Marvel Studios goes all out with its 13th feature film, Captain America: Civil War, in which a dozen do-gooders put up their dukes for a grand collision of superheroic muscle. Squint just a bit and this Cap sequel looks more like an Avengers film, packed with familiar faces (Falcon, Black Widow, Iron Man) and new additions such as the long-awaited Black Panther. Oh, hey, and Spider-Man, too!
The comic-book company-cum-money-printing media machine has previously ignited massive team conflagrations to resolve and tweak storylines at the end of its first two storytelling “phases.” As Civil War is the kickoff for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), one message is clear: This cavalcade of costumed heroes is the new normal. Box office returns and fan response have proven that audiences are at least willing to try wrapping their heads around enough characters to fill out a Major League roster.
The hyperkinetic studio will introduce more other new characters soon. (Doctor Strange, slated for November, is the next new kid on the block.) In the meantime, here’s a quick-and-dirty dossier on the current murder’s row — both the characters and the actors that play them — that should be helpful to anyone suiting up for this all-star throwdown.
Injured in an explosion, rich and brilliant young industrialist Tony Stark preserves his life by building the ultimate suit of armor. Effectively a one-man army, the arrogant but well-intentioned Stark expands his own arsenal (for specialized protection, natch) even as he attempts to corral military tech held by others. One creation becomes, oops, the insane artificial intelligence Ultron, making Stark complicit in destructive actions across the globe. Like Marvel’s own foreign policy czar, Iron Man begins to question the legitimacy of unchecked power.
Robert Downey, Jr.
Consider this for a moment: The near-ubiquity of Robert Downey Jr. since the 2008 release of Iron Man is actually the actor’s third career phase. As a promising tyro, the son of Putney Swope director Robert Downey Sr. distinguished himself in rich-teens-gone-awry films like Less Than Zero (1987) and had the guts to play Charlie Chaplin in a 1992 biopic. A well-publicized problem with drugs nearly destroyed him; treatment led to a rich comeback, with roles as a twitchy creep in A Scanner Darkly (2006) and charming loser in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). Then came his Marvel moment, after which he’s zoomed forward as if shielded by his alter-ego’s armor.
Designed by Marvel precursor Timely Comics as a war icon in 1941, a secret serum transformed skinny ol’ Steve Rogers into military paragon Captain America. He enjoyed wild popularity during WWII but Cap’s luster faded when communism replaced the Axis powers as our national bugbear, leading to “retirement” for Rogers. In a terrific Stan Lee brainstorm, the shield-thrower was thawed out for the Avengers. He’s been a Marvel mainstay ever since, essentially the publisher’s own Superman, albeit occasionally in danger of falling politically out of step. Streamlined on screen, Captain America is the moral compass for the Avengers and, effectively, the MCU.
A Boston native who trained on stage in New York, Evans was cast to superficial type as the “popular jock” archetype in the parody Not Another Teen Movie (2001). He did his time in a small range of indies and studio thrillers before nearly burning up as the Human Torch in two ill-fated Fantastic Four films. Movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) showed he could take the piss out of the handsome alpha-male roles he could so easily have played without a thought, while smart gambles like Snowpiercer (2013) and a directorial debut (2014’s Before We Go) have punctuated his dash forward, shield in hand, into Marvel’s universe.
Call her the power goth. In the comics, Wanda Maximoff is traditionally a mutant like the X-Men; Fox lawyers have a stranglehold on that term, so we’ll call Wanda a telekinetic whose powers were amplified by exposure to Asgardian bad guy Loki’s staff. She can delve into a person’s deep memories to weaponize their worst fears, or throw cars around using mental muscle. Still reeling from the death of her twin brother Pietro (a.k.a. Quicksilver), Scarlet Witch’s potential as a powerful Avenger is complicated by her own insecurities.
The younger sister of child celebs Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen appeared in her siblings’ Nineties productions, so her early resumé is decorated with titles like The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley: The Case of the Mystery Cruise. Unlike her sisters, Elizabeth Olsen grew up shielded from the public eye. In 2011, partway through studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, she riveted Sundance audiences as the lead in the chilling breakout hit Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which she played a young woman fleeing a cult. Reliable as a talented performer even in less-than-great material (ahem, I Saw the Light), Olsen moves into key Marvel player territory in Civil War.
