The authors of Civil War, the six-month-long 2006 comic book Crossover Event, conceived it as a conscious metaphor for Contemporary American Politics at the time. For a lot of reasons, their metaphor was never very good, or much more than a thin excuse to have all our favorite heroes fight each other – the kind of extreme stretch that would’ve given people shoulder-sprains if we comic book fans weren’t so used to our heroes throwing down on the thinnest possible pretexts.
A true Marvel Metaphor for Contemporary American Politics in the first decade of the 2000s. would’ve involved a bunch of complete nobodies – the kind of one-off civilian criminals who usually get smacked down on Page Two, like AIM or someone – circumventing the entire superhero community in order to blow up…let’s say, the Baxter Building, where the Fantastic Four live. With all four inside. A fitting metaphor for any of the Fantastic Four movies we have to date. Instead of tracking down the people responsible, the majority of Avengers (like, 90% of them) should’ve invaded the country Dr. Doom rules over, Latveria, on an ill-concieved vengeance trip they should’ve all rationalized as a act of liberating the poor, downtrodden Latverian populace. A tiny minority of heroes should’ve conscientiously objected to “Operation Latverian Freedom,” and the rest should’ve branded those holdouts “pussies,” “traitors,” “cowards” and “Doom Sympathizers,” before dismissing them completely as non-people. Once they’d deposed Doom, the Avengers should’ve stayed in Latveria, tried their hand at “nation building,” and turned the entire population against them through ignorance of the local language, utter contempt for local customs, and complete disregard for collateral damage…especially once everyone’s Rogues Galleries decided to join the party.
Meanwhile, back home, someone should’ve asked Captain America (who would, of course, be pursuing the real killers with what resources he could scrape together on the fly), “Why do you hate America?” And he should’ve responded with Ripley’s question, from Aliens: “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?” Falcon should’ve told him, “Yes…but your generation wasn’t exactly the greatest either, dude. No matter what Tom Brokaw says.” And then some Reed Richards from an alternate dimension should’ve popped through a hole in space-time and solved this entire stupid mess for everyone, because that’s just how he rolls. Or he should’ve turned out to be the Ultimate Villain, because that’s also how he rolls sometimes. Would it have been worse than Norman Osborne’s tenure as Director of SHIELD? I don’t think so.
Of course, today’s film is no metaphor for Contemporary American Politics in any year. Hell, Age of Ultron’s a much better fit for that bill. It’s subtext about the dangers of drone warfare, run by computer programs written by crazy narcissists who love machines much, much, much more than they love people was so close to surface, it became actual text. Instead, in Civil War-The-Film, the United Nations, pissed off at all the collateral damage in the last two Avengers movies, the last Captain America movie, and the opening action scene of this one, finally pass a resolution meant to saddle the Avengers with civilian oversight. Funnily enough, none of the collateral damage Thor and the Dark Elves caused at the end of Thor 2 rates a mention, I guess because Thor 2 “only” made half a billion dollars. Because if you can’t make a whole billion, why make any at all? Right?
In our world, civilian oversight boards are the thing cops hate the most – for exactly the reason Captain America articulates early in the film. Everybody knows civies are ignorant daytripers at best, more concerned with politicking than with Getting The Damn Job Done at worst. No matter what, they’re another layer of bureaucracy between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, tying the Good Guys hands while letting the Bad Guys walk free. If I really wanted to, I could tease this line out into a 5000 word essay about how the Avengers (and superheroes in general) are just like all those racist cops in Ferguson, NYC, and even my own Fair City of Stumptown. The Atlantic would probably buy it from me for 10 cents a word, as long as I concluding by implying we comic book fans are really all just a pack of fascist apologists, stuck in perpetual adolescence because our parents loved us too much. Thankfully, I’m not a hack. Or, at least, I’m not that kind of hack.
And besides, this isn’t our world. This is the world of Captain America: Civil War. Proposed alternate titles include: “Captain America: A Minor Scuffle Over a Really Dumb Misunderstanding,” “Captain America: We’re Too Chickenshit to Make a Black Panther Movie Yet, So We Hope This Tides You Over” and “Captain America: A Two-and-A-Half-Hour Trailer For the Next Four Movies In This Universe. Including Spider-Man. You Still Love Spider-Man, Right? Well, Now He’s Back, and Twice as Quippy.” Thanks, but if I have to watch the Death and Life of Gwen Stacy again, I’m going to wake up miles away from home with a splitting headache, a big appetite, no shoes, and no shirt. Apologies to my fellow movie-goers in advance.
