A Better Battle
by Andrew Collins
In Captain America: Civil War (directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo) Marvel has once again found a way to have its cake and eat it too, proving that there are still comic book stories that don’t need the fate of the entire world at stake to be compelling.
Just the opposite, in fact.
It’s best to start with an obvious comparison. The parallels between Civil War and Batman v Superman are uncanny, given their proximity in release dates, and the two films provide an excellent case study for what makes a superhero movie “work.” Batman v Superman, as I have previously written here, had an truly interesting premise: Batman didn’t trust the almighty Superman to wield his power responsibly. Lex Luthor didn’t trust Superman either, so he pitted a kryptonite-empowered Batman against Superman. Unfortunately, this clash of realism and idealism lost its way with the intrusion of certain other characters.
Civil War has a similar premise predicated on a conflict between heroes: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) supporting a treaty to bind the Avengers under U.N. authority, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) standing in stark opposition. It also has no shortage of superheroes among the support cast. The secret sauce that makes Civil War click is that it has the restraint to focus on this premise and spend the entire plot teasing it out. Even though it introduces two new supers, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spiderman (Tom Holland), both characters enter the story in service of the core plot. It appears that Cap’s beloved friend Bucky Barnes (the winter solider from the earlier Captain America film) has bombed an international meeting at which the Avengers were supposed to sign a treaty of deference to the world’s governing bodies. The powers that be want Barnes — dead or alive — but Steve’s impeccable moral compass smells something fishy, and he can’t just let them take his friend.
It helps that Iron Man and Captain America have been in a few films together leading up to their disagreement. There’s a sense in Civil War that Marvel really is going somewhere with this Avengers franchise, building character capital to be spent at a later time. The story’s central conflict between Captain America and Iron Man isn’t a cheap, contrived disagreement, but a product of a subtle rift that has slowly grown between two steadfast friends. It takes the previous two Avengers films to understand what makes Steve Rogers and Tony Stark tic. As the two most beloved characters of the franchise (according to this critic’s anecdotal experience), they’re equipped to support the drama of a hefty two and a half hour blockbuster by talking and punching their way through their personal and philosophical differences.
Over the course of the story both sides have a number of “I told you so” moments, and neither comes out decisively in the right. On the one hand, the internal squabbling of the Avengers gets awfully messy. Beating up dozens of Special Forces soldiers, wrecking 747 airliners, and leveling airport hangars is no way to stage a global PR recovery. That’s a high cost for the public to pay for a group of world-defending superheroes who clearly don’t even have their own house in order. Imagine the Avengers in a real-world scenario. Who in their right mind would want to entrust national security to a Norse god, an unhinged green maniac, a wisecracking tech billionaire, and a guy whose weapon of choice is a shield (a mere “Frisbee,” as Ultron deridingly put it in an earlier film)? What would you think of them if they refused to sign on to any sort of accountability and seemed to pay no heed to international law? It’s a no-brainier. Chalk one up for team Stark.
At the same time, however, the wheels of the world’s government institutions do not always turn justly. Suppose, for example, that Bucky Barnes has been framed. Who will stand up for him then? Surely not a world consumed by Avengers-controlling hysteria. No, it takes a superhuman feat – both of physical strength and moral fiber – to swim against the current of public opinion and stand against the misguided justice of world powers. Go get ‘em Cap.
We live in an age when nefarious forces, acting in the inscrutable darkness of cyberspace or foreign lands, seem to be conspiring against us. Pick your villain: the NSA, Chinese hackers, the Kremlin, Anonymous, ISIS, the US military industrial complex… the list goes on. Amid these fears, it’s nice to see the escapism of movies like Civil War continuing to kindle hope. There may yet be forces for good at work in the shadows, heroes ready to spring out of the most unlikely places to save the world – even after the world in its shortsighted pride and ignorance has rejected them.