For decades, Captain America’s WWII sidekick Bucky Barnes was among the very few comic book characters who remained dead. Writer Ed Brubaker broke the rule by reviving the kid as a brainwashed black-ops assassin with a bionic arm, creating a dark, cynical reflection of the idealistic Captain. That basic outline is retained on screen as our patriotic hero discovers his old friend is alive and (not quite) well, and killing people for Hydra and the Russians. He’s also got a steamy antihero heartthrob vibe; call him Bucky with the good hair.
Born in Romania, a move to the States at a young age brought Sebastian Stan to Rockland County Day School, just north of New York City, and soon to the stage. A recurring gig in the first three seasons of Gossip Girl wouldn’t seem to be ideal prep to punch Chris Evans with a metal arm, but Stan parlayed that into a lead role on NBC’s Kings (RIP) and minor but notable roles in Hot Tub Time Machine and Black Swan (both 2010). Between Marvel films, Stan has been rolling with the notable supporting roles, as in last year’s The Martian and Ricki and the Flash. Playing son to Meryl Streep’s rocker is even weirder than fighting Spider-Man, frankly.
Trained from childhood as a deadly government operative, Russian-born Natasha Romanoff has been an assassin, a covert intelligence agent, a SHIELD freelancer and even (on the page) partner to Daredevil. Emotionally withdrawn, Black Widow nearly kickstarts a relationship with Bruce Banner, the only Avenger more closed-off than she is. Responding to his honesty, Natasha develops strong bonds of mutual respect with Captain America, ultimately releasing all her secrets to the public in Marvel’s own version of Wikileaks.
This New York native had her first big-screen role at age nine, in Rob Reiner’s North (1994), and perfected her engaged mystique in Sofia Coppola’s strangers-in-a-strange-land character study Lost in Translation (2003). Johansson has played a muse for Vermeer (Girl With a Pearl Earring), inspired a vulgar auteur (The Island), and features in two of Woody Allen’s better late-period films (2005’s Match Point and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona). That’s all before donning leather as Marvel’s premiere femme fatale. Fighting aliens and Hydra goons hasn’t even been her most gutsy move; that honor is reserved for recording Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album composed almost entirely of Tom Waits covers.
Like Marvel’s own Spock, this synthetic humanoid is a highly logical being in an illogical world. Created by Ultron, the artificial man has the life experience of a child and the power of a god. Thanks in part to the yellow Infinity Stone in his forehead, Vision can control his body’s own density, making himself insubstantial enough to fly, or massive enough to withstand any attack. He’s only just learning how to be a person, but he wears cashmere like a GQ model.
The British actor cut his teeth on UK TV before breaking out in stylish crime flick Gangster No. 1 (2000) and as chronic gambler/occasional author Geoffrey Chaucer opposite Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale (2001). Bettany’s work in that same year’s Oscar-winner, A Beautiful Mind, led to his relationship with wife Jennifer Connelly; he sailed the high seas in Master and Commander (2003), a seafaring epic doomed never to launch the sequel it deserves. Originally cast as Tony Stark’s AI assistant J.A.R.V.I.S, four of Bettany’s six Marvel films featured only his voice. He wouldn’t get his own costume until Age of Ultron, but the dramatic purple and yellow duds were worth the wait.
Air Force pararescue operative Sam Wilson befriends Steve Rogers and is soon whisked into a world of superheroic conflict. It’s all good, though, because he’s got mechanical wings, making Falcon one of the straight-up coolest dudes in the MCU. If comics predict the movie-franchise’s future, we could see Wilson taking up Captain America’s shield sometime in the future; in the meantime, he’s a versatile weapon in the Avengers arsenal.
The versatile New Orleans native broke out with unshakable intensity when he slapped Eminiem around in his first movie role. That 8 Mile debut was the culmination of high school drama work and studies at Julliard. Since then Mackie has soldiered on alongside Avengers co-star Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker (2008), and played Tupac Shakur in the Biggie biopic Notorious (2009). Hot on the heels of Civil War, we’ll see Mackie as Martin Luther King, Jr. in HBO’s upcoming historical drama All the Way.
What can a guy with a bow do against super-powered enemies? Plenty, if he has Clint Barton’s exceptional conditioning, combat skills, and quiver packed with customized arrows. Fiercely protective of his private life, Hawkeye is, like kindred spirit Black Widow, a career operative rather than a metahuman powerhouse. Despite an anti-authoritarian streak, he’s the Avengers’ utility player, adept at facilitating team attacks to keep enemies off-balance.
