Destroy All Monsters: Ideals Will Destroy Us All, And Other Things I Learned from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
A lot has been written about the broody darkness of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice; but in its way, Captain America: Civil War is the most quietly nihilistic superhero movie in years. Full disclosure: I still haven't seen BvS, and at this point I don't really see why I ever would. I've seen Civil War twice though, and think it's dandy. I'm on the Marvel side, but this isn't a comparison project, so the bias isn't important.
I think the fact that Civil War has a broad-daylight, immensely fun, line battle between all of our favourite MCU superheroes as its central set piece has a lot to do with why audiences seem to be engaging with the picture and even come away from it describing it as a good time. Those 20 minutes or so are sublime: effortlessly quippy, flawlessly designed from an action movie standpoint, and paying off (literally!) thirteen movies' worth of relationships (along with setting up several brand-new ones, most notably those involving the MCU's new, note-perfect Spider-Man). It's a masterful feat, and deserves to dominate what we think of when we think of Captain America: Civil War.
But as a whole piece, Civil War has a sense of futility about it that would seem angry if it weren't overlaid with such a profound, tragic sadness. It's also an earned sadness, if that makes sense, in that superhero stories, in comic books and in movies, are always to some degree about idealistic whys and hows of doing "the right thing."
Without ever even quoting the line, though, Civil War is the bolt-on to Spider-Man's famous mantra, "with great power comes great responsibility." Civil War responds with a question: responsibility to do what? And then, just as pointedly, the movie shows what a clusterfuck that question creates.
One of the other reasons I think Civil War has been embraced where other "fight!" movies have not is either a key piece of strategic design or one hell of a lucky break: in creating a divisive issue for its principal characters that is suitably unsolvable, Team Marvel also managed to create a film where we don't really end up disliking any of the principals for their point of view.
After all the #TeamCap and #TeamIronMan marketing run-up to the release of the film, choosing a side sort of turned out to be irrelevant: we're all #TeamAvengers, and watching them whup on each other - and trying, almost unilaterally, not to kill each other - never sours the milk of our relationship with any of these 4-colour heroes. (When one Avenger is ultimately pushed into a genuine murderous rage, it's a heartily understandable one - and made Civil War an unexpectedly worthwhile Mother's Day weekend movie!)
When I say that the problem at the core of Civil War is an unsolvable clusterfuck, I'm not really talking about the talking point re: superhero registration and the Sokovia Accords. I dunno, some kind of superheroic oversight makes sense to me, but I can also see why it could and would be misapplied.
But there's something more direct at the core of both Cap and Tony's decisions: conscience.
Cap's position is essentially this: as the wielder of the superpowered body in question, he feels that the only dictates he can truly trust with respect to how that power should be used are those of his own conscience.
It's a nicely prêt-à-porter metaphor. The resistance to government oversight can easily be read as good ol' American libertarianism, but given that we are also talking about the unique qualities of Cap's body that make him more than just an ordinary soldier, there's a "my body, my right" angle here that someone ought to tease out in more detail. Not for nothing do both female Avengers end up siding with Cap: government oversight of military actions is one thing, but government oversight of a body is a something else entirely.
Conscience is the reason why Cap mentions to Tony that he feels he has no choice but to intervene in a situation "pointed south." The demands of his conscience require him to: he can't let a bad thing happen that he has the capacity to stop.
(This is also a rejoinder to the oversimplification of Cap's purpose with respect to his friend Bucky. Many people would describe that as "Cap is just selfishly protecting his best friend." But in all interactions, Cap makes clear that he is attempting to prevent Bucky, or other people, from being killed in any attempt to lock up the Winter Soldier. In this regard, he's probably being more realistic than everyone else in the scenario.)
Tony, on the other hand, is essentially having a crisis of conscience that has been bubbling for a few films now. Not only did he design Avengers 2's titular murderbot, Ultron; he also serves as the ur-superhero for the MCU's modern age, and feels (narcissistically, of course) some sense of responsibility for all of them. "This is the course I started us on," he mentioned in Age of Ultron; and if it ends in death and destruction, it's his fault.
Of course, signing the Accords is just a passing of the conscientious buck. If an Avengers mission is someone else's responsibility besides his, Tony feels like he has a stronger case to make when, say, Sokovia falls out of the sky. But as Cap points out, it's just blame-shifting. The Sokovians would still be under the rubble.
I don't know. Is one of them right? Is one of them wrong? They're both standing on the pile of their own deeds and saying, "everything I hold to be true about my responsibilities as a person require me to make this choice."
And the movie's first point in response to this is that whenever people do this, inevitably, conflict will result. Its second point - as mouthed by the Vision early in the film - is that these inevitable conflicts will only escalate and escalate, until they are catastrophic.
There is, I suppose, a way out. Black Panther doesn't give a shit about superhero registration, one way or the other; his sense of conscience and duty compel him to avenge the death of his father by hunting down the Winter Soldier, but those same qualities also ultimately find him releasing himself from the cycle of violence and turning the other cheek.
While I doubt Black Panther (my choice for the film's breakout character; suck it, Spider-fans!) will turn into a pacifist as he transitions into his own franchise, his is a thoroughly unique endpoint for any character in this genre: realizing that the only way out of the competition is to take your ball and go home.
Naturally, in a movie called Captain America and featuring an almost entirely American cast of characters, it's the outsider guy from an idealized, made-up country who arrives at this understanding - thanks in large part to the actions of another guy from a different made-up country.
In an election year, it's an uncommonly dour thesis: that ideals are the engines that drive individuals, and then groups, into greater and greater acts of violence. As an endpoint for the power fantasies of comic books, it's a dark thought; or maybe it's just the art form growing up. Punching people seems cool when you're 12 - but adults ought to see a little farther than that.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.