Captain America vs. Iron Man: Justice At High Noon

civilwar

Before we get into it, I want to credit my friend Gamal with the title of this review, so if you think it’s dumb, direct all complaints to him. 

So you mean to tell me that Marvel, one of the most profitable entertainment brands, which is owned by Disney, which is not only even more profitable, but super protective when it comes to making money, made a movie in which its two biggest heroes face off in what is essentially an ideological battle? In an election year? Shit’s about to get real.

Hold your thinkpieces! Before we go off on why Iron Man is clearly Hillary Clinton, and debate whether Captain America’s politics lie closer to Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, consider the following: This is a story in which the heroes disagree so hard on a issue they decide the best way to settle the thing is to punch each other silly. And these are the good guys! Meanwhile, real politics have grown so intolerant an unapologetic racist is the Republican nominee, while movements like #BernieOrBust show people on the other side unwilling to compromise within their own political party. Dialogue is dying in American politics, and it’s giving way to dogmatic ideology. Civil War, a movie about superheroes unable to talk through their problems, had to be the most fascinating and daring blockbuster in a long, long time… right?

Sadly -very sadly- Civil War is not that movie. The movie does, indeed, begin with the introduction of the Sokovia Accord, which demands The Avengers sign off to be a United Nations-controlled group, and stop acting out with impunity, you know, so that government can get a say on when and where cities get destroyed by these world-saving heroes. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks this is a good idea, especially after being confronted by a grieving mother (played by the great Alfre Woodard, whom I hope got a big fat check for her one scene) who lost her son during the last Avengers movie’s climax. Captain America (Chris Evans), doesn’t trust the agendas of shady politicians, so he refuses to sign the deal.

This conflict essentially puts one form of fascism against another. Either you let super-powered people do whatever they want, or you let the state decide when and how those people get to use their powers. It’s tricky ground, and so the movie decides to abandon it pretty quickly and give over to a melodramatic plot about mistaken identities. You see, on the day these Sokovia Accords are to be signed, a bomb goes off killing a bunch of high-ranking officials -including the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The government think Captain America’s old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) a.k.a. The Winter Soldier is the guy behind the bombing. The Captain thinks he knows better. Bucky couldn’t have done such a thing.

Unlike the political ramifications of guaranteeing both liberty and safety in a world full of super-powered creatures, the question of whether some guy bombed a place seems incredibly simple. Either he did or he didn’t. And because Captain America is on his side and the movie bares his name, we know the guy’s innocent. Complexity and ambition give way to lame effectiveness. It’s hard to blame the filmmakers for this shift. After all, it’s far easier (and safer) to write a movie about two sides trying to find a guy before the other than it is to somehow integrate explosions in a story about complicated legislation, but wouldn’t it have been awesome if it this HAD been a movie about that?

A lot of critics have compared Civil War favorably to Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, pointing out that it’s a far tighter and coherent movie. I can’t argue with that. But those movies, imperfect as they were, not only set their sight considerably higher than Civil War, but offer pleasures this movie seems incapable of grasping.

Age of Ultron is an overstuffed philosophical treatise on the nature of super-heroes and the consequences of their actions, and explores this subject more thoroughly in one conversation between evil robot Ultron and the benevolent Vision, than Civil War does in its two-hour-plus running time. Meanwhile, Batman v. Superman is a horrible mess, yes, that nonetheless indulges in all kinds of iconic imagery, turning popular culture into religious myth. It doesn’t quite succeed, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t shoot for the stars.

What pleasures does Civil War offer? A bunch of cool action beats that are drowned out by the incompetent, chaotic direction of Anthony and Joe Russo, and a couple of amusing scenes, particularly those involving Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who are adorably excited to be part of this movie, and who are very tellingly not a big part of the main narrative. Beyond that, the movie’s big plot about whether or not Bucky is innocent is a big dud, and the action -beyond the annoying shaking camera- is hurt by a supreme lack of stakes.

The movie’s biggest set piece -the much publicized face-of between the two superheroic factions at the Leipzig airport- comes without any stakes whatsoever. When we all know that Marvel is not going to have Captain America bash in Iron Man’s face. Money-making superheroes are not actually going to kill each other, so why pretend? It’s all one big joke, with lots of wisecracking and admittedly funny, but profoundly inconsequential fights. When someone finally gets hurt, the moment lands with a thud, since it’s soon revealed that, don’t worry, the guy will be fine.

So, if this is clearly not a movie about political ideologies in conflict, then what is it actually about? The villain is one Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), and he is basically just a guy with a grudge. There is something along the lines of a mere “dude” being able to get the heroes to destroy themselves from within, which is fine, if all you want is an acceptably plotted movie and a bunch of jokes about Superheroes having to ride a VW Beetle (the guy riding in the back needs more legroom!). I know one is supposed to review the movie one has seen, and not the movie one wishes one had seen. All I’m saying is, I think my idea was cooler.

Grade: 5 out of 10

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8 comments

  1. swanpride · May 10, 2016

    I think everyone who tries to look at Civil War as a political movie is coming to it from the wrong angle from the get go. Civil War is not, like The Winter Soldier, a political thriller. It is a revenge play (without everyone being dead by the end naturally). It is a typical Shakespearean set-up, the characters, who are seemingly in power but nevertheless slowly loosing control because they fall prey to their own weaknesses.

