The Russos blew me away with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), somehow managing to deliver enough twists that it remained fresh. Whilst Civil War isn’t as strong, it still has enough high points that it stands up as a worthy successor in the franchise. There are a lot of elements to balance here, yet somehow, it mostly works.
Despite questions of whether this is more an Avengers or Captain America film (the poster essentially suggests the actual title is Civil War: Captain America), the answer is clear: it’s a Captain America film. The subject matter feels right in line with the mid-00s grittiness and real world superheroes in the real world felt in Brubaker’s run and the action aesthetic the Russos brought to The Winter Soldier, whilst drawing together threads from The First Avenger (2011) and The Winter Soldier: Cap’s friendship with Bucky; Peggy as an old woman; Steve’s relationship with Sharon, and his missions with the Falcon and Black Widow.
The original Civil War (2006) was America centric: its politics drew on Bush and the Patriot Act; battles were unleashed on New York City. Sokovia becomes our stand-in for Stamford. Hundreds of citizens are decimated, including a teenage student out volunteering, who falls victim to the rubble, a la the teenage Speedball in the comic. Here, the tragedy becomes less of one at home. Where The Winter Soldier modelled itself on 1970s political thrillers, drawing on anxieties around government and internal conspiracies, whereas Civil War reflects a more modern form – the international thriller, with perhaps a slice of Jason Bourne, shifting between NYC, London, Vienna, Bucharest, Lagos, a German airport and Wakanda, transported between each by a hipstery establishing shot.
The politics are different: issues easily brushed aside in comics are called into question. American heroes are responsible for the deaths of Eastern Europeans. The Scarlet Witch stays in Avengers HQ as an illegal alien, without a Visa, and could easily be deported if she leaves. Peter can’t go to Germany – he’s a teenager from Queens in an insecure financial situation with May, having to steal DVD players and old computers from the trash – of course he doesn’t have a passport.
The fight with Crossbones in Nigeria raises just as many questions as Iron Man and the Hulk demolishing buildings in Johannesburg in Age of Ultron (2015) did around colonialism – can the white man (in particular America), even in the best of intentions, intervene in an international situation?
Yet despite the international narrative, there’s a missed opportunity to feature smaller characters: no international heroes, like Captain Britain or the Winter Guard; no Netflix heroes; no Doctor Strange prior to his solo introduction. The answers to this is easy: money, economic storytelling, big names. Yet whilst the comic had a massive universe of heroes to deal with, with the space to unfold over a 7 issue series, and hundreds of issues of supplementary series, here it needs to be crammed into 3 hours.
The battle that defines the civil war is pitiful, closer to small team battles between groups of X-Men than the massive free-for-all of the comic. For many of the characters there’s a sense of inexperience: either they’ve not met before, not fought before, or this is their first appearance. Rather than involving and suspenseful, it’s a series of gags. Ant-Man is the everyman, acting as if he were still working at Baskin Robbins, fanboying over Captain America. The appearance of Giant-Man doesn’t feel as tactical as Ant-Man shrinking down – it looks ridiculous, as if he were Thomas the Tank Engine destroying a house. Spider-Man’s only real power seems to be cracking jokes, making allusions to the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as he brings Ant-Man down.
And yet, I still love Spider-Man. I’m very excited to see how he handles a solo film within this universe. As much as I liked Sony’s prior interpretations of him, Andrew Garfield was too old looking; the continuity with his parents did get a bit too much. Even as The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) tried to present him as an introvert and an outcast, it still somehow managed to turn him into a skater kid with a hot girlfriend.
Whilst The Amazing Spider-Man gave us some good explanations for how he built his tech, the explanation here feels way more natural and believable for a teenage character. He feels much more modern, turning Queens into a hip place, complete with cool music and headphones. Where in The Amazing Spider-Man he used YouTube as a tool merely in learning how science works whilst building his tech (complete with ordering wetsuits), here he uses it as a performance artist, essentially, creating a sense of the viral video in the same world where Spider-Man parkour became a viral video; an introverted character turns to the internet where he can express himself, yet still in relative anonymity. Maybe it’s the New York setting, but I’m reminded of Casey Neistat, sans drone, sans Boosted board: getting up to all this awesome, showy off stuff.
Tony’s bribing of Peter with the Iron Spider becomes more believable: he’s an easily manipulated teenager, rather than a 20 or 30 something convinced to stand against his superhero friends.
There’s an entire political spectrum within the concept of a civil war: Iron Man, as Republican, and Captain America and his allies as Democrat (remember the other red vs. blue fight this year?). Captain America’s position makes a lot of sense. In the comics, whilst he represents a symbol of the US military and government, he never condones it, speaking out against both Nixon and Reagan. In the original Civil War comic, he became a fugitive, on the run from SHIELD, as explored in The Winter Soldier.
Captain America wants individual freedom and equality, whereas Tony wants to control everything. Yet in another way, Cap is the Republican, whilst Iron Man is the Democrat. Cap is interested in a private Avengers, removed from government control, whereas Iron Man wants everything under legal and direct control.
Iron Man becomes the villain of the piece, edging closer to his portrayal in the original comic. He saw what he had done in Ultron; now, he sees what he has done in Captain America. He spawned an entire series of popular films making more money than him, pissed at how successful Cap’s films have become. The first hero of the modern age, unable to deal with the number of heroes that have followed him; we’re never invited to pick a side. As the film develops, Iron Man’s position becomes less and less convincing. War Machine is his lackey, but the other heroes by his side aren’t given enough time to convince us of their position.
There are a lot of threads tied in from the comics here, and threads from the previous Avengers films: the Scarlet Witch as an uncontrollable, volatile force owes (Avengers Disassembled, House of M), whilst the idea of multiple Winter Soldiers has precedent with Brubaker’s run. But perhaps the most interesting thread is Howard Stark.
From the moment I saw the date 1991, I knew what was going to happen. I just wish it didn’t. Though it ties in both interpersonal and real world politics, creating a tension between Steve and Tony, the tension should have came from elsewhere. In the context of the Cold War, it frames the Winter Soldier as a final effort of the USSR before it fell, carrying out assassinations in the United States. Yet it also falls into the “everything is connected!” philosophy that pervades the worst of fan fiction and the Wolverine cameo in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).
Where The Winter Soldier could be entered easily by the casual viewer, regardless of their exposure to The First Avenger or the other films in the universe, Civil War perhaps isn’t the best entry point for the casual viewer. Yet despite this, it’s still high up there.