Before his star turn in The Hurt Locker, Renner spent more than a decade delivering compact, effective supporting performances — a solid stealth player in films like The Assassination of Jesse James and 28 Weeks Later (both 2007). Though efforts to groom him as a lead or co-lead (see The Bourne Legacy and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) haven’t quite clicked, he did career-high work in the Boston crime thriller The Town (2010) and then drew Hawkeye’s bow in the first Thor movie, setting up his position as a quiet but essential factor in Marvel’s Avengers storyline.
The first black superhero in comics, introduced back in 1966, is the alter-ego of T’challa, prince and eventual leader of isolated nation Wakanda. The country deliberately keeps its distance from the world stage, but is among the most refined and scientifically powerful societies on Earth. Fittingly, T’challa is a wunderkind scientist in his own right, and a regal, commanding presence in a field full of squabbling hotheads.
The future Panther, born in South Carolina, originally studied to be a director. He earned his first big notes for a paired set of biopics: the Jackie Robinson film 42 (2013) and Get on Up (2014), the story of James Brown. Bozeman had already been working for years, with many small TV roles, a regular gig on ABC Family’s Lincoln Heights and a core role on the NBC event series Persons Unknown. Black Panther will keep Boseman busy off and on through at least 2019, but with his solo movie (directed by Creed‘s Ryan Coogler) not set until 2018, Boseman has lined up a third biopic: playing Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in the upcoming Marshall.
After discovering a chemical substance able to drastically alter a person’s size, Dr. Hank Pam naturally became a superhero. (And, in comics, a founding Avenger.) Shrinking to minuscule size, he would control hordes of ants, because that’s the natural thing to do with such technology. Years later, after stealing Pym’s gear, wisecracking criminal Scott Lang becomes the new Ant-Man whose skirmish with Falcon acts as a tryout for his own potential Avengers membership.
Wry and self-effacing with a touch of the urbane, Paul Rudd plays characters who are seemingly able to fit in anywhere, if not always comfortably. The child of London-born parents who migrated through New Jersey, Kansas City, and Anaheim, CA, Rudd was on the tube in NBC drama Sisters before appearing in an unlikely 1995 film pairing: Clueless and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers. Comedy has been Rudd’s greatest calling, with Adam McKay (Anchorman), Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) all tapping his malleable talent. He was an inspired choice for Ant-Man.
You know the story: gifted high school student Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, giving the kid sundry arachnid abilities: wall-crawling, super-strength, and heightened senses. In Civil War, the big-screen Spidey is a kid at last, slinging webs and one-liners alike, using snappy patter and slick moves to cover his nerves as he struggles to fit in amongst the famous Avengers.
The British teen is the third person to play Spider-Man on the big screen in the past decade, inheriting the web-slinger’s red-and-blues from Andrew Garfield. Training as a dancer honed his physical control; Holland earned raves starring in Billy Elliot the Musical in London. Two of his seven film roles (in Arietty and Locke) are voice only, but his performance in The Impossible (2012), as the eldest son of Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, won the young actor acclaim as a promising newcomer. (If three makes a trend perhaps Holland is drawn to water, as other gigs include Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea and Shane Carruth’s forthcoming The Modern Ocean.) Holland will expand his friendly neighborhood superhero role in next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
As liaison between Iron Man and the US government, pilot and air force Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes found that explaining Stark’s actions was trickier than most dogfights. Steadfast but stubborn, Rhodey is Stark’s friend, confidante and occasional protector. He’s ready to fight alongside, and sometimes with Iron Man in his military-grade grey armor.
After a who-was-that?! breakout turns in the Denzel Washington vehicle Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), Steven Soderbergh offered Don Cheadle the opportunity to leverage his offhand grin and steely core for a grand turn as the terrifying Maurice Miller in Out of Sight. The director’s Oceans films would be Cheadle’s first franchise home before he replaced Terrence Howard as Rhodey in Iron Man 2 (2010). He’s remained one of the best contemporary working actors, and between Marvel movies, Cheadle poured himself into the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, writing, directing and producing in addition to playing the lead role.
