* one small spoiler from Captain America: Civil War lurks within *
It's not hyperbole to say that Captain America: Civil War — the film which kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 3 — has so far been ever so slightly better received by fans and critics than Zack Snyder's polarizing [Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice](tag:711870). But we're not here to compare ratings and tell you what you should or shouldn't think or like about each film.
No, rather we're going to take a look at something which brings the two together, in a sense. While they are certainly very different films tonally, there's a lot in there by which to compare the two, and perhaps they both highlight a trend that has been sticking around in superhero movies ever since Iron Man kicked off the cinematic comic book universe eight years ago.
Traditionally the major comic book superheroes have always been defined by their villains: Batman has Joker, Captain America has Red Skull, Superman has Lex Luthor and Iron Man has the Mandarin — each villain the foil to their heroic counterpart.
And the best villains have always had some personal beef with the hero; part of the reason Joker has become so iconic within comic book history is because he's both the reflection of and antitheses to Batman, and his obsession goes beyond just the desire to destroy the Dark Knight.
The problem arises when nearly every major event in both the DC and Marvel on-screen universes are caused (however indirectly) by the superheroes themselves, or by someone targeting due to a personal agenda.
This dynamic works in the comics, largely due to the massively sprawling nature of the media. For every personal attack Lex Luthor makes against Superman, there's several issues of the Man of Steel rescuing children from burning buildings and saving innocents from natural disasters. But on screen? It's becoming a trend, and said trend is starting to stagnate.
This stagnation has lead directly to the tensions which arise during Batman v Superman following on from the events of Man of Steel, as the entire conflict rises from personal agendas related to the existence of Batman and Superman. And Civil War is perhaps the best attempt to address the issue thus far.
This wouldn't be such a problem if the MCU had always intended to build up to Civil War, but it didn't. The idea to adapt Civil War didn't even come into play until after The Winter Soldier, and it was suggested more so as a way of continuing the Bucky Barnes storyline rather than a direct need to address these tensions.
Man of Steel is a great example; critics tore apart the extended scene in which Superman and General Zod trash Metropolis, causing the deaths of thousands of innocents. Collateral damage on a huge scale has always been a staple of superhero battles, but it was the lack of care shown by Superman towards those he should've been protecting which raised argments over the issue.
Comparatively, during the Civil War battle scene at Leipzig Airport, both Team Cap and Team Iron Man made sure the airport was evacuated before they started tearing the place apart.
But Civil War acts as perhaps the best attempt to address the problem so far, when General "Thunderbolt" Ross displays a slideshow of destructive incidents caused, either directly or indirectly, by the Avengers:
General Ross: "New York. Washington D.C. Sokovia. Lagos."
Steve Rogers: "Okay, that's enough."
General Ross: "Captain, people are afraid."
Of these four incidents, at least three of them can be directly linked to members of the Avengers. New York — Loki comes to conquer Earth as payback for the challenge raised by his brother, Thor. Sokovia — Tony created Ultron, who in turn caused the Sokovia Incident. Lagos [SPOILER] — Scarlet Witch redirects Crossbones's bomb attack away from Cap, accidentally killing multiple civilians and blowing up an office block in the process.
It's Vision who directly addresses this in Civil War, as he takes the Pro-Accords side based on a equation he creates — an equation which collates between the rise in known enhanced humans and major incidents/terrorist action ever since Tony Stark first put on the Iron Man suit back at the beginning of the MCU.
Vision: "Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe. Supervision is not something to be dismissed out-of-hand."
Why is this a problem? Because superheroes should be there to give people hope, not to constantly cause the very problems that they're battling against.
The majority of the time in the comics — the DC comics especially — the Avengers and the Justice League are public entities, and the reason that the government puts up with these major incidents when they arise is because the trade off of having the heroes in place to protect citizens against a multitude of other problems makes it worth it.
This dynamic doesn't really exist in the movies and eventually, as in the case of Civil War, they become a self-defeating prophecy.
But, this could in someway be the fault of the medium. The most interesting narratives are those in which the superheroes have a personal stake, and due to the restrictive nature of cinema there's not really much time or scope available to explore other avenues once you've gotten those central conflicts worked out.
Relief is on the way for both the MCU and DCEU, we assume, as both Thanos and Darkseid are heading towards Earth with their own agendas, providing a big bad for our heroes to unite again. But again — especially in the case of Batman v Superman — we have to wonder, would these cosmic threats to Earth exist if not for Superman, and the Avengers, and how long can we run with this narrative until the bubble bursts?