Warning: Inevitable Spoilers Below
So, let me state up front that I unambiguously enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. It’s easily the best Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, and a whole lot more engaging than Age of Ultron. It was great to see Black Panther on the big screen, and I thought Chadwick Boseman nailed his performance. Tom Holland’s very traditional Spider-Man was a complete success, vastly superior to Andrew Garfield’s emo rendering of the character. The film had a ton of things to love, including probably the best live-action superhero fight scene of all time.
My issues with it aren’t about its entertainment value, which is very high, but its politics, which are convoluted. I can only imagine how difficult a task it must to tell a story about preserving individual liberty while protecting larger, social interests without occupying positions established by contemporary American politics. To engage with these issues, you have to either occupy an existing political ground, stake out new territory, or demonstrate that the binary is false in the first place. Or, alternatively, you can try to ignore the questions you, yourself, raise, which is what this film ends up doing.
In the original Civil War crossover event in Marvel comics, on which the movie is based, Iron Man is right to worry about the public’s anxiety about unsupervised superheroes. These superheroes are more plentiful, public, and varied in their sense of civic duty than superheroes in the films. In the comics, Captain America’s assertion that heroes have to be free to follow their own moral compasses is validated when the agency overseeing heroes, S.H.I.E.L.D. adopts a merciless policy of capturing and imprisoning heroes who wish only to be free to do good.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, there is less time and space to lead up to this conflict. The films simply can’t deploy as many characters, or as much context, as the comic book universe had at its disposal. The comics offered a story about the public being genuinely and justifiably worried about a massive population of superheroes, some of whom are drunk on their own power. People die because no one is making sure superheroes use their abilities responsibly. In the comics, Captain America is 100% right – and so is Iron Man. Superheroes are unambiguously out of control, and need to be reined in. Government oversight turns out to be dangerous and corrupt, vulnerable to the same super-villainy that that heroes have been fighting for decades.
A complex political situation in which there are no easy answers? Well-meaning, thoughtful characters having to choose between two necessarily flawed extremes? Sign me up. Sadly, the movie doesn’t seem up to the task, and instead offers a story about a public outraged because the Avengers could not save absolutely everyone while saving the planet. In the cinematic universe, innocent people die not because of superhero recklessness but because superheroes simply lack the means or the power to save everyone.
The end result is that the film’s argument against government oversight ends up looking a lot like American conservative arguments in favor of individual liberty. It’s important to keep in mind that the very notion that there necessarily must be a conflict between individual liberties and government oversight is, in itself, a conservative, position. That bias is the dominant theme in Captain America: Civil War. In fact, Iron Man’s case for government oversight ends up demonstrating the “wisdom” of the American right’s party line. This view promotes the notion that it’s wrong to place individual liberty in the hands of bureaucrats, because these government functionaries are invariably either ignorant about real world conditions or too invested in their own agenda’s to care much about how policies affect people. To bolster these arguments, the right often deploy anecdotes about wronged individuals (c.f. specific civilians killed when the Avengers fight bad guys) while completely ignoring the much broader benefits of government intervention in various social or political spheres (c.f. Avengers saving everyone except the few individuals who slip through the cracks).
Now, I’m biased. I’d argue that the right, when promoting individual liberties, is often really looking to protect corporate liberties or the rights of the wealthy. The left, I believe, promotes individual liberties through advocating for civil, voting, and human rights, and sees government oversight as the best means of insuring those rights are protected. The left would argue that in real life, and as a matter of practical experience, government oversight and individual liberty need not be at odds. They can be balanced for maximum benefit to both individuals and society as a whole. The right would argue that balance is impossible and therefore you must choose one side or the other.
This is the line taken by Captain America: Civil War, which never attempts to find a balanced solution to this global non-problem. Instead, the deployment of the Avengers is to be at the discretion of the United Nations. It seems to me foolish and impractical to place global security, or the response to dangers that may be sudden and immediate, in the hands of a bunch of bickering bureaucrats. You can already see the nuclear bombs going off while diplomats shout at one another. Thus government control because a simple straw man, ready to be knocked down.
The filmmakers are clearly smart enough to understand that they’ve wandered into an ideological mess, and seem desperate to avoid asking too many challenging questions. That’s too bad, since, having brought up the subject in the first place, there’s some great material they could have used to render these positions more complex. Captain America squared off against the Nazis, and he’s seen what happens when governments become too powerful. Iron Man ought to know something about superheroes acting recklessly. Ultron, whom the Avengers prevented from destroying life on earth, was Tony Stark’s creation in the first place.
These guys have real skin in the game, but the film seems reluctant to do more than keep these issues simmering beneath the surface. Instead, arguments are petty and not terribly ideological. Captain America supports individual liberties because he wants to save his friend. Tony Stark favors government oversight because he wants to go along to get along. The original comic book universe Civil War event raised a lot of interesting questions about personal liberty and public responsibility. It managed to avoid deflect necessary comparison by real-world politics by making the politics of its story unique and specific to the Marvel Universe. The movie, however, skirts the same issues, dealing with them in such a cursory manner that comparisons to contemporary American politics are inevitable and unsatisfying.
Instead of a complex political story, the film tells a great story about characters (see this article for some insight into Tony Stark in particular), which I applaud. Action movies are too often light on complex character development. Age of Ultron, in my opinion, either ignored, or mishandled, its characters, but Captain America: Civil War moves many of the same characters forward in subtle and fascinating ways. I do think it’s unfortunate that a movie that seems poised to ask difficult political questions ends up encouraging viewers to forget it ever raised the subject . These issues would have only made the character development stronger and more compelling. The end result of its treatment of its political themes that the film presents a view of the struggle between the state and the individual that is biased, and in my (admittedly biased) opinion, wrong.