from the archives: Captain America: Civil War

Last night, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — short review, “I am Groot!” (translation: “it was wonderful!”) — and one year ago today, I saw Captain America: Civil War. Here’s what I said about it then…..

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There are SPOILERS here for Captain America: Civil War. You have been warned.

The other day, I ranked the first dozen MCU films, and now that I’ve seen the thirteenth, I’d put it in the second or third slot easily. Not sure whether it would go before or after Winter Soldier, but both movies are fantastic.

One of the things I love about the MCU is that it is treating the movie series much more like a TV series, with Kevin Feige as the show-runner. While each movie has its own plot, there are threads running through them all, and character development as well. In fact, the movies are being treated very much like the comic books they’re based on. Which is where these characters have thrived for decades, so it’s a good model to use.

This makes it increasingly harder for the movies to stand on their own, of course, though I think it’s still possible to watch Civil War without having seen the previous films. Having said that, it builds on, well, a lot of them. This feels like the third Avengers movie at least as much as it does the third Captain America movie, as the character beats for Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision all pick up from Age of Ultron, as does a big part of the plot, since the incident in Sokovia is the impetus for both the UN accord that prompts the conflict and Zemo’s manipulations that exacerbate it.

In addition, though, it picks up on a lot of what was established in the Iron Man and Captain America films. In particular, we’ve got a through-line for Tony Stark’s development that is very compelling viewing, especially given the depth that Robert Downey Jr. gives to it. There’s a lot of pain underneath all the snark…

I was initially wary of the fact that the movies were going to adapt one of the weaker storylines Marvel did in the comics. The comic book version of Civil War never really worked, mostly because it mangled the character of Tony Stark in order to make the plot work. But it also never rang true in a Marvel Universe that had existed with superheroes and super-villains for so long.

In the MCU, though, it works, because costumed heroes are less well established. Plus in the comics, the Avengers had a charter and clearances and regulations right from jump. This version of the Avengers really don’t, especially once S.H.I.E.L.D. collapsed. Furthermore, the Cap/Iron Man friendship in the comics is long established and deep; the Cap/Iron Man friendship in the MCU barely exists. Every onscreen interaction between them has been that of bitter, semi-reluctant allies and teammates, not friends. Cap’s relationship with Bucky is even deeper than it is in the comics, as the comics’ Bucky Barnes was the camp mascot, whom Cap took on as a sidekick, but the MCU Bucky folds together Bucky with Arnold Roth, Steve’s childhood friend who protected him from bullies. While I would expect Marvel Comics Steve to be more loyal to Tony than Bucky, I would expect MCU Steve to be way more loyal to Bucky than Tony. Steve has only been in modern times for four years, and he’s been able to trust very few people (keep in mind that a lot of his colleagues in S.H.I.E.L.D. turned out to be Hydra, including the one who blew himself up in Lagos). In addition, the MCU Tony Stark is a much bigger asshole than the comics’ version. Plus, in the comics, it was really hard to sympathize with Stark, but in this movie, both sides have merit. The Vision’s point about the need for oversight is an excellent one. But so is Cap’s about how it’s too much of a yoke to have them be a strike force for the UN, given the agendas involved. (He already went down this road with S.H.I.E.L.D., and it ended with three helicarriers crashing into the Potomac.)

And then we have the actual conflict writ large when there’s a terrorist attack on the UN conference in Vienna. This is the point where Cap’s fears come to fruition, because there’s immediately a shoot-to-kill hunt for the Winter Soldier based on one shitty piece of surveillance footage. This is a world in which holographic masks (used by the Black Widow in Winter Soldier to pose as a member of the World Council, and also by Agent 33 to look like Agent May in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) are pretty readily available — certainly available to someone who has the resources to bomb a UN conference. The leap from one shitty picture to shoot on sight is way too long, hard, and far, and done without any investigation, which is horrible. I pretty much settled on the #TeamCap side of things the minute Everett Ross laughed in Cap’s face when the latter asked if Bucky would be getting a lawyer. They’re talking about how the Avengers need oversight, but here we have an international coalition of cops being told to blow away someone based on a bad photograph. (Mind you, it’s totally realistic in the circumstances, as the post-9/11 paranoia we got in the real world would be amped up even more so in a world that also has super beings trashing whole cities and countries.)

Further solidifying my personal preference for #TeamCap is Tony’s response to learning that the Winter Soldier killed his parents. Certainly his initial angry attack you can forgive, but he keeps at it, knowing that Bucky was brainwashed, and out and out stating that he doesn’t care. My biggest issue with Iron Man 3 was that Stark was casually discussing how he was going to kill various people, and I had a real problem with Iron Man as murderer. He was also truly the villain of Age of Ultron — or, at least, his hubris was — and his attack on Cap and Bucky at the climax was despicable. In character, mind you, but still despicable.

