Thursday, May 05, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

It's a bit of a strange thing to say, but I might have liked Captain America: Civil War better if it were a less good movie.  When films like The Dark Knight Rises or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice deliver rancid political messages wrapped in equally rancid plots and characterization, the reviewer's job is made easier.  We can point to how a failure to recognize the actual complexity of a situation, or to imbue characters with full humanity, both informs and reflects the simplistic, quasi-fascist message of the movie.  Civil War is a trickier customer.  It tries--and on some level, manages--to be more intelligent and more thoughtful than something like Batman v Superman.  Its characters take the film's central conflict seriously, discussing it rationally and trying to find a way to resolve it without descending into fisticuffs.  But even as they do so, they reveal the inherent impossibility of their project, the way the core assumptions of this entire genre combine to form a black hole that it can never escape.  I've said it before, but the minute you start taking superheroes seriously, and debating the rights and wrongs of them, only one conclusion is possible: that superheroes are a really bad idea, and that any fictional world that houses more than a handful of them will inevitably devolve into a horrifying dystopia in which the rule of law and the authority of democratic government are meaningless.  In the end, and despite the wide gulf of quality between them, Civil War ends up telling the same story as Batman v Superman: a tragedy about people who don't know any way to address their problems except through violence.

Before we get to that, however, let's note that for all my praise of it, Civil War is not a top-notch MCU movie.  Though it does a better job of wrangling a truly epic number of characters than last year's Age of Ultron, the need to service all of them--and set up several future entries in the franchise, chiefly Black Panther and the next iteration of Spider-Man--means that the film is overlong and occasionally listless.  It loses control of its tone--the one quality that has made the MCU undeniably excellent as a comics adaptation--at several crucial points, most importantly its climactic battle scene.  The relationships that were such a delight in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier--particularly the friendships that Steve Rogers develops with Sam Wilson and Natasha Romanoff--are given short shrift, and in general those characters leave the movie feeling flattened and uninteresting[1].  Perhaps most importantly, the film completely fails to sell the supposedly deep bond of friendship and loyalty between Steve and Bucky Barnes.  Whether you read the relationship as platonic or (as most of fandom does) romantic, Steve's devotion to Bucky is what drives his actions throughout the movie.  And yet what shows up on screen between the two friends is curiously inert--it's never believable that Steve would go the lengths he does for a man that he seems, at most, mildly fond of.  Meanwhile, the relationship that's meant to carry the film's romantic weight, between Steve and Peggy Carter's niece Sharon, never grows beyond a not-very-convincing concept.

Having said all that, there are also a lot of things to praise about Civil War.  Like Winter Soldier before it, it tells a relatively small-scale story, more rooted in espionage and conspiracy tales than in superheroics.  This grounds the film and gives it a weight that was absent from the more high-concept Avengers movies.  The action scenes, similarly, are excellent precisely because their scale is smaller, with the focus placed more on one-on-one matchups than CGI extravaganzas in which our heroes hit large things with even larger things.  Chris Evans continues to anchor the Captain America series--perhaps the entire MCU--with his turn as Steve, conveying the character's staunch beliefs without ever making him seem stiff or inhuman.  The film also, and a little more suprisingly, does a good job with Tony Stark, who is very nearly rehabilitated from his stint as an almost-world-destroying mad scientist in Age of Ultron.  This Tony is more damaged and more thoughtful without losing his defining egotism, and the best scenes of the movie involve him and Steve arguing, not because either one of them is a bad guy, but because they have fundamentally irreconcilable worldviews.  It's in these scenes that Civil War comes closest to selling its argument that "superheroes: yes or no" is a question on which reasonable people can disagree, and that both Tony and Steve have valid points to make.

In order to achieve that gloss of reasonableness, however, Civil War has to commit several rhetorical slights of hand that, as soon as they become clear, undermine not just the film's argument but its very premise.  Our heroes' problems kick off when an Avengers mission in Lagos goes wrong, leaving dozens of civilians dead.  It's the last straw for a world that has grown tired of seeing superheroes at the center of city-destroying mayhem, and as a response the Avengers are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would place them under the auspices of the UN.  While Tony champions the agreement, Steve demurs, refusing to once again place his power at the disposal of the authorities, and insisting that "the best hands are our own."  What seems like a stalemate erupts into open conflict when the summit at which the accords were to be signed is bombed, apparently by Bucky Barnes.  As Steve scrambles, first to bring Bucky in alive, and then to break him out when it becomes clear that he's being framed, he and Tony draw battle lines, with the other MCU characters falling in on both sides.[2]

There are so many problems with this premise, and with how Civil War develops it, that it's hard to know where to start.  For one thing, there is the subtle but insistent way in which the film massages the events of Age of Ultron so that no real blame attaches to any of the Avengers, most especially Tony Stark.  Civil War makes much of the guilt that Tony feels, and of the personal consequences he's suffered as a result of the earlier film's events--we learn, for example, that he and Pepper have broken up.  But like so much else about the movie, this is a bait-and-switch.  The film pretends to acknowledge Tony's guilt, even as it obscures the things he is actually guilty of.  When Tony tells Steve about his breakup with Pepper, for example, he blames it on his inability to leave behind the life of a superhero, not on the fact that he made the unilateral decision to build an all-powerful AI who went crazy and nearly destroyed the planet.  People who hold Tony responsible for the deaths caused by Ultron are similarly unaware of his real guilt, which means the film can act as if it is taking the events of Age of Ultron seriously, without ever facing up to the consequences they should have had.[3]

In other words, Civil War pretends that the problem with the Avengers is collateral damage, their inability to save everyone when they involve themselves in a messed-up situation--this, for example, is what happens in Nigeria, when Wanda Maximoff tries to levitate away a man wearing an explosive vest, but fails to contain the blast long enough to prevent any casualties.  But the real problem with the Avengers is not what they don't or can't do, but what they have done, and what they've gotten away with.  In one particularly galling scene, Wanda sadly muses that the world fears her for her psychic powers.  When really, if anyone fears Wanda, it's probably because she's a former terrorist who sided first with Hydra and then with Ultron, who knowingly sicced the Hulk on a city of three-quarters of a million people, and who has avoided any consequences for these crimes because she enjoys the protection of powerful, connected people like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.

Another way in which Civil War fudges its premise in order to make it workable is the very purpose of the Sokovia Accords.  The film claims that, as in the original Civil War comic, the accords exist to regulate the actions of "enhanced" individuals, and uses Wanda as a poster child for that need.  But the truth is, people like Wanda are the vast minority of MCU superheroes, and recent additions to boot--Wanda and Vision were introduced in Age of Ultron, and Spider-Man is new to Civil War.  That leaves Steve as the only Avenger whose power is innate.[4]  Every other MCU hero is either someone who dons a supersuit--Tony, Sam, Scott Lang, James Rhodes, T'Challa--or a highly-trained super-agent--Natsha, Sharon Carter, Clint Barton.  Once you realize this, it becomes easier to see that while Civil War claims to be about the question of whether we should have superheroes, what it's actually asking is whether people who are rich and famous (and, for the most part, white and American) should be allowed to form their own private armies, and carry out military missions in population centers all over the world.

Once you ask the question that way, it's clear that the answer is no, and the fact that Steve does not give this answer, while not entirely unearned, is ultimately inexcusable.  Given the events of Winter Soldier, you can see why Steve would balk at placing himself and his powers under the control of any authority.  Civil War also, and wisely, works its way up to the moment when Steve decides to become an outlaw and a criminal--initially, he merely refuses to sign the accords, and tries to bring Bucky in peacefully; it takes several fight scenes for him to become the aggressor.  But ultimately, Steve's reticence to follow anyone's orders but his own is taken to extremes that are not justifiable, and which can't be explained by his loyalty to Bucky.  Aside from anything else, it's not a believable turn for the character, who has to be flattened into self-satisfied authoritarianism in order for the story to work.  The film tries to argue that Steve believes that he's doing the right thing--most notably, by quoting one of Cap's most famous comics lines, "When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: 'No, you move.'"  But of course a person who truly believes this sort of thing can just as easily be a monster as a hero.  The thing that has made Steve Rogers into the latter rather than the former has, until now, been the sense that he realizes this.  In Civil War, that no longer seems to be the case.

