Captain America: Civil War and its Political Allusions

A particular person’s enjoyment of Captain America: Civil War (the third film in the Captain America franchise) is going to revolve fairly heavily around what they personally want from the film.

It is, in its own right, a good action film. The fight scenes, for example, are extremely well-choreographed and exciting (even the one in the airport, which looked a bit garbage in the trailer, is excellent in context), and the variety of settings – everything from a marketplace in Lagos, to a UN building in Stockholm – give the film a huge scope, and take the story out of the USA, which is vital given the questions it raises about the appropriateness of American interventionism. The events feel like they are happening in a globalized world, with the US as an important superpower, certainly, but sometimes a distant one.

There were never really any doubts that the performances of the leading players would be solid – at this point, we know the main actors are good in the Marvel cinematic universe – but the new characters, and the new faces playing them, were great too. Tom Holland brought a childishness to his Spider-Man which is certainly an important element of the character, but one which is rarely explored in the films (generally, he is played by a 28-year-old who is clearly desperately trying to remember what that homework thing even is), and Chadwick Boseman, as Black Panther was just so goddamn cool. The standalone movie, scheduled for release in 2018, is going to be kickass.
So there’s a lot to like here, no matter what your expectations are heading in. The Russo Brothers are arguably the best directors Marvel has at the moment, and personally, I would have been surprised if the film wasn’t at the very least fun to watch.

But as I said, whether someone finds it simply fun, or actually a really good film, is probably going to depend a lot on them.

The thing is, there are two ways this movie could have gone. As a sequel to the second Cap film, The Winter Soldier, it obviously had to continue that story, which is focused on Steve Rogers’ childhood friend, Bucky Barnes. But the Civil War arc of the comic books is a big, sprawling narrative, detailing a split amongst the Marvel superheroes over the issue of a superhero registration law. Captain America’s side pretty much sticks to those old American values of independence and freedom, whereas Iron Man leads those who believe registration would keep those with powers in check and accountable for their actions, ensuring that the public they were supposed to protect didn’t become collateral damage in their battles.

Given that power and accountability are important issues in this day and age (and always, to be honest), this could have been a deeply interesting path to follow. Particularly in the US, a country which has always had a bit of a “world police” tendency about it, the question of who is allowed to intervene where, what gives the West the right to always have its nose in everyone else’s business, is relevant and important. But the film didn’t really explore this in as much depth as they could, so those who were hoping for either a faithful adaptation, or a really heavily political film (I know it’s a superhero movie, but The Winter Soldier was basically all about the NSA surveillance scandal), might have been a bit disappointed. Those who were down for a movie that instead ended up being all about family, loyalty, and the lingering trauma of the past, though – we had a great time.

The film did start with the political questions, setting up for the kind of debate the comic books presented – one of the most interesting things about them was the way in which both sides were actually given relatively convincing points, reflecting how legitimately complex political issues can be, and as a viewer, it was hard to not sway from side to side depending simply on which was speaking in that moment – but while this formed a background to Steve’s attempts to save Bucky from the various forces coming after him, and a number of the other Avengers’ efforts to stop him, there wasn’t really time to play out a debate between them in the same way.

This was a bit of an issue with the film – despite being two and a half hours long, it doesn’t have enough time to finish everything it sets up. A lot of questions are asked and never really answered, which is disappointing. Instead of playing out the debate, the film basically takes Steve’s side. The conflict is the result of a misunderstanding, effectively, and while the anti-registration team happen to be right in their interpretation of this situation, it doesn’t really seem that this necessarily makes them right about everything. But by the time names are cleared and fights are won, there isn’t enough time left to ask whether this means they shouldn’t be registered with the UN. The final revelation feels like something of a cop-out, as it removes the relevance of the institutional powers and their questions – there may be a conspiracy, but there is also a genuine question that would have been raised anyway, and this ends up being ignored, simply lumped in as part of the villainous scheme.

This was actually a major departure from the comic arc, which had Captain America realize that if the public – those he was supposed to protect – were calling for accountability, then he should honour their wishes. The fact that the movie never comes to this conclusion – that Steve is allowed to be affirmed in his belief that his is the ultimate authority, that he knows best, better than all the governments of the world – made me a bit uncomfortable. After all, isn’t that kind of a libertarian viewpoint? Freedom above all else, total personal responsibility, governments being a meddling socialist invention good for nothing but spoiling the individual’s attempts to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and rake in those sweet, sweet capitalist dollars? That’s not what anyone wants Captain America to stand for, even if he does have a very stupid name that leaves people thinking of him in those terms a lot of the time.

Were this a stand-alone movie, I would very much get that impression of its politics. The fact that it isn’t, really, that Steve’s insistence on freedom is actually motivated by personal experience rather than politics, is an interesting by-product of Marvel’s almost serialized storytelling. At this point in the MCU, a character’s motivations can’t be gleaned simply from the movie in which they are being played out. This isn’t a story in which someone says maybe the Avengers should get some advice before they join random fights all over the world, and Steve starts screaming that he will live free or die. This is a film in which someone says the Avengers have to work for the UN, for a panel of individuals with varying and potentially conflicting desires and beliefs, and Steve quite clearly remembers the other things large organizations that he trusted have done since he was chiselled out of an ice-cube – namely, trying to nuke New York in The Avengers, a move the heroes had to prevent on top of stopping the alien invasion; and revealing themselves to be literal Nazis in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That first one is particularly telling, given that the damage inflicted upon New York is one of the things repeatedly brought up as a reason the Avengers need supervision. Had they obeyed orders in that film, instead of being a bit broken, New York would have been obliterated – and the aliens probably would have continued invading Earth despite this.

In light of this kind of history, who could blame Steve and his supporters for refusing to sign the registration act? In their experience, their independence and freedom to make their own decisions has been the only thing which saved millions of people. So while I wish there had been time to question Steve’s beliefs more thoroughly – after all, the fact that they are founded doesn’t necessarily mean they are correct – this portrayal is certainly not a mischaracterization of him as some right-wing small-government nut job. Captain America, at this point in the development of his character, is simply a good man who has seen too many governments and organizations do very bad things.

Many people are feeling a bit burnt out on Marvel films, understandably, given that there are more than a dozen of them already. That’s a lot of hours of predominantly buff white guys hitting each other. But Captain America: Civil War is a perfect illustration of how this sort of (very, very) long-storytelling can be used to do things that a single, stand-alone movie could not achieve. The sort of complexity of motivations, the fact that Steve can be wrong and right all at once, and that he can be this without a whole lot of exposition at the start explaining his tragic past – that he can be motivated by invisible bitterness that the audience won’t necessarily realize is even there – is fascinating, and could only be achieved when the character has multiple whole films worth of backstory. This is how Marvel creators should be using this huge thing they have made – to tell stories which don’t necessarily mean what they say, to have characters who are deeply flawed, and don’t necessarily learn anything despite all of the events in an entire film, because that’s how the world works a lot of the time. They have a film series which is frequently referred to as a ‘universe’ – that’s a powerful storytelling tool, and if the various directors keep utilising it like this in future films, they will likely only get better from here.

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