I should preface this review by saying that I enjoyed watching Captain America: Civil War. The movie was a lot of fun, as Marvel movies often are, with fantastic action and pacing, sharp humor, and spot-on performances from both the lead and supporting actors and actresses. If you want to turn your brain off and watch the adventures of witty, attractive superheroes, I could not recommend this movie highly enough. Go see it. You’ll enjoy yourself.
However, I think that in the case of this movie in particular, the movie’s weaknesses are a lot more interesting than its strengths, which is why I’m going to focus on them for the remainder of this review/tangent.
What is wrong with the movie?
If I had to pin down the root cause, I’d say it’s that the story was being pulled in multiple different, conflicting directions. It wanted to have a conflict between the heroes, but it also wanted everyone to remain sympathetic. It wanted to raise deep moral questions about of responsibility, violence, and just governance, but it also wanted to be a fun, action-packed thrill ride. Some movies are able to handle this sort of tension gracefully, but this wasn’t one of them.
The story begins with the Avengers on a mission to prevent terrorists from acquiring a biological weapon. However, in the course of fighting the terrorists, they caused an explosion that killed a lot of innocent civilians, which causes the world governments to demand that the Avengers sign an accord that would place them under the authority of a UN task force, which will oversee their activities.
I personally like this idea. It’s not exactly uncharted ground in the superhero genre (see The Incredibles), but it’s a prescient issue, and it makes sense that the nations of the world might be nervous about a group of 5 or 6 individuals whose power-levels range from “best assassin on the planet” to “one hulk army” intervening in whatever conflict they think is most necessary.
One imagines that this plot could have been the starting point for an interesting discussion on the nature of governance. Unfortunately, however, we never really get enough detail about the agreement to form an opinion about it. Captain America, ever one to follow his conscience, worried that submitting to UN control would prevent the Avengers from helping when they are needed, or would force them to intervene on behalf of bad people, but it’s not clear how realistic this fear is. Tony Stark, likewise, seems to view compromise as necessary, without it ever being made clear what exactly the terms of the compromise actually are.
Because we don’t have solid information, our judgment of this UN accord is shaped most by our perceptions of the characters involved. Do our feeling align more with Tony Stark, who is ridden with guilt about the off-screen civilian casualties in the Age of Ultron? Do we prefer Captain America, who wants to preserve the right to act according to his conscience? Or maybe we just want the skeezy US secretary of state who is pushing the agreement to shove it.
Additionally, the character’s reasons for supporting or opposing the agreement are not terribly well fleshed out. “You’re being uncharacteristically non-hyperverbal,” Black Widow says to Iron Man, who is sitting quietly while the other Avengers debate the accord. “That’s because the answer is obvious. We need to be brought under control” is roughly Iron Man’s reply. That’s about as much as we get.
This was frustrating. Ada Palmer puts in her finger on exactly the problem I had in her discussion of Shakespeare compared to current television:
People don’t say very much in current TV, at least in drama. Lots of screen time is devoted to vistas, establishing shots, standing there looking cool, and to gazing dramatically at one another. A giant, long-awaited confrontation or confession scene will still often only involve ten or fifteen lines of dialog at most, leaving my Shakespeare-saturated brain demanding, “Tell him more! Tell her more! Tell me more! Ask questions! Explain your reasoning! Say what you really think!” It’s amazing to me how many conflicts in the few TV dramas I have watched recently are caused by Character A facing Character B and announcing “I want X” and Character B responding, “I oppose X so now we’re enemies,” and the viewer knows the real reasons both characters want these things and that if Character A would just tell Character B her/his thought process they would reach a compromise, but they don’t because they don’t explain, and don’t ask. I think such scenes are aiming at sympathetic tragedy, the viewer realizing that all the strife to come is the result of a misunderstanding, and making it easy for the viewer to sympathize with both sides. Over and over, five minutes’ more conversation would mean no one has to die. With the exception of Othello, Hamlet and some moments in the comedies, Shakespeare’s characters generally explain their why in addition to their what, but Shakespeare then makes the conflicts insoluble all the way down, so the tragedy feels grand and fated, not just a product of accident and misunderstanding. An interesting shift in storytelling technique, and possibly in how we think about conflict.
In order to understand how this observation applies to the movie, we’re going to get further into the summary. Spoilers ahoy.
Where we left off, some of the Avengers have decided to go ahead and sign the accord that would put them under the control of the UN committee. However, while all of this is happening, the UN summit is bombed, killing many diplomats. A security camera identifies the bomber as Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s childhood friend who had been transformed into the Winter Soldier after years of steroids and psychological torture in a Hydra facility. The UN, understandably, wants to bring Bucky into custody, but Captain America is convinced that his friend is innocent, and in the ensuing manhunt, Captain America goes rogue in order to protect him.
