Absolute power corrupts absolutely ... unless you're a superhero
The weighty political matters in Captain America: Civil War don't totally work, but nonetheless this is a strong Marvel actioner
Captain America: Civil War Walt Disney Studios
Director: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Brühl, Don Cheadle and William Hurt
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 26 minutes
May 6, 2016
(out of four)
Movies make it easy on us. Superhero movies most of all.
The very nature of the dynamics by which they operate sets our mind at ease. Moral ambiguity is easier to handle when we've been slipped the right answers ahead of time. The moral universe of movies, generally speaking, is so much less relative than the one we live in. Things can be grey ... but not too grey.
So when we see Bond or Batman, Bourne or Bauer, beating information out of a suspect - or better yet, a confession - we accept it because we already know that the ends must justify the means, otherwise it wouldn't be happening. When we see one of our screen heroes grieving a murdered loved one - spouse, child, partner, best friend - we accept the revenge angle instinctively, and when he eventually takes the law into his own hands and kills the bad guy, it's both cathartic and morally acceptable. We know it's justified because the movie has left no doubt as to the killer's guilt.
When our hero cop plants evidence to put a rapist or a child molester away for good, of course we're OK with it. Because guilt has been made certain. We're protected from having to think about any other possibility. Even those of us who champion civil liberties celebrate the results of screen vigilantes.
And so, superhero movies are probably not the ideal place to examine ethical questions of crime policies and procedures. Captain America: Civil War pits its titular character against Tony Stark/Iron Man in an ideological fight about the possible regulation of superhero activities - an issue brought to the fore in the wake of the death and destruction in recent Marvel installments. Cap (Chris Evans) believes he and the other Avengers must necessarily be able to act without restraint and without permission. Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees that superheroes should probably be held in check a little bit, so he's happy to play ball with the government and sign the widely approved Sokovia Accords, designed to provide oversight and decision-making power, primarily when it comes to international intervention.
This is a perfectly fine philosophical discussion to have; it's just that Civil War - as strong a piece of entertainment as it is - isn't necessarily the right movie to have it. All the issues posed are ultimately kind of moot, except insomuch as they affect (or dictate) the narrative. They're moot because, more than any other genre, superhero movies are firmly built on the most movie-ish ideas of right and wrong. Arguing that the Avengers need to be governed is one thing; making the case that the Avengers' screen exploits have ever been, by the films' own internal logic, unwarranted is quite another. We know in advance that the good guys will get the bad guys, and that any damage done is preferable to the dire possibilities they're preventing - which is generally somewhere on the apocalypse spectrum. There is no equivocation about the villains' intentions or capabilities.
No matter what side any one of us comes down on, it won't change the fact that these characters' actions will always end up being justified. We know that they will be using their powers only for good, because otherwise this wouldn't be Marvel. Superhero movies dance around the idea of people with otherworldly physical powers being right on the cusp of a sort of fascism by their presence alone. Civil War in particular presents the idea of their corruptibility even while reassuring us that these figures are all fundamentally incorruptible - Captain America more than any other. And he's the one who comes down on the side of his (and his cohorts') absolute authority, rejecting any need for permission or restraint. And of all people, it's Tony Stark - an entitled, free-market capitalist if there ever was one - who ends up fighting for his right to be put in his place.
As explained by Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) - who last appeared in 2008's long-forgotten early MCU entry The Incredible Hulk, and who has now apparently graduated from General to Secretary of State - public perception is a large part of the motivation for getting the Sokovia Accords put into place. There was so much collateral damage from the events of Age of Ultron that something simply had to be done.
But this preoccupation with the tragedies resulting from the Avengers' actions is similarly disingenuous. Death is too much of an abstraction in a Marvel movie. I don't mean this as a criticism - it's a feature, not a bug - but as a fact that throws cold water on any attempt by Civil War to make its weighty concerns stick. Its best attempt is also most revealing about this inherent flaw. Early on, Stark runs into a woman, played by Alfre Woodard, who explains that her son - an innocent civilian - was killed in Sokovia, and that she blames Stark/Iron Man and his team for their actions. This is the moment - the realization that actual human lives are in play here - that Stark realizes the Avengers need to be overseen and monitored.
