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The Unfortunate Politics of Captain America: Civil War

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.





4 Responses to “The Unfortunate Politics of Captain America: Civil War”

  1. Nat says:

    I enjoyed the movie,because it was not simply an action hero movie,but one that got me and my teen and adult child thinking and talking.One walked out upset that the movie managed to make her dislike Captain America,as she did not agree with how he handled the conflict.I on the other hand felt Iron Man was too quick to give in and give up his personal liberties,and thus the responsibility for his actions,as well as the choice when and where to become involved.
    I’m sure there is a middle ground,and agree-it was not really explored in the movie,but as a parent I could not be happier that something that was fun to watch also triggered a discussion that,given our current political climate,here and abroad, is one every body should be having.

  2. Jerry says:

    I agree, a missed opportunity to delve into, the societal and political ramifications on the MCU; which would have also given depth to the impact super powered people’s have on society. The movie was great, and while I knew it would not follow the comic event strictly, I had some issues as well. I believe they could have expanded with many new characters in the airport battle. Just as Tony drafted Spiderman, they could have shown a small montage of others joining sides too. Either way, there were several key points s not addressed properly by the movie that would have made it more like Civil War and less like Cap 3. It would have been great to see a small team of Avenger wannabe’s at the beginning of the message vie make the fatal error that kick-started the registration. This could have been bolstered by the acts of Iron Man and the Avengers. The speech gven by Sharon at the funeral was nearly wod for word what Cap said to Peter Parker, a very powerful one that defined Steve Rogers’ stance in the Civil War. They could have had him give this to new signups or anyone, and it would have supported his actions and protection of his friend. Finally, the film ended with no casualties on either side to demonstrate the deep rift and ends to which one side would go. Not that I particularly wanted to see my favorite Marvel character cut down as in the comics, but it (any casualty) would be necessary for the heroes to understand there are repercussions for heir actions. Long-lasting repercussions that would help define and motivate the heroes. As it left off, there are many deaths which sem to be a statistic, or the one or two that seek revenge for the actions or failures of the Avengers. Zemo’s motivation was the same as the twins in Age of Ultron. While I did greatly enjoy the movie, it lacks only in the fact that it used the name of a great story arc without delving enough into that same story.

  3. Rosie Powell says:

    I have a few major problems with this movie. One, the whole idea behind the Sokovia Accords really makes no sense. Even if the Avengers were under government control, the possibility that innocent civilians might get hurt would still be possible. Two, it seemed as if the world is blaming the Avengers for the actions of their enemies. The only incidents that makes sense for people to get upset over were Iron Man and the Hulk’s battle in South Africa and the destruction of Sokovia. And all of this was due to Tony and Bruce’s creation of Ultron. I also noticed that Thaddeus Ross failed to mention the Hulk v. Abomination battle in Harlem. This is understandable, considering he was partially to blame for what happened. But why didn’t anyone point this out? You know . . . like Natasha? And could someone please explain why the Accords were named after Sokovia, when the incident in Lagos kick-started the international community’s decision to create them?

    Then there is the problem of Robert Downey Jr. as the movie’s main co-star. Why is he a co-star in a Captain America film? Why not simply a supporting actor? Why did Kevin Fiege and Marvel allow Downey Jr. to hijack half of Chris Evans’ third solo film? Why did a Captain America movie give as much attention to Tony’s character arc as it did to Steve Rogers? Why did the movie’s narrative featured a five-to-ten minute scene in which Tony Stark recruited Peter Parker aka Spider-Man for his team and did not bother to show how Steve recruited Clint Barton and Scott Lang?

    Why couldn’t Marvel saved the Civil War story line for an Avengers film and wrapped up Steve’s connection to HYDRA in this film? The narrative could have focused on the Winter Soldier program, allowed Helmut Zemo to remain a HYDRA agent, allowed Steve’s friendships with both Sam and Bucky to develop more and develop his relationship with Sharon Carter. Instead, the HYDRA arc was given a ridiculously rushed ending in an “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” episode that left me feeling very dissatisfied. Steve being caught in the middle between Sam and Bucky manifested into a long and stupid joke. His romance with Sharon was very rushed. And as Jerry had pointed out, Zemo’s motivation seemed like nothing more than a repeat of the Maximoff twins’ motivation against Tony in “AGE OF ULTRON”.

    The movie featured some good acting, good issues and great action sequences. But in the end, I found it rather unsatisfying and schizophrenic.

  4. Rosie Powell says:

    Captain America supports individual liberties because he wants to save his friend.

    You are in error. Steve supported individual liberties and refused to sign the Accords before the whole mess regarding Bucky came out.

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