Film * Anthony & Joe Russo * A Superhero Debate on the Limits of Governmental Power and Personal Responsibility * 2016
These are the weirdest movies for me. I’m never going to go all-in with a massive film franchise again. Star Wars hurt me, man. I can’t really connect with any of these characters, the plots are simultaneously overly simple and confusing, and there’s just a lack of heart and humanity present. Part of this distance I have is because I wasn’t into comics as a kid. Superhero biz was just never my jam. More importantly, however, is the fact that these are massive productions designed and produced to make as much money as possible. They’re factory stories produced from the unimaginable resources at Disney. It’s the MCU, and it’s bigger than you. All that said, they’re still fun to watch. I totally wasn’t bored! Even more strange, and this is what makes it weird for me, is the presence of an actual thought-provoking premise. Not knowing anything about the movie going into it (despite having seen the previous two Captain America flicks), I was surprised at the depth given to the cause of the “civil war.” I will hasten to add that by ‘depth’ I mean anything at all suggesting a deeper conversation. This isn’t Descartes. Still, it’s a long way from nothing, and that’s an achievement for a summer tentpole cash cow like this.
What Civil War does immediately to separate itself from other superhero movies – even those like Winter Soldier – is to acknowledge the wider world around the action on the screen. The catalyst of the action here is a scene of collateral damage inflicted on some poor bastards in Africa by some fire-lady I don’t even know who is an Avenger now or something? I will return to this point in a moment. Anyway, the fire-lady was intent on deflecting a bomb, and she used her cool powers to thrust it away but she just sent it into a building instead. Probably the same amount of innocent people died than if she had done nothing, but the public flipped out anyway. The fundamental set-up here is that superheroes have too much power to go unchecked by the public. The world governments come to an accord on this point, and demand The Avengers sign a thing which would keep them from acting on their own. It would set up an international council which would decide how and when to deploy the superheroes. Of course the film way oversimplifies how this would actually work, because we’re not here to do fucking paperwork. We’re here to watch The Avengers wail on each other for a couple of hours.
This brings us back around to that point I almost made above. A major problem I have with this whole cinematic universe thing is that I end up not knowing who half these people are. Unless you’re watching every one of these (and taking notes), you’re probably at least somewhat understanding of what I mean. I’ve seen the Captain America movies, the first two Iron Man films, and the first Avengers movie. Which means there’s a whole raft of people here that I don’t know. The aforementioned fire chick, the weird Dr. Manhattan-esque square that wants to hook up with the fire girl, Paul Rudd. Like, I don’t know where they came from or why. Because they’re in the movie without introduction (because I’m supposed to watch all of these movies, I know how this is supposed to work) I could give a shit about them. I could look up fire girl’s name, but I don’t care. I get that Kitty Man is a big deal, and he’s clearly getting a movie, but his arc was kinda “eh” for me. Spiderman was fun, probably the best screen depiction I’ve seen, but I also know his scenes were just setting up yet another branch of the MCU so they just felt like a commercial for something else, which in turn feels hollow and kind of gross.
Back to the story, which is simply a power struggle between Captain America and Iron Man. Tony Stark is confronted with the damage he’s done and the very real, emotional impact it has had on others. Specifically, collateral damage is just an abstracted way of saying that those big, cool action scenes killed people. Innocent people, with moms and stuff. Stark internalizes this, and understands that such vast power cannot go unchecked. Captain America just shrugs and is basically like “shit happens.” Stark agrees to sign the accord, Cap is like “nah, I’m not giving up my individual freedom.” Then they beat each other up. Still, I’m pleased there’s some amount of nuance in a movie like this.
If it isn’t obvious by the tone of that last paragraph, I am way on Team Iron Man here. To its credit, the film doesn’t come down super hard on either side (unless you count The Power of Friendship a side). If there’s a bias, it’s with Cap, because it’s his movie. Yet it still seems like Captain Steve acts like a selfish dickweed the entire time, completely and callously ignores the damage he himself has done, tries to protect his idiot friend Bucky from people with legitimate problems with him, and refuses to acknowledge the viewpoint of his friends. This is not to say there aren’t problems with Stark’s position, and this is where the lack of nuance hurts the film a little. Like, government oversight as a concept is acceptable, but there is next to no discussion about what form that should take. Obviously a guy like Stark would insist on a major seat at the policy table. All that is excised (and probably for good reason) so the debate simply becomes “government bad.” Which is a shame, because there’s a conversation to be had there.
So we have to settle for character moments, which is tricky because superheroes are by necessity larger than life. They’re difficult to sympathize with, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers to humanize them. Like, I’ve never been alive in 1945, turned into a super-soldier and frozen. I bet that would really a fuck a person up. Still, Captain Steve is a callous, hypocritical jerkburger in this movie. He shows zero interest in the victims of his excess. He pretty much just hand-waves away any and all responsibility for his actions, presumably because he feels good about the cause. Like, “well it would have been worse if I didn’t do what I did, so deal with it.” Meanwhile, the second someone close to him is threatened, he exerts all his power to protect him. Does he ever stop and think “maybe my extremely dangerous friend who has already killed a bunch of innocent people is dangerous?” Nah, he’ll salt the entire fucking earth before conceding that point. It wasn’t Bucky’s fault! As if the collateral damage kids had the option of giving up their life for your cause.
Uh, anyway, after we get a really, really long action sequence in which various superheroes trash an airport (which, as backdrops to cool scenes go, is pretty lame), the story gets personal. Tony Stark eventually finds out the truth about the whatever (some random dude is pulling strings to pit the Avengers against each other because revenge? I barely remember and I just watched this thing) and discovers that Captain Steve was right. Because it’s his movie, and that’s how superheroes work. More importantly, our heroes learn about the power of friendship and setting aside ideological differences in order to save the day. The film does a better job of disguising the fact that we’re essentially watching an episode of G.I. Joe in the 80’s than that last sentence does, but hey, knowing is half the battle. Still, Stark doesn’t abandon his position, which is good because he’s still right. And Cap still never accepts responsibility for his actions, so fuck that guy.
Civil War did its job, though, because now I’m curious to see where all this goes. After all, Iron Man flipped all the way out there – which I think he was entitled to do – and that might make future Avengers outings awkward. I’m pretty confident that I’ll skip the promised spin-offs this film advertises teases, but if the next Avengers movie handles these issues as well as Civil War does, it will be worth checking out.