Captain America: Civil War

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Saw Captain America: Civil War twice this past weekend. First time I went back for seconds at the theatre since the original Spider-Man movie back in ‘02. The film has pretty great ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and finished the weekend with the fifth biggest opening in history. All great news.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel as if superhero fatigue just might be setting in, on screens both big and small. As discussed last time, the TV superhero shows have begun to slip in quality; in fact, Supergirl may yet be cancelled. Even the Netflix shows—in which I had previously expressed some faith—may be faltering. The second season of Daredevil has been getting “meh” reviews and, though I haven’t seen it myself yet, some spoilers I’ve read would seem to indicate that the Elektra character has deviated significantly from the original comics. Which, ugh.

But back to the subject at hand: Even within those positive reviews of Civil War, there seems to be a sense of trepidation. Now I enjoyed the hell out of this film (obviously, since I don’t make a habit of seeing films twice if I don’t like them a lot), but it’s not without flaws. More of my thoughts after the spoiler space. Those who violate the spoiler space shall be spoiled (duh):

 

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The film is sort of based on the comic book event of 2006–2007, except they’ve really streamlined things and it’s not nearly as a big a mess on screen as it was in the comics. They also ditched nearly all of the stupid stuff from the original story (which was a lot). There is no clone Thor here; no Spidey revealing his secret identity to the world; no Cap getting arrested and then assassinated.

The stupid stuff they did keep generally worked much better, as they did a far superior job setting it all up and executing it. Take Iron Man, for example. In the comics, the prospect of the government taking a controlling interest in Stark Industries damn near knocks Tony off the wagon, almost immediately after he had just gotten his drinking problem under control. (We’re talking about the classic “Demon in a Bottle” storyline, of course.) Does this sound like a guy who would then later cooperate with the government in rounding up every superhero and putting them under federal control? Of course not. This is a big part of why the comic series was so brain-dead stupid.

The movie Iron Man is a different character though. He is coming off the Ultron fiasco of a year ago—a menace he created and is 100% responsible for—and is wrestling with a ton of guilt as a result. It makes sense that he might want to put himself and his compatriots in check in the wake of this.

So the storyline works better with the movie Iron Man in this respect. There are a few points, however, where the differences between the original comic and the movie work against the movie.

Registration vs. Sokovia Accords

Another reason it makes sense for Tony to agree to these proposed controls in the film is that they’re actually kind of reasonable. All the Sokovia Accords really do to the Avengers, in practical terms, is create a mechanism for oversight. (For those superhumans that aren’t Avengers, it creates deeper problems, potentially, but the movie never really gets into this.) Since these Avengers were basically created by a government authority (S.H.I.E.L.D.) to begin with, this shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

In the original comic story, however, they didn’t have the Sokovia Accords, they had the Superhuman Registration Act, which required superhumans across the entire Marvel Universe to publicly reveal their identities and register with the federal government. In the comics, the whole secret identity trope is still a big deal in both storytelling and literary terms, so this was a natural dealbreaker for Cap and his side of the conflict. In the MCU, however, almost none of the characters even have secret identities. In fact, there’s no “double life” conflict of any kind in these films.

And that’s a bit of a shame, as this is one aspect of the comic superhero genre that is rather unique to it, and the Marvel films (at least to this point) have decided to forego it altogether. Eight years ago, when Tony Stark declared himself as Iron Man at the end of that first Iron Man film, I think I may have audibly groaned. They were going off book, obviously, and I could foresee this problem arising, which it has—bearing particularly bitter fruit with this film. It renders the impetus for the entire conflict rather toothless.

The Villain Problem

In the AV Club’s review, they mention that the MCU has a “villain problem,” in that none of the Marvel bad guys—outside of Loki and maybe Red Skull—have been very compelling so far. I have to disagree, as I loved Ultron, as well as Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce in Winter Soldier. (And in all fairness to Marvel, we need to keep in mind that circumstances do not allow them to use the best villain they’ve got.)

But in this specific case, I can agree with the criticism. The bad guy this go-round is Zemo—not the classic Baron Zemo we love/loathe from the comics, but a different iteration that is far less compelling. In the comics, Zemo is one of Cap’s most bitter foes, a Nazi scientist (really hard to do better than a Nazi villain) who was responsible for the death of Bucky in World War II.

Once again, they made a lot of changes to the Bucky character and his backstory in the films—changes that made the Winter Soldier story much more palatable. But in so doing, they cost themselves the opportunity to bring a classic villain to the screen. Not that this version of Zemo is terrible, but he’s nowhere near as compelling as the child-sidekick-murdering Nazi of the original comics.

Collateral Damage

Zemo’s motivations in the film are symptomatic of a larger problem: He lost his family in the Sokovia disaster and thus seeks revenge on the Avengers. The larger problem is that in a bunch of these Marvel movies (most of them, in fact), we’ve had huge battles and explosions that have caused a whole lot of collateral damage.

Now back in the glory days of comics, whenever we saw the Hulk wreck a city block, readers were told that the people were all evacuated from the area and no lives were lost. This was hardly realistic—but then again, the Hulk wasn’t a very realistic concept to begin with, so no one seriously complained. It’s a fantasy that includes cartoonish levels of violence and was never intended to be examined in such realistic terms. If you insist on doing so, or if the filmmakers insist on treating it so, the pleasure of the fantasy as a whole begins to unravel rapidly.

There’s also the issue of how much blame the Avengers actually deserve for all this damage. In the first Avengers movie, they prevented an alien invasion. In Winter Soldier, Cap and company prevented the complete destruction of our nation’s capital. And here, it’s Crossbones who sets off a suicide vest; all Scarlet Witch did was try to prevent him from using it. If she wasn’t there, the vest goes off and simply kills a different set of people. (As a sweet, little, sevenish-year-old girl observed to her mother in the theatre I was in Thursday night: “But she didn’t mean to do it!”)

