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May 9, 2016

Captain America: Civil War: SummerSlam (Part 1)

You know, sometimes it’s hard to come up with subtitles for these posts (especially when there’s already a subtitle built into the title).  This was one of the harder ones, for sure.  It would’ve been easy to go with something pithy yet meaningful, like “No, You Move” or “End of the Line”.  In terms of the movie’s context, there are even more examples I could’ve pulled from.

But I decided to christen it “SummerSlam”, because within the first ten minutes -- if that -- Captain America drop kicks a dude thirty feet away, while Black Widow seems to have picked up a few moves from Rey Mysterio.  Also, the whole movie is pretty much about a big punch-up between a colorful cast of characters, so why not compare it to a major wrestling event?  Besides -- and this is the important bit -- there are a lot of moments where Captain America: Civil War becomes less of a fist-pumping spectacle and more of a brutal, painful, heart-wrenching treatise on why fighting your friends can go so wrong so fast.  We could use a little levity.

It’s fine, though.  Civil War is exactly what I wanted -- which doesn’t say good things about me, but who cares? 

Our world’s about to break
Tormented and attacked
Lost from when we wake
With no way to go back…to a time before you weren’t SPOILED by the SPOILERS in this post.

(That’s how the song goes, right?)

Okay, so here’s the setup.  Captain America is leading a team of fellow superheroes -- in this case, Black Widow, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch -- on a mission in Africa to stop some terrorists from getting their hands on a deadly chemical agent.  At the start, it seems like another routine mission; the teamwork’s on point, the bad guys get punched, and nobody dies of horrible poisoning.  Unfortunately, people do end up dying; the ringleader tries to blow himself up and take Cap with him, but Scarlet Witch steps in to help.  The problem is that she air lifts him right next to an occupied building.

Having created a national incident, the governments of the world are sick of the Avengers being at the center of one disaster after another -- even if those incidents aren’t really their fault, but screw it.  They want control, or at least some form of regulation, over the heroes.  Iron Man, having received a grim reminder of the collateral damage the crew has caused from a grieving mother (whose son was caught in the crossfire), buys wholesale into the idea, and several other heroes follow.  Cap isn’t so eager to sign on with the so-called “Sokovia Accords”, and he’s not the only one.

But of course, the team has more important things to worry about.  Bucky Barnes, AKA the Winter Soldier, is still on the loose -- and his freedom causes a whole new set of problems.  Apparently, he’s responsible for a terrorist bombing at the Accords’ signing, and his avoidance of anyone with even a shred of authority doesn’t help his case.  Cap’s willing to stick his neck out for his old pal, but once more finds himself on the wrong side of the law.  This time around, he’s got an armored Avenger on his tail, and another conspiracy to blow wide open.

So I guess before I go any further, I need to ask the big question du jour: are you “Team Cap” or “Team Iron Man”?

I thought I’d ask my brother and my buddy about their thoughts on the subject, in the hopes that we could maybe have a good and worthwhile discussion.  You know, as a way to try and see superhero movies as more than big-budget, box office-busting brawls.  To my surprise, they gave answers without hesitation: they were on Team Iron Man.  Why?  Because that was the team with the best heroes -- with a stacked deck, so to speak.  And also, that was the team Spider-Man was on. 

I didn’t exactly get the “worthwhile discussion” I was looking for.  But maybe that’s not a bad thing -- and I’ll explain why later.  But for now?  I can only speak for myself here, and I have to admit that even if I would polish Captain America’s boots with a rag made from my hair and soaked in my tears, there’s a part of me that leans toward Team Iron Man.  In terms of the big picture, it’s a way to make sure superheroes of the future as well as the present stay in check.  It’s probably not a good idea to have living weapons walking around all willy-nilly and dispensing justice as they see fit (however destructively).  So hey, maybe consolidating forces under a single banner and ruleset isn’t so bad…especially since that consolidation means being ready for threats to come.

