Marvel’s Civil War Actually Inspired the MCU With One Subtle Detail

It’s no understatement to say that Marvel Comics‘ Civil War event set the pattern for every subsequent summer event – and one detail inspired the MCU’s entire storytelling approach. Comic book publishers always like to claim their latest event will “change the universe forever.” In truth, precious few events really fulfil that promise, but 2006’s Civil War stands as one of the exceptions.

The plot saw the entire superhero community divide over the Super-Human Registration Act. The pro-registration side was led by Iron Man, and its opponents by Captain America. The main story, written by Mark Millar and featuring art by Steve McNiven, attempted to strike a careful balance between the two sides. Writers of tie-ins were less cautious, however, and most seemed to side with Captain America, with some portraying Tony Stark as an outright fascist. The scale of the superhero Civil War – which affected every comic set in the United States, and drew in international heroes such as Black Panther and the Sub-Mariner – was absolutely breathtaking, and it meant there were more tie-ins for this event than any before.

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Civil War undeniably transformed the Marvel Universe, establishing an unstable new status quo that would continue to evolve over the next few years, culminating in Norman Osborn’s Dark Reign and the Siege event that brought down Asgard. Although Civil War was not the first of Marvel’s summer events, it set the pattern for all that were to come, setting up the pattern of a main book in which the key events took place. What’s more, with the benefit of hindsight, Civil War also set up the pattern that would be followed by the MCU itself.

Looking back, Marvel’s Civil War stands out from all other events simply because it was so meticulously planned. In general, the more numerous the tie-ins the more likely there will be continuity errors – and often major ones. Marvel’s editors avoided all but a handful of continuity problems by ensuring the main story was broken into what can be called “phases,” with a major event establishing a new status quo that tie-ins could explore. The phases look something like this:

  • Phase One: The New Warriors unwittingly cause a disaster in the town of Stamford, and the public turn against superheroes. Political pressure had already been building for a Super-Human Registration Act (SHRA), and now support becomes overwhelming. A small number of tie-ins explored the ethical quandaries superheroes faced as they tried to figure out how to respond to the SHRA, while others reacted with shock as they faced public persecution for the first time.
  • Phase Two: The SHRA becomes law. Captain America leads an underground superhero movement, while Iron Man leads other heroes in hunting them down. A number of tie-ins are set during Phase Two, showing how some superheroes escaped SHIELD’s new Cape-Killers and others were captured.
  • Phase Three: Iron Man sets a trap that goes horrifically wrong, with Iron Man’s clone of Thor killing Goliath. Phase Three is the darkest part of Civil War, with a bruised and bloodied Captain America notably more extreme in his approach. The main story saw Spider-Man switch sides, and he was almost killed by the Thunderbolts for doing so.
  • Phase Four: Captain America launches a raid on the Negative Zone prison, but it too turns out to be a trap. Unfortunately Cloak’s teleportation powers transport all the superheroes out into Times Square, and the final battle is fought in New York City – causing a massive amount of damage. Many tie-ins offer spotlights on this particular battle, with some taking the viewpoint of civilians who had the misfortune of being in Times Square when warring superheroes fell from the skies.

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The approach was hugely successful because writers of tie-ins only needed to know where their stories lay in relation to the key moments. It’s actually possible to read through Civil War and all its myriad tie-ins in sequence, plotting how events connect to one another. No other tie-in has ever managed this degree of continuity – with the closest to date being 2019’s War of the Realms.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe follows the same phased approach. To date, the various Avengers movies have served as the key milestones, with solo movies serving the same role as tie-ins:

  • Phase One is initiated by Iron Man, with Tony Stark going public as Iron Man and becoming the first potential recruit for Nick Fury’s Avengers Initiative. It culminates in The Avengers, in which the Battle of New York makes all the Avengers public knowledge.
  • Phase Two spins out of The Avengers, with each individual hero’s story exploring a changed status quo. Tony Stark wrestles with PTSD in Iron Man 3, Steve Rogers works alongside SHIELD until he learns they’re corrupt in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Thor: The Dark World kicks off with Loki’s arrest. It culminates in Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which the Avengers’ attempt to deal with the last remnants of Hydra goes badly wrong.
  • The events of Avengers: Age of Ultron establish a new status quo for Phase Three, with superheroes distrusted and the Avengers splintering after the passing of the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War. The division leads to the epic Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, in which it’s notable that the divided heroes are initially defeated – and only triumph again when they assemble.
  • The MCU’s Phase 4 explores the consequences of Avengers: Endgame, with almost all films and TV shows dealing with the consequences of Thanos’ snap (called the Blip) and the fall of Iron Man, Steve Rogers, and Black Widow.

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Marvel Studios has followed the same pattern as Civil War, with each phase culminating in an event that transforms the shared universe; the Battle of New York, the Battle of Sokovia, and most recently the Blip. It’s interesting to note that there have been exceptions; in general, Marvel seem careful to ensure new franchise launches stand on their own two feet as much as possible, and only tie in afterwards. That pattern can be seen with Guardians of the GalaxyDoctor Strange, and the recent Disney+ Moon Knight TV series. A more curious exception is Black Widow, which feels like a Phase 3 film given it explores the consequences of the Sokovia Accords.

Still, setting aside these exceptions, it’s fascinating to note that Civil War serves as the conceptual blueprint for the MCU’s phases. Civil War was the one event that changed Marvel forever – with its narrative approach inspiring the biggest, most successful shared universe in Hollywood history, for once, the marketing was not an exaggeration at all.

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Author: Thomas Bacon