Steve's failure to recognize just how far beyond the pale he's gone may or may not be a betrayal of the character[5], but it certainly makes him seem unreasonable, and ultimately even a little villainous.  So does the fact that he can't seem to find any middle ground between getting exactly what he wants, and erupting into violence when he doesn't.  In fairness to Steve, Civil War does not seem to take place in a world in which such a middle ground exists.  When he brings Bucky in to stand trial for the UN bombing, Steve's request that Bucky be represented by a lawyer is greeted, literally, with laughter and derision.  When Steve's allies are arrested near the end of the movie, they are placed, without trial, in a secret prison in the middle of the ocean--even the ones, like Sam or Scott, who have no superpowers without their suits.  It in fact gets a little hard to blame Steve for his intransigence when we realize just how untrustworthy and villainous government is in this movie.  This, however, is a flaw in the story, not a justification for the characters' actions.  It's a flaw that is hardly unique to Civil War, the MCU, or even superhero stories--seemingly all of Western pop culture has bought into the notion that government is either incompetent or evil, and that individual action, usually of the violent variety, is the only way to achieve change.  But it reinforces the sense that for all the movie's pretense to thoughtfulness and sophistication, it ultimately has very little to say.  In a world in which there are only two ways to respond to a problem--surrender and all-out war--there's only so much talking you can do before throwing punches becomes the only possible way to advance the plot.

Nowhere are Civil War's confusion and incoherence more palpable than when its characters finally start throwing punches, in a battle royale between the supers aligned with Steve (Sam, Bucky, Wanda, Scott, and Clint) and the ones aligned with Tony (Natasha, T'Challa, Rhodey, Vision, and Peter Parker).  It is, simultaneously, the film's best scene and its worst one, a brilliant piece of action filmmaking that makes it clear that, for all the thought and care that went into making Civil War seem like a not-stupid movie, in the end this was all it was ever about--an excuse to get our heroes fighting each other, no matter how thin the pretext and how many contortions it has to take their personalities through to get there.

Most of the characters who choose to involve themselves in the climactic fight of Civil War have no real reason to be there.  Why would Scott Lang and Clint Barton endanger their freedom and their lives with their families?  Just because Captain America asks them to?  That sort of thing worked in Winter Soldier, but when Steve's motives are so much murkier and less defensible, it's a lot less believable--and makes Scott and Clint a lot less sympathetic when, later in the movie, they are shocked to discover that breaking the law has landed them in prison.  And then there's the matter of Spider-Man, who is not only a teenager, but, as played by Tom Holland, a very young-seeming one, whose heroics have so far amounted only to tackling street crime.  The fact that Tony Stark recruits this inexperienced child to fight against trained killers is unforgivable.  The fact that Steve Rogers, upon realizing that he's been pitted against a child, doesn't immediately lay down his arms is equally so.  In a coherent story, this alone should disqualify either character from ever again being called a hero.

But Civil War doesn't acknowledge this, because it wants us to, simultaneously, take this scene very seriously--to thrill to the angst and conflict as our heroes are compelled to fight against one another--and not to take it seriously at all--to lean back and enjoy the quips and jokes, forgetting that it actually means something when people abandon diplomacy and compromise and choose violence instead.  The ultimate effect of this tonal zigzag is to make these previously-beloved characters look callous and foolish, something that is only exacerbated by the choice of venue for this fight.  The filmmakers clearly chose an empty airport runway because of the by-now frantic fear shared by all superhero storytellers of seeming indifferent to civilian casualties, but it's a choice that also reinforces the heroes' silliness.  They end up looking like nothing so much as a bunch of hooligans, meeting up for a fistfight at an empty weekend parking lot, because violence is the only way they know to resolve their disputes.[6]

Late in the movie, Steve tells Tony that the fundamental difference between them is that while Tony puts his faith in institutions, Steve chooses to believe in people.  This is, obviously, a false and facile dichotomy, but what's worse is that it isn't even true.  There is nothing about Steve's behavior in Civil War that suggests that he believes in people.  On the contrary, his actions can only be explained by a profound distrust--perhaps even disdain--for the public, the press, and anyone who might form an opinion and pass judgment on his choices and actions.  Instead of arguing publicly against the Sokovia Accords, instead of demanding in the press that Bucky be granted the same right to a fair trial as anyone else, instead of exposing things like the government's secret prison, Steve's approach is to expect everyone else to trust him, implicitly and without question, even as he repeatedly squanders that trust through his choices and actions.  Civil War is a lot more subtle and insidious about it, but by its end the portrait it paints of Steve is not that different from Zack Snyder's take on Superman--they're both men who believe that they have the right to exercise violence as they see fit, and that anyone who tries to question them is so wrong that they're not even worth engaging with.  For a character who was introduced, way back in Captain America: The First Avenger, with the line "I don't like bullies," this is a profoundly disappointing turn.

In Civil War's final scene, Tony and Steve finally realize that they've been played--that the entire purpose of the film's events, and the plot to frame Bucky, was to get them at each other's throats.  It's a truce that doesn't last long, because the film's villain (Daniel Brühl as Zemo, whom I haven't mentioned already because he's ultimately not that important to the story, but who does a good job with a character who deserved more space and attention) reveals what Steve had already known and kept to himself, that one of Bucky's assignments as the Winter Soldier was to kill Tony's parents.  The film obviously sees nothing wrong with the fact that this revelation sparks the final, knock-down fight between the two former friends[7], leading to a rift between them that will obviously not be resolved until Steve and those who have sided with him return to triumphantly save the day in Infinity War.  But to me, Tony's choice to resort to violence--and Steve's choice to go along with him--reveal everything that is wrong, not just with this movie, but with the MCU and possibly even the superhero genre as a whole.

It's OK for Tony Stark to be furious at what he learns about Bucky and Steve.  It's OK for Tony Stark to throw a punch at Steve Rogers.  It is not OK for Iron Man to try to kill Captain America over what is, in the end, a personal matter.  The minute that Tony (and Steve) feel free to use their powers to gratify their own roiling emotions, they cease to be heroes, because a real hero knows that they have the responsibility not only to act, but to know when not to act.  To use their power only as a last resort, and not for frivolous or unjustified reasons.  That both Tony and Steve fail this test is perhaps understandable and human.  But that Civil War does not recognize this as a failure--that it sees their descent into violence as understandable, natural, perhaps even desirable--tells us everything we need to know about its world, in which people arrogate to themselves tremendous power and the right to use it whenever and however they want, and the rest of us don't even get to question it.  Much as I enjoyed it, I think Civil War is the point where the MCU and I part ways, because there is, quite simply, no one left to root for.

[1] This is particularly true of Sam, whose devolution, from a counselor who was happy to befriend and help Steve but who also had his own life and his own career, into Captain America's sidekick, has been one of the more disappointing turns of the post-Winter Soldier MCU movies.

[2] As an aside, it's extremely gratifying that the country that takes the lead in championing the Sokovia Accords is the fictional African superpower Wakanda.  Obviously, as far as the MCU's handlers are concerned, this serves the purpose of introducing the Wakandan crown prince T'Challa, also known as the Black Panther.  But given how casually the MCU's movies and TV shows have assumed that their American heroes are entitled to jet into sovereign--and mostly non-Western--nations, cause mayhem, and jet away, it's encouraging to see that within the films' universe, the pushback to this approach comes from the leaders of non-white countries.  I've seen some conflicting reactions to the entire concept of Wakanda--why, some people quite reasonably ask, invent an African nation instead of using one of the many real ones that Hollywood blockbusters tend to treat as nothing but a backdrop?  The answer to that question will obviously depend a great deal on how Black Panther handles its setting, but the little we see of it in Civil War--and the fact that Wakanda is able to demand concessions from the Western world--feels encouraging.

[3] The fact that the world has been allowed to remain ignorant of Tony's role in creating Ultron is one of the huge potholes in the MCU that Civil War can't avoid falling into.  It robs Tony of any moral authority he might otherwise have had, while making the other characters look stupid for not even bringing it up in their arguments with him.

