by Ian Tingen
You asked for it, I wrote it! My thoughts on Captain America: Civil War follow. There is a ton of shameless geeking out. #teamcap for life.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. LIKE THE ENTIRE MOVIE. DO NOT READ ANY MORE OF THIS PIECE UNLESS YOU’RE OKAY WITH SIGNIFICANT CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR DETAILS BEING REVEALED.
ACTUALLY, ALL THE MOVIES CAP HAS BEEN IN ARE SPOILED. SERIOUSLY, THIS THING IS A MINEFIELD IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN WATCHING.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. THRICE.
Civil War’s Captain America is a complete Captain America, my Captain America (1). Even better: this is a Captain America film, not an Avengers film (2).
The movie finishes a portrait started six years ago in First Avenger. We’ve seen that Cap will sacrifice all for those around him: remember that grenade scene in First Avenger? We’ve seen his tactical prowess save the world in the Battle of New York, leading the Avengers. Winter Soldier showcased that his belief in the goodness of people is buoyed by a healthy skepticism of power. Age of Ultron showed us Cap is worthy; he doesn’t wilt in the face of armageddon-level adversity. Still, these elements are not the full essence of Steve Rogers.
There is a constant tension underlying all of the above: the expectations others place on the stars-and-stripes, and his commitment to being Abraham Erskine’s good man. To the casual Cap critic or fan it often seems that Captain America and Steve Rogers are one and the same. Not so. Steve’s principles place him gently out of phase with the people and the world around him. He is an icon not because of his suit but because of who he is. He knows that others can be Captain America, but nobody else can be Steve Rogers.
Going into Civil War, I really wanted this tension to be explored in two ways:
1) A version of THE comic-book Civil War speech from Amazing Spider-Man #537
2) A shift in the status quo for Cap
I got both. Spectacularly. In fact, these points bookend Civil War. So let’s get to them, and what happens between!
The speech was masterfully done, and in a way I did not predict. It came from Peggy Carter. Well, from Peggy’s ghost. At her funeral. Through her niece Sharon.
For some context we need to talk about the speech in ASM #537 (3). After exposing the existence of a secret facility where heroes are held indefinitely for not complying with government registration, Spider-Man becomes a hunted criminal. Distraught after doing what he saw as the right thing, Spidey asks Cap for advice. This defining moment follows:
The cinematic analogue is just as powerful, for a different reasons. The clever inversion of using a young character (Carter) to remind an old character (Cap) of the timelessness of some ideals is a real treat for hardcore fans. In Sharon’s mouth, the sentiment is not just WWII-era rose-colored rhetoric. It’s a living truth – simultaneously generational and modern. Relevant. It’s also another great example of how the MCU updates and adapts source material masterfully.
Speaking of adaptation…
#teamblackpanther & #teamspiderman
Someone asked me for a spoiler-free review of the movie. I responded with this:
“The Russo brothers give us the best origin film ever, disguised as the third film in a franchise.”
This movie is a goddamned multi-shuttle launchpad.
Early in the film, we see Chadwick Boseman looking regal as hell as T’Challa, just one patricide away from unleashing royal whoop-ass as the modern Black Panther. Panther’s arc is not deep, but it is important: he’s a foil of passion and reason that both Iron Man and Cap’s drives are reflected against. With just enough screen time to set him up as a regal and formidable leader of the Wakandan technological paradise, my appetite for Black Panther was ravenous by the end of Civil War. I need more of this Avenger. NOW.
Speaking of amazing… perhaps even spectacular? Spider-Man is a highlight of Civil War, which is all the more impressive given that he is totally unnecessary. Spidey’s role as comic relief / tension valve could have been shouldered by Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, and any of a number of other characters would have been apt combatants.
