“The Child and The Toybox”: Captain America: Civil War

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As I perhaps rather meanly remarked to my sister who took me to see it, “It’s the best Avengers film yet.”

Let’s not mince any words here. No matter what is said, what is discussed or who says it, Captain America: Civil War will be a commercial and most likely critical success. 13 films in, even with the constant tinkering and refinement, there’s simply too much production investment and formulaic story-telling for any Marvel film to be anything less than average. The biggest shock at this point would be if no one went to see a Marvel movie, and it was also terrible. So with that out-of-the-way, its time to actually look under the hood and see what’s going on in here.

I’m no huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the two exceptions being Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man), and I was certainly no fan of the previous film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The faux politicking, the plodding and hammy plot combined with essentially the least colorful (metaphorically) characters in the Marvel Universe (really most of the film is about guys in muted blue/greys fighting each other) did nothing to convince me of the apparent excellence of it.

This film, Civil War however is arguably the best “straight” film to have come out of the MCU. When I say straight I mean a film primarily dedicated to “action-adventure” not “action-comedy” as say Guardians or Ant-Man is. It’s plot and thematic elements are interesting enough (even though they’re the same themes found in Batman vs. Superman, which all seem to stem from Alan Moore’s Watchmen). The battle between oversight versus individual liberty is a question which can be answered pretty easily (Hint: It’s don’t let any one person have the unlimited authority to do anything they think is right), but is still fun enough to ground a movie, and give cause to the supposed “civil war”. Luckily, since the politics involved are all rather creaky, when it exhausts and abandons this train of thought (as a rated BBFC 12 superhero must do if it ever tries to ask a serious question), it falls back on the familiar ground of personal vengeance and murdered parents, something I can only describe as “The Batman” mode of storytelling. It’s the right move in comparison to The Winter Soldier, which carried its flaky politics all the way through to its flabby and weak ending (hardcore fascism is defeated by dissolving any oversight, rather than say just having an Internal Affairs department.) It’s a cliché, but that’s okay, because there are far worse things to use in films than well-known truths or devices.

So thematically, it carries easily the greatest gravitas on any Marvel film to date, simply because it turns over the one rock that all superheroes and vigilantes awkwardly face, “why do you get to act above the law and get off scott free causing collateral deaths?”. But really it all seems to be used as a way to get everyone to go globetrotting and fight each other but not really because they’re all friends. A Civil War this is not. This is essentially two friends falling out in high school, and asking their friends to take sides. The big climactic fight scene can only be explained through an allegory I am making up right now.

THE CHILD AND THE TOYBOX

The real set piece of the film, the meat of the dish so to speak, is the [spoiler] scene where Team Captain America fights Team Tony Stark. They’re fighting each other essentially with the training wheels on. Neither party wants to hurt the other, Captain America is trying to chase the real villain, Iron Man is trying to stop Captain America because he doesn’t know who the real villain is and thinks its Bucky/The Winter Soldier. So the people who like Iron Man try to stop the people who like Captain America.

When I was a child, I had many a number of toys. Superheroes, film characters, wrestlers, animals, my sister’s toys, it didn’t matter. We just had a toy box. So when I pulled toys out to play with, often I would make them fight each other. Toys from all different fictional worlds, it didn’t matter, they would all just have a big bust up. They would fight and kick and punch and slam together, rocketing around the room as they had the greatest fight ever. A good visual reference might be this old video I saw a very long time ago.

And so it went. But the thing that would happen, when I would launch my toys at each other, was that eventually they would break. And suddenly it wasn’t so much fun, because real damage had occurred to a toy I owned.

That’s essentially the mechanic every Marvel film indulges in, but this one takes it too its logical extreme. Except for the last part. All the cool characters gather to have a fight, and they all have an extremely compelling and fun to watch fight. It’s the visual externalisation of that childhood fantasy of watching all your favourite characters battle it out to see who will be the winner. Of course, like any childhood fantasy, it tells realism to promptly fuck off in the name of entertainment, and this is perhaps why the film works so well. Because its entertaining and as a result, fun. It’s witty without being incessant (the Avengers films spring to mind), it’s humour is honest and to a degree innocent, and just like a childhood fantasy, its damage is limited to essentially the least favourite character.

Don Cheadle’s (who is the second addition to the list of “Why are all the best people playing bit parts”, the first being Paul Rudd as Ant-Man in this film) character, War Machine, takes a tumble and by the end of the film we see him in physical therapy trying to learn how to walk again. The real issue of course, is that no real harm can come to the main players of this entire franchise, which is only growing increasingly larger. Each film they batter down cardboard villains whilst jeopardising the main players, and transferring the actual consequences onto foils. This is exactly the same problem that Avengers: Age Of Ultron had. Quicksilver, who is introduced in the film before promptly being killed off, is meant to be the emotional stand up, the one who reminds everyone that these superheroes exist in a real world where their actions matter. And that’s also the large thrust of Civil War. Tony Stark is upset because the events of AoU lay heavy on his shoulders, while a woman explains that a building falling on her boy during the climactic fight in AoU is somehow directly the fault of Iron Man himself, asking who will “avenge his death”.

Hell the entire villain of this film, easily the best villain Marvel films have had (while also reminding me very much of the much better villain of the Sony Marvel production X-Men 2, William Stryker) is a direct consequence of the actions of the previous consequence-less romp. His family was killed by the city drop in AoU (God just keeping up with all these happenings is exhausting).

What I’m saying is the film seems to be aware of its own dissonance, it is a film exploring the consequences of superheroes, by having them essentially have another consequence-less romp through the globe. It almost works as a self-reflexive inner retreat, as if their violence and actions suddenly become okay or just less problematic if they decide to fight each other instead of other people. That way at least they’re not directly hurting anyone (even if they destroy millions of pounds worth of property). I think in essence, the film is caught between the child mind, and the adult mind. When Tony Stark and Captain America engage in the final fight, it seems inevitable that one will kill the other, just by going too far. In fact I did think that had occurred at one point, as Captain America digs his shield into the machine that keeps Iron Man’s heart going. But no, Captain America leaves and Iron Man doesn’t chase him and they become kind of friends by the end.

There’s no toys really breaking, just a relentless thrashing of child-like play fighting that has been going on now for 13 movies. And that’s entertaining, but its incomplete. We can’t stay in paradise forever. Sooner or later, someone has to wedge some truth into this increasingly schizophrenic superhero medium, it’s only getting increasingly maddening to see. This purgatory of relentless stake raising combined with lack of meaning, forever deeming the superheroes to constantly question if the world needs them, only to face a foe they have to defeat at the expense of one person/1000 persons/a city/a planet/who knows what else, which then leads to everyone decrying them and then rinse repeat.There’s no progress, it’s the definition of insanity.

You could argue that I’ve gone down the rabbit hole too far, that I’m over-analysing what is essentially a kid’s movie, but it’s not! It’s about personal responsibility and societal oversight and the conflict of personal vendettas against law-abiding actions and government conspiracies and my god it’s not exactly a Saturday Morning Cartoon here. This is heavy stuff, so I can try to switch my childhood passive consumptive brain on, but my adult brain can’t stop prodding me awake. It’s just crazy.

Then again, so is watching 10+ people in crazy costumes pummel the crap out of each other. But it sure is fun.

Anyway in short Paul Rudd is the best thing about this movie and everyone should go watch Ant-Man.

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– Alex

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“The Child and The Toybox”: Captain America: Civil War