The only incident you can hold anyone truly responsible for is the creation of Ultron and all the destruction that followed—and that’s all on Tony. Didn’t anyone think of prosecuting him for that?

…See, this is what happens when you start asking realistic questions about a superhero movie.

Plotholes

There were also some big plotholes with Zemo’s scheme. The biggest one: When he goes to Siberia, how can he know that Captain America and Iron Man will both follow him there and that they’ll arrive at almost exactly the same time? If Cap gets there first and destroys the videotape and captures him, his plan is ruined. (And he wouldn’t have the additional Winter Soldiers to fall back on for Plan B because he had already killed them.) It’s also a bit of a leap to assume Cap and Iron Man will fight each other once they view the tape—the Winter Soldier would also have to be a guaranteed presence there in order to properly incite Iron Man, which was even less of a given.

How did the tape even exist, anyway? Where did it come from? It seemed to show multiple angles, so there were likely multiple cameras present, all set up in perfect position to capture everything. Quite the feat.

Also, the Sokovia disaster happened just a year prior. So Zemo gathered all the necessary intel and pulled this whole plan together in a just twelve months? Again, quite the feat.

Another timeline plothole: Iron Man arrives in Siberia almost immediately after Cap and Buck, despite leaving for the site much later.

Then we have the plot contrivance of the Winter Soldier’s whereabouts. The guy’s been on the most wanted list for two years and no one can find him. But once the Vienna Conference is hit, they find him almost immediately. Basically, the plot required him to be a ghost until the plot needed him to be found. That’s weak writing.

ToS5801On the positive side—and I’m not sure this was intentional—but the frame-up of Bucky by Zemo was a nice callback to the original Cap-Shellhead throwdown in the pages of Tales of Suspense #58 (Oct. 1964), wherein the Chameleon disguised himself as Cap in order to set up the conflict. Brownie points for the creative team if this was by design.

 

Spider-Man

Ah yes, then there’s my favorite webhead. They do a fine job giving us the quipping, wisecracking hero we all love, which is an improvement over past film depictions, but it’s still far from perfect.

First the obvious: Aunt May. I realize Marisa Tomei is in her fifties now, but she still appears far too young and healthy (not to mention gorgeous and sexy) to be Aunt May. Peter’s aunt is supposed to be old, frail, and sickly, causing him no end of concern. There doesn’t appear to be much reason to worry about this Aunt May, unless Pete finds the long line of potential suitors stretching around the block to be troublesome. (Full disclosure: I would be at the front of that line.)

Then there’s the pairing with Stark/Iron Man, which doesn’t work for me. Slick, corporate playboy Tony Stark just doesn’t gel with hard-luck, nebbishy Peter Parker. Spider-Man also wouldn’t sympathize with Iron Man’s side of the conflict—which is a major flaw in both the comic and the film. Spider-Man is a loner, an outsider, and an outlaw; he just doesn’t belong on the side of the establishment, ever.

At least in the comic Spidey switched sides, which I was hoping would happen here. Imagine if it did—that Spidey switched sides, forfeiting the scholarship that Stark promised. He would have done the right thing and gotten punished for it, which would have been quintessential Spider-Man.

Of course, this may yet happen in next year’s MCU Spidey film, but I’m not holding my breath.

Too Many Heroes

This was obviously not a problem for me, but the larger audience probably had some difficulty keeping up with all these characters. As Stephen Whitty put it in his review:

The first Avengers movie had half-a-dozen superheroes. This movie doubles that, crowding the screen with so many egos in spandex we lose track, as they all jostle for our attention. They should have called it Avengers: Age of Overkill…. [T]he movie is so busy introducing characters it doesn’t have time to actually characterize them. It has to hurry along.

The second time I saw the film was on Saturday, with my mother, two of my sisters, and two nephews, and I needed to do a lot of explaining to my sisters to keep them up to speed. T’Challa’s introduction, for example, was a bit abrupt and viewers may not have made the connection that he was the guy in the panther suit later on if they weren’t already familiar with the comics. In hindsight, that Black Panther standalone film probably should have come out prior to this one.

Deeper Issues

Finally, there are the deeper and broader issues to consider. Alan Sepinwall pretty much hit on all of them in his review:

The more popular these Marvel movies get, and the more of them that get made, the bigger they’re going to be, and the more pressure there will be to use each one to set up the events of two or three more. These are all about expanding the brand as much as they are about storytelling, and while Whedon and the Russos have juggled the two tasks exceptionally well, the strain is showing. It’s going to be hard to recapture the simplicity that made the first Iron Man, the two previous Cap movies, or even the first Avengers so effective.

This harkens back to my earlier complaint about the lack of secret identities in these films. Without the secret IDs and other comic trappings, and with no attempt to hint at deeper themes of any kind, these films are just mindless action movies with characters dressed up like superheroes. The old comics these characters were drawn from actually have much more depth than this. Just as Age of Ultron failed to touch on the deeper subjects readily addressed in the comics, this movie really doesn’t get into any of the deeper waters either. I mean, it sets them up, but doesn’t explore them to the extent they could (or should) have.

Don’t get me wrong—I really loved the film, it was a tremendously fun ride. But it also could have been more than just that. It can’t be the fate of the world hanging in the balance every movie, with bigger and bigger explosions in every installment. At some point, they have to dial it back; go smaller. They need to explore deeper, more personal human issues. The best comics do precisely this.

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