    And even though I am firmly Team Cap, I would disagree that the movie is set up in a way that suggests that Cap is right. Cap is only right in the sense that yes, he should mistrust people with agendas and no, Cap actually doesn’t need oversight, you can always trust him to do the right thing. But he is wrong when he thinks that the Avengers in general should operate freely. That’s what Black Panther is doing, attacking Bucky with no regard for due process because he has the power to do so. That’s what Tony is doing in the end, going off the reservation and ending up trying to murder Bucky, hurting Cap badly in the process. It shows that while the Sokovia Accords were a bad idea, oversight is still something which shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

    • Conrado Falco · May 10, 2016

      Well, I think it’s fair to say the movie sets itself up as a political movie at the beginning. Sure, it’s not a political thriller, but it starts out asking questions about the Avengers’s relationship to the rest of the world, and to government bodies in particular. Also, when I say the movie agrees that Cap is right, I mean in so far as the Bucky problem. The morality of the characters isn’t really explored, with the movie deciding to focus on Bucky’s placement in the story instead. We know Cap is right about Bucky, that he didn’t do it.

      I am really interested, however, in your view of the movie as a Shakespearean play. Would you care to elaborate on that?

      • swanpride · May 11, 2016

        As a revenge play, Shakespeare just wrote a lot of them, so he is the “to go guy” for examples. For one, the characters start out in a position of power. But then they proof themselves to be “unworthy” of said power, because their humanity leads them to a tragic fate, which was kind of unavoidable in the first place. Zemo here has the role of the Three Witches in McBeth, or Cassius in Julius Cesar, the character who reveals the weak points in the “power structure” so to speak. Above all, though, everything bad which happens in the movie are the result of someone choosing revenge over justice and/or forgiveness. The explosion happens because Crossbones wants revenge for his destroyed face. Tony is pushed into accepting the accords because a mother asks who will avenge her death son. Black Panther wants to kill Bucky because he wants revenge for his father. Tony goes off the rail and wants revenge for his parents. Naturally, if this were Shakespeare, Black Panther would have killed an innocent man before realizing what he has done and Steve would then loose it completely. Civil War makes the point slightly differently by letting Black Panther realizing that revenge will lead to more destruction and Cap having enough self-restrain to NOT take off Tony’s head in the end (but I think he might have if Bucky had actually died…I think we glimpsed for the first time a dark side in Cap).

        The ending was naturally ALSO a giant nod to The Empire strikes back, with the villain winning, the heroes disconnected from each other, Bucky loosing an hand/arm and ending up frozen. But it is also how a revenge play could end if you introduce the rule that nobody is supposed to die.

      • Conrado Falco · May 11, 2016

        I see your Shakespeare connection, but as tou said, Shakespeare wrote a lot of revenge plays, and we’ve seen similar scenarios play out in movies a million times. This movie started out promising something new, so I was disappointed by how familiar it seemed at the end.

        I also don’t think Rhodey being paralyzed is a big deal at all. If they wanted real emotional stakes he should’ve died and propelled Iron Man to seek revenge that way, instead of the dead parents reveal (which is strangely similar to the motivations in BvS)

  2. The Animation Commendation · May 10, 2016

    Haven’t seen it yet, but I’m now a bit worried that the ideological battle won’t be as fulfilling as I once thought it would be.

  3. smilingldsgirl · May 11, 2016

    Honestly I just thought it was a fun movie with Steve and Tony having different points of view that made a lot of sense to me. Tony unleashed Ultron so of course he is going to be more inclined the accord and Steve has seen governments manipulate entire nations so of course he is going to be against it.
    No stakes? Rhodey is paralyzed for goodness sakes. I thought it was a blast. Batman v Superman gave no reason why Batman and Superman were at odds with each other and reached to get Lex to convince them to fight. Here you have defined reasons why there is conflict and when Tony finds out about his parents that was devastating. Much more so than Batman finding out about Superman’s Mother is named Martha.
    I guess we just like different things in superhero movies. I gave it an A because I thought the villain was annoying and the shaky cam was a bit much in the opening action. Oh well.

    • absidell · May 11, 2016

      I’ve been trying to figure out why Rhodey being paralyzed is such a huge deal. Like sure, it kind of sucks for his every day life, at least until he builds the strength to walk with the assistance of Tony’s robot leg braces. But Tony literally built the Iron Man suit to overcome a physical disability. There is NO reason Rhodey should need working legs to be War Machine. The suit can move on its own! In fact, Tony doesn’t beat Cap at the end until he lets his suit fight for him! The Rhodey paralysis seems strangely ableist to me.

      • smilingldsgirl · May 11, 2016

        Interesting take. He actually seems pretty positive at the end and maybe that is why but I just think when a character almost dies and is paralyzed you cant say there are no stakes. I think you need some movement to propel the suit upward but you could be right. Even if what you say is true Tony is a character that absorbs others problems and guilt. He’s been shown to have panic attacks and be very bothered by what happens to his friends ect. He’s going to internalize what happens to Rhodey as his fault whereas Cap might have more of the push through it attitude you have.

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