It's been two weeks since Captain America: Civil War opened (a week in the US), and I think it's time to call it: the conversation surrounding this movie has been surprisingly, and disappointingly, muted. Most reviews seem to have reached a consensus of good-movie-that-handles-its-politics-well, which, even notwithstanding that I only agree with the first part, feels like only scratching the surface (meanwhile, the more character-focused conversation on tumblr has tended to revolve around the kind of arguments that only serve to remind me why this is a good life rule). Around this time after the comparatively incoherent Age of Ultron, we were practically swimming in thinkpieces and conversations, and while Civil War doesn't have as obvious an outrage hook as awkwardly implying that infertile women are monsters, one would think that people would still be able to find things to say about it. Perhaps the truth is simply what I suggested in my own review: that the worldbuilding and politics of this movie are built on such a flimsy foundation that any attempt to engage with them inevitably leads to the conclusion that they're not worth talking about. Nevertheless, here are a few interesting links that I have been able to find--obviously, I'd be interested in any others you could suggest in the comments.
- Probably my favorite straight-up review of the film comes from Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. Amid a torrent of reviews that have tended to overpraise the film as both a piece of storytelling and a political statement, Seitz is refreshingly even-handed, finding things to be positive about (as there undoubtedly are) without ignoring some of the fundamental issues in the film's construction.
There's a fair bit of "The Dark Knight" logic, or "logic," to the storytelling. Characters do things to other characters because they know it'll set off a chain reaction that'll eventually lead to a very specific moment at the end; luckily for them, each step goes according to plan, because if it didn't there would be no movie. And, as in the inferior yet thematically similar "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," the hero-versus-hero slugfest only seems to spring from real and deep philosophical differences. It turns out that the real problem is that these characters don't talk to each other when they should.
- Writing in the Washington Post, Henry Farrell (perhaps best known to readers here as one of the bloggers on Crooked Timber) lays out all the ways in which Civil War gets global politics wrong. This might seem so trivially obvious that it's not worth even spelling out, but I actually found it quite useful to have all these issue laid out in plain language.
"Captain America: Civil War" talks about how superheroes might be perceived as vigilantes. There's an even uglier word for someone who jumps into a political situation, blows things and people up and disappears again — terrorist. When Thomas Barnett writes about "super-empowered individuals" in world politics, he isn't talking about Ant Man and Spider-Man. He’s talking about Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11, 2001, plane hijackers, who acted as individuals to change the shape of global politics. The Avengers have better intentions but the same potential for causing chaos without accountability. Even if they're acting to save the human race, it's unsurprising that governments should be angry and unhappy at their willingness to intervene across the world, regardless of the collateral damage.
- One of the points made by Farrell is that Civil War irretrievably skews its story by focusing so myopically on American concerns and perspectives, even as its heroes seek the freedom and authority to operate all over the world. Samira Nadkarni expands on this issue in a Storify of her tweets about the movie, in which she argues that "the MCU insists that a bomb in Lagos and even the inclusion of an African subplot is basically all about America and the Global North." Her arguments touch on the way that Avengrs (which is to say American) interference outside of the US, and chiefly in the Global South, is seen as an American issue; on the problems with Wakanda as an African nation that is explicitly un-African; and on the choice to center the discussion of registration (inasmuch as it exists) on Wanda, a white European, whose terrorist activities would surely not have been so easily swept under the rug if she were a Middle Eastern man.
- If you haven't done so already, check out Samira's review of the TV series Shadowhunters (based on Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments books) at Strange Horizons. Though published several weeks before Civil War's release and focusing on a (nominally) different genre, it touches on a lot of problems with the way that superhero stories center white, Western people even as they claim to be about issues that largely concern people of color and the Global South. The construction "a TV show about moderate racists taking on a vehement racist so they can learn to be slightly less racist" describes so much of the current superhero genre (and gets at why I've grown increasingly bored, not to say suspicious, when stories in this genre trot out cartoon Nazis as their ultimate villains--at this stage, it just feels like a distraction, a way to keep me from noticing the heroes' less overt fascist tendencies). Samira's segue into her outrage at the way that the trailers for Civil War centered Steve's devotion to Bucky, even as other stories about superhero registration have treated people of color as the villains, feels particular prescient:
In Marvel's TV property Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the character of Jiaying (played by Tibetan-Australian actress Dichen Lachman) fights against registration being enforced by S.H.I.E.L.D., as a result of having lived through this information being misused, leading to torture, organ theft, the death of the majority of her community, and the loss of her child. Her desperate attempt to start a war in response to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s American neo-colonial statement-threat of "we'll leave you in peace if you register" with its consequent policing and control of the Asian-themed city of Afterlife, is framed within the show as terrorism and strongly disavowed. Her story of fighting against forced registration isn't one that matters. The reasoning behind her actions—which also involves tortures of various kinds being a possible likelihood for her people as part of her lived experience—isn't endorsed. But, oh, yes, do tell me more about Bucky Barnes. Divorce this story even further from the people it affects. We've always been the villains of the piece.