[4] Bucky is not an Avenger at any point in this movie, and anyway it's never been clear to me whether he has actual superpowers or is simply supremely trained.  Technically, Thor and the Hulk should also count as supers with innate powers, but neither of them appears in this movie, and more importantly, it should be obvious that the Sokovia Accords can't be applied to either one of them.

[5] Certainly by this point there seem to have been more MCU movies that depict Steve as a self-righteous prig than ones that take a more nuanced view of him.

[6] It should be noted that not everyone in the film is so casually accepting of Steve and Tony's recourse to violence, but that the characters who question it are, for the most part, also the ones given the least space in the story.  Natasha initially sides with Tony because she feels that signing the accords is the best solution to a real predicament, and stands with him in the parking lot fight.  But she also chastises him for letting his ego guide his decisions, and, realizing that the situation between him and Steve can only escalate into further violence, removes herself from it.  She is thus absent from the film's final act.  Vision correctly warns that Tony and Steve's unwillingness to compromise will lead to calamity, but when his warnings go unheeded, he apparently feels obliged to join in the fighting.  Only T'Challa is allowed to truly grow in his views, and to see clearly how foolish and pointless Steve and Tony's squabbling is.  But he is also the character who is most disconnected from the rest of the story and its characters, existing, seemingly, in his own narrative that just happens to coincide with theirs.

[7] It is darkly funny that in both Civil War and Batman v Superman, the crucial turning point in a battle between the two heroes is rooted in the Batman character's lingering issues over the murder of his mother.


lil-shepherd said...

Thank you Abigail. I don't agree with all that you have written (obviously) but this nails a lot of what make me uneasy about this movie, and, particularly, the characterisation of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as depicted there. (The only thing I would quarrel with is that, while Tony thinks he was responsible for Ultron, it is plain from 'Age of Ultron' (and, in particular, the stinger) that Ultron was created by Thanos acting through the mind gem. I have posted a link on my Facebook - I hope you don't mind, but I think this ought to be recommended reading.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I've seen the argument that Tony was not in his right mind when he created Ultron before - though I have to say that this is the first time I've seen the Thanos iteration; most people argue that he was being controlled by Wanda. (And honestly, I'm not sure how blaming Thanos works, since the mind gem is currently embedded in Vision, who is a good guy.) Either way, if that was the film's intention then it did a very poor job bringing it across. Perhaps more importantly, it's clearly not something that any of the characters have considered, so the fact that nobody throws Ultron in Tony's face is still a problem, whether or not he was really at fault for him.

clairemckenna said...

Coming in on this blog post after looking through Twitter tags. I agree, there's quite a lot that is playing off-key in the movie, and I'm wondering if it had to do with the sudden U-Turn into Avengers 2.5? The original Cap 3 was meant to be more of an intimate "Cap hunts down Bucky" movie, but when WB announced Superman Vs Batman, Marvel went into defensive mode with Iron Man vs Cap, therefore giving us 3/4 Avengers and the merest hint of a Captain America solo film.

I'll have to throw in a Bucky correction though. He is a super-soldier much like Cap is. It was shown that he survived his first "death" off the freight train due to being experimented on by Zola, earlier. (In the scene where Cap first rescued him)

Jamie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamie said...

An excellent and very perceptive post, it certainly raised a few points I hadn't considered.

I'm interested that you don't feel there's anyone else to root for; I would have thought T'Challa's arc through the film (despite the good point you raise that it's somewhat disconnected to everything else) shows him as someone worth giving some time to, at least when it comes to his own showcase. I suspect that, sadly, he may end up somewhat sidelined in the future Avengers films, if only because of the sheer number of characters we have now. (or, we can always hope, he might be promoted to a leadership position should Steve and/or Tony bite it in the Infinity War).

One thing that really baffled me was the brushing off of what happened at Johannesburg, not deeming it important enough to include in the montage of events that kicked off the formation of the Sokovia Accords.

Finally, I'm not sure I quite agree that the film presented the final act's showdown as justifiable/desirable. I got the impression that everyone involved (except T'Challa again, on the sidelines) failed on some level by going down the paths they did; and in the aftermath it seemed that Tony, at least, realised this. Like you, though, I'm quite worried about Steve's continuing downward evolution.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I've said this many times before, but I would far prefer a movie that took us behind the scenes at Marvel Movies, and exposed the decision-making process there, over any of the forthcoming MCU movies. It would be very interesting to find out just when and how the decision to make their movies as they are happened, and what we might have had instead. In the case of Civil War, what I've read is that Downey was always meant to be in the movie, but that he asked for his role to be beefed up as a condition of appearing. Whether that demand contributed to the choice to tell the Civil War story, or whether that was already in play, is less clear. Either way, I think that some sort of super-on-super story was inevitable in the MCU (and in that case, CW is an obvious choice), because, as many commenters have pointed out, this universe is hero-heavy and has very few interesting villains. At some point, if you want to have big fight scenes, your only option is to pit your heroes against each other.

Re: Bucky's powers, I remember that line from Winter Soldier, but on the other hand the films have never been clear about the extent of his abilities. In both WS and CW, for example, he's been more or less evenly matched with Natasha, which surely wouldn't be the case in a fight between Natasha and Steve.

My point is more that when it comes to humans with superpowers, the MCU movies have preferred to be vague. There's obviously a continuum that runs from Natasha, through Bucky, to Steve, but where each of them falls on it is unclear, and seems to change with the demands of the story.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


That's a good point about T'Challa and his growth into maturity over the course of the movie. I really enjoyed his character, though as I say his story seems deliberately separated from the other characters. As you say, I don't anticipate T'Challa's solo movie and other future stories involving him very heavily with the Avengers. The end of CW obviously sets up the MCU to tell mostly standalone stories in phase 3, leading up to Steve and his fellow renegades' triumphant return to save the world from Thanos in Infinity War. My guess would be that Black Panther will set that up by being another Infinity Gem story (possibly featuring Bucky?), and that T'Challa will play a part in IW, but then go back to running his country. Which, honestly, I would prefer, because much like Sam, the idea that this person with an important and rewarding career would choose to abandon it to be a fourth-string Avenger is pretty depressing.

Johannesburg: yes, precisely. I don't know if that's because the film really doesn't see it as important (I think we're meant to believe that the Avengers stopped the Hulk from killing anyone, which aside from being a ridiculous claim is surely not the point), or because it wants us to forget that that was Wanda's fault.

About the film's final sequence, my point is more that the failing it identifies is the wrong one. CW wants us to think that Tony and Steve fail by allowing Zemo to manipulate them into fighting. I think that their fighting is totally justified - what Steve did is unforgivable and Tony has every to be angry at him. The problem is in the manner of their fighting, in the fact that they're the sort of people who, when they get angry, use their super-strength and super-suit to express that anger.

To put it another way, consider this analogy: Tony and Steve are policemen. Tony finds out that Steve did something terrible: slept with his wife, say. Tony draws his service weapon and tries to shoot Steve. I think most people would agree that, while Tony's anger is understandable and even justified, how he reacted to it puts him beyond the pale of civilized society and, at the very least, means that he should never be a cop again. CW, on the other hand, doesn't see anything wrong with Tony, metaphorically, shooting at Steve with his service weapon, because its worldview - the worldview of all superhero stories - is that resorting to violence as a response to personal turmoil is just what people like this do. My point is that a world in which that is true is not one that I want to live in.

Retlawyen said...

Winter Soldier:
My understanding of his movie version is that he's incredibly well trained, and has a robot arm. All of the super strong stuff he does is with his robot arm. Other than that he's just a ninja like Black Widow/Hawkeye, etc.

Superhero movies in general:
I feel like you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that all govs in superhero movies must be corrupt/incompetent, but didn't take that into account when you brought up the movies central conceit. Like, obviously, in the real world, it would be insane for me to be able to become an archer like Hawkeye and do whatever I wanted, in the same way that I can't buy a tank. But, in a world where any gov/group is probably just a Hydra front...

That is, I feel like you are refusing to take the movie's premise seriously. Like judging Avatar as though it took place in Brazil instead of on another world. Captain America's sentiments can't be read in terms of their real world equivalents, because then he's just a terrorist. But in a world where all govs are evil, his vigilantism can be heroic

Squint at the govs involved and make them actual facists, instead of just folks acting like them, and the story makes more moral sense. The Iron Man in the High Tower, if you like.