The scene works because Alfre Woodard is a great actress - she could be telling Tony that the Illuminati killed her son and I think I'd believe her - but it's also a cynical feint. Marvel is briefly pretending that death matters while otherwise operating as if it doesn't. (And even this scene treats it largely as an abstraction. We never meet her son - she just tells us about him - and then she disappears from the rest of the movie. It's a powerful cameo whose impact immediately dissipates.)
Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder recently took flak for comments he made about the type of moral universe in which he wants comic-book movies to exist. Leaving aside the fact that his childish idea of gritty realism is more a faux-edgy affectation than anything else, and the fact that at this point I've had more than my fill of anything he could do with a comic-book adaptation, he still obliquely touches on a real point. There are, generally speaking, no actual stakes in a movie like this. Which is not a problem! Except when one tries to pretend otherwise. If any one character in this increasingly bloated cast list had the potential to die - or, failing that, if their loved ones* or anyone else who registers as human had the potential to die - then maybe the political matters could kinda go somewhere.
* And no, loved ones who were already dead when the Marvel franchise launched do not count.
It's the savvy move, then, for the film to incrementally shift away from those ideas, pivoting from the ideological to the personal. The philosophical divide - primarily between Cap and Tony, with various other Avengers picking one side or the other - is personified only by the lingering presence of the Winter Soldier, the Manchurian assassin known in his best moments as Bucky Barnes, Steve Rogers' childhood friend. He's still on the loose, and still a threat, and the government wants him. Steve/Cap wants to take matters into his own hands - without surveillance and without advance permission - because he insists he can help Bucky. Tony, needless to say, disagrees.
Personal matters ultimately drive the behavior of most of the major players here - and when things are this personal, reason (like the kind one would employ when, say, discussing a prickly political issue like government oversight of superheroes) goes out the window, which is just as well since that's in the film's best interests. Cap's position is virtually untenable by rational measures - the guy he's adamant about protecting is an active threat, a soldier who can be mind-controlled into doing anything, simply by the recitation of a specific sequence of words. The newly introduced Black Panther, or T'Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) is driven by revenge. And Tony has to confront his own emotional baggage in the midst of his battle with Steve - even more than he initially realizes. By the time we've passed the point of no return, everyone is basically acting out of emotion - hurt and betrayed by one another, but not exactly standing tall for an ideal.
As to those ideals, the film itself doesn't favor one case over the other. That's not its purpose. The whole conflict exists in order to support a pretty good action movie, and to introduce new characters and alliances that will shape the future of the series. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo - once again working with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, as they did with 2014's The Winter Soldier - can still put together a crackling story (even if it doesn't have the same aesthetic distinction as its predecessor). Their action chops seem to waver from setpiece to setpiece, but at their best they show a real sense of urgency and purpose, expressing with their framing and camera angles much more about the emotional and dramatic stakes than the script does.
I realize much of this sounds like a pan, but it's not. Civil War is a consistently enjoyable film and a terrific showcase for both Evans and Downey Jr. (not to mention strong intros for both Boseman and new Spidey Tom Holland). It's just that its stated narrative purpose doesn't really exist. No matter what does or doesn't happen with the Sokovia Accords, the Avengers will still always be able to step in when they need to. No matter what happens with Bucky, he'll never kill anyone we care about - or, in most cases, whose name we even know. And no matter how much bad blood is generated between Captain America and Iron Man over these two-and-a-half hours, we already know they'll quickly and easily team back up when the situation requires it. (Or even before that.) So yes, a movie like this, in a franchise like this, makes things easy for us. Nothing in Civil War really matters even in the broader context of the Marvel universe. But even if it has nowhere to go, going nowhere is still a lot of fun while it lasts.