, the much-hyped anti-hero ensemble Suicide Squad.
Looking ahead to 2017 and 2018, the squads just keep on coming: there’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, the aforementioned Justice League, Avengers: Infinity War (or whatever it will be called), and Ant-Man and the Wasp. That doesn’t even take into consideration the movies that are technically built around a single hero — the aforementioned Doctor Strange, the next Wolverine movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok — but because of their connections to all the previous comic book stories in their respective worlds, may not feel entirely like stand-alone entities. We already know, for example, that other Marvel regulars will pop up in those Spider-Man and Thor films.
The idea of putting two or more key characters in the same superhero movie is not new. As previously noted, the X-Men movies have always done that. The pre-Christopher Nolan Batman films also inserted both Robin and Catwoman into the frame although they served more as supporting players to Batman’s leading man. What feels different about the current comic book movie landscape is both the sheer number of ensemble or crossover releases and the degree to which that team approach changes their tones and themes.
That classic super-heroic desire to protect innocent civilians is still embedded in these films. In Dawn of Justice, Batman’s beef with Superman is rooted in the fact that he thinks Superman’s reckless behavior presents a danger to humanity, while Superman, in classic superhero fashion, wrestles with the possibility that he’s not adequately upholding truth, justice or the American way. But the two men’s relationship with each other, and the climactic face-off the film builds to, is really the main event here.
Similarly, the Marvel characters in Captain America: Civil War are forced to confront the fact that their supposed good work has caused the unnecessary loss of many lives, raising questions that ultimately divide them into their Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man factions. But even though the issue of how to protect others is inherent to the story, the movie spends most of its time showing us how these powerful beings interact with each other. We’re not here to watch Iron Man save regular people in distress or grapple with his own demons. We’re here to watch him go helmet-to-shield with Captain America… and then fight The Falcon… and possibly Ant-Man.
On one hand, these narratives make a strong case for what can be accomplished when people work in groups instead of in isolation. They also serve as proof that the more superheroes Hollywood jams onto screens, the more ancillary merchandise opportunities they create. (I’m pretty sure that was always part of Marvel’s master plan, and is part of DC’s, too.)
What concerns me, though, is that by focusing so much on team dynamics, these movies are starting to feel increasingly insular. And the more insular these films become, the more difficult it is for the average moviegoer — as in someone who hasn’t read every Marvel comic, seen every Marvel movie or voraciously kept up with Civil War news over the past year — to find a way to connect to them. To be clear: Marvel has done a decent job of making their films accessible to both the neophytes and the hardcore Comic Con crowd. But continuing to do that, both in the MCU and these other constantly swelling franchises, will become increasingly challenging as all the world building and character unveiling progresses.
Civil War is an enormously engaging movie: It’s briskly paced, witty, and amplified by some fun, deftly-executed set pieces. Compared to Batman v. Superman, this thing is Citizen freakin’ Kane, okay? But it still doesn’t contain a moment that enables the audience to emotionally relate to the characters the way Spider-Man 2 did. It entertains, but it doesn’t transport to the degree that, say, The Dark Knight or even Superman: The Movie did.
That doesn’t make Civil War a bad film and it doesn’t mean that movies that explore the trials of multiple comic book icons are inherently inferior to those that zero in on just one. But it’s a sign that the bigger the mob of infighting superheroes gets, the more difficult it becomes to leave a space in the crowd and let the audience in, too.