Thursday, May 12, 2016

Civil Links

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.)

14 comments:

Stephen said...

"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." (from quoted passage)

This is one of those problems that exists for perfectly good Doylest reasons that is hard to justify in Watsonian terms: the threats come into beings with the heroes because that's when the story starts. The conceit tends to be that the world was like ours prior to the story.

There are a number of Watsonian solutions to this; some even work. But mostly it's a structural thing.

Chris said...

"(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)"

This is probably not exactly what you had in mind, but... you know how the plot of the Winter Soldier is about an (ostensibly fascist/Nazi) all powerful conspiracy that's wormed its way into every government and power center on the planet, is behind most of the major crises of the last seventy years, and is ultimately plotting to install a New World Order that's going to crush everyone under its boot? Not only does that not sound like any Nazi takeover that ever happened in real life (and hey, it's comic books), but it actually sounds a little like the kind of stories the Nazis themselves actually believed in, what with Judeo-Masonic conspiracies and everything. (The fact that two of the most powerful conspirators we see are implied to be Jewish and Latino is icing on the cake).

It's not the only case in fiction of Nazis or Nazis-by-another-name being used as villains in a way that itself has slightly fascistic overtones. The gold medal still goes to Doctor Who for basing Daleks on Nazis. "Hey, you know who'd be awesome villains? A RACE of Nazis!"

Chris said...

"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."

One of my things with the entire international aspect of the story is the lack of world-building around SHIELD. I know it's gone by now, but it's still relevant, because from what we've seen in the movies, it's an international (if heavily American-influenced) organization controlled by a UN Security Councilish body, but with massively more power, resources, authority, et al than any international body that's ever existed in real life. That SHIELD ever existed at all implies that things like international law, concepts of sovereignty, and the entire second half of twentieth century history are so radically different in the MCU that it's hard to even know how to comment on international relations, let alone more specific things like North-South inequality. Things like that imply a universe that's almost as different from our own as Star Trek's, and not behind closed doors like Stargate or Person Of Interest but publicly. But it continues to portray itself as a much more familiar "our world, plus superheroes."

lavanyasix said...

If you're looking for another thinkpiece/conversation on Civil War, the 5/9/2016 episode of the Overthinking It podcast might be worth a look. There's a lot of natter in the first 15~20 minutes or so with their unrelated "Question of the Week" segment, but the actual discussion of the movie is good.

https://www.overthinkingit.com/2016/05/09/otip410/

(On an unrelated note, after CBS has finished dumping the final episodes of 'Person of Interest', can we expect a write-up on the show?)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Stephen:

As a rule I'm willing to suspend disbelief (though in the case of something like the MCU, doing so gets harder with each subsequent work, as the worldbuilding gets more complex and it becomes clearer that it's built on a flimsy foundation). But Civil War tries to engage with these issues directly without acknowledging the fundamental problems of its world. At some point it becomes untenable.

Chris:

One of the things that "secret Nazis" stories tend to ignore is that Nazis are rarely secret. You can usually tell you have Nazis or fascists in your society because they're standing on street corners, yelling slurs at people and inciting to violence. Or worse, getting elected into office and proposing laws. Honestly, it's as if people don't get that the problem with Nazis isn't that they're Nazis, but that they have Nazi policies.

By the way, your example of the fundamental problem of Winter Soldier is a good one, but the one I keep coming back to is how Agents of SHIELD seems to take place in a world where the fascist narrative is actually true. You've got your lost golden age (when SHIELD was "as it should be"). The stab in the back (when Hydra was allowed to infiltrate SHIELD - never mind that that was Peggy Carter and Howard Stark's doing). The inherently evil, completely killable enemies - Hydra, of course. And the bumbling, incompetent authorities who need to be taught, or even replaced, by our heroes, the "real" patriots and the only ones who know the way. When you add to that the show's explicit (in the sense that its characters are suspicious and even hostile towards anyone who is not fully human) and implicit (in the sense that PoC characters keep turning out to be secret villains) racism, it's hard not to reach the same conclusion you did about Winter Soldier.

About SHIELD, see my response to Stephen above: I'm willing to overlook some problems with the worldbuilding, but not if you make that worldbuilding the very point of your story.

lavanyasix:

I know that podcast, but unfortunately I don't think I'll get around to listening to it. I have a lot of time for Gavia and Morgan, but not a great deal of time to sit down and listen to something that would take ten minutes to read if it were written down. It's the reason the entire podcast phenomenon has passed me by, unfortunately.

I may end up writing about Person of Interest after it ends, though right now I think I might have to rewatch the show in order to do it justice (the huge gap between S4 and S5 is not helping) and I'm not sure when I'll have time for that.

Crabbit Minger said...

The overarching problem with Civil War is that it’s painted Marvel into a corner. Up until now I was happy to digest the MCU as larger than life tall tales as I do most superhero fiction. I enjoy the adventures of Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent even though I accept that in real life their actions would raise a metric ton of legal and ethical problems and just be a bad idea all-round. You can believe superheroes work in the same way that you accept Benjamin Button’s aging, Carl Fredrickson flying his house with balloons and logic in fairy tales. It’s obvious fantasy that makes no pretence at strict realism but you buy into it within the world of the story.

