As shared universe movies come of age, filmmakers and studios increasingly face the decision of how and when to cater to new audiences — those who may never have seen any of the previous movies in long-running franchises. Marvel, the pioneer of the modern shared-universe franchise, faced that choice with “Captain America: Civil War”– and decided to focus on their fan base rather than filling in backstory for newbies.
“We had to make a decision early that we were OK losing virgin audience members,” Stephen McFeely, co-writer of “Civil War,” told TheWrap during a wide-ranging interview with writing partner Christopher Markus.
“If you don’t know some of these movies before you walk in you might be lost, but hopefully you’ll still be entertained,” McFreely said. “We can’t do a ‘previously in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,’ because it will take 25 minutes.”
Indeed, the catch-up involved is considerable. Plot threads from numerous past Marvel-Disney films are in place from the first frame of “Civil War.”
There are references to the collateral damage from the last Captain American movie, “The Winter Soldier,” the complicated love lives of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts from “Iron Man 3” and the public image makeover of Scarlett Johansson‘s Black Widow from “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
In addition, “Civil War” slips in mentions of the domestic struggles of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), integrates Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) with the other Avengers and introduces a teenager named Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and another new hero named Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman).
“This isn’t a new thing, it’s an ongoing story that’s organically evolving movie to movie,” Markus said. “In the beginning I think [Marvel] did operate as, ‘If this is your first one, it should be as fun as if it were your third one.’ Its a dense ongoing novel at this point.”
Superhero franchise screenwriters have a well-justified fear of overloading their scripts with establishing narrative. Warner Bros/DC Comics’ “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” took a beating from critics for including (again) Batman’s origin story, as well as spending screen time to set up future shared-universe sequels like “Wonder Woman,” “The Flash” and “Aquaman.”
“Martha Wayne’s pearls
Granted, “Batman v. Superman” was a franchise launch — if there was ever a time to see the Wayne family expire before young Master Bruce, it would be in the first film.
Markus, speaking on behalf of himself and McFreely, maintained that Marvel’s “Civil War” could not “start from zero. That’s selling your material short.”
For those seeking a comprehensive catch-up on the Marvel universe thus far, click here. For those happy to be in the dark, “Civil War” opens on Friday.