I remember reading Marvel’s Civil War cycle in high school and loving it. Superheroes (and villains) are the gods of an American polytheism in which ideals of capitalism, freedom, and self-reliance are the titan forefathers. The men and women clad in bright colors and offering simple solutions to simple problems – punching out Hitler, flying an H-bomb into space, etc. – are both a distorted and amplified reflection of utopian ideals. I think the most interesting stories emerging out of this are the ones that point to cracks in the mirror, that are aware of what they represent and invite to audience to be critical of it.
When superheroes enter a space that isn’t black and white, where questions about their identity and their mission reflect the crises that can take hold both of an individual and of a nation, they reach their true narrative potential. That is why comic books like Alan Moore’sWatchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars are not only favorites of mine, but became cult classics. The Civil War series put the dark spin of realism on the Marvel universe inspired these classics. The writing wasn't always perfect, but the overall result was a powerful piece of Zeitgeist.
Similar to the comics, Captain America: Civil War is about his opposition to an international oversight committee that wants to take control of the Avengers (and presumably other super-people) as a result of the destructive aftermath of their missions. While Iron Man and Black Widow accept this call for regulation, Cap doesn’t want to let political interests dictate when and where he should help. Meanwhile, his wartime friend Bucky aka the Winter Soldier has reemerged, and is being accused of bombing the conference at which the regulatory law should have been signed by Romanoff and friends. Naturally, Iron Man and Black Widow plan to hunt Bucky down, while Rogers wants to find and protect him. The divide between the two faction deepens, and it comes to a spectacular struggle that allows a third party to gain the upper hand.
I have mostly enjoyed how the Marvel franchise has developed Captain America in the movies because they seemed to get that he as a character is only interesting when he reflects the doubts and anxieties of modern-day America. Steve Rogers’ issue with government regulation and political power isn’t an echo of neoliberal ramblings about the free market and anti-federalism; it’s about an awareness that ideology – from any source – can be dangerous when applied without self-reflection.
Now the main issue with the story is that most of the disagreements could have been dealt with by sitting everyone down and having a nice and long conversation, maybe using talking sticks, who knows, and agreeing to disagree. But that is not the superhero way, of course, so they just let their fists do the talking. It shows the inability to have a conversation that doesn’t involve violence. How could they? These super-individuals are all creatures of war; they are the specific consequence of ideological clashes that are negotiated through violence. Iron Man wouldn’t be who he is if Stark Industries didn’t manufacture weapons of war. Black Widow is herself a weapon of Cold War subterfuge. Vision – by way of Ultron – is the result of an attempt to create the technology to end all wars. Wanda Maximoff became the Scarlet Witch because she is the victim of war. Falcon is an ex-soldier. And Steve Rogers, of course, is America’s ironic conception of the Arian super-soldier aimed at eliminating the Nazi threat.
The fact that these hyper-American icons cannot but speak through their punches kind of aligns with a people dead set to hold on to the right to own weapons. A people that communicates political frustration with their fists, that lives in a world divided in red and blue, and that is, at least in part, willing to elect the angriest white man to be their commander-in-chief. A people divided, and unable to have a reasonable conversation, to acknowledge difference and deal with it.
Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Ant-Man make appearances in the movie, although they remain outsiders, which is no coincidence if you look at their origin stories and general history. They aren’t creatures of war and the values at stake for them are about individual responsibility rather than principles. In the wonderful main fight between the factions, Falcon says to Spider-Man, “There’s not usually this much talking in a fight.” This goes to show why Spidey doesn’t fit into this whole mess: he's still looking to have a dialogue, Ant-Man isn't big on priciples in the first place, and Black Panther is on his own quest. He is the only one to have learned anything by the end of the story without having destroyed any significant relationships.
Captain America’s wariness comes from his refusal to surrender control to the very powers who created him and others like him, who are responsible for the danger they represent because they are the ones who made them in the first place – and that is 100% understandable. As is Stark’s desire to legitimate their super-heroism, to delegate the moral responsibility to higher powers. The fact that this ideological struggle is mirrored by a personal one, i.e. by the negotiation of their friendship, adds emotional flavor to an otherwise potentially dreary narrative. It also reflects how a public fight over values can’t but affect the individual, how it incites a violent passion that spills over very easily.
Power and ideology become complicated in this universe and that’s what makes this action fest more than just palatable – it makes it enjoyable. Through Captain America the movie expands – and banks on – the (moral) ambiguity that’s been hinted at so far in the franchise. It shows that behind the simplicity of throwing around trucks and making things go boom, there are grey areas that are uncomfortable but interesting, and that make Captain America the appealing character that he is.
I think the Captain America: Civil War left me with the sense that the franchise grasped its potential and did its best to make the most out of its characters. It is definitely flawed as all manner of questions went through my mind as I watched it: Why does it have to continue to be such a massive sausage fest? Why don’t Scarlet Witch and Black Widow get to say more? Why on earth would Black Widow and Hawkeye not be on the same side? And could they all just CALM THE FUCK DOWN AND TALK TO EACH OTHER? I sincerely hope that, one of these days, the world of superheroes will get more diverse, so that the only relevant perspectives aren’t those of handsome white guys. But it feels like we’re moving in the right direction.
All in all, the movie is a solid and worthy interpretation of the Civil War series, and so far one of the best of the franchise. There’s room for depth, but any shallowness is mostly overshadowed by hilarious one-liners, good acting, and occasional sweet subtleties like the relationship between Wanda and Vision. While I have the tendency to want to see the best in superhero movies , I believe that this is definitely a winner in terms of story-development and emotional logic.