By Abe Rose
I imagine that in about a hundred years, the title of this movie will make for one hell of a confusing high school report on a captain from the American Civil War. “I typed in Captain America Civil War into Future-Google, and the top link informs us that the American Civil War was between the billionaire class led by Anthony Stark, and the rebel captain, Steven Rogers.” Then again, being how close the political parallels are in these Captain America movies with American foreign policies, maybe this is the movie that will be shown to high school history students. “America often ignored the national sovereignty of other nations when issuing overseas contingency operations. Here, just watch the punchy-punchy superhero version of it.”
There are plenty of punches, quick cuts, and quantum laser beams firing off in its near two and a half hour running length, enough to fill any Michael Bay-quota for a summer action movie. But it’s not the multi-million dollar CGI that is the most impressive piece of the film. The most impressive element is how well the movie balances its ideas, both political and emotional, with the hyper-kinetic comic book action. For a movie that features a microscopic Ant-Man being shot out of a super-power arrow at a teenager that shoots webs out of his wrists, you’d be surprised at how effective it is at getting you to care about the international fallout of such silly super-battles.
The film centers on the aftermath of an accidental explosion that Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) causes in a sovereign African nation while battling some bad guys. Many innocent bystanders are killed. The U.N. demands that the Avengers sign the Sokovia Accords, limiting their actions to U.N.-approved contingencies. The guilt-ridden Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) whole-heartedly agrees to these accords. “If we can’t accept limitations, we are no different from the bad guys.” But Captain America (Chris Evans) has issues with this. His pal, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), is a wanted vigilante and will pay for his crimes. But the Good Captain, led by his heart, knows that his friend was under the influence of some Manchurian Candidate-level mind control, and therefore, was not responsible for his actions. His loyalty to protect his friendship overrides his commitment to following the sovereign laws of the many nations.
Before the film came out, I was asked a number of times, whose “side” I’m on. I usually declined to answer. “Why does it matter if I root for Captain America or Iron Man? They’re both ‘good guys,’ and this battle is simply a matter of misunderstanding.” I thought. Of course what has to happen, I believed, was that the third act would have a larger conflict at play, and the two sides would have to team up again to fight a giant flying spaghetti monster from outer space or something, and all friendships would be renewed quicker than Superman can say “Martha.” I was wrong. Captain America: Civil War is a rare superhero film, in which there is not a prime super-villain to take up valuable screen time. The conflict is between heroes. The fight is between friends whose friendships we have come to observe over the course of fourteen films. This movie has stakes and raises them to Giant-Man size.
What I found myself doing during the film was actually formulating my thoughts on which side I was rooting for. Captain America is usually seen as the moral anchor of the Marvel Universe, for he radiates good ol’ fashioned American values, minus the years of racism and prejudicial history that seems all to be forgotten in this Marvel Universe. When he fought a battle against government surveillance in Winter Soldier akin to Edward Snowden’s political story, I was right alongside the cap’n. That type of government intrusion is incompatible with American values, good ol’ Captain Rogers believes. The incredibly serious Snowden story got a superhero makeover, and I devoured it like popcorn entertainment. I generally agree with Captain America’s old fashioned moral compass. But here, I found myself agreeing more with Iron Man’s call for international oversight. Iron Man would probably get along great with The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent and his “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” philosophy.
If politicians get involved with overseeing the actions of the Avengers, Captain America argues that there will be times in which politicians will fail to act in a dire situation. Or at other times, the U.N. may deploy the Avengers into situations that really wouldn’t call for American superpowers. Parallels with U.S. foreign policy aside, this philosophical battle between Iron Man and Captain America is really one about responsibility. They both agree that the Avengers should be policed, but by who? By another government body or by self-policing and personal responsibility? This ranks as one of the more thoughtful superhero movies, kind of like Batman v Superman, but you know, also fun.
The franchise has gone on for fourteen films over the course of eight years. The body count has grown. Cities have been destroyed. Innocent bystanders have been lost by the hundreds. And at the end of the day, the Avengers usually celebrate by eating shawarma. This movie pauses to reflect on all the collateral damage. Are the Avengers truly making the world a better, safer place? The third act is not so much a battle to revert everything back to the status quo, but rather it contains a battle of in which both parties know that there is no going back to how things were before. They both have to accept the responsibilities of their actions, and their fight is really a personal one in which they fight their own demons in their own ways.
The film is really comprised of three battles. One philosophical battle, one silly superhero eye-candy battle, and one emotional battle. And unlike Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this movie actually builds on its foundation of ideas and fuels the superhero action towards the inevitable, emotional climax. The film works in all three major battles. I am reminded of Howard Hawk’s definition of a good movie, “Three great scenes, no bad ones.” While it has to balance about ten million story-lines, the movie succeeds in navigating through the clutter of characters, philosophies and motivations. This ranks as one of the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, alongside The Winter Soldier.