Final Conflict:
I think you are, in general, correct about the fact that this is a movie about people who can't communicate (quick, at how many moments in this movie would a cell phone call solve everything). I don't buy the equivalence in your formulation at the end though. My reading is that Iron Man falls for Zemo's taunts and tries to commit murder, and Cap heroically defends his friend.

Separately, the case can be made that, in a world where courts are evil, the appropriate response to the Winter Soldier IS to murder him, but Iron Man is clearly not doing any kind of utility calculation. You killed his mom and dad. He happens to be wearing a tank. Get ready to stop breathing is more his mindset.

Not response, just saying stuff I think:
I'd say that this was a Captain America movie. His side was given the moral high ground (the contortions necessary to make Team Vigilante the heroes were certainly interesting to behold).

My biggest gripe about the movie is that Zemo's headspace doesn't make any sense at all. Like, what does he know, when, and what are his plans at any given point in time? It doesn't track.

Chris said...

I preface this by saying that I haven't seen the movie yet. But:

"In fairness to Steve, Civil War does not seem to take place in a world in which such a middle ground exists. When he brings Bucky in to stand trial for the UN bombing, Steve's request that Bucky be represented by a lawyer is greeted, literally, with laughter and derision. When Steve's allies are arrested near the end of the movie, they are placed, without trial, in a secret prison in the middle of the ocean--even the ones, like Sam or Scott, who have no superpowers without their suits. It in fact gets a little hard to blame Steve for his intransigence when we realize just how untrustworthy and villainous government is in this movie. This, however, is a flaw in the story, not a justification for the characters' actions."

In the post-9/11 age, I actually totally buy this. Laughter and derision is exactly how the idea of terrorists having lawyers is greeted in real life, it's a repeated point in U.S. presidential elections, and Guantanamo Bay is there to prove that that point of view often wins out. It doesn't mean putting on a cape and punching things is the solution, but it does make a believable mirror to the way our world works.

I'm actually pleasantly surprised. Bucky being the spark that lights off the war works a lot better than the original Civil War comics, which seemed like they were trying to make a post-9/11 allegory, but apparently genuinely didn't realize that demanding oversight and accountability for superheroes is a horrifically bad metaphor for demanding the suspension of legal rights for entire categories of criminals (and, if anything, puts you on the OTHER side of the civil liberties debate). The movie plot, "even a terrorist has a right to a fair trial," fits the post-9/11 context and also is just a much better stance in general, than the comics' "we the self-appointed supercops of the universe have the right to operate with zero checks and balances on our power, and if you're a fascist if you think otherwise!"

Jamie said...

Oh, I'm pretty sure I understood your point about the failure being one of resorting to violence, and not the fact that there were justifiable grievances on Tony's part. I just didn't see how the film suggests that this manner of fighting was justified and heroic. I read it as emotionally wrought and clearly, upsettingly a mistaken course of action by a man at the end of his tether and not known for his measured, considered approach to life in the first place. It's a shame that he didn't have more control of himself, and its certainly unheroic from where I'm standing, but it didn't come across to me as course of action or philosophy the filmmakers agreed with. The contrast that the Black Panther scenes provided was probably at least partially responsible for my perception of this.

Chelsea St. Juniors said...

It's really weird because Tony wasn't manipulated by Thanos but he WAS manipulated by Wanda into using the scepter and the gem it contained to try and kickstart his Ultron program. Bruce also helped Tony make Ultron so Tony shouldn't get all the flack for the murder!bot. This wasn't really conveyed well and I blame Whedon's poor showing of that.

But also, again, what you said. Johannesburg is glossed over a lot. In fact, Wanda's villainous turn is pretty much glossed over in the second half of AOU and ALL of Civil War. Steve keeps calling her a kid when she's not. Young, yes, but legally an adult who made the decision to join Hydra, be experimented on, manipulate Tony (which I don't think most of the Avengers if any know that she did it), and then side with the product of that manipulation, then manipulate BRUCE into Hulking out on innocent people. Her actions brought about much of the issues in both these movies and she pretty much got spared all the fallout until Lagos.

Also, RDJ didn't demand a bigger role in the film. That actually was Kevin Feige because he was pushing so hard for Civil War and wanted RDJ to have a more prominent role since that's what he was going for; the problem was that Ike Perlmutter wasn't really for it which was what caused a lot of issues.

But this movie showed what the initial problem in the comics Civil War was too. Lack of proper compromise and discussions. Checks and balances can be a good thing within moderation and things COULD have been worked out but the bullheadedness and egos all got in the way and this is what happened. I loved the movie but it broke my heart. I didn't want this movie at all, tbf, because I really didn't want Civil War in the MCU. I wanted a universe where the heroes didn't have to fight each other on such a grand scale because, for all they claim to be friends, they don't seem to know how to talk to each other and communicate that well.

They need group therapy and counseling. These heroes are walking PTSD victims with super suits and serums and skills. They need to sit down and process their grief, their experiences, their losses, their battles, etc.

Crabbit Minger said...

I've already posted this elsewhere but since i'm a lazy bugger I'll just repeat myself.

Civil War draws attention to the limits of just how much franchises such as the MCU can truly examine themes such as power and its abuse. It can’t realistically examine the realities of unchecked vigilantism and uses of power as the worst sins it’s willing to lay at the feet of the Avengers are a handful of mishaps where there good intentions lead to unintended collateral damage. The harsh truth is that in real life the misuse of unregulated power as nowhere near as benign.

For instance, in early 20th century Japan the nominally elected government had no control over the armed forces, a privilege that was the sole dominion of the Emperor. The military took advantage of this to spearhead an invasion of China that would set their nation on a path of conquest, mass murder and rape that cost the lives of tens of millions of Chinese, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Indians, Burmese, Americans and their own countrymen. When the Black and Tans were given minimal discipline and oversight they abused these powers by torturing and murdering ordinary Irish citizens for laughs.

The problems is that Marvel simply can’t show the ugly reality that the above abuses of power demonstrate. For all their flaws and neuroses the heroes of the Marvel universe are ultimately exceedingly, good, noble people. Those very virtues are after all what makes escaping into their world such a wonderful escape from the ugliness we see every day on the 10 o’clock news. But it also means that we can’t have Ant Man and The Hulk bowl down the Eifel tower and have a piddle in the wreckage. Steve’s arguments fall apart as soon as real people enter the equation. Consequently the film ends up tilting the scales in favour of Cap’s side as it has to avoid the realistic excess that such power without any oversight would engender in the real world in order to let the Avengers remain sympathetic.

'Governments have agendas.’ Steve says. Apparently in the world of Mr Rogers vigilantes are nothing but level headed, rigorously ethical fellows. Do the letters KKK mean anything to him?

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I don't agree that "government is evil" is the central conceit of the MCU movies. That's very clearly not what these movies are about - their premise isn't "in a world where government is completely controlled by evil Nazis, we need superheroes." If that were true, we'd be seeing a very different story. Steve's response to being asked to sign the accords wouldn't be the relatively mealy-mouthed "governments have an agenda." It would be "are you insane? You know anyone you deal with will inevitably turn out to be Hydra! Now come with me to my secret bunker as we plot the revolution!"

Put it another way: if the MCU writers actually intended us to take the corruption of government seriously, and not as a way of making their storytelling work easier, they wouldn't be making the MCU movies. They'd be making the Hunger Games movies.


To be clear, the movie plot is not "even a terrorist has a right to a fair trial." It's more along the lines of "how dare you insist that my friend (who is a mass murderer) stand trial at all." The fact that Bucky doesn't get a fair trial is ultimately not that important to the story, because the Real Threat turns out to be someone who has infiltrated the authorities and is framing him (for this particular crime; not the dozens of others that he absolutely committed).

Which is why, as I say in my response above, I don't see the movie as a commentary on post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties. The fact that Bucky and the supers who stand with Steve get sent straight to Guantanamo isn't something that either Tony or Steve are particularly bothered by in the abstract (as evidence by the fact that they weren't really paying attention to such things before they started affecting people they cared about). It's a shortcut that allows the writers to justify Steve's choices, and will probably never be mentioned again.


