I caught a showing of Captain America: Civil War this afternoon with my writing and movie buddy R.K. Bentley. It was a much better Avengers movie than the last Avengers movie, and frankly I’m glad Joss Whedon wasn’t involved in this one because it was all the better for it.
Marvel is getting itself into dangerous territory, though, with this enormous library of intra-referential movies. Civil War is at its best if you’ve seen Captain America, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Ant Man, and probably a couple of the Spider-Man movies. If you haven’t seen half of those movies—at the very least both Captain Americas and the second Avengers movie—then Civil War is a bit of a confusing mess.
Luckily I’d seen all of those except Ant Man, and I was able to figure that bit out from the context. The movie expects you’ve seen them and doesn’t explain more than the minimum. I pity anyone who’s trying to get into the franchise with this movie.
Ant-Man is only one of the cameos in this movie. There’s Cap, of course, and Iron Man, the Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Hawkeye, Spider-Man (with a bizarrely young Aunt May), Bucky, War Machine, and the Falcon, and introduces T’Challa as Black Panther. Those last three are especially awesome, by the way—have you ever seen THREE black men in the same super hero movie at the same time? And not a villain among them? I’m a bit grateful that Thor, the Hulk, and Pepper stayed out of this one.
It’s a good movie. The moral quandary at the center is an interesting one—after killing many innocent bystanders in their battles to save the world, should the Avengers have government oversight?—and both sides have good points. It’s far more emotionally affecting to watch people you like fighting other people you like rather than fighting the villain of the week. I loved the banter between them all even as they were fighting. Recent Marvel movies (I’m looking at you, Age of Ultron) have fallen into the trap of having people talk about how much they care for each other without ever actually showing it. Civil War made me believe that they were actually friends.
Ultimately, the movie wants you to side with Captain America and the idea that the Avengers shouldn’t get tied up in bureaucracy. Cap points out that having UN oversight isn’t going to stop innocents from dying in the middle of a battle; it’ll just shift the blame off the Avengers for making the decision to fight. This is very true. It’s not like the Avengers ever get to choose their battlegrounds, and most of the innocent bystanders would have died whether they fought or not, just in different ways. On the other hand, Secretary Ross trots out the old argument that the bad guys were inspired by the Avengers and wouldn’t have been as powerful without them. As Jim Gordon says at the end of Batman Begins, “We start carrying semiautomatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds.”
Yet as I was watching the movie, I began to side more with Tony than Cap. The philosophical differences between them come to a head when Bucky Barnes is accused of bombing the Sokovian Accords in Vienna and killing King T’Chaka. The government goes after Barnes. Cap knows that they’re not planning on taking him alive, so he turns himself into a criminal by taking matters into his own hands and trying to bring in Bucky himself.
Which, okay, fine, I understand that Steve wants to help his old friend, even though Bucky very well may have assassinated the King. Summary execution isn’t anyone’s friend. He gets to Bucky just barely ahead of the soldiers and helps him escape.
Of course, the escape isn’t without casualties. At one point Cap saves a soldier that Bucky ruthlessly tosses over the stairwell railing, which is cute and all, but what does Cap think happened to all the (normal, human) people he threw headfirst into walls? Are we operating on movie logic here, where hitting someone hard enough to knock them unconscious just makes them take a brief nap instead of giving them a traumatic brain injury? And the chase in the tunnel with all the cars—are we meant to assume everyone survived?
Is Bucky’s life an equal exchange for all of theirs? After all, Bucky did kill a lot of people with his bare hands. Sure, he was brainwashed and you could argue that he was innocent of those murders, but does that make his life worth more than any of the other people who died so he could escape in one piece? The soldiers trying to kill him are under orders too, and if you accept that Bucky had extenuating circumstances, surely any of the soldiers trying to kill him might have some as well.
In most movies, you’re not meant to think about all that, but innocent bystanders are what Civil War is all about. Tony decides to agree to government oversight because he’s faced with a mother who lost her son in Sokovia due to the actions of the Avengers. The villain of the movie, Col. Zemo, is only acting against the Avengers because they accidentally killed his family, too. The entire point of the Sokovian Accord is to keep more innocent people from dying unnecessarily. We’re supposed to see all those innocent bystanders as real people with real lives and families who grieve them…unless of course we’re in the middle of a chase scene.
Ironically, if Steve had agreed to the oversight from the beginning, it’s likely the movie would have ended with far fewer casualties than it did. Bucky would have died. Everyone Bucky killed in his brainwashed rage would have survived. Col. Zemo’s plan wouldn’t have come to fruition because without Bucky, he wouldn’t be able to set Cap and Iron Man against each other. He’d still kill the other super soldiers and then himself. The Avengers wouldn’t be criminals, and the only person who would be worse off, besides Bucky, would be Peter Parker, who wouldn’t get the cool new suit upgrade that Tony gave him.
That’s not a movie, though, so it’s pretty understandable why it went the way it did. Still, I think I’m more #teamironman than #teamcap, which surprises me. Maybe I’ve seen too many superhero movies where vigilante justice is seen as superior. Batman vs. Superman tried to grapple with this same issue, although it lost sight of it by the end of the movie. I think the only movie that’s come closest in resolving this issue has been The Dark Knight, when Batman retires rather than continue to inspire criminals to greater heights. Hell, even Watchmen ended with the decision that the ends justify the means.
Overall, though? Good movie, good acting, and wooooo T’Challa. The action scenes may have been flat-out ridiculous, but the dialogue was hilarious and the characters were three-dimensional. I look forward to the Russo brothers’ next couple installments in the franchise.