- Brian Phillips, writing at MTV.com, makes a valiant attempt to reconcile Civil War and the world of the MCU (and other superhero movies) with present-day political anxieties, trying to get at why we're seeing so many stories about how (and if) we can reconcile the existence of superpowered individuals with democratic society, and with the post-9/11 penchant for violent global interference. That he doesn't quite succeed is probably not his fault, given how muddled this genre (and the thinking about these issues in Hollywood) are, but this is nevertheless a well-written, funny essay that articulates some of the core problems with this project:
The other explanation for that focus is an irony that, when you start to lay it out, is kind of gobsmacking, and that gets at an almost Greek-tragic dimension of recent comic-book movies. (Let’s say Norse-tragic, because Thor.) The irony is this: The superheroes in superhero movies are always the only force capable of saving humanity from the threats it faces. But with astounding regularity in post-9/11 comic-book films, the threats mankind has to be saved from were either unleashed by the heroes themselves, came into being simultaneously with the heroes, or both. In other words, the chaos from which the heroes are required to save the world is implicit in the heroes’ being in the world in the first place; even when the protagonists aren’t actually the authors of the crisis they are fighting against — something that, again, happens with startling frequency — they are manifestations of the same fundamental shift. Hark!
- Over at my tumblr, I talk briefly about my favorite Bucky Barnes moment in the film--the one that seems most obviously opposed to the woobification impulse that seems to take over fandom when it discusses not just this character, but all the handsome white men in this universe. I also mention some of the ways the film could have used Natasha better (which is to say at all).
- Linda Holmes at NPR does the obvious pop culture thing of linking Civil War with, what else, Hamilton. Clickbaity as that sounds, Holmes has a valid point--both works are about people who initially try to work out their problems through discussion, but who find themselves, by the end of the story, pointing weapons at people they care about once their disputes have passed the point of no return.
There's a fascinating sequence, perhaps unique among movies of this budget and scale, in which a group of characters who are all known to be decent, known to be moral, known to be noble, and known to be literally both Super and Heroes sit in a group talking through this critical disagreement about acceding or not to outside supervision — to acting only when a group of governments working in concert tell them they can (and must). They find themselves forced to balance legitimately compelling arguments on both sides. They argue back and forth, not in the "fight" sense but in the "argument" sense: Someone offers support for one answer, then someone else offers support for the other. Everyone has a point. They all respect each other. They all know they cannot split the difference and cannot find a choice in the middle. They cannot punch or shoot or zap their way out of it. The choice is binary: They will say yes or they will say no, and despite the breadth of their agreement on the relevant issues, they cannot agree on the answer.I'm linking to this piece mainly because I want to disagree with it, or at least to point out that drawing comparisons to Hamilton does Civil War no favors. Holmes is right that some of the discussion scenes in the first half of the film are exciting precisely because they're not the sort of thing we're used to seeing in this genre, but she ignores the fact that by its second half, Civil War makes it clear that these discussions were never the point--that what it really wanted was to get to the fighting. This is very different from how Hamilton handles its characters' descent into violence, which is depicted as the act of two stubborn, childish men, and, more importantly, not the way to resolve political disputes. Hamilton and Burr end up in a duel not because they have fundamental political disagreements, but because of their pride and immaturity. Meanwhile, political action is still happening through conversation--either in the thrilling "Cabinet Battle"s that are the highlights of the play's second act, or in the "Room Where it Happens," where people sit down and hammer out policy details.
Even more importantly, the way in which Hamilton handles its descent into violence is a direct rebuke to Civil War's glibness towards the same subject. Holmes is right to highlight Burr's line, immediately before his duel with Hamilton, that "This man will not make an orphan of my daughter!" Newly-minted Tony nominee Leslie Odom Jr. all but screams the line, going off-key as a way of demonstrating the desperation of Burr's will to live. That desperation is completely absent from the climactic fight scene in Civil War, which both the film and the characters treat almost as a game, thus robbing the film of most of its emotional weight. It's also significant that after killing Hamilton, Burr's life was basically ruined. Even in the early 19th century, there were social consequences to his choice to abandon civility in favor of violence. No one familiar with the MCU will be able to expect similar consequences for any of Civil War's characters. On the contrary, the film blatantly leaves an opening for Steve and his fellow renegades to use violence in a socially sanctioned matter, saving the world from Thanos in Infinity War, thus sweeping away all their crimes in this story.
- Not directly Civil War-related, but of interest to people who want to have a discussion about politics (and particularly progressive politics) in comics and have been disappointed in the dearth of such conversations surrounding this movie. Since the beginning of the year, blogger Steven Attewell has been writing A People's History of the Marvel Universe, in which he discusses the history of the comics company's heroes and how they intersect, and emerge from, the politics of their day. A lot of the discussions, as you might expect, center on the X-Men (the last few weeks in particular have focused on the infamous "mutant metaphor"), but Captain America has also featured heavily. It's a great resource for people, like myself, who know these characters mainly from the movies, and would like to know how they developed, and how their political stances reflect social issues of their era more than ours. If you're reading along at Lawyers, Guns and Money, where the series is being cross-posted, there's also a lively discussion in the comments.
(Incidentally, it occurs to me that Attewell's series is precisely the sort of thing that the Best Related Work Hugo category should recognize. I'm not crazy about the recent trend of recognizing individual blog posts in this category, but the People's History series is now approaching book-length, and I for one would love to see it recognized as such next year.)