And yet that also proved that Stark may have been right to sign the Accords — when you’ve got something as powerful as the Iron Man armor in the hands of a dick, it might be a good idea to make sure that dick has regulatory agencies crawling up his ass. (For all the good it did here…..)

It would have been nice if at some point someone reminded Secretary Ross (or the folks on Stark’s side of the argument) that a) New York wasn’t actually the Avengers’ fault and b) while Wanda’s actions did result in a loss of life, that loss of life would have been considerably greater if Crossbones’s bomb had gone off at street level. That was mentioned in Cap’s pep talk to the Witch, but it should’ve also come up when talking to Ross. The Avengers really need a good PR person, something Howard Stark (as we’ve seen him particularly in Captain America: The First Avenger and Agent Carter) understood a helluva lot better than Tony does.

(Speaking of Agent Carter, Peggy Carter’s funeral was a fantastic scene, and you could just hear Hayley Atwell saying what Sharon quoted her as telling her niece about how you should force the world to move you. That motif was returned to several times — with people commenting that neither Steve nor Tony was going to give up, not to mention when Panther’s bodyguard threatened Widow — to good effect, and again shows what a valuable part of the MCU Peggy Carter has become.)

I haven’t even discussed all the other characters who get to be amazing in this movie. Both the Black Panther and Spider-Man get established very nicely, beautifully setting up their upcoming films, Ant-Man’s appearance is a very well done followup to his film (his dig at Stark from his prison cell was a nice callback to Pym’s issues with Stark in that movie), Hawkeye and the Black Widow remain the only adults in the entire franchise, it seems, and we get the beginnings of the Vision/Scarlet Witch pairing that was a centerpiece of the Avengers for so long in the comics.

Chadwick Boseman’s superlative performance as the Black Panther has gotten a great deal of praise, and it’s 100% earned, aided by a script that manages to give him a compelling arc despite very little actual screen time. What I especially like is that he winds up being the moral center of the film, because he’s also suffered a great loss — in fact, it’s the same loss that Stark suffered, only more immediate — but his response is more measured and unlike either of the two main characters, he falls in the end on the side of justice and forgiveness rather than vengeance.

By the way, it’s also worth mentioning that this movie has three black main characters, none of whom are killed, none of whom are marginalized, all three of whom are actually quite competent. War Machine provides the best argument for Stark’s side (and I like that he continues to have the strength of his convictions even at the end), and Falcon is simply brilliant throughout. It’s a very refreshing thing in an action movie, in which characters with dark skin rarely get to be anything other than comic relief or cannon fodder.

Scarlett Johansson is — again — brilliant as the Black Widow, as she remains a ruthless pragmatist. She agrees to sign the Accords because it’s the path of least resistance and the one that’s most practical in the situation, since they won’t be able to continue to operate otherwise. But she also aids Cap and Bucky in their escape because she knows that Cap will be relentless. (For fuck’s sake, GIVE THIS WOMAN A MOVIE ALREADY!!!!!)

But what gave me the biggest geeky glee of the whole movie was Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. The previous five Spidey films have given us two actors who did a fine job with the character of Peter Parker. Tobey Maguire was pretty much playing the Steve Ditko Peter while Andrew Garfield was more the John Romita Sr. Peter, but the thing that was missing from both their performances was the wisecracking Spider-Man. One of the fun things about Spidey is the witty banter that accompanies his fighting, the way he taunts the bad guys at the same time that he’s webbing or punching them. Neither the Maguire nor the Garfield films did that, but Holland’s Spidey, who’s providing a running commentary throughout every fight scene? That’s the Spidey I know and love.

In the end, we have two teams of Avengers — Cap, Falcon, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Ant-Man on one team, Iron Man, War Machine (once he’s recovered), and the Vision on the other, with Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Black Widow’s allegiance up in the air. (Ditto for Thor and the Hulk, whose non-appearance is mentioned twice; since Mark Ruffalo is supposed to be in Thor: Ragnarok next year, I’m guessing that the thunder god’s third film is going to take place at roughly the same time as this one, with Goldilocks and the Jade Giant busy in Asgard while their teammates are kicking each others’ asses.) I’m willing to bet that they all come back together in the next two movies, especially since they’re supposed to relate to the Infinity Gems that have already played a part in several MCU films. Both Vision and Wanda owe their powers to the gems, and they’re on separate teams right now……

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