Captain America: Civil War promised fans a three course meal, but fed us the same old popcorn
Posted on May 4, 2016
SPOILER WARNING: This piece contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War and the comic series Civil War from which the film takes its central conceit and subtitle. If you haven’t seen the film and/or read the comic yet, and wish to do so spoiler-free, bugger off and come back when you have.
First off, I just want to make it clear that I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. I found it to be a thoroughly entertaining experience; I gasped a bit, laughed a bit, and there was a bit where my eyes leaked and my lip got wobbly. In short, I had a pretty good time seeing this film, mostly.
To get at why Captain America: Civil War left me feeling underwhelmed, we need to look to its namesake, the seven issue miniseries Civil War, published in 2006 and 2007. It is from this storyline that the film borrows its central conceit; that civilian casualties caused by super-human conflicts lead to the passing of laws to in an effort to control super-human activity, chiefly forcing all superheroes to either operate under governmental supervision, or cease operating altogether, driving longtime allies into conflict with each other.
In the comic, it’s a US law called the Superhero Registration Act, whose scope is limited to the US alone, but extends to all super-heroic activity within its borders. The law comes about as a result of huge public backlash against superheroes, following a botched attempt by an amateurish New Warriors team to capture a villain with devastating explosive powers, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of school children.
The strength of the comic is that because the law applies to all super-heroes, it allows the book to explore fear, paranoia, and especially the age old conflict between liberty and security, and how much, if at all, we should compromise either for the other. This is a law that forces all superheroes, including persecuted minorities like mutants, to register their abilities, and choose to either make their identities public and join Tony Stark’s Initiative as agents of the state, or risk arrest and imprisonment should they continue to use their powers without government supervision. Stark takes the pro-registration side because he believes that refusal to accept regulation and oversight would lead to a crackdown on all super-heroic activity. His stance, at least from his point of view, is a pragmatic one, the lesser of two evils, sacrificing some liberty for greater security.
Captain America, conversely, sees the Act as an assault on the basic liberties of American citizens, forcing super-humans to register with an often hostile state. This, lest we forget, is the same US government that maintains a sentinel programme (giant hunter killer robots designed to target mutants). It also oversees a nation in which mutants or humans perceived to be mutant are routinely harassed, assaulted, and even killed by anti-mutant bigots, often their neighbours.
Basically, there are very clear reasons for both heroes to take their particular sides, and these are laid out clearly for the reader so it all makes plenty of sense when other heroes fall in behind these two figureheads. Once the pro-registration side start rounding up and imprisoning unregistered heroes, it kicks off in fine style, the physical conflict on the page a visceral expression of the philosophical conflict at the core of the story. Because the themes are so clear, and so universal, it’s easy for the reader to pick a side, strongly identify with the aims of that side, and will them on as the story develops. It’s also possible to clearly see both sides, and understand all the rationales at play, even if you firmly come down on one side or the other.
In the film, the legal instrument which sparks the conflict is the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement designed to control and direct the activities of the Avengers specifically, in response to global public anger around civilian deaths during Avengers operations around the world. Unlike the inciting incident of the comic, it’s not incompetence triggering the civilian deaths that galvanise the political response. Rather, Wanda Maximoff, faced with a powerful and armed explosive in Lagos, gets it away from a crowded marketplace but is unable to contain it completely, resulting in the destruction of a couple of floors of a modest tower block. Still horrific, certainly, but Wanda’s actions hugely reduce the loss of life incurred. All this happens while the Avengers are preventing the theft of a highly infectious and deadly disease sample by Hydra operatives, who are presumably planning an act of mass murder on a truly epic scale.
However, the Avengers are directly responsible for the harm caused in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The creation and imprisonment of a true artificial intelligence, and the bitterness and malevolence this causes in the Ultron entity, leads to every last civilian death in that film, and indeed Quicksilver’s and the root cause of that is the tremendous arrogance of Tony Stark.
The Sokovia Accords don’t have any scope beyond the Avengers, and it wouldn’t matter if they did because as far as the Marvel movies have established, the Avengers are pretty much the be-all and end-all of super-heroes in this world. Marvel don’t have the rights to use the X-men in their films (those rights lie with 20th Century Fox), so there are no mutants in the MCU. Without a super-human minority in the wider populace, there are no grand consequences for civilians at risk of further persecution. The major philosophical question posed by the inciting incident then, is not “Where does the balance lie between individual liberty and security?”, but rather “What if anything should be done to reign in the Avengers?” To my mind, that is a far, far less compelling question, and leads to less interesting outcomes for our characters.
It’s much harder to root for Captain America, chiefly. Over a hundred nations have agreed that they don’t want the Avengers operating within their borders without oversight. As sovereign states, they are well within their rights to do so. This places Steve Rogers, the protagonist and supposedly the character we are supposed to root for, as an expression not of personal liberty and individual rights, but as an embodiment of the worst excesses of US foreign policy, a star-spangled zealot who ignores international law, operating unilaterally and without regard for the rights of sovereign nations.
Stark, by contrast, comes off as positively sympathetic, which given he invented a killer AI which nearly destroyed the planet last time he showed up (a fact Captain America: Civil War never addresses), is genuinely stunning. He doesn’t like the situation he’s in, but he’s willing to work with the UN to run an Avengers team with international oversight, thereby respecting the rights of the nations in which the Avengers wish to operate.
Worse, as the film develops, Steve’s actions are increasingly dictated, not by his principles, but by his friendship with Bucky. That’s no bad thing, necessarily, but again it weakens the overall theme of the piece, further undermining the central question raised by the story.
There’s also a massive fight scene in an airport. You’ve seen it in the trailers, where all the Avengers (except Thor and Hulk who are off doing Asgardy things) get together on their chosen sides and then fight. Except precisely nothing is done to explain why several of these characters are taking the sides they do. There’s an entire separate scene where Peter Parker is recruited by Stark, but it’s never established as to what Peter’s reasons are for siding with him, other than that’s he’s a 15 year old who would follow his hero anywhere. This makes Stark look creepy and manipulative, again making it tough to root for either side. The whole scene reeks of fan service as two groups of supposedly highly intelligent and moral people kick lumps out of each other, over a disagreement which isn’t all that compelling. Which isn’t to say it’s not hugely entertaining. It’s just really dumb.
I don’t know. I feel like I’m being over-critical of a summer blockbuster. Like I say, I had a whole lot of fun watching it, once I switched my brain off. Maybe if they’d given it a different title it would be easier to overlook its shortcomings? They chose to name it after one of the most successful, compelling, and thought-provoking superhero comics in history though, and I can’t help but look back at this popcorn-shovelling spectacle, entertaining as it may be, and feel that it could have been much better. It’s possible to make genuinely intelligent superhero fiction without turning all your characters into arseholes; comics have been doing it for years, but the films still haven’t picked up the knack. I hope they do.
Oh, one last point. This is the thirteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and once again the villain is a barely realised walking plot development machine. Thirteen films in, and the only villain written or portrayed with an ounce of depth is Loki. All credit to Tom Hiddleston, who is arguably the best thing about the MCU, but that’s a pretty poor batting average for the studio.
Okay, I lied. Real last point. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is far and away the best thing about this film; steadfast but thoughtful, balancing vulnerability with the practised detachment of nobility. The Black Panther solo movie can’t come quickly enough.
Andy Waterfield barely slept last night, because Leicester City Football Club, his team for 25 years of his 29 thus far, won the English Premier League title, and he got suitably bladdered. If you have any problems with this week’s column, he doesn’t care. The Foxes are champions of England. Nothing else matters. He’s on Twitter, if you’re interested: @andywritesstuff