11 ways 'Civil War' is Marvel's 'Empire Strikes Back'

Star-spangled Avenger meets Star Wars when Marvel's latest blockbuster takes a darker turn. No, really, hear us out.

Luke Lancaster Associate Editor / Australia
Luke Lancaster is an Associate Editor with CNET, based out of Australia. He spends his time with games (both board and video) and comics (both reading and writing).
Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Luke Lancaster
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
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Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for "Captain America: Civil War." And also "Empire Strikes Back", but I think the statute of limitations has expired there.

Remember the bit during the airport fight in "Captain America: Civil War" when Spider-Man talks about "that really old movie" "The Empire Strikes Back"? That really old movie ends on a cliff-hanger with characters variously losing an arm, getting frozen and discovering the truth about the death of their parents. Sound familiar? Yes, true believers, "Civil War" is the "Empire Strikes Back" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The darker tone of "Civil War" is definitely by design. "We would reference 'Empire' constantly," co-director Anthony Russo said in an interview with Birth Movies Death. "In our heads that was how you could frame it -- as a necessary down-beat in the saga. You need those down-beats. I think it was deep in the DNA."

Here are just some of the similarities we spotted.

1. Darker from the start

Right from the get-go, you know these movies are going to be a little different than what came before them. In "Empire", Luke gets mauled by a Wampa and "victory" for the Rebellion on Hoth means the Rebels can barely evacuate before the full force of the Empire is brought down on them. Likewise, after two Avengers movies of punching aliens and robots in their alien and robot faces respectively, "Civil War" opens with a Pyrrhic victory: The heroes stop Crossbones but at the cost of many civilian casualties.

2. Boba Fett and Black Panther

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Newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther is our pick for the Boba Fett of the piece. Fingers crossed there's no MCU Sarlacc.


MCU fans got their first glimpse of Chadwick Boseman as Wakandan warrior Black Panther when he hunted Bucky across the globe. I don't know if it was the full face mask, or just the fact that he was cool as hell, but the Panther definitely had the same break-out, fan-favourite appeal as Mandalorian bounty hunter Boba Fett.

3. The Spider-Man with the plan

You had to know this one would make the list (mostly because it was directly referenced in "Civil War"). Spider-Man takes out a supersized Ant-Man (known by comic book readers as Giant-Man) by tangling his legs, just as if he were an AT-AT on Hoth. Even if alleged nerd Peter Parker refers to it as "that snow planet".

4. Guidance from beyond the grave

In "Empire," Luke's call to action comes from a vision of Obi-Wan's spirit telling him to seek out the Jedi master Yoda to complete his training. For Cap, the moment of clarity comes by proxy while he's attending Peggy Carter's funeral, giving him the push he needed to act (I knew that eulogy sounded familiar).

5. Permanent scars

In Empire, Luke leaves Cloud City with more (well, technically less) than just knowledge of his true father. His duel with Vader costs him his hand, just as Bucky loses his arm and Rhodey loses the use of his legs. Even the heroes who walk away aren't guaranteed to walk away whole.

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Pictured: Bucky's arm. Give it an hour or so.


6. Missing: One shield, one lightsaber

Sure, it may not have happened because he got his hand cut off (see previous point), but Cap ends the movie without his iconic piece of kit. As much as this felt like an Avengers movie rather than a Captain America flick, he's still the main character. He's tied as closely to the shield as Luke is to his lightsaber, and seeing Cap without it felt a lot like when Luke, the protagonist in "Empire", lost his weapon.

7. The Lando moment

A member of the supporting cast has a late heel turn. In Lando's case, he was working with Vader, and Han and Leia wound up in the Empire's clutches. Luckily, Black Widow had a second team of heroes to align herself with following an eleventh-hour change of heart. Widow has altered the terms of the deal -- pray she does not alter them further.

8. It ends with a duel

The airport scene in "Civil War" is definitely the big superpunch fight people will walk out of the cinema raving about, but the final, climactic fight scene is an intensely personal duel between Cap and Tony (featuring Bucky) rather than an all-in brawl -- much like "Empire" hinging on Luke and Vader's lightsaber duel.

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No, Tony. I killed your father. And mother.


9. I am your father

That wasn't all those duels had in common. Man, it always seems like learning the truth about your parents happens at the most dramatically appropriate moment. For Luke, learning that Vader was his father shook him to the core on catwalks within Cloud City. For Tony, discovering that Bucky killed his parents was the last straw.

10. Bucky's back on ice, Han's a slab of carbonite

At the end of "Civil War", Bucky Barnes goes back on ice. Now, where have we seen another leading man riding out the film as a frozen slab?

11. The Fellowship is broken

Speaking of... "Empire" ends with Han captured and on his way to crime lord Jabba; Lando and Chewie in pursuit; and Leia nursing the mutilated Luke. Our band of heroes couldn't be more separated -- unless of course they had all fallen out with each other and half of them are in exile, which is where the heroes of "Civil War" end up. The next Avengers movie will need to do some work to get the band back together.

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Where to now?

If "Civil War" is "Empire", then what will be the "Return of the Jedi" that wraps up these unresolved arcs? It won't be "Guardians of the Galaxy 2", because that's all up in space, nor will it be "Thor: Ragnarok", because that's all Asgard-y. There are no more geopolitical-thriller "Captain America" movies left, but it looks like the events of "Civil War" will have an impact on solo movies "Black Panther" and "Spider-Man: Homecoming" when they tell their own stories.

Which takes us up to "Avengers: Infinity War Part 1", in which our heroes will have more important things on their minds, like the impending annihilation of the universe. And Ewoks, we're guessing.

Were there any other similarities you spotted? Let us know in the comments.