But I’ve put some thought into it, and I have to go with my gut -- which in this case means that I side with Team Cap.  Sure, I can understand making the Avengers accountable for their actions, and made to play for a specific (and sanctioned) team.  But can the government truly be trusted to act and react to disasters as they come?  Maybe in the Marvel universe, there are times when the top brass will just say “Go, go, go!” and let the heroes roll out without getting tied up by red tape.  Still, I’d like to think that I know just enough about politics to suspect that even the most basic of processes can take more time than the average geological age.

Government regulation is proven in-universe -- in the span of the movie’s run time, if that -- to be a far cry from the rosy solution Team Iron Man would’ve hoped for.  It’s revealed that the top brass has a massive submersible fortress/prison ready for any unruly superheroes, and guess where most of Team Cap winds up?  Plus there’s the fact that they’re willing to cage up people like Scarlet Witch (who’s genuinely shaken and sorry for what she did -- which, and it must be stressed, was an accident) under the guise of “protecting her”. 

They’re willing to take away the freedoms of Earth’s mightiest heroes, and quite literally.  Who’s to say it wouldn’t stop there?  What if they ended up ordering Falcon to go spy on foreign soil from the skies above, or for Ant-Man to leave his daughter behind for some bite-sized sabotage?  What’s stopping those heroes from turning into scapegoats if something goes awry?

I guess what I’m getting at here is that there’s no clear answer.  That’s kind of a cop-out in some ways, in the sense that you’re not obligated or supposed to choose which side you’re on.  It’s not like that debate isn’t a legitimate one -- albeit one in the realm of fantasy -- but said debate doesn’t matter as much when people are willing to choose sides based on what their favorite hero decides to do.  So I guess the only way to minimize the effect of one cop-out is to go for another cop-out (which to be fair isn’t a bad thing; it’s just an expected one).  In this case, it’s about showing both sides doing some nasty stuff in pursuit of their ideals.

Iron Man and Tony Stark alike opt for some pretty grizzly stuff when the time comes.  That’s to be expected when the resident billionaire goes full tilt with hunting down whoever he thinks is a fugitive (Bucky and Cap chief among them), but let’s not even try to pretend like the First Avenger is in the clear.  From the first few minutes on, it’s established that nothing gets to our hero like Bucky, to the point where even a mention of him makes the super soldier freeze up.  Cap’s loyal to Bucky, which has been made plainly obvious over the course of three separate movies.  Honestly, I wouldn’t blame anyone that wanted to start calling him “Captain Bucky” instead.

I’m all for a character who embodies loyalty, but here it does some serious harm.  Cap ends up willingly abetting a criminal -- one that’s technically innocent for the latest terrorist attack, but I doubt there are many people who’ll let a murderer walk away with a slap on the wrist just because he was brainwashed during his other crimes.  So while Cap goes to extremes to keep his pal alive, he ends up burning a lot of bridges.  Is he willing to kill anyone that stands in his way?  Well, he hits dudes really hard, but at least he’s trying not to kill anyone on purpose.

But the question for Steve and Tony alike is “At what cost?”  How far are these two men willing to go for their ideals?  For their freedom?  For their friends?  I mean, Cap ends up pulling not one, but two family men -- Hawkeye and Ant-Man -- into a struggle that has yet to involve them, not to mention poor Falcon’s getting strung along because he’s pals with the First Avenger.  But if we’re going to point fingers at the two recruiters, let’s point at Tony for dragging a fresh-faced kid who’s literally worried about not finishing his homework from his home in Queens into an ideological (and eventually physical) debate over freedom vs. security.

I mean, sure, that kid has superhuman strength, agility, and senses.  But…Christ, Tony.  He sounds like he’s barely out of middle school.

Neither marquis superhero comes out of this movie 100% clean.  Maybe that’s the entire point; it’s cool to fight for what you believe in, but without perspective and compromise, you end up jeopardizing your efforts.  Does it really matter what side you’re on in a debate if you’re using the worst means possible to achieve them?  Cap’s not killing people, but he’s still resisting arrest, assaulting officers -- people just trying to do their jobs -- crossing borders whenever he wants, and breaking God knows how many laws along the way…well beyond the laws of his home country.  The only moral high ground he’s allowed to take is the one scraping the rooftops of hell.