That said, TOM HOLLAND IS THE SPIDER-MAN WE HAVE NEEDED FOR FOR A DECADE. His Spidey is powerful, young, fanboy-level-anxious, and a HUGE wiseass. He’s a kid forced into a new reality, for all it entails. A few lines with Iron Man and one perfectly-staged tarmac superhero brawl is all it takes to prove this incarnation a superior Spider-Man. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him anchor an entire phase of films based around his part of the Marvel Universe. Bring on Venom, Carnage, and Miles Morales, please!
The Knight, the Soldier, and the Assassin, or: Bro(ken) Love
I’ve been a fan of Iron Man almost as long as I’ve loved Captain America. Tony Stark is a man of singular bravado and insecurity – the perfect paradox of character necessary to build the future. In this film, Tony’s fear of failing (the plot of Iron Man 3, reinforced in Ultron) builds to a fever pitch at the worst possible time for him. Pepper has left him, Banner is MIA, and Stark finds himself financing a group responsible for saving billions of lives at the cost of thousands. Early on, these woes hit Tony simultaneously when he meets the mother of an American killed during Ultron’s rampage in Sokovia. His pain never abates, and drives his support for the Sokovia Accords, placing the self-governed Avengers under direct supervision of the UN. It’s a big move, and Tony wants his best friend Steve to come along for the ride.
Steve abandons Tony at this critical point. Steve knows that organizations can fail the people they’re supposed to serve: Hydra as S.H.I.E.L.D., anyone? He knows the unique burden of being more as both man and icon – and he doesn’t want to give up the right to define what more means for the Avengers. Steve is liberty when Tony desperately needs security – and thus the house divides. RDJ plays Tony’s vulnerability pitch perfect, doing more to humanize Iron Man than any movie before. It’s even more heartbreaking given that Chris Evans’ Cap never antagonizes Iron Man, only disagrees with him.
Of course, this is not to say that Cap feels no pain in Civil War. After spending Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron looking for his WWII-era BFF “Bucky” Barnes, the duo reunite just in time for Bucky to be framed for the murder of King T’Chaka of Wakanda. Steve, ever faithful in people, helps Bucky escape, becoming a criminal for the second time in three movies. Cap and Bucky’s success costs the rest of #teamcap their freedom, but the sacrifices are far from over at that point.
The Act 3 reveal of Bucky as the man who murdered Tony’s parents is a great twist – one engineered by Daniel Brühl’s solid-but-underused Helmut Zemo. The scene is also one that make me excited for everything The Russos, Markus & McFeely are working on for phase three. Civil War pulls off what Snyder et al attempted with the Bat and the Boyscout earlier this year: Reinvention without reformatting. How?
After learning #teamcap is indefinitely sequestered in an oceanic supermax facility, Tony’s support of the Accords recedes slightly. This, in concert with discovering Bucky’s innocence, reinvigorates his trust in Steve. Tony tracks Cap and Buck to the Soviet facility that housed the Winter Soldier and 5 other Soviet Super Soldiers. This meeting is revealed to be a plot by Zemo, a Sokovian who lost his family in Ultron. His ploy was not to destroy the Avengers with force (he notes he is ‘only a man among gods’) but to tear them apart from within. He shows the trio footage of an assassination: a Soviet-mind-controlled Bucky murders Tony’s parents in cold, cold blood.
And then: tragic magic.
Iron Man, the avatar of a particular kind of pragmatism throughout the film, loses his cool upon solving the decades-old mystery of what killed his parents. Steve, however, is silent. Tony, confused and tears in his eyes, asks: “Did you know?” Steve replies: “I didn’t know it was him.” Tony, again: “DID YOU KNOW?!” Steve: “Yes.”
Three lines, and everything we know about these characters is jumbled. The always-in-control Tony Stark is unseated from his pedestal. Steve, bastion of All Good Things, is shown to have told a significant lie of omission to his BFF. Whatever peace Tony came to broker is called off. The most dramatic fight of the movie commences, and it is clear nobody will win.
Batman V Superman spends nights alone masturbating to the idea it could have this much gravitas.
