Review — Captain America: Civil War

captain-america-civil-warBatman v Superman? Things are more entertaining over in the Marvel universe.

BvS and the recently released Civil War, the third film in the Captain America franchise, share a great deal in common. Both feature epic battles between superheroes. Both launch or promote other superhero film franchises. And both plots involve the outcry over the collateral damage that inevitably results from the battle between the good guys and the bad.

But across the board, Marvel does it better, with more humor, nuance, and depth.

In BvS, the title bout turns into an ugly brawl where neither character is sympathetic anymore. In CW, the battle is between friends who have become reluctant enemies because they have chosen different sides in a moral debate. True, the final battle between Cap (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) becomes a bit of a grudge match, but the motivations are more complex. Tony Stark is driven not only by revenge but a sense of betrayal, and Cap, as always, is ready to die for what he thinks is right.

In BvS, we are given glimpses of the characters that will launch other DC franchises, particularly Wonder Woman. But she is inserted into the action in a way that feels flat and unnecessary. In CW, we are introduced to the Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Spider Man (Tom Holland). Both are given enough screen time for you to care about them, and characters introduced in other films are allowed to develop as well. This is despite the fact that CW has far more personnel to manage, including parts for the likes of Martin Freeman and Oscar winners William Hurt and Marisa Tomei. From the first Avengers movie, Marvel screenwriters have demonstrated an uncanny ability to juggle all-star rosters in a way that doesn’t feel forced. And Spidey and Ant Man (Paul Rudd), in particular, with their starstruck chattiness, add the trademark comic relief that is sorely needed in BvS.

The most important difference, however, is in how the screenplays deal with the issue of collateral damage. In both stories, victims and critics see the supers as potentially dangerous vigilantes, and call for government oversight. In BvS, the complaint becomes largely a rationalization for the Bat to pursue his revenge. In CW, however, the issue of whether the Avengers need supervision divides the group, and the moral quandary is given full play.

In the opening scenes, Cap, Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are trying to stop the theft of biological weapons. But things go tragically wrong, and innocents are killed. The Secretary of State (William Hurt) presents the Avengers with the Sokovia Accords, calling for them to submit to United Nations control. Stark, bearing the guilt of the misguided Ultron Project that led to the destruction of Sokovia, agrees. Natasha sides with Stark; she thinks it wise to submit until they can win back public confidence.

But Cap will have none of it. He agrees that they need to learn from their mistakes. Pointedly, however, he asks Stark what they would do if the UN sent the Avengers on a mission they didn’t agree with, or refused to let them go on a mission they thought was needed. Cap insists that to do their job, the Avengers need the freedom to act independently on the basis of conscience. The division reaches the breaking point when the UN is attacked, Cap’s childhood friend Bucky/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is implicated, and the Avengers are drawn into a full-scale manhunt.

At one level, therefore, CW  follows the narrative thread of the Captain America franchise, playing on the loyalty and friendship between Cap and Bucky. But at another level, this is clearly an Avengers movie; the writers assume that the viewer has seen Age of Ultron. CW would still make sense without it, but with a sacrifice of depth and continuity. There would be no backstory for Wanda or Vision (Paul Bettany), nor for the angst and guilt that drives Stark’s concession to the UN, nor for the motives that drive the villain Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) to try to destroy the Avengers from within.

CW may well be the best outing yet from Marvel Studios. It benefits immensely, in a way that BvS cannot, from the rich and coherent backstory created by the other movies. Although Chris Evans has never been allowed to carry the films on his own, he has clearly grown into the part. It’s worth remembering how difficult the role actually is. Evans has to play Steve Rogers as a straight-laced, red-white-and-blue anachronism who chides Tony Stark for using bad language — and he has to make you believe in and root for the character. You appreciate the moral continuity between the scrawny kid who takes his lumps standing up to bullies and the superhero who fights to the end. When, battered and bloodied, he gets to his feet, puts up his dukes, and says, “I can do this all day,” you believe him.

For all its crowd-pleasing qualities, CW is a somewhat subversive film, much more so than BvS. Batman and Superman eventually put aside their differences to fight a common foe, an alien monster (surprise, surprise). But CW leaves the central tension unresolved. Tony agrees to the rule of law but resents the Secretary of State, and acts independently when he thinks it justified. Steve has had a front-row seat to government corruption and the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D., and has no reason to trust that government oversight is the answer. By the end of the film, Tony has his allies, Steve has his, and there things remain.

Will they ever be able to fight on the same side again?

CW, in other words, leaves the important questions open-ended. What is the right way to govern the use of power? How much freedom should individuals have to decide on the basis of conscience? (CW does sidestep one question: if Cap had thought Bucky was guilty of attacking the UN, would he have turned him in?)

In a world like ours, those are important questions. Taking a page from Nietzsche, the story suggests that heroic individuals must decide what’s “right” on their own and act accordingly. But not all such individuals agree, and people still get hurt. The film offers no easy answers, nor do the screenwriters propose a more comprehensive moral vision that would unite the competing sides.

Is our own moral vision wide enough? What answers would we give? It’s worth a conversation, as we wait to see what the Avengers will do next.