To try to clarify what I'm saying, the issue isn't whether the film agrees with Tony. It's that its attitude to his outburst is "oh well, that's just how these people are, you know?" We're meant to be OK with the idea of living in a world in which the people who have the highest authority and the most uncontrollable power just periodically lose their shit over some personal matter and try to kill each other. It honestly doesn't matter that the film expects us to disapprove of Tony's reaction, because that disapproval will have no effect, just as our disapproval of his creation of Ultron had no effect (and in fact said creation has been swept under the rug).

The fact that Tony is dangerously unstable is not something that we're meant to see as an argument against his being a hero or a protagonist in this story. When I say that the film wants us to approve of us behavior, I don't mean morally. I mean that from a storytelling standpoint, we're meant to find it satisfying. Superhero stories are, fundamentally, melodramas about emotionally unstable people who take out their aggressions by using their powers on one another. When Tony attacks Steve, he's behaving as his character type and genre demand. That's fine for what it is, but don't try to tell me that it constitutes a meaningful political statement.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


My reading of the events of Age of Ultron is that while Wanda messed with Tony's head, she wasn't controlling him. He chose to create Ultron of his own free will, and the blame for that - and the subsequent loss of life - lies with him.

And as for Wanda's culpability in pushing Tony towards that choice, you know, it's always something with Tony, isn't it? He becomes Iron Man because he's reeling with trauma and guilt over his kidnapping. He drives his friends away because the chemical powering his reactor is poisoning him. He invites terrorists to knock on his door because he has PTSD from the battle of New York. He creates Ultron because Wanda's visions have him rattled. He sides with the government over the Sokovia Accords because he's feeling guilt over Ultron. At some point this stops being an excuse, and becomes a character trait - Tony Stark is emotionally fragile, and reacts poorly to stressors. That's maybe not a guy who should have the power that he has.

About Wanda, the thing is that I'm actually totally open to a redemption story for her. The MCU is full of former assassins and reformed bad guys (hell, Tony himself used to be an arms dealer). But redemption requires actually acknowledging what you did wrong and trying to do better, whereas the films' approach with Wanda so far is to pretend that she didn't do anything. As I mentioned the other day on twitter, the film misses a huge opportunity by pairing Wanda with Steve, Clint, and Vision, men who paternalistically tell her that she has nothing to feel bad about, instead of matching her with Natasha, a woman who knows what it's like to try to move past a huge burden of guilt. But then that would require acknowledging that women can have relationships, and we can't have that!


Yes. The story these movies want to tell is one in which people with superpowers beat each other up. Any criticism they express towards those character will inevitably be halfhearted, because if it were actually taken on and the heroes stopped punching each other, there would be no stories. And because the audience can tell that the criticism is halfhearted, it ultimately ends up reinforcing the very thing it claimed to be questioning.

As Strange Horizons critic Erin Horáková wrote (quoting another Strange Horizons critic, Ethan Robinson): "the failure mode of criticism is reification."

Kate said...

The second half of your post is less a review and more an explanation and justification for why you're on Team Iron Man. All the advertising has encouraged fans to pick sides. The movie takes great pains to lay out both sides so that reasonable arguments exist in both. I love that about Civil War: no answer is completely right. However, is it fair to say that because Team Cap didn't succeed in persuading you, therefore the movie has fail points? Maybe. It is a Captain America film. I prefer the conclusion that nobody wins. It is part and parcel of Cap's story. Winter Soldier led to the break up of SHIELD. This leads to the break up of the Avengers.

I could argue about why I'm on Team Cap, and try to refute your statements about when Cap failed, but I don't think that's the point. That people disagree is the point. I like the risk the filmmakers took with this angle.

Now, if you want to talk about how the filmmakers treated Peggy's niece (whose name is too inconsequential for me to remember), or how Wanda's arc is completely dropped (which you do reference), then I'm on board. And if you want to suggest that the entire first reel could've been edited down to half its run time, I'm an engaged reader.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


But... I'm not "Team Iron Man." And to be honest, I'm puzzled as to how anyone could read what I wrote and come to that conclusion. Nor do I agree that the film did a good job of arguing that both sides had persuasive arguments - on the contrary, the whole point of this post is to point out the ways in which the film's central conflict is poorly-constructed, rooted in revisionist history, and full of bait-and-switches and convenient shortcuts.

As you say, the whole "Team Cap" and "Team Iron Man" concept is a marketing gimmick. What I'm trying to point out is that it's a gimmick intended to obscure the fact that the basic assumptions of this fictional universe are just getting more fascist by the minute, and that the more time we spend with any of our superheroes, the less heroic they actually seem.

Adam Roberts said...

As I said when we briefly discussed all this on Twitter, I think you underplay the extent to which this is a film about actual magical superpeople: it's more than just Bucky (and Thor and Hulk, who are still Avengers and are talked-about in this movie, even if they don't actually appear): it's also Vision and Spiderman too. But having thought about this, I'm coming round more to your broader point. What we might call the 'Theology' of MCU is a puzzling and, if we poke around in it, rather unsettling thing. After all, this is a franchise that includes literal gods; yet the premise on which those gods appear is that humans, with the right tech, but more importantly with the right warrior focus and strength and Will, are functionally equivalent to gods. Equivalent in a literal sense, in that they can fight one another without the mortals being simply blasted with a lightning bolt; but equivalent in an ideological sense. It's the elevation not just any man, but the Warrior Man, to the status of the demigod that revisits some very dubious and fascistic notions.

Xavier Gale-Sides said...

Very interesting and intelligently written article. I loved the film but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a few reservations about the moral issues it raises; First and foremost placing Rogers as an absolute in morality. The Avengers are now effectively a privately-funded military task-force, traveling internationally with no regards to borders, carrying out missions based purely on what Cap does or doesn't personally believe is the "right" thing to do.

Already it's murky. They were in Lagos on the belief that Crossbones was going to hold up a police station to steal weapons; was that really a big enough international threat to warrant the Avengers or was it a personal Vendetta of Rogers after TWS?

All we need is a situation where he sees taking control himself as the solution and things could get very Apocalypse Now.

John Casey said...

"In fairness to Steve, Civil War does not seem to take place in a world in which such a middle ground exists. When he brings Bucky in to stand trial for the UN bombing, Steve's request that Bucky be represented by a lawyer is greeted, literally, with laughter and derision. When Steve's allies are arrested near the end of the movie, they are placed, without trial, in a secret prison in the middle of the ocean--even the ones, like Sam or Scott, who have no superpowers without their suits. It in fact gets a little hard to blame Steve for his intransigence when we realize just how untrustworthy and villainous government is in this movie."

I know the audience is supposed to view this imprisonment as a horrible over-reach of authority, but considering who the prisoners are, I couldn't help but feel that all the security measures were quite reasonable. Bucky was able to fight his way out of a cell and through a bunch of armed guards; the weakest members of Team Cap are just slightly under his skill level. The strongest, Wanda, helped Tony's crazy robot kid destroy two cities.

The MCU movies keep dismissing reasonable arguments by having untrustworthy people make them. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are pissed off at Tony Stark selling weapons, but they side with the killer robot before they see the light. The senator from Iron Man 2 doesn't want an unstable drunk to have sole control of the Iron Man suit; turns out that Hammer and Vanko are villains (and then we find out the Senator's a Hydra agent). Ultron... I'll be honest, I don't remember why Ultron thought the Avengers were a bad idea, but he tried to exterminate the human race.

And now we have Thunderbolt Ross, the guy who keeps sending kill teams after the Hulk. He's one of the go-to guys to represent government overreach and creeping fascism. Nothing he says or does in the movie is unwarranted, considering that the Avengers take out a major airport. But because he's pushing the government oversight argument, we're supposed to find it suspicious.

Naglfar said...

While just as muddled as the movie overall, the comic version on which this is based had a much better argument for Cap's side, as it wasn't so much about superheroes registering and getting training, but all people with superpowers, whether they wanted to run around in tights or just live a normal live and don't use their powers at all.