Iron Man’s trying to get his comrade to do the right thing, and for a while it seems like he’s the one that audiences should believe in.  But as you’d expect from Tony “.99 BAC” Stark, his foibles and vices get the best of him.  He may start out with good intentions, and he may try to do the right thing for the sake of the world, but well before the credits roll he starts letting his emotions rule him, not his reason.  The level of anger -- and even viciousness -- he puts on display is almost frightening to watch, knowing that this is the joker that’s become the face (if not the embodiment) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  This is a man who’s willing to blast Falcon dozens of feet away with a point-blank shot to the chest during a temporary cease-fire, all because his pal Rhodey got hurt.  “It’s personal”, as they say.  And it only escalates from there.

I’d think that most people look to the Marvel movies for a chance to see superheroes fight the bad guys, fire off some snappy quips, wear snazzy costumes, and save the day.  But given what happens in Civil War, I’m kind of left wondering: are these guys really the heroes we know and love?  These are men and women that are willing to turn on each other, confine each other, deceive each other, betray each other, and pulverize each other just because they may or may not sign some papers.  Or just because they may or may not trust a super-assassin.  Or just because they may or may not like one guy instead of another. 

In that sense, maybe the movie’s central dilemma is onto something.  Maybe if the fate of the world is in the hands of a bunch of loose cannons -- and that’s before you bring in living WMDs like Hulk and Thor -- then they should have to sign Accords just to get bananas from the grocery story.  All it takes is one bad day, and now twelve separate superheroes have had that bad day.

But let me make something clear.  Yes, Civil War goes to some dark places, and it takes virtually all of its characters to some dark places.  These aren’t a bunch of costumed do-gooders fighting against a Legion of Doom; they start off as agents who take on some extreme missions, and then go from there to a bunch of vigilantes willing to do whatever it takes to bring the other side down.  They’re hardwired to beat “the bad guys”, but that definition’s a lot more muddled than what you’d see in a Superfriends episode.  The Sokovia Accords and the Winter Soldier frame-up are what impel the turn, but those are essentially catalysts for a conflict that may have been destined to happen.  They simply brought out the worst in the best of people.

That’s not a fault with this movie.  It absolutely isn’t.  I’ve established before that I have a problem with stories that try to push irredeemable monsters as heroes, but Civil War isn’t one of them.  I still believe that deep down, these people are heroes.  They want to do the right thing, but can and will go about it the wrong way -- as if, however briefly, they’ve lost their way.  But I’m fine with that for this movie.  This is something that needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.

There are a lot of ways to do a dark story.  And I’m thrilled to report that this, unequivocally, is one form of dark done right.

Yes, there are jokes -- as you’d expect from a Marvel movie.  There are lighthearted moments.  And it’s hard to dwell too much on the weight of the plot and themes when it occupies the same 2½ hour block as a brainwashed super soldier doing sick motorcycle drifting thanks to his evil robot arm.  That doesn’t make them any less appreciable, though.  It’s not a movie with wall-to-wall violence and darkness; that sounds surprising given that this is still an action movie (and one typecast as big dumb fun), but Civil War knows when it’s time to be quiet. 

It knows when to be loud.  It knows when to be hilarious.  It knows when to be somber.  It’s a movie that -- for the most part -- avoids tonal clashes, even though one scene has Cap grieving over the death of his old flame Agent Carter, and another scene has Vision trying to manage “a pinch of paprika” while dressed like a nerdy sitcom dad.

I think that it’s a proof of the movie’s confidence (and the whole studio’s, by extension) that they’re willing to have so many seemingly-disparate tones in one shot.  Well, I guess at this stage you could call it “hubris” instead of confidence, but as long as it works, I’m not complaining.  Life is full of disparate tones that clash together, so fiction should reflect that.  It’s no ironclad requirement, since the point is to use those tones to create an interesting final product, BUT in this case, it’s for the best.  You need to strike a good balance for something like Civil War, irrespective of what’s expected of a Marvel movie.  By and large, it’s about the schism and rivalries between the heroes who have battled the forces of evil for the past eight years (give or take, especially since Cap’s technically been at it a lot longer).