Then along comes Civil War, grabs me be the scruff of the neck and demands that I take a good long look at the real life implications of superheroing, and its lead me to some conclusions I doubt the filmmakers wanted me to reach. Firstly there’s the obvious ethical problems like Cap demanding he be given special privileges that we shouldn’t dream of giving out cops, lawyers or politicians, not to mention Tony Strak grooming a 15 year old boy to be part of his goon squad. Not only is it off putting here but it’s going to stick a lot of baggage on future films. For instance, now that the MCU is demanding we consider the moral issues raised by its stories we’ll have to spend every Spiderman film wondering why Tony doesn’t act like a responsible grown up and get Peter to at the very least hang up his webs and live a normal life at least until he’s a mature adult.

Civil war has effectively opened Pandora’s Box by encouraging the audience to look at the logical failings that ultimately reveal the absurdity at the heart of the genre. If we’re going to look at the ethical ramifications of the Avengers actions will the next Thor film delicate itself to exploring how a Norse god publicly unveiling himself to 21st century Earth would completely change our culture’s religious outlook? Will Iron Man 4 delve into how all Tony Stark’s advanced technology has turned the world into a bizarre sci-fi dreamland straight out of Iain Banks? I very much doubt it but that’s the problem with Civil War and other attempts in the genre to be realistic. They focus exclusively on some forms of realism while ignoring others, which only makes the lapses in logic more pronounced. As David Mazzucchelli beautifully put it, "The more 'realistic' superheroes become the less believable they are."

Chris said...

That is a completely valid point, which I admit hadn't occurred to me because the SHIELD notion of "real" patriots in the police/military/security agencies needing to teach, replace, and disobey the incompetent/corrupt (elected) authorities has become so ubiquitous in fiction that I didn't even think to associate it with fascism (in contrast to the in-your-face "New World Order conspiracy!" of Winter Soldier). As you say, the problem with Nazis isn't that they're Nazis but that they have Nazi policies - which many people have without being Nazis. It's the entire context around it that makes it fascism, and I didn't pick up on that until you pointed it out.

And as to your first paragraph, yeah: actual Nazi takeovers are sadly mundane and obvious by the standards of Hollywood, which has portrayed them more and more as a near-supernatural (or actually supernatural) force on par with vampires and werewolves. At this point, I wonder if Mundane Nazis aren't left out not only because they're not dramatic enough by Hollywood standards, but because people are afraid that someone might actually start noticing similarities between them and, well, movements and events that are actually familiar to them, and take offense. (I don't even mean this as a diss on Trump or a commentary on the U.S. specifically: a LOT of what the Nazis did had echoes in all kinds of other times and places).

S Johnson said...

Historical note: Shooting Hamilton did not ruin Burr's career. He had no future with the Jeffersonians after he refused to concede the Presidency to Jefferson in the constitutional crisis of 1800. The uproar in New York and the East generally was entirely unexpected. Given that killing in a duel didn't ruin Jackson's career and reputation, not even in allegedly PC times like today, is also telling. Burr was quite popular with Westerners like Jackson, so much so that it fed Burr's dreams of western empire. The consequent treason trial was the finish of Burr's political career. Hamilton was not a fervent abolitionist since the death of his intimate friend Laurens, but one of the great reasons for his unpopularity in the South was that his commercial, industrial society had no place for slavery, much less pride of place. It seems highly like to me that Burr knew very well that killing Hamilton would make him popular there, but didn't know that this duel for some reason would inspire such enormous outrage...in the East.

Steven Attewell said...

Hey,

Just popping in to say that I've covered the Civil War comics for Unspoiled's Patrons-Only podcast, and will be talking about the movie for Graphic Policy.

Arresi said...

You might want to add Film Crit Hulk's new piece to the list. He's pretty critical of all the Phase 2 movies, which I hadn't expected, given how much he liked the Phase 1 movies. It's on Birth.Movies.Death here: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2016/05/24/civil-war-spider-man-2-and-the-dangers-of-assumed-empathy

Stuart Worthington said...

It seems the movie's still being discussed, it's just taking some people a while to write about it. Here's Shamus Young's perspective:

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=32170#more-32170

(Warning: Not recommended for people who aren't Shamus Young fans.)

B said...

Thank you for recognizing Steven's awesome work. He, Amanda Marcotte, Elana Levin, and myself did a radio show/podcast discussing Civil War on Monday night and you can listen to it on demand https://graphicpolicy.com/2016/05/24/listen-to-graphic-policy-radio-on-captain-america-civil-war-part-2-on-demand/

Gordon B said...

Chris:

I wonder if mundane Nazis are left out because 1919-1933 in Germany is often taught as a muddled blur in primary and secondary school history classes. Basically, "the Wiemar Republic had problems and everyone turned to this charismatic figure named Hitler who made speeches that magically captivated audiences." Unfortunately, I think a lot of people come out of it (including Hollywood writers) with the impression that Hitler was some Rasputin-like figure...and not merely a practiced demagogue whose worldview unfortunately harnessed the popular bigotries and grievances of the times to build a base of support.

halojones-fan said...

Actually, Hydra was what bothered me the most about Winter Soldier and Civil War, because it represented an easy out. Hey, you know all those heavy issues of what it means to be superheroes with world-level responsibilities, and whether the one with global-level power ought to have a supra-national outlook? Forget it, turns out that it was secret Nazis all along! Hooray! A situation that's easily resolved by punching.

A lot of the clumsiness of the more recent MCU movies has resulted from a doleful insistence on translating the comic books directly onto film. Like, the reason that Tony is pro-government and Cap pro-independent is, well, because that's how it was in the comic books! (at least they didn't try to present us with Robot Clone Thor.)

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