If Tony Stark had just gone with the "only people playing vigilante" had to register and getting special training, Tony's side would have looked far more reasonable. Which is pretty much what the movie did, which makes it look inane if you try to look at it realistically, considering it tries to stage Cap as the good guy.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I would say that the core assumption of most superhero stories is that these characters are ordinary people, and that their god-like power doesn't change that but only enhances their humanity - good, kind people become heroes, while selfish and evil ones become villains.

That's not to say that the reading of superheroism being an elevation to godhood isn't right there beneath the surface. Zack Snyder's take on Superman as a literal ubermensch didn't come out of nowhere. You could easily read the central conflict of Civil War as being about gods being forced down to a human level, though in this case the gods in question are wildly inconsistent on whether they want to be treated like ordinary people - yes when it comes to not having their feelings and rights trampled over, no when it comes to being accountable to laws and governments.


When you consider that Wanda is being treated exactly the same as Sam and Scott, who have no powers and only minimal training without their suits, the underwater prison still looks like overreach. And, of course, no amount of powers justifies denying someone a trial and legal representation.

But the bigger issue is that Civil War isn't really interested in the question of how one imprisons someone like Wanda or Bucky, whose power makes it almost impossible to detain them except through cruel measures. It uses these images first, as you say, to justify our hereos' law-breaking, because the other guys are so cruel, and second, because the audience expects it, and it looks cool.

(Which is not to say you're wrong about the broader point that people who criticize our heroes inevitably turn out to be in league with the bad guys. It's the kind of lazy writing that is all over the MCU, and a lot of other pop culture.)


I've heard that about the original comic, and you're right that some of the changes the film makes to the premise make a lot more sense (particularly in a world like the MCU in which there are relatively few superpowered people). But that still leaves a lot of plotholes, even within the story that the MCU is telling. On Agents of SHIELD, for example, the superpowered characters have formed a black-book team that works directly for the US president. Will that team now be disbanded, given that the US is a signatory to the Sokovia Accords? If the accords are only meant to regulate the Avengers, then they're absurdly toothless, especially given that realistically, every country in the world will have seen what Steve and Co. can do, and started combing its population for supers that it could train into its own super-team.

Fangz said...

I still liked the movie, but I agree with your core criticisms.

At its heart, the film does a bit of a bait and switch - it presents the core political dilemma, and then veers into the conflict between two arrogant men both with severe trust issues. It seems clear that instead of 'Team Cap vs Team Iron man', we had 'Team Hawkeye vs Team Vision/Rhodey' there would basically be no movie.

I'd agree with you that Stark in particular is decidedly un-heroic by the end of the movie, and I suspect this is all going to end with Stark and/or Rogers dying redemptively come the next Avengers film. Whether there's still people to root for in the MCU depends on how Marvel handles the new characters they are adding in.

Erik Twice said...

That was a great read, thanks!

I think it's a really thorny topic because, when you think about it, the vast majority of films, books and games are every bit as guilty as Civil War is often in very similar ways.

I think you could probably replace Civil War with CSI or Castle and reach a similar conclusion.

John Casey said...

"When you consider that Wanda is being treated exactly the same as Sam and Scott, who have no powers and only minimal training without their suits, the underwater prison still looks like overreach. And, of course, no amount of powers justifies denying someone a trial and legal representation.

But the bigger issue is that Civil War isn't really interested in the question of how one imprisons someone like Wanda or Bucky, whose power makes it almost impossible to detain them except through cruel measures. It uses these images first, as you say, to justify our hereos' law-breaking, because the other guys are so cruel, and second, because the audience expects it, and it looks cool."

Are the Avengers being explicitly denied a trial, like with Guantanamo, or is this a temporary holding facility until they can be brought to trial (which is also like Guantanamo, actually)? I'm not trying to be a smartass here; I genuinely don't know, because the movie can't be bothered to tell us.

What the film needs is a scene where Ross and Tony sit down and figure what "government oversight" means. Tony never reports to anyone in the film, even though a member of his team chooses to destroy a civilian control tower instead of the Stark-owned jet. Tony apparently knows about the Raft, but he doesn't know who's being taken there. Tony deals directly with Ross- is there a higher authority he can go to, to protest the prisoners' treatment? Tony gets a tip on the Winter Soldier's location and he tells no one; what if it's a trap? Can he be prosecuted for withholding information regarding a case?

Chris said...

"The MCU movies keep dismissing reasonable arguments by having untrustworthy people make them. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are pissed off at Tony Stark selling weapons, but they side with the killer robot before they see the light. The senator from Iron Man 2 doesn't want an unstable drunk to have sole control of the Iron Man suit; turns out that Hammer and Vanko are villains (and then we find out the Senator's a Hydra agent). Ultron... I'll be honest, I don't remember why Ultron thought the Avengers were a bad idea, but he tried to exterminate the human race."

I realized not long ago that the MCU's politics were basically spelled out loudly and clearly for us all the way back in their first movie. Iron Man opens with Tony Stark being interviewed by an unpleasant harpy who's every conservative's fantasy about the Liberal Media. (Ignore for now the question of "when have you EVER seen a reporter behave that aggressively towards a man of Stark's wealth, power, and politics?" and its answer, "of course not.") The movie then goes on to prove her COMPLETELY RIGHT. Halfway through, it actually doubles down on that because even after having his "eyes opened," Tony still hasn't given any thought to all the Stark Industries weapons that are already out there and whether he might have any responsibility to do something about them. The same reporter has to throw the Gulmira reports in his face for him to actually start superheroing.

But the movie really really doesn't want us to notice this; at no point does Tony consider that he might owe her an apology or at least an admission that she was right, even after he's basically come around to her worldview, and the movie goes out of its way to make it clear that she's a shallow airheaded bimbo that we shouldn't take seriously, regardless of the fact that she's right.

The treatment of all the other critics is the same - Senator Stern against Iron Man, Rising Tide against SHIELD, U.S. government committees against Black Widow and SHIELD. The Marvel Cinematic Universe runs on the post-Iraq-neocon worldview of "wrong for the right reasons and right for the wrong reasons," and it's been open about it since practically the opening scene of its opening movie.

Chris said...

Having now seen the movie, yeah, it's pretty clear that I was overreaching on the "war on terror allegory done better" comment.

Saw it with two friends. Other than agreeing entirely that the politics were fucked up (and that we'd lost a lot of respect for Steve), we all found it very weird that Tony, the arch-individualist-capitalist-doesn't-play-well-with-others, would be the guy preaching registration while Steve, the soldier with the "lay down on a wire to let the other guy crawl over you" would be the guy preaching individualism. (That's inherited from the comics, but it wasn't a great idea in the comics either).

The conclusion was that it makes sense if you figure that Steve's ability to trust institutions has been badly burned by the SHIELD fiasco, while Tony's tendency to follow his own lights has led him off a cliff so many times that he's finally realized he needs a check on his own power. But also that, especially in the former case, the movie doesn't do nearly enough to explain this.

Retlawyen said...

I feel as though Cap's response was basically spot on for the govs all being presumed evil. Like, he wants to ignore them as long as they ignore him (Avengers), and if they are up to anything he'll defeat them in battle and dismantle them (Winter Soldier). It isn't worth his time to preemptively destroy them, however, because any gov he sets up to replace them won't be any better.

Like, in the MCU, the gov can, AT BEST, be a nothing. Regulation didn't stop the Yellowjacket project. The guy in charge of the Slovokia accords is the same dude who sent soldiers after Dr. Banner, etc.

The important thing here is that this is the Gov that Cap brought about. He defeated Red Skull. Peggy built Shield. Shield became Hydra. It built carriers to gun down the populace.

So how can he rebel? He'd just have to dismantle whatever he built in a year or so. He's not into it. His view on govs is that as long as they stay out of his way he'll tolerate them, since he can't fix them. If they get in his way he smashes them.

All of which is an attempt to respond to your point about the movies not acting as though govs are innately evil/ineffective. I think that this point is a necessary one for a superhero story. If the gov is active and benevolent, then the superhero is just a John McClaine at best, a terrorist at worst. The cops must always work for Kingpin. No one can believe Jessica Jones about Killgrave. I believe that the authorities being helpless at best is a necessary part of their world, and Cap is effectively verbalizing this. Even Iron Man is referring to it when he points out that dudes and guns won't stop Cap at that airport, and Ross needs to let him do it.