But what makes this movie successful, powerful, and the departure that the MCU kind of needed at this point (if not earlier) is simple: its darkness rings 100% true.  It’s honest.  It’s not dark for the sake of being dark, or “proving” something to others.  It’s dark on terms that make sense for the story and universe.  What do you do when your franchise has made an example out of countless villains established in decades’ worth of comic book canon, routinely killing them off in their first appearance and/or rendering them as goons to get smacked aside on the road to the next installment? 

Easy.  You make the heroes the villains.

You won’t see Iron Man tying a damsel in distress to some train tracks, and you won’t see Captain America threatening to blow up the ocean.  But the opposition this time isn’t against a big baddie that could stand to have a few teeth removed.  (Granted that’s a disservice to Alexander Pierce in The Winter Soldier, but work with me here.)  It’s against people that the world has known for a good while -- in some cases, the better part of a decade.  It’s against men and women who want to do the right thing, but being and doing right have gotten infinitely more complicated.  It’s against people who try, and try, and try again to get their opponents to stand down -- to do things peacefully before things spiral even further out of control.  Even before the final climactic battle people have paid to see, Tony tries to get Steve to settle things without violence.  By the book.  It doesn’t work.  They fight anyway.

And I have to say, it’s genuinely painful to watch at moments.

Thinking back, I wonder if the movie’s intended emotional reaction -- the pain of seeing heroes pushed into a battle that could, and almost does, turn lethal -- gets hampered by the fact that there’s an almost pornographic dedication to making the airport battle scene into the expected fist-pumping spectacle.  And yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who took issue with it.  But even if that scene is a joy to watch, the circumstances and context behind it isn’t.  And all the jokes and all the fun goes straight to the back shed once it’s down to the final battle between marquis heroes.

It’s like poetry in motion, really.  Cap spends the whole movie trying to keep Bucky safe and sound, even though the Winter Soldier has made enemies across the world just by being alive.  It’s troubling to see a symbol of peace and justice turn his back on so much (if only for one mission) for what’s ultimately a personal mission, no matter how noble the intentions.  But then Iron Man’s ultimately doing the same thing; he’s trying to protect Cap, and bring him back onto the right side of the law even though he does so at his own peril. 

And then Iron Man himself ends up breaking the law -- or at least going against the government and the Accords he’s vouched for personally -- to save a guy who’s made enemies across the world just by being alive.  He can’t help himself.  Neither can Cap.  We all knew going in that Tony Stark was (and still is) a flawed individual, but now there’s a spotlight on Cap that shows he’s not the perfect Boy Scout most would make him out to be.  That’s gut-wrenching in its own right; knowing that our heroes aren’t the embodiments of brilliance and nobility we’d hope for -- or desperately want to believe in -- is a sobering thought.

But it gets worse.  It gets way worse.

Tony learns firsthand that his parents were killed by the Winter Soldier back in 1991.  That was a detail I’d overlooked back in the 2014 movie, but Civil War sets it up again by having Tony’s first appearance be one where he uses a hologram to recreate one of the last moments he ever had with his family.  The other movies have shown that he’s had an iffy relationship with his folks (Iron Man 2 is a good example, though he gains newfound respect for his dad once he discovers how much he meant to Stark Sr.), so it’s only natural that it pays off here.  And boy oh boy, does it ever pay off.

Seeing Tony learn the truth -- his voiceless, pained reaction to the news -- is genuinely heartbreaking.  With Bucky in earshot of the news, the invincible Iron Man drops ALL pretenses of helping out the two super soldiers and opts to slaughter his parents’ killer.  But Cap’s not willing to let that happen, so they fight it out.  What starts as a two-on-one match becomes a one-on-one beatdown, with Bucky’s robot arm lost and his life in the balance.  And it was at that moment when the fighting became more real than it’s ever been.