Now for some serious spoilers. First, Bucky didn’t actually bomb the UN. He was framed in order to start a worldwide manhunt that would bring him out of hiding. The villain, posing as a UN psychiatrist, used Bucky’s capture as an opportunity to interrogate him and get information about the location of the facility where he had been made into the winter soldier. It turns out Bucky had been part of a larger super soldier program, and there were a bunch of other super soldiers just hanging out in stasis somewhere in Siberia, waiting for a would-be villain to wake them up and use them to conquer the world. After getting this information, the villain uses trigger words to flip Bucky’s evil switch and sends him on a murderous rampage through the UN facility, and Captain America is barely able to calm Bucky down and get him out of the facility safely.
Upon realizing the villain’s plot, Captain America moves to go find an airplane to get to Siberia and stop this, but there’s one problem: he and Bucky are both fugitives, and Iron Man is looking to bring them into custody. Very quickly, the rest of the avengers align themselves with either Iron Man or Captain America, and they have a full-fledged superhero-on-superhero showdown, which destroys an (thankfully abandoned) airfield.
This battle was, as far as I could tell, completely avoidable. There is no moment when Steve Rogers explains to Tony Stark what’s going on, that he’s figured out the villain’s plot, or why he and Bucky need to get to Siberia. Nor does Tony seem particularly interested in listening to it. The conversation that takes place before these two superhero squads come to blows basically goes like this: “You’ve gone too far, and I’m going to bring you in” “I’m not going to let that happen” “So you’re not going to back down?” “Nope, are you?” “Nope” “So we’re doing this”.
And then they start punching each other.
Like, okay… I get why the movie is written this way. I understand that the movie would be really boring if the heroes were sober and intelligent and averted the need for violence by acting like adults. And I won’t lie, the battle itself is a LOT of fun to watch. The effects and the direction are fantastic, it’s filled with funny dialogue. If nothing else, Marvel knows how to direct these big, sprawling epic battles.
But at the same time, the stakes of this battle feel oddly small. The fight feels more like posturing than fighting, more a test of their opponent’s resolve than a means to an end. The heroes clearly don’t want to hurt each other (in fact, they joke in the middle of the battle about pulling their punches; “we’re still friends, right?” Black Widow says to Hawkeye mid punch), but they still don’t spend more than two seconds talking in the hopes of avoiding the battle in the first place (imagine Captain America taking a few minutes to explain “hey, we know Bucky was framed for the UN bombing, and there’s a bad guy currently heading to a compound in Siberia where he’ll wake up a small squad of murderous super soldiers, and we REALLY NEED TO STOP HIM”).
Normally I wouldn’t complain about frivolous violence. Plenty of other movies treat violence lightly. Indiana Jones would not be nearly as much fun if it spent a lot of time having Indie come to terms with the number of people he has killed over the course of his adventures. The franchise, understandably, doesn’t want to go there.
However, the reason why I’m complaining about it now is because Captain America: Civil War totally wants to go there. The movie is very much about Iron Man and Captain America coming to terms with the number of people the Avengers have killed in the course of their adventures, and the conflict is largely driven by a disagreement over how the Avengers ought to handle this responsibility. Ironically, their battle is probably one the strongest arguments for Iron Man’s position. Why should anybody trust the Avengers to be judicious, responsible, and minimize civilian casualties if they can’t resolve a reasonably clear-cut disagreement without leveling an airfield? In a movie about heroes taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions, I have a very low tolerance for petty, avoidable, frivolous battles.
The reason why I bring this up is because the movie seemed to throw into sharp relief the low esteem we hold for actual conflict resolution. Civil War certainly isn’t the only example of manufactured, unnecessary conflict in our media. You’ll see just as much, if not more, on any reality TV show, but reality TV is at least an unpretentious genre. It knows it’s garbage, and that’s its main appeal. My issue is more with the superhero movie, which aspires to address serious moral questions, but still ultimately came down to superheroes flipping around and punching each other. Because this is, at some level, what people came to see.
There has been some discussion of the movie’s politics. In addition to these Vox articles, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, who I will not do the honor of linking to, writes a review of the movie which manages to compare every major character in the movie to Donald Trump. This comparison is about as stupid as it sounds, but I ironically, I think this sort of article demonstrates how the meta-commentary on manufactured conflict is far more politically relevant than anything that happened in the actual movie.
Much like superhero movies, current politics lives and breathes conflict. Although it aspires to be a forum for the resolution of social and moral questions, at the end of the day, it is conflict, not the resolution of conflict, that keeps the ratings high and the clicks coming. Stories today don’t go viral by attempting to communicate across partisan disagreements– they go viral by being as aggressively, belligerently partisan as possible (and by mentioning the name Donald Trump, a fact that Andrew O’Hehir is probably all too aware of). We have created a political environment that that doesn’t reward people who resolve conflicts, but people who create them. It seems our reward is Donald Trump.
But who knows. I suppose, in the end, I still enjoyed the movie. I just wish it had decided to flesh out the reason for the conflict a little bit more. Food for thought. Tangent over.