I don't think it's a coincidence that at the end of the movie Cap ends up in a kingdom chilling with a righteous autocrat. He trusts individual people who have passed his "fight alongside me" test. Peggy and Bucky, not the things they build.

Eves_Alexandria said...


One of your examples is not like the others.

"No one can believe Jessica Jones about Killgrave."

No-one believes Jessica about Killgrave because, in actual real life, victims are still so often met with disbelief when they try to escape, or accuse, their abusers.

(The scene of Jessica trying to find refuge at the police station, when Killgrave walks in and persuades everyone not to believe a word she says, was the most chilling thing I've ever seen on television because it felt so real. The stats on how frequently reports of rape are dismissed, ignored or treated as a trial of the victim's character were brought to life in front of our eyes.)

John Casey said...

"In fairness to Steve, Civil War does not seem to take place in a world in which such a middle ground exists. When he brings Bucky in to stand trial for the UN bombing, Steve's request that Bucky be represented by a lawyer is greeted, literally, with laughter and derision. When Steve's allies are arrested near the end of the movie, they are placed, without trial, in a secret prison in the middle of the ocean--even the ones, like Sam or Scott, who have no superpowers without their suits. It in fact gets a little hard to blame Steve for his intransigence when we realize just how untrustworthy and villainous government is in this movie."

It just occurred to me that Steve's just made nice with T'Challa, ruler of Wakanda. Would it surprise anyone if the Avengers have their own private prison system in the next movie?

Redshirt said...

Great review as always. I don't agree with all your points but love reading them.

To your overall point about super hero movies essentially espousing a fascist political view, that's not created by the movies. It's the essence of comic book stories from the start. The entire genre contains this contradiction and always will. Just to use the easiest example, in a world where Superman exists and can do anything he wants, the world would essentially be at his mercy. His true heroism is in not ruling the world.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


As I say in the review (and in so much of the other writing I've done about superheroes in the last few weeks) there are some obvious, inherent problems with the superhero concept that either cause their stories to break apart when you think about them too hard, or make their worlds look like horrifying dystopias. But it's also true - as we've been so forcefully reminded in the last few days, in the aftermath to the ill-advised Hydra!Cap development in the comics - that the people who created these characters weren't entirely unaware of these pitfalls, and worked to counteract them. Superman, as you say, can do anything, but he's also a genuinely good-hearted person who doesn't just want to save people, but to help and inspire them. Steve Rogers is a weak, powerless person, but unlike so many people in that situation, he doesn't let that powerlessness make him bitter. He realizes that, for all his problems, there are still people in the world who have it worse, and sees it as his responsibility to help them. When he becomes powerful, that's just what he does.

So yes, there are inherent problems to the superhero concept, and a film like Civil War that tries to look too closely at how a world with superheroes in it would work inevitably gets tripped up by those problems. But that doesn't mean there isn't a story to be told about superheroes that isn't fascistic. Maybe Superman's presence in the world is an inherently distorting element, and no matter how good and kind and civic-minded he is, his existence will always drive human society insane. But as far as I can tell, no one is trying to tell that story (maybe the closest that I'm aware of is the 90s TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which I'd like to see more people discover in the wake of the rejection of Snyder!Superman). Similarly, maybe it's impossible for Steve Rogers to engage with the world, to talk to people and agree with civil society about how he should use his powers. But I certainly would have liked to see him try.

Tim Ward said...

"They end up looking like nothing so much as a bunch of hooligans, meeting up for a fistfight at an empty weekend parking lot, because violence is the only way they know to resolve their disputes."

I thought this was even more damningly demonstrated in the opening Lagos scene. Not even the most brutal and cynical secret police force working for the most repressive and corrupt regime possible would have attempted to take down a bunch of heavily armed terrorists carrying a highly dangerous bioweapon in the middle of down town Lagos on market day or whatever. Certainly not with all the SF surveillance and espionage gear exists in that world.
Yet it never occurs to the Avengers to simply tail the baddies till they're on the high way, *then* jump them. Nope, just went wading in. Damn lucky to end up with only 11 dead if you ask me.

I know the MCU is in love with these scenes and puts them in nearly every movie because it gives the opportunity for the heros to weave in and out of traffic, drive on the wrong side of the road, write off people's cars and generally show off how ungodly skilled everyone involved is. But in earlier movies it's the bad guys who initiate the violence and the hero's making the best of a bad situation.

By Ultron and Civil War, it's graduated heros making the active decision to initiate conflict in areas absolutely heaving with people. When they did that in Ultron, you could argue that the stakes were so high and their opponents so capable that they had little choice but to take action there and then. But in Lagos and in later scenes it just made them look like utter clowns and after that I was generally all for the idea of putting someone who knew what they were doing in charge of the Avengers. Which rather torpedoes the whole dilemma the movie hinges on.

I suppose that's really the same complaint as all the ones Abigail put in her review. The movie is too attached to it's own conventions, and the need to lever in as many action scenes as possible, to actually sell the story it was trying to sell us.

It's a shame, because I don't think you'd have had to adjust the script too much to actually get round these objections and still have most of the fights, and then you'd have been left with a significantly better movie.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Good point about how irresponsible it is to carry out a paramilitary operation in a densely-populated urban area, but what's particularly interesting about it is how that sort of thing is taken for granted because, as you say, it looks cool. Pretty much every superhero, action, and spy film has scenes like this, and no one bats an eye. And when you think about it, that used to be true for scenes of rampant urban destruction - they were just par for the course for superhero movies. But then Man of Steel happened and took that obliviousness to such a horrible extreme that it became impossible to ignore how irresponsible and un-heroic it made its hero look, and suddenly everyone making superhero movies had to think about collateral damage, to the extent that it's used as the pretext for putting the Avengers under UN supervision in this movie.

But as you say, at the same time the movie is clearly unaware of the other ways in which the Avengers are doing a really bad job as a global police force. This might be fine in a movie in which this was not the point of the story, but if you're actually going to center your plot around the question of whether they should be allowed to do this, you need to actually know something about how the world of espionage and anti-terrorism works.

Mega Zeta said...

Just a note: both Bucky and Black Panther are "enhanced" superhumans beyond their gear in these movies.

"The Winter Soldier" has Captain America say out loud that the only explanation for why Bucky survived the loss of his arm and the fall from the train was the experimentation Zola performed on him before Steve rescued him in "The First Avenger". That explains how he's able to outrun and out-maneuver a super-soldier and why the Winter Soldiers in this movie are perceived as such a major threat. The idea behind Bucky in the movies (and not the books, as far as I know) is that he poses a substantial risk not just because he's an amnesiac assassin with an amped-up prosthesis and a face that will make Rogers think twice before punching it, but because he's a programmable Captain America whose tactical and physical skill are a match for Steve Rogers. Hence the statement in this movie that a handful of people like Bucky could plunge the world into chaos in a single night.

Black Panther, they're going to wait to explain all of that until his movie, but there's still scenes in this one, like T'Challa in a business suit jumping six feet into the air from a standing position to try to rescue his father from a bomb, or T'Challa in loungewear chasing down Bucky within the compound, that prove he's super-powered too (although if you didn't realize Bucky's supposed to be an ersatz super-soldier, you might have missed it). They certainly didn't want to beat you over the head with it or start talking about heart-shaped herbs, but they slowly introduce an idea here that Marvel's used in the books a lot, where the world has plenty of superheroes, while isolationist Wakanda only has the one, so he'd better be the equal of an entire team by himself (the point of his first ever comics story).

Overall, though, I came away from this movie with the same impression you did. It mostly hit the right notes with the characters and its biggest fight scene was the first time any movie has ever captured for even a second the gorgeous chaos of a truly well-drawn fight between superhuman teams in comic books. At the same time, it seems like it's impossible for Disney and its creative teams to allow any of these characters to take responsibility for their actions, perhaps out of fear they might not sell as well: the real reasons Iron Man should feel guilty slide away down the other side of the hill, along with Scarlet Witch's real crimes, Captain America's real selfishness in prizing his friend over the rulebook, etc.