The movie had been building up to it the whole time.  No words.  No reasoning.  No forgiveness.  Just two men on opposite sides of the line, ready to punch, blast, and shield slash the other into oblivion.  It’s a testament to the movie’s strength when it seems as if these people are genuinely trying to kill each other.  Even if you know (or suspect) they’ll survive because there are more movies on the docket, you can forget about that temporarily because of Civil War’s rhythm and illusions.  Cap and Iron Man beat each other senseless and bloody, using relentless offenses and heartless tricks to gain an advantage -- to get the chance to score the one move that’ll end the struggle forever.

It even reaches a point where Cap -- Captain America, the Star-Spangled Man -- thrusts his shield into Iron Man’s chest, as if he hopes to split his heart in two.  I legitimately thought that that would kill him, having forgotten that Tony cured himself at the end of Iron Man 3.  But even if the arc reactor isn’t in his chest, does that really change things?  Last time I checked, having giant metal foreign objects lodged in your body wasn’t good for business -- especially if the icon of goodness and human decency, enhanced by a long-lost miracle of science, is doing the lodging.

But that’s to be expected of this movie.  That’s a level of brutality that we’ve never really seen from this iteration of Cap, and the idea that a guy who gleefully said “I understood that reference” just four years ago would try to kill his friend is shocking -- let alone the act of it shown onscreen.  And when all’s said and done, the two heroes end up completely drained.  They’re laid out in the remains of a Siberian base, exhausted physically and mentally, and weighed down by everything that’s transpired over the past few days.  And sure, Captain America is ultimately the winner, but he won a contest where everyone’s a loser.  Being a victor brings no joy, no reward.  Only an end to what we once loved.

It’s at this point where I have to contest a certain point.  Some people and some critics are under the impression that everything is back to normal now, or there were no real gains in the story, or there were no consequences despite the fanfare (i.e. nobody died).  I respect those people and their opinions, but I have to strongly disagree.  Granted I’ll admit that they’re right to be concerned -- it’d be much too easy for Marvel Studios to drop the ball and whitewash the conflict in future outings -- but I see a movie that’s full of consequences and far-reaching implications. 

None of the heroes die in this movie.  And I’m glad; killing them off would be way too easy.

They could’ve killed off War Machine, but instead saddled him with a form of paralysis and who knows how many struggles with physical  (or mental) recovery.  They could’ve killed off the Winter Soldier, but instead they made him face his sins and give him a chance at self-sacrifice -- a chance to be a hero, however slightly.  They could’ve killed off Iron Man, but instead forced him to carry the weight of his actions and struggle with the guilt of being an Avenger.  They could’ve killed off Captain America (especially since that’s what the comics did), but instead of making him take a Unibeam to the heart, they may very well have symbolically killed him.  He leaves behind the shield -- a shield that Tony furiously claims doesn’t belong to him -- and his costume is MIA, meaning that he may not be the defender we’ve come to love the next time we see him.

And really, what’s been solved?  Nothing.  We haven’t gone back to the status quo.  The Sokovia Accords were still approved by 117 separate countries.  The heroes that didn’t sign on are basically fugitives, doubly so because Cap likely broke them out of prison.  Individually, the Avengers have to think long and hard about what they’ve done, like Vision very nearly killing a teammate despite staunchly trying to prevent a catastrophe in the first place.  Collectively, the Avengers have to think about whether or not they even want to be a team anymore, let alone friends.  And the idea that they could band together as well as they did in Civil War’s opening minutes, having blown each other up and down an airport, seems like something out of a fever dream.

This is a pivotal movie in the MCU, supported from start to finish by pivotal moments.  It should be no surprise, then, that it’s dethroned The Winter Soldier as my favorite Marvel movie…which by extension means it’s now one of my top 10 favorite movies, period.  And that’s exactly why I’m putting it right about HERE on my SmartCha-

Wait.  Hold on.  I didn’t talk about the villain of this movie, did I?  Come to think of it, I didn’t really talk about the heroes.  Crap, I’m not even close to done.  Guess I’d better hike up my britches, then.

Tune in next time, then.  Because there may be a hero in this movie I like even more than Captain America.  And to explain that, I’ll have to get in deep with ALL THE WARRIORS.


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