Captain America: Civil War represents the best of the Marvel Universe and American action films. It is far from a message movie, but CA:CW is grounded in the questions that have dogged our world for the past two decades. What is justice? What is truth? Can power and responsibility be exercised together? What is a bearable cost for principle? It is what superhero films ought to be: a window into our own reality, an escape that transports us into the here and now with a new perspective.
The story is simple but effective. The Avengers, as we saw them last, are working to snuff out threats as they find them. Hydra’s tentacles are still active and dangerous even though they are severed from Shield’s infrastructure. In some ways, the fight is harder because it is no longer against obvious opponents that are readily identifiable and flying around in super-carriers, but the fragments are mobile and hostile. They melt into urban areas for cover. They long for havoc and destruction. The Avengers’ (now comprised of Captain America, Falcon, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch) best efforts still end in the death of innocents, bystanders unable to avoid the fearsome power needed to curtail such mayhem.
The central conflict is established early. Government entities, here represented by the United Nations–with strong American support–wish to set boundaries on The Avengers by authorizing their missions and criminalizing future rogue behavior. This effort yields the Sokovia Accords (named after the nation that suffered through Ultron’s lunacy), which divides The Avengers. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) agrees the group needs accountability, while Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) argues that government has its own agenda which can twist principle and make justice harder, not easier, to achieve. This abstract debate becomes concrete when a crisis arises and arguments must turn into either action or inaction. Our heroes take sides and live out their beliefs, eventually, through conflict with one another.
Captain America (as I wrote in my review of The Winter Soldier) is more than a superhero, he is a symbol of America, or, at least, what he thinks America should be. In CA:CW, Rogers’ Captain is a tireless advocate of a principled approach to danger. He seeks an unshackled presence and he bristles at the thought of bureaucratic control. “What if,” he asks his comrades, “they keep us from going where we need to go?” Or, more grimly, “what if they make us go where we don’t want to?” Essentially, once tied to the international community’s conception of what is good, what is to prevent The Avengers from becoming a mere political tool? Rogers believes The Avengers must act beyond by such limits in order to pursue what is right and just. What curtails Captain America? Though he never utters the word, virtue–in this case, loyalty through adversity–limits his actions and nothing else. He firmly believes in his own ability to derive truth and justice and then act upon them either with or without the support of those around him. He is the American conscience refined and unbound.
Tony Stark’s Iron Man seemingly lives a life unaffected by consequences, but his bravado is pierced by the casualties that surround The Avengers’ actions. New York, Sokovia, and Washington, D.C. have been partially destroyed in this universe, and though numbers are never referenced, one must presume that thousands perished even though millions were saved. Stark does not deny the good done by The Avengers, but he yearns for accountability and structure. He is no coward and he has proven a willingness to die if needed, but one senses that Stark’s conscience can no longer survive the suffering of others or even his own abandonment. He seeks absolution in communal waters that might wash away the stains of his doubt.
Iron Man and Captain America must embody, for the filmmakers, their respective eras of American international engagement. Captain America is a robust idealist. Remember, Rogers fought in World War II. He believes the conflict between good and evil is rarely clean and destruction cannot always be limited. There is still in him a sober recognition that “the job,” as he calls it, involves saving as many lives as possible. For him, refusing to fight because of what could happen simply forfeits the world to those who have no principles. For Stark, a man who came of age in the Cold War, and who only grappled with death in the context of the War on Terror, now every death is one too many. He manifests a technological war that is mechanical, depersonalized, and surgical. This kind of war should still be able to yield good outcomes, but becomes intolerable when the scalpel must be exchanged for a cleaver or a broad sword.
Philosophically, though a stretch, I think Captain America clings to a transcendent set of values that condition him in spite of his context. He is the picture of civilizational confidence. Truth and principle are worthy of the ultimate sacrifice, even when those lie unaffirmed at the feet of his friends. He is old-fashioned even when he flies a futuristic aircraft. Tony Stark does not eschew duty and he values the protection of life, but he is willing to limit his actions and his beliefs to seek a communal solution, a shared set of beliefs that are tolerable to all. He is not necessarily a relativist, and I don’t want to portray him as such, but he is a kind of consequentialist. He judges actions based on their results in spite of their inherent goodness. The reality, of course, is that neither man can lay an exclusive claim to the American mind or soul. To the extent we are “two Americas,” they can be found, to a degree, in Team Cap and Team Tony.
More than a mere civil war within The Avengers, CA:CW is a meditation on America’s role in the current world. The Avengers are linked to America and their tension is America’s tension. The Cold War and World War II were “easy” wars to rationalize and fight. Our enemies were known, identifiable, and tied to nation-states. The War on Terror has reconfigured reality for our enemies, but not yet for ourselves. CA:CW was not about drone strikes, close-quarter combat, or coalition building in Iraq or Afghanistan. But, at the same time, it was about all of those things. How do we reconcile our pursuit for justice in a world where finding it, as in the War on Terror, seemingly necessitates the unjust death of innocents? How do we send soldiers ready to deal death into a teeming city, in another sovereign nation, where evil lurks? How do we fight against an enemy that frequently devalues human life–where humans, and not vibranium, are shields– as we attempt to protect it? How are we limited by international agreements that don’t always suit our interests? How often should we go it alone simply because we think we are right, in spite of the consequences? CA:CW does not pretend to answer these questions, but it asks them, much to its credit.
Plaudits should be distributed far and wide. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo deserve praise, as do writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The acting is solid. Old characters fit comfortably into their skin. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) are solid even if sometimes under-utilized. New additions Spiderman (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) shine, both as actors and characters. Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. anchor the film and make no mistakes in the process. They are as strong. I continue to be astonished that comic book films have managed to attract such strong actors. I am sure the size of the paycheck has something to do with it, but whatever the reason, CA:CW is blessed by their presence and abilities.
Final Grade: 3/3 Eggheads