And the funny thing is, all of these traits would have been perfectly in line with Marvel's characters, even back to the '60s. Heck, Spider-Man's origin is that he let a violent crook go free because young Spider-Man would rather stack paper. It's not unnecessarily "dark" or "gritty" to have Marvel characters pay for their mistakes, it's part of the reason the franchise took off in the first place, so this skittishness ends up looking like as much of a hollow mea culpa as "Batman v Superman" was for "Man of Steel", albeit much more skilled in every possible way.

The Rush Blog said...

Unlike "Batman v. Superman", "Captain America: Civil War" made the mistake of trying to deliver two different movies to the audiences. I liked "Batman v. Superman". The "rancid" message didn't bother me, because it gave me a good peek into how unpleasant the average human being can be. And it continued the story of its two protagonists in a balanced way. There is a reason why this movie was called "Batman v. Superman".

On the other hand, I have no idea on what the hell was going on with"Captain America 3". First of all, can someone explain how a movie that was supposed to be Chris Evans' third solo film, turned into a quasi-showcase for Robert Downey Jr.? Iron Man becomes the co-star in a Captain America movie? What the hell? Worse, this Civil War/Sokovia Accords storyline diminished Steve Rogers' own story arc. Considering that the previous two Captain America movies focused on Steve's personal arc regarding his battle against Hydra, along with his personal relationships; I found myself wondering why this third film could not round out this arc. You want to know why? Because it was overshadowed by the Civil War story arc and Tony Stark.

Robert Downey Jr. was first cast in "CIVIL WAR" in a supporting role. However, the actor refused to do the movie, unless he was made a co-star. Marvel gave in to his demands, because they so desperately wanted him in another Marvel film. Why did they allow Downey Jr., who portrayed Iron Man, to become a co-star in a Captain America movie? The name in the movie's title is Captain America. I do not recall the name of Iron Man being in the title. So, why did Kevin Fiege and Marvel allow Downey Jr. to hijack half of Chris Evans’ third solo film? Especially since Evans was the lead in one of Marvel's biggest hits - both financially and critically. Why did a Captain America movie end up giving as much attention to Tony’s character arc as it did to Steve's? Why did the movie’s screenplay featured a five-to-ten minute scene in which Tony Stark recruited Peter Parker aka Spider-Man for his team and did not bother to show how Steve recruited Clint Barton and Scott Lang? In a Captain America movie?

You know, Marvel could have saved the Civil War story line for an Avengers film and wrapped up Steve’s connection to HYDRA in this film. This movie could have focused upon Steve's efforts to help Bucky and put HYDRA behind him for good. The movie could have also focused on Bucky and Sam Wilson putting their past conflict and rivalry for Steve's friendship behind and learning to become friends. More importantly, the movie could have handled the development of Steve and Sharon's relationship a hell of a lot better. Instead, Marvel allowed the Civil War arc and Tony Stark to nearly push Steve's story aside and dumped this unsatisfying and schizophrenic crap on screen. DISAPPOINTED!!!!

Mike Taylor said...

As many commenters have pointed out, this universe is hero-heavy and has very few interesting villains.

Based on the comics, I agree. But interesting villains are what you make of them. There's nothing about Marvel Comics' Loki that remotely interests me; but Tom Hiddlestone made that character, well, marvellous.

Gary said...

Wanda's true powers are derived from a primordial God called Chthon.
Chthon's alias, The Other, gave Loki the scepter so its not unreasonable to suspect Big C, who may well be the big bad in Doctor Strange. Note that Vision referred to Order and Chaos at the end of Age of Ultron and that Chaos Magic is the only thing that could credibly counter the Infinity Gauntlet.

The incident in Lagos happened because Wanda was afraid of herself. Her powers are tied to her emotions and ebb and flow with them. She is a complex person; on the one hand selfless, gentle, and shy, on the other hand frail, uncertain, introverted, in constant conflict with herself, and very insular.

Steve, Tony, and the others treat her like a kid because they are afraid of her. Clint and Natasha do appear to treat her much more like an adult.

Steve believes in her and inspires her.
Vision is the only person not afraid of her, and wants to understand her.
Clint represents where she comes from; the family life she once had. Whedon makes Clint's importance clear in the farm scenes.
Chthon, if he truly appears, will represent the corruption that could result if she loses her humanity.

Given Wanda was likely tortured at the Raft (she looks dead inside in that disturbing closing shot), and separated from her teammates (she was in a separate hall), Chthon may well emerge victorious.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Wanda gets called a "kid" because she's small, and delicate-looking, and most of all white. If a Middle Eastern man had committed the same acts of murder and terrorism, he'd be an interchangeable villain. In Wanda's case, the film surrounds her with men - Tony, Steve, Clint, Vision - who keep telling her that she isn't responsible for her actions and choices, and shouldn't suffer any consequences for them.

It's the same thing you see on the news: white criminals are infantilized, while non-white victims of crimes - even actual children - are treated like criminals. The MCU is both buying into that attitude, and helping to perpetuate it.

Unknown said...

Thank you, once again, for an insightful review. I have (finally) got around to viewing this film, and you have summarized much of my reaction succinctly.

As with so many Marvel films, my first reaction is: This lacks the courage of its convictions. Its messaging has many adult themes, but its delivery is appropriate for pre-pubescent children. Fundamentally, this creates an unsatisfying viewing experience for me. Here we have people who can (and routinely do) kill people (but only offscreen) with ill-defined abilities, but the biggest consequence for any of them is temporary paralysis for one and a bit of a sad for the rest. With the deaths so anesthetized, its impossible to have any kind of serious discussion of the consequences of super-powered (and, as you've noted, mostly just rich and super-suited) people exercising a self-given authority to police the world. Tony Stark ought to be considered a serious threat to world peace, but instead he's the guy whose attempts to fight evil led to a few unfortunate deaths. The controversy over the US use of drone strikes is but a fraction of that which rightly ought to attend superheroes and their various interventions. They become, if not villains, then someone's ideal of a benevolent dictator, which speaks more to the power fantasy of the author (and perhaps the readers and viewers) than to any laudable articulation of a heroic character.

I have pettier complaints to offer than yours: The characters frequently develop or lose strength as the plot demands, conveniently forget their abilities, and seldom think things through in ways that beggar belief. The Scarlet Witch and Vision are by far the most problematic characters of the film in these terms, as their godlike powers are never addressed in the serious manner the film seeks to address the morality of the Avengers International interventions.

To answer your [4], it's implied that Bucky was given a super serum on par with Captain America's, as with the 5 other super humans in the secret Russian facility.

But lest I seem wholly dour, I can say that many moments at least attempted something greater, some conviction that would have been enjoyable to see played out. Spiderman's quips, e.g. "You have a metal arm? That's so cool!" broke the tension in a way that was thematically out of place, but by far the most enjoyable in the movie, and it made me wish that at the end of the big fight, everyone had worn themselves out and realized how daftly they were behaving (if not going the other route with a death or two). Though it amounted to weak tea, I found myself laughing more than once, and it's moments like those that keep me hopeful for a film down the road.

Juanita's Journal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juanita's Journal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juanita's Journal said...

I wish this movie had featured a scene with Steve and Bucky discussing what it was like for them to be men out of time. I wish this movie had explored the possibility of Steve being torn between his friendships with Bucky and Sam. I wish this movie had spent more time developing Steve's relationship with Sharon. I wish this movie DID NOT feature a five to ten minute scene about Tony recruiting Peter Parker . . . in a Captain America movie.

I wish this movie had been more about Steve and a lot less about Tony and the Avengers being torn apart.

The guy in charge of the Slovokia accords is the same dude who sent soldiers after Dr. Banner, etc.

He is also the same guy who was responsible for the creation of Abomination and the battle in Harlem . . . and has not bothered to acknowledge his actions or the battle itself. Worse, neither Tony or Natasha, who knew about the events in Harlem, never said a word.

When films like The Dark Knight Rises or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice deliver rancid political messages wrapped in equally rancid plots and characterization, the reviewer's job is made easier.

What made "Batman v. Superman" so 'rancid' is that it revealed just how ugly human nature can really be. I don't know, but perhaps fans like you cannot deal with movies that reveal the ugliness of human nature - especially in "pop culture" blockbuster.

Post a Comment