This post is part review, part confession. I don’t have the best relationship with the Marvel franchise. Enamored by the first Thor film, my enthusiasm gradually wore off until it was dealt a painful blow by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film that dashed my expectations, turning a story billed as a discussion of power and centralization into a story that taught me the ever-relevant lesson “don’t trust Nazis.” My Marvel cynicism grew deeper, hitting its lowest point with Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel films were white noise— always present in the box office, but unremarkable.
That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by Captain America: Civil War.
The film had its flaws. It carried the usual Marvel burden of having too many superheroes with too many clever retorts and witticisms. The massive 6 on 6 battle in the airport was almost entirely unneeded and exhausting.
Nevertheless, the movie wasn’t just good— it challenged and even redeemed many of the problems in previous Marvel films. There were three main points of improvement: the introduction of a compelling moral conflict and resolution, moral weight, and the testing of Tony Stark’s character.
One of the most frustrating things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that the conflicts held little moral consequence. So often the conflict was set up as an unreasonable (often pseudo-religious) villain who threatened to destroy the world, galaxy, or in some cases, universe. This tension leaves little to consider. After all, when considering a sacrifice of, well, nearly anything, next to the entire universe, there is not really much of a decision to make. You save all of reality every time. The movie has no room for failure, because if they fail, everything, including the franchise, is gone.
What I mean to say is that the destruction of the world is a boring concept. It’s too easy to think about.
In Civil War, however, the conflict isn’t the universe, or even the world, ending. The conflict is a relational one. Every other Marvel film served to unite and bring people together. This one dealt with what would tear people apart.
A moral discussion set in a framework that could possibly fail creates the ability to have both sides of the conflict make sense. Stark’s camp is right: oversight is needed and innocent bodies have been piling up from Avengers actions. Captain America’s camp is right as well: Bucky needs to stand fair trial, and UN oversight would destroy the active ability of the superheroes, rendering them useless. This kind of conflict is a real one, one similar to those that we face in our current political discussions. By placing real issues at the heart of the film, Civil War inherits moral weight, making the film more profound, more engaging, and more serious than its MCU predecessors.
Another firm moral discussion the film probes is the justifiable nature of revenge. The film not only operates as a wholesale condemnation of vengeance, but the theme is carried far enough to subvert traditional tropes about ironic justice. As Baron Zemo, no longer able to continue his vengeful course, places a gun to his head to take his own life, conventional film wisdom would have him pull the trigger, allowing the story to take its vengeful course so that the protagonist wouldn’t have to. T’Challa, however, intervenes to save the life of Zemo, not even allowing the viewer the catharsis of vengeance.
Secondly, the film finally gives emotional weight to the Marvel universe. The MCU has always had strong characters. The people who inhabit the Hydra, SHIELD, and Asgard are colorful and interesting. Regrettably, however, the Marvel story writers seem to have their hands tied behind their backs when figuring out what to do with these characters.
Making good plot decisions with characters requires sacrifice, vulnerability, and often destruction. When entire movie series are based off of people involved in your story line, you don’t have the artistic freedom to make wise character decisions. For example: if Thor makes a horrible, disgusting decision, the blot on his character could mar future films, potentially harming the productivity of an entire franchise. As a result, character decisions become stale, stagnate, and predictable.
Civil War, however, breaks this pattern. Because it is set in a fleshed out conflict, the characters make fleshed out decisions. The final, snowy fight scene between Captain America, Bucky, and Iron Man (thanks in part to Henry Jackman’s score) achieves am emotional power that was previously unreachable by the Marvel Universe. The splitting of the Avengers, the near-death (it would have been a much better complete death) of War Machine, and the irreconcilable hatred between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers leaves the film in a place that is far, far different than where it started. It comes to a conclusion.
A particularly compelling theme in the film is the testing of Tony Stark’s character. Previously, Stark, an arrogant jerk, always evaded the consequences of his actions. His defiance to authority, his devil-may-care attitude, and his irresponsible decisions (like creating an apocalyptic world-ending AI, a fault that he gets little if any condemnation for) always work out for the best, or at least have negligible harm. This kept Stark’s character in a stasis. He remained static, and I expected no change. After all, his arrogance was part of his appeal: he appealed to our love of a powerful figure who defies the big wigs and profits nonetheless.
But in an unexpected turn, Marvel decided to finally bring Stark face to face with the consequences of his decisions, including a scene where he is berated and condemned by the mother of a dead bystander to one of the Avenger’s world-saving operations. Stark makes definitive, character-altering decisions that impact his relationship to himself and to others. These decisions are finally not decisions he can science his way out of or teamwork his way around. He has to live with the consequences of his decisions.
For these reasons (and others) I am admitting that I was wrong. Marvel made a good movie that wasn’t Thor. Marvel fleshed out characters that I thought commercial markets had deemed to remain skeletal, blockbuster pushing devices, and I am grateful. Sadly, most likely the next few films will destroy the conclusions reached in this film by bringing the characters back together, back into the comfortable status quo. But then again, I was wrong once, maybe I’ll be wrong again.