‘Captain America: Civil War’ Is Marvel’s ‘Empire Strikes Back’
Cap’s newest flick is a political thriller disguised as a superhero brawl
by MATTHEW GAULT
The Avengers are in shambles. Innocents died and the world no longer trusts them. Billionaire arms manufacturer-turned-walking weapon Tony Stark wants Capt. Steve Rogers to sign the Sokovia Accords.
It’s a huge document that would give the United Nations oversight over The Avengers. Stark wants it. He thinks the world’s heroes need limits, and he needs his friend and partner to sign it. So he busts out a matching set of beautiful fountain pens Franklin D. Roosevelt used to sign America into World War II.
Stark probably meant it as a gesture of goodwill; just a piece of nostalgia to push Cap in the right direction. But for Rogers, World War II isn’t something read in the history books. Rogers didn’t hear about the war from his father or grandfather. He fought the war. He remembers the Nazis, the madness and the camps.
Back at The Avengers’ mansion, Stark has told Wanda Maximoff she can’t leave. This bothers Cap. He thinks it’s a sign of things to come. “It’s internment,” he tells Stark.
“I’m doing what has to be done to avoid something worse,” Stark replies.
“You keep telling yourself that,” Rogers says. He won’t sign the accords, won’t put himself in check. And just like that, a decade of on-screen friendship is over.
Captain America and Iron Man are at odds. And everything that comes after — the deaths, the destruction and unhealable psychic wounds — begins at this moment. The moment when a child of the Cold War tries to tell a man who fought World War II what is best for America. The moment when friend tried to manipulate friend with nostalgia.
That simple break allows Marvel to tell the greatest pop-culture tragedy since The Empire Strikes Back.
Captain America: Civil War is Marvel’s latest summer superhero blockbuster. Like any good Hollywood summer action flick, it delivers on thrills, spectacle and action. But Civil War is so much more.
The film opens with The Avengers chasing down a villain in Lagos, Nigeria. The bad guy steals a nasty disease from a laboratory and the heroes stop him. But in saving the world, they accidentally kill 11 innocent humanitarian workers.
Aliens destroyed New York in The Avengers. Hydra almost leveled Washington D.C. in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Ultron — a villain Stark created — destroyed the entire Eastern European country of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron. But the 11 dead innocents in Nigeria is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The world turns against The Avengers and the United Nations puts forth the Sokovia Accords — a beefy document signed by 117 countries. The accords aim to create a metahuman registration, grant the U.N. oversight and control over The Avengers and penalizes enhanced individuals who step out of bounds.
According to the U.S. Secretary of State, the world will no longer tolerate “U.S. born enhanced individuals who cross sovereign borders to inflict their will on others.”
The accords divides the team. Half thinks the heroes need oversight and willingly sign, and the other half are wary. Civil War explores the explosive tension between the two sides.
Civil War’s themes of collateral damage and the consequences of unchecked power is one of my favorite aspects of the movie, and a much needed relief from the sub-par superhero films on the market. One month ago, Batman and Superman destroyed Gotham and Metropolis. Millions surely died, but the film waved this away and pointed to the spectacle.
Marvel’s universe contains glorious superhero spectacle, too, but it also dedicated an entire film to dealing with the geopolitical consequences of that spectacle. The actions these heroes take kill people. In war, there is always collateral damage. Innocents die no matter how justified the cause.
Stark, Rogers and the rest don’t just get to walk away from that. They don’t get to not feel guilty about murdering people. Because Marvel’s heroes must face — often literally — the families of the people who died so The Avengers could save the world. This reckoning with death makes the Marvel films darker and grittier than anything Zack Snyder could hope to achieve with his dour D.C. Comics destruction porn.
Civil War’s cast makes the heavy themes work. All the Avengers are back and they’re all great, but Robert Downey Jr. as Stark and Chris Evans as Rogers elevate the film from pulp fun to instant classic.
The movie is an international political thriller full of amazing action and crazy set pieces. But those action sequences have weight because, on a basic level, Civil War is about the personal conflict between Stark and Rogers.
Stark kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 after an IED blew up his convoy in Iraq and terrorists took him hostage. Since then, he’s been beaten half to death, almost died in space and witnessed a brutal vision of all his friends dying.
We first see Stark in Civil War demonstrating one of his failed projects for MIT students. The tool allows the user to summon up memories and alter them. He invented the tech after his parents died in a car wreck. He felt bad about how he’d treated them before they got on the road.
“All the things I did to avoid processing my grief,” he sighs. That’s telling. Stark still isn’t processing his grief. He’s a soldier drafted into a war he didn’t want to fight and shot through with post-traumatic stress disorder. He drinks, can’t keep personal relationships and experiences frequent panic attacks.
He created Ultron to keep the world safe and it made the world much worse. He wants to eliminate danger from the world by completely controlling it. He holds on so tightly to his obsession that it’s amazing he didn’t snap sooner.
Captain America is an old soldier who loves to fight. Even when he was a wimpy, scrawny kid getting beaten up in Brooklyn back alleys, he wanted to fight every fight. Cap doesn’t pick battles, he rushes headlong into every one.
He, rightly, sees the accords as a limitation on his ability to indiscriminately deliver ass-whoopings to whoever he thinks is in the wrong. The fight doesn’t effect him the way it does Stark because it’s all he’s ever known. He grew up defending himself from bullies and now only feels alive when he’s running them down.
Running behind the conflict between these two is Daniel Brühl, who as a villain the less said about the better. Critics have long bemoaned the lack of compelling villains in the Marvel universe. Aside from Loki and Ultron, Marvel’s bad guys are a rotating cast of generic action movie cliches.
Brühl is different. He is truly frightening and the most effective antagonist the Marvel universe has ever seen. I’ve been careful to avoid spoilers in this review. I think Captain America: Civil War is an incredible film that’s best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. But I want to talk about the ending now.
Captain America: Civil War is so good and so incredible because it shakes the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When good friends fight, as Stark and Rogers do, there are only two results. Either the superhero buddies slug and hug it out, or they fight for keeps, inflicting wounds that will never heal and saying things they can never take back.
Stark and Rogers’ fight in Civil War is the latter. That’s what makes this movie as impressive as The Empire Strikes Back. As the film reached its climax, I realized that it would be impossible to wrap up everything in the remaining running time.
There was no way to return to status quo. Hell, there was no status quo to return to. Rogers is a criminal now. The family Stark desperately wanted to hold together is in shambles. Captain America abandoned his shield and organized a jail break. He protected a friend he knew killed Stark’s parents. There’s no coming back from that.
For Stark to forgive Rogers, he’d first have to forgive himself, and I’m not sure that’s in Stark’s character. That’s not a cliffhanger, it’s the just way it is. There’s no plot to resolve, just a new world to adjust to.
A world where good guys lose. A world where the bad guy wins and his actions are just. A world that will never be the same.
“An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again,” Brühl says towards the end. “But one that crumbles from within. That’s dead.”
It’s the most chilling line villain dialogue since, “I am your father.”
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