Set after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War shows a world in which the civilian population has suffered catastrophe after catastrophe. Alien invasions, plummeting cities, general super-powered destruction and death.
In order to deal with growing public outrage at collateral damage, the UN takes control of the Avengers. Those who sign up can only intervene in situations when instructed. Those who refuse to sign are arrested, or forced to retire.
Captain America (and friends) end up on the other side from Iron Man (and different friends). While they fight over philosophical differences, future Nazis search for cryogenically-frozen super-soldiers.
I was a little worried, going into it, that this third instalment of Captain America would have the same problems as other third instalments tend to – they add too many villains, or attempt to modernise, or just get too over-the-top and confused..
Civil War seemed more likely than most to fall into this, because it’s a cross-over/mash-up. Marvel keeps trying to link all of their franchises together, an idea I’m doubtful of. Too many links between too many wildly disparate properties will get ridiculous and unwieldy. But they persist – it’s clearly making them money – and Civil War is the latest example of the trend; it’s not a film focused solely on Captain America, with bit-parts for other heroes, it’s an ensemble cast with Captain America as the primary protagonist.
The integration is actually a strong point in the film. There are a lot of heroes involved, some new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and their various characters and motivations are slotted in without it feeling rushed or chaotic. Most of the characters from the Avengers films feature, and Ant-man gets to join in with the others. The Black Panther, and Spider-man both make an appearance from their (not yet created) own films.
I really liked the new Spiderman; Andrew Garfield wasn’t my favourite (I felt he captured the character less well than Toby Maguire) but Tom Holland is a return to form. He manages the wide-eyed innocence and slightly irritating wisecracking well, marrying the tones of the rather miserable Civil War and his own franchise effectively. It could have been jarring, to have a younger, more light-hearted hero involved with all the others, but it wasn’t.
The film is action-packed, with lots, and lots, of combat. All the characters get to show off all their powers, and there’s a lot of spectacle. It’s also, despite an overall sombre tone, sometimes very funny – Ant-man and Spiderman are particularly well used as comic relief. Overall, I enjoyed it, I thought it was well-made, and it managed not to get bogged down in its own scale.
I did have one major issue with the film though. It’s about a civil war, a battle between characters we’ve seen as heroes in film after film, and it dropped the ball. If you’re going to show us two heroes fighting on opposite sides, then those sides both need to be equally justifiable.
That wasn’t really the case here. One side is sadly aware that combating terrorists and alien invasions might sometimes involve civilian deaths. They feel bad about that, but continue to try and stop the invasions, on the grounds that some accidental deaths are better than everyone dead or enslaved by evil elves.
The other side seems to completely forget that the superhero actions have been in response to attacks. They agonise over the death of a single charity worker, forgetting that the other option was “everyone dies”. Because of these civilian deaths, the second side in the conflict takes a radical position – superhero activity must be monitored and controlled. And that, for some reason, has to involve kill-on-sight orders, indefinite detention without trial, and a massive disrespect not just for the rule of law, but for the entire concept of it.
I get that Civil War is based on one of the most famous Marvel storylines ever. And I get that the debate between freedom and security is a divisive one with substantial merit on both sides. It is, after all, the heart of the whole gun control thing. It’s more than possible to present two sides with valid justifications, allowing both sets of heroes to be heroes who disagree, rather than one side veering sharply villain-wards.
Captain America doesn’t sign the agreement. He refuses to be bound by the UN, only intervening where and when they say. That’s a valid position. Throughout the resultant combat, he works hard to limit the damage he causes to his former team-mates, as do the others on his side.
In contrast, Tony Stark does sign the agreement. He then, as mentioned above, does a whole host of things that are indefensible, no matter what side of the argument you fall on. The “pro-order” side of the war use incredibly powerful weapons against their former friends, are prepared to use lethal force (in a universe in which that only happens to faceless grunts – that’s not exactly good, but the rules of the universe have been set up like this for a while), laugh at the concept of giving accused people trials or lawyers, and generally act exactly like the villains they have fought in their previous films.
Again, it’s possible to present two valid sides here. The film seems to think it has – both sides frequently apologise, despite the worst crime of one lot being “not omnipotent” and the worst crime of the other lot being “all the human rights abuses”. It’s presented as though there is a valid policy problem at the heart of it all, but that’s not true.
The actual policy problem is glossed over, coming out rather garbled in a few short conversations. What takes centre-stage are the methods used by each side. Tony Stark, who has spent his own films throwing off government restrictions (to a frankly ridiculous degree) is now seemingly okay with not incredibly authoritarian practices, but with killing his own friends for disagreeing. That, it should be noted, is the exact thing that the villains do in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
I’m not advocating that super-heroes run amok and unchecked. Neither is Captain America – he wants safeguards built in to the new legal framework, and is seemingly prepared to sign if he gets them. Again, it’s like gun control – there should be some level of oversight, and I’d argue that that level should be a severe one. But just like unchecked libertarianism, there are levels of authoritarianism that are dangerous and unjustifiable.
Civil War is a war about conflict. It’s about two sides, each one filled with well-intentioned characters who the audience already thinks of as good. Both sides have strong philosophical justifications for their stances. And the film takes that set-up, which could have been fascinating, and makes one side way more evil than the other. Worse than that, the film doesn’t even seem to notice what it has done. Right up until the end, they’re asking you to sympathise with the ones who have done an awful lot of terrible things.
It’s clumsy. It takes a fascinating idea, and fails to explore it. It’s a glaring problem in a film that is otherwise very polished and slick. The action, the characters, the plot – all of these work well together. The underlying idea, the underpinning conflict – that’s a problem.