This article is part of Movie Memes Week.
You can only go so far down a meme rabbit-hole before hitting something that has a certain… Marvel-esque quality. Franchise-specific memes are one of the latest evolutions of memery. They move away from the top text/bottom text images that traffic in relatability and common problems, toward cinematic inside jokes to which millions of people happen to be privy.
Franchise memes tend to work as cultural hieroglyphics based on the ubiquity and mass understanding of a given property — two things Marvel has on lock. People who don’t usually go to the movies go see Marvel movies. Therefore, many more people are meme-literate regarding Marvel than, say, The Apu Trilogy.
One meme, in particular, crystallizes this cultural hegemony really well, and that is the Captain America vs Iron Man Civil War meme. This simple three- or four-pane meme made it big on Tumblr and 4chan, back in 2015, before the third Captain America film even came out. The meme began circulating after a Comic-Con announcement that the 2016 sequel would be titled Captain America: Civil War.
The meme uses a particularly punchy scene from an earlier installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — 2012’s The Avengers — when Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are at each other’s throats. The moment is especially memorable because of the electric chemistry between the two stars of the franchise and weirdly lays the groundwork for a conflict Marvel would milk through this year’s Avengers: Endgame.
Typically used as shorthand for a widespread internet dispute or fandom pettiness, the meme works perfectly. It’s succinct and descriptive, and crucially it relies on prior knowledge of the Avengers scene. In the meme version of the sequence, Tony’s quippy dialogue “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” is changed for some humorous effect and placed overtop very stern-looking close-ups of the two. The final pane is the logo for Civil War, first revealed at the aforementioned Comic-Con presentation.
The changed text may revolve around fandom infighting. weird internet disagreements, or even 19th-century literature. This meme is typically used for people to have arguments on the internet — I know, that is unusual as the internet is a famously chill and goodhearted place. However, what’s particularly interesting here isn’t how meme imitates life, but how art imitates meme.
The funniest thing about this meme is that it shows the actual exchange between the characters for the ego trip it truly is. In the Avengers scene, while Steve and Tony tongue-lash each other, Loki’s minions are breaking onto their ship to release the Hulk and set the next act of the film in motion. Their disagreement is quickly forgotten once the ship explodes and seemingly resolved by the end of the film.
The Civil War meme illustrates how self-serious their conflict is and uses its irreverent format to poke fun at a franchise that was, in 2015, starting to pick up real cultural steam. By switching the dialogue to reflect trivial internet disputes, meme-makers anticipated the austere conflict that would be strung through The Avengers franchise to the bitter end(game).
Part of the issue with this plot point is Marvel’s tonal shift, starting in earnest in 2014 with Guardians of the Galaxy. Whereas early Marvel films lean into the world-ending seriousness of their heroes and villains, later films tap into the comedic chops of their actors and directors. This leaves the Cap/Iron Man dispute feeling staler and more rigid than ever.
Also unusual about this meme is the way it works in retrospect. Memes are by nature short-termed, sometimes only lasting a single day or two in the zeitgeist. But in the wake of the release of Captain America: Civil War, this meme seems clairvoyant, having grown in power with each addition to the franchise. The deeply exploited and puzzling conflict established between the two heroes in Civil War and the subsequent Avengers-focused MCU films is arguably the largest failing of the Marvel franchise. Who can even remember what they were fighting about?
It is a tad ironic that a franchise so obsessed with making plot points as clear and didactic as possible created such a universally mystifying fight. In this way, Marvel helped to create their own demon, as the meme takes advantage of the convoluted dispute. The extra level of humor imbued in the meme that comes with the confusion around Steve and Tony’s conflict only works because of Marvel’s pervasiveness.
Almost anyone online can see a version of this meme and understand that it’s an irreverent joke both about the conflict named in the meme and the “Civil War” that seems, in retrospect, to be about almost nothing at all. This is what makes it the ultimate franchise meme: the levels of understanding required, the self-referential effect, and the removal of all textual details from the original scene, without loss of context.
Marvel has been the butt of meme culture more than once but rarely in a way that so concisely lays bare such a huge issue within the franchise. The Captain America vs Tony Stark Civil War meme called its shot in a way no other meme has, and it manages to provide about as much clarity on their dispute as the films do themselves.