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Captain America: Civil War

May 6, 2016
Captain America: Civil War

The ending of The Avengers featured one of the more literal cinematic invocations of September 11 imagery. Wait, didn’t I say that before? Oh, yes; when I reviewed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. DC and Marvel have both decided to take on questions about how we respond in the wake of massive traumas, and what checks, if any, should be placed on the projection of power in service of global security. The difference is that, in Captain America: Civil War, Marvel doesn’t blow it the way the Zack Snyder-led DC effort did so spectacularly.

Where Dawn of Justice dealt with these questions by giving both combatants variations on Snyder’s grimdark, objectivist version of pragmatism, Civil War sets up a wide variety of responses to its central question. What’s more, as we saw in Eye In the Sky, none of them are wrong. There are no neat answers waiting at the end of the film, and no simple moral. A lesson may well be learned, as they say, but they damage may just as well be irreversible.

And yet, as dark as this sounds, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely cut it with moments of great levity and even fun, as they did with The Winter Soldier two years ago. The balance here turns closer to superhero action, but there’s still a strong inflection of international espionage in their writing. The result is a carefully-built, engaging mystery rather than a slow dirge leading to a brutal crunch.

To bring the question into focus — another point in favor of Civil War — the United Nations have put forward the Sokovia Accords. The Avengers will no longer operate as an independent, extranational force, but under the guidance of a dedicated UN panel that will decide when and if their intervention is authorized. “Enhanced persons” can either sign the Accords, retire, or have their actions considered violations of international law.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), having been brought face-to-face with some of the collateral damage from the Sokovian mission, is in favor of signing. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) worries that the judgement of any oversight committee might be compromised, and prefers to remain in charge of his own conscience. Both of them have good points.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) breaks with her earlier, anti-government stance to admit that some sort of outside input might not be a bad idea, if it allows the team to do good. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) feels guilty over the damage she caused to innocents, but at the same time she stands to be judged harshly for her actions in the movie’s opening sequence. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is already used to taking orders in his military career. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) just retires, as he was on the verge of doing anyway.

Some people choose sides based on their personal allegiances, so Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) goes with his buddy Steve, while Vision (Paul Bettany) is inclined towards Tony, though he does make some pragmatic points of his own about how the existence of power might in and of itself generate conflict. And some like Scott Lang (Ant-Man) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland) choose sides based on who asked them first.

What’s really striking is the way that these people can disagree so vehemently, and yet want so desperately to maintain their connections. Tony and Steve are obviously torn by their different opinions, but those who feel more ambivalent about the Accords display even more complicated mixtures of emotion. Even when at each other’s throats they ask, “are we still friends?” It’s a sentiment that seems less and less present in our increasingly polarized real-world politics.

This complex web of relationships, built up carefully over the last five years, is strained by the argument over the Sokovia Accords, but it’s blown apart by the car-bomb that goes off outside the signing ceremony in Vienna. Cameras show what looks like an uncharacteristically careless Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) — the near-mythical “Winter Soldier” from the last Captain America film — which drives Steve to go out on his own to bring his friend in alive before the authorities shoot him on sight. The blast also kills T’chaka, king of Wakanda, for which his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) seeks revenge.

Bucky’s and T’Challa’s pains may be the most directly on display, but everyone we see is motivated by pains of their own. Behind everyone’s opinions and choices lie the most personal aches and longings. When a clear villain is revealed, his story is as tragic as any of the heroes’. Even then, he matters less as an antagonist than as the one who plants the seeds of the divisions that grow from the heroes’ own brokenness.

Civil War manages to deliver a satisfying ending while never really resolving any of the questions it raises. Steve may have been right about Bucky this time, but does that really invalidate the idea of oversight? A panel may have unspoken agendas, but it seems clear that superheroes themselves do, too. On the other hand, if an Avenger realizes that the panel has made a mistake, either by acting too early or too late, how can that be rectified? Markus and McFeely wisely avoid pretending that there are any easy answers.

What comes across instead is a call in two, rhyming parts. We must struggle to see past the differences and conflicts we have, to recognize the pain in the other and to see their shared humanity. And we must struggle even harder to recognize the pain in ourselves that blinds us to its presence in those with whom we disagree. We must, in short, learn to love, even as we fight.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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