Captain America: Civil War is Superior

Captain America Civil WarCaptain 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

9 thoughts on “Captain America: Civil War is Superior”

  1. It was an excellent film.

    As one who typically opposes regulation, I tend to fall on Cap’s side in this though doing so does grate against my respect for the rule of law. While I agree in theory with Stark on the accountability aspect of this, the so-called Sokovia Accords do seem a clear overreach. It would place the Avengers, as Captain America argued, in the undesirable position of potentially being forbidden to do what they need or forced to do what they shouldn’t.

    They are asked to agree to this oversight with apparently very little information about this UN panel that will oversee them and make those decisions along with an implied threat that choosing not to sign would bring them unpleasant consequences. Additionally, the Accords is also a document they are not given a chance to see or to contribute input. It is simply plopped in front of them. Under those circumstances, no one can be blamed for refusing to sign any agreement that would directly affect them but yet one they did not have a share in crafting. There is a term for that: surrender.

    Perhaps the only major aspect of the film that seemed unsatisfying was yet another “villian” whose motivation was not a truly nefarious scheme but someone who wanted revenge for friends or family and chooses to blame the heroes for the death, not the villain (similar to how Batman blames Superman, and not the true perpetrator, General Zod, for the devastation in Man of Steel/Batman vs. Superman).

    Admittedly in this case, the blame for Sokovia rightfully falls on Stark’s (and Bruce Banner’s/Hulk’s) shoulders as they created Ultron in the first place so Stark’s guilt and desire for oversight is understandable. However, in the other incidents mentioned (Manhattan, DC, Wakanda) the collateral damage results from circumstances decidedly not precipitated by the Avengers (Loki, Chitauri, Hydra, etc) and in all these cases had the Avengers not acted the results would have been exponentially more catastrophic.

    Regardless, an interesting debate to be sure. Also one final question… The nation of Wakanda was apparently instrumental in getting the Sokovia Accords passed but at the end of the film Black Panther, now the new king of Wakanda, is giving sanctuary to Captain America and those Avengers opposed to that regulation in the first place. So has Wakanda now withdrawn from the Accords or has its leaders secretly violated them while remaining a signatory?

  2. This post has gotten me even more excited about CA:CW! I am looking forward to seeing it and paying attention to these details laid out in this article!

  3. A blog devoted above all, according to its own marquee, to politics has a chance to comment on arguably the most serious threat to the Republican Party since its 1865 birth; and instead of taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, has its political expert–a respected scholar with a doctorate from a real university, and one who has appeared before local television numerous times–review movies instead?

    Wow. That is all I can say: wow.

    1. Surely, Jeff, we can occasionally take a break from the implosion of the GOP. Besides, I have all summer to write about it–and you know I will. This opportunity isn’t going away. The Donald will be with us at least through his crushing defeat in November. There is much time to write the GOP’s obituary. See the movie. You might like it.

      1. Dr. Smith,

        I think I speak for most everybody else when I say we welcome these chances to talk about something different and entertaining. I always look forward to your movie reviews. It would be a pretty dull blog indeed if you and your colleagues devoted every article to one topic. One or two may be miffed if their pet topic is not given incessant attention, but most of the rest of us like variety. Thank you.

        P.S. Just for the record, the GOP began in 1854, not 1865.

      2. I am all for breaks, especially now that it is summer; but you have said next to nothing, so how much of a “break” does one need?

        Sorry–I am not a movie kind of guy. Documentaries and sports are my preferred ways to get my doses of entertainment.

        I find it hard to believe they even did a movie about Captain America. When I was a kid, he was far behind Spiderman and Batman in popularity and appeal. He was like a B-team superhero behind even the Green Hornet.

  4. I have not seen the movie, but your excellently written analysis reminds me of the difference between those who view the U.S. as a Democracy based upon the consensus of the governed and those who view the U.S. as a Republic based upon Natural Law. In my mind, Iron Man’s agreement to follow the Sokovia Accords is like those who want to live in a Democracy, and Capt. America’s rejection of the Accords for higher ideals is like those who want to live in a Republic. Living under laws that are based on the consensus of the group (as with the Sokovia Accords) is better than anarchy, but it can be abused as in the French Revolution. Better yet is living under laws that are based upon Natural Law. So I am squarely on Capt. America’s side.

  5. Well, I haven’t seen a movie at a theater in about 10 years, and not to criticize anyone who does watch them, I don’t think I have missed much and have saved money. Nevertheless, what is wrong with a movie review. I review books. And I am happy someone reviews movies. I also find it just a bit interesting that you say our reviewer has a “doctorate from a real university.” That is true, but I detect a bit of condescension here. Might you be implying that others do not have real doctorates (as from West Virginia Univ., University of the Orange Free State, Michigan, Northwestern, Oklahoma,George Mason, Univ. of Tennessee, etc.)? Sounds like a gratuitous statement to me.

  6. I forgot to add that this blog is not political alone. Life is not all political, so issues discussed don’t need to be either. Moreover we don’t say it is only political.

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