Predating Anger from Inside-Out by several decades, the (incredible) Hulk is the giant green manifestation of all the frustrations of scientist Bruce Banner. He’s like therapy — if sessions were huge and green and able to crush a bus with their fists. Banner has increasing control over the brute’s savagery, but not so much that he’s confident enough to hook up with Black Widow. Last seen flying away in a SHIELD quintet, the Hulk is MIA in Civil War.
Strange to think of the best actor under Marvel contract spending a decade tending bar, but the Wisconsin native had to pay the bills while trying to get the Orpheus Theater Company off the ground in L.A. Work in Kenneth Lonergan’s play This Is Our Youth led to a major role in his film You Can Count on Me in 2000, breaking a decade-long run of small roles in mostly undistinguished films. (You probably haven’t seen The Dentist, or A Fish in the Bathtub.) Ruffalo’s sweet spot is the regular guy with a twinge of obsession, which he’s honed in films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Zodiac (2007). Even his Bruce Banner is basically a normal guy in extraordinary circumstance; Ruffalo captures how we all often want to Hulk out.
Being the thunder-god son of Odin seems like a pretty good setup even with a brother like mischief-making deity Loki. Golden boy Thor knew it, and his confidence ran wild. Marvel, rooted in classic storytelling, loves to punish hubris, so our man in Asgard was stripped of power and confined to Earth, with only Natalie Portman and wacky old Stellan Skarsgard for company. Unseen in Civil War, Thor is off dealing with cosmic-level threats presumably to be revealed in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
The Australian soap Home and Away gave the Melbourne-born hunk, the middle of three actor brothers, his first big exposure at home. He even did Dancing With the Stars in Oz … for three weeks, after which he was eliminated. American audiences glimpsed Hemsworth in the opening of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot; clever horror/comedy Cabin in the Woods was delayed due to MGM’s financial troubles. After Hemsworth proved himself worthy to wield the hammer of Thor, he starred in Ron Howard’s underrated racecar flick Rush (2014) and Michael Mann’s divisive cyberthriller Blackhat (2015). Next, he’ll offer office support to the new Ghostbusters.
Guardians of the Galaxy
One of the most deeply odd silver screen teams features a talking raccoon, a monosyllabic tree, a gentle brute, a dangerous galactic assassin and, naturally, a roguishly charming goof who calls himself Star-Lord. These unlikely heroes are drawn from the corners the same expansive “cosmic” storylines which feature Marvel’s Big Bad, Thanos. The grinning purple weirdo, born on Saturn’s moon Titan, is literally in love with death (in comics, at least), and seeks the power of the Infinity Stones (like the one in Vision’s forehead) in order to impress her. Can Marvel pull that off on screen? The two-part Infinity War event will tell.
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel
Guardians began Chris Pratt’s transition from doughy office-boy to strapping leading man and offered Zoe Saldana a third science fiction franchise to go on the shelf with the 2009 update of Star Trek (in which she’s a strong Uhura) and Avatar, assuming James Cameron follows through on a promise for three sequels to his 2009 epic. Dave Bautista also used the galactic action/comedy as a springboard to a new career stage, leaping from MMA and wrestling domination to major movie roles like a guy flying off the top rope. Most productions are eager to put Bradley Cooper’s leading-man looks to work, but Rocket Raccoon offered an opportunity to discard everything but his voice, revealing the actor’s grit. Vin Diesel comes full circle in Guardians; his three-word dialogue (“I am Groot!”) calls back to his gruffly tender performance as the voice of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant.
Talented but arrogant surgeon Stephen Strange must abandon his work after a car accident mangles his hands. Unwilling to accept his fate, Strange walks the Earth searching for a means to restore his digits. A long, fruitless search ends at the feet of a hermit — who is actually the Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. (And according to film folks, Cacausian.) Studying with this Ancient One, Strange learns humility and acquires magic skills which allow him to traverse dimensions. So that whole surgeon gig basically goes out the window.
The classically-trained, meme-friendly actor found his Shakespearean calling at boarding school and soon distinguished himself on stage in material as varied as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Danny Boyle’s two-hander adaptation of Frankenstein. Early film roles in high-profile movies like Atonement flew under the radar. Then Cumberbatch’s acerbic, revisionist-yet-faithful portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock erased any chance of anonymity going forward, and generated enough good will that we’ll agree to ignore Star Trek Into Darkness.