The Portrait, Finished
The three-way fight that will surely spawn a ton of slash fanfic ends with a shield splitting an Iron breastplate. Armor useless, a heartbroken Tony yells to the victor: “You don’t deserve that shield! My father made it!” Cap stops. A beat. The shield drops, and Cap and Bucky limp away.
This is what I wanted. It was the final piece of Cap that was missing in the films: his willingness to yield his role, but never his principles. In Steve, it’s clear that the man and the suit are separate – that great icons might be human, but great humans need not be icons. When Cap’s shield falls, he’s keeping his First Avenger promise to Erskine – that no matter what happens, he remain a good man.
Civil War’s next-to-last scene demonstrates that good is not necessarily simple. Tony now leads #teamironman, the new Avengers, and contemplates his pyhrric victory. A letter arrives from Steve, pledging #teamcap (he did break everyone out of jail) should Tony need their strength. Steve apologizes for hurting Tony, and laments that he (Steve) has never really felt at home anywhere – in the Army, as a civilian, as an Avenger.
If anything made me fanboy, the letter did. WILL WE SEE THE SECRET AVENGERS?! In the comics post-Civil War, Steve founds a parallel team of superheroes, working without government supervision. It’s a setup that will remain relevant across the next few years (4).
Stars and Stripes Forever
Part of the reason I am geeking out so hard in this post is that I know it’s the last time I’ll get to engage with my favorite fictional character on screen for a long time. With no Cap plans revealed beyond Civil War, nothing is cinematically certain. To be honest, I could go on for another few hundred words at least: Sebastian Stan’s Bucky is superb; Scarlett Johansson is AGAIN criminally underrated as Black Widow; Don Cheadle (War Machine) and Anthony Mackie (Falcon) are far from token Black superfriends…
Suffice it to say that Civil War shakes up the now 13-film (!) MCU in a believable, bountiful action-drama. As ever, there will be countless pieces in the coming months and years questioning if superhero films have run their course. Ignore them.
Conflict breeds strength, and Marvel has just successfully undertaken a War.
(1) I’ve been a Captain America fan for a long time. An impoverished nerdling of the early 90’s, I looked for ways to avoid the strife, fear, and hunger of my day-to-day. Arcade games proved ample stimulation, even if I lacked quarters. I often would watch the games’ attract mode (the loops they play to attract attention) for long periods of time. At the bowling alley where my mother occasionally smoked half-days away, there was a small arcade. In it was Fatal Fury (another inspiration, for another article), some pinball machines and… Data East’s 1991 Captain America and the Avengers.
I knew about Cap before, but had never seen him like this: leading a team of heroes against the forces of the Red Skull. It didn’t quite square with the Reb Brown version of Cap I had seen on the weekend movies playing on network TV, but I didn’t care. CAATA Cap was dynamic. A leader. Brave.
To see CAATA’s attract mode, watch until 2:16. To see why I was fascinated with the game, watch through 5:45. See how you get a comic panel before the level? See the civilians running away from the dangerous villains behind them? Amazing. And then there’s that digitized rallying cry: AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!
Pay special attention from 4:48 to 5:45 – the cadence of the boss battles is cheesy-dramatic as hell, and still sticks in my mind today. Villain monologues? A shift to intense music when the boss is almost dead? HELL YES. THROW THAT SHIELD. GET IT.
CAATA and Capcom’s Aliens vs. Predator are the roadmaps for the beat-em-up project I have waiting in the wings. Anyone wanna make a game?
(2) Captain America: Civil War is not Avengers 2.5. If anything, after watching the marathon, I am convinced that (at least thematically) Avengers films are actually Cap.5 films. Viewed in order, Avengers feels very First Avenger 1.5 and Age of Ultron is clearly Winter Soldier 2.5. I wonder if it would feel so cohesive slotting in the Iron Man films, though I doubt it.
(3) For the rest of the discussion, which is awesome, check this link at lowbrowcomics.
(4) Captain America stories are best when his tension reflects the tension in our country. I have no doubt Cap and the Secret Avengers will be timely no matter what happens come November.