The movie I wanted to see is in here, buried under a mountain of extraneous crap. We get a taste of it at the beginning, in Lagos, with Cap and Widow giving Wanda some on-the-job training in the hero game as they try to stop Crossbones from stealing something out of the Infectious Disease Center. But since that ends with Wanda accidentally taking a chunk out of a building full of civies, we don’t get any more of the movie I actually wanted to see until this one’s almost over.
This, it seems, is The Last Straw. The Powers That Be (whomever they are in this dimension, now that they’re no longer Hydra) are sick of the Avengers being a wholly-owned subsidiary of Stark Industries. Secretary of State “Thunderbolt” Ross even comes to the Upstate Compound to deliver an ultimatum personally: submit to UN oversight, or be branded crazed vigilantes…ya know, like most of the Avengers already are and always have been. Is anybody worried about the fact known Hydra agents were trying to start their own plague collection? No? That’s never gonna come up again, is it? Okay, fine…
I was gonna go on a whole rant about how unbelievable it was for General Ross to fail upward all the way to the top of the State Department. The last time we saw him (almost a decade ago, sweet Kansan Jesus), he was not only failing to capture the Hulk, he was failing to notice one of his own subordinates slowly turning into an Evil Hulk right under his nose. And failing to stop the two of them from leveling that chunk of Harlem everyone’s arguing over in Luke Cage’s Netflix show…But I can’t go on that rant anymore, because my country’s current Secretary of State is the former CEO of ExxonMobile. Which, during his tenure, sold oil to Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Russia, and a lot of countries that aren’t on our national shit-list, but probably should be. And no one cares, because he’s rich and old and white and President Worms-In-His-Brain likes him. That’s what I call “living a life on Easy Mode.”
Secretary Ross presents Our Heroes with the Sokovia Accords and the Avengers immediately fall into arguing over the merits of politicians telling them where to go and what to do. Tony’s all for it, which I guess counts as character development for a man who, six movies ago, was trying to privatize world peace. But the last government organization Captain America answered to turned out to be full-to-bursting with neo-Nazis – another fact no one brings up here, for some reason – not even Steve. Maybe he would have, but he has to go run off to London to attend Peggy Carter’s funeral. Yeah, remember Cap’s love interest from his first movie? The one everyone liked so much, she got her own TV show? That ABC then canceled for reasons that are too stupid to go into here? Yeah, she dies in this movie. Off screen. But it’s okay – Cap immediately hooks up with her hot grand-niece, Sharon, who’s also a super-spy. Remember the one that was spying on him from across the hall in his last solo movie? Because there’s nothing weird about that, no sir. (It’s only slightly less weird than what happened in 1990’s Captain America, where Cap hooked up with his original love interest’s daughter.)
Also, let the record show I totally called the in-universe explanation for why Pepper Potts isn’t around these days: she bounced Tony’s trifling ass to the curb after he took back his 2013 Christmas present. With any luck, she’s back in Malibu right now, cold running shit at Stark Industries by day and helping the helpless by night with her new fire powers and/or her own suit. Of course, the “real” world explanation is that Gwyneth Paltrow (rightly) wanted star-level wages to appear these films, and Marvel only offered her love-interest wages. But let’s forget about that, too – Black Panther’s here. Finally.
It’s funny: I’ve lived long enough to watch T’Challa go from “the first black superhero in comics – a triumph of positive representation” to “an insulting foreign stereotype we should all point and laugh at” and back to “triumph of positive representation” again. Nice to see him reach the level Daredevil and Thor achieved in the late-80s, when CBS put out two Incredible Hulk movies that doubled as backdoor pilots for Thor and Daredevil shows…that never got picked up. Hey, remember back in 2011, when Marvel just went, “Boom – Thor movie. Deal with it fuckers?” Or back in 2003, when Marvel and 20th Century Fox went, “Boom – Daredevil movie! Deal with it fuckers.” (Except that movie was conspicuously edited down to a PG-13, so it was more like, “Deal with it fu[censored]ers!” Glad the days of shit like that happening are behind us!) What could be so different about Black Panther? What might make Marvel so concerned about just going ahead and releasing his solo film that they felt the need to put a prequel to it in the middle of this one? I just..ya know…I just don’t know what it could be…
These days, T’Challa’s about the closest thing Marvel has to Batman – aside from Tony Stark. And the Batman is strong in this incarnation, since we actually get to meet Black Panther’s father…and, along with T’Challa, watch him die when someone bombs the big Sakovia Accord Signing Party in Vienna. Nothing to do but suit up and go after the person everyone thinks is responsible – Captain America’s old friend, Bucky – the Winter Soldier.
Thankfully for Cap’s conscience, Bucky’s been framed. By another survivor of Avengers 2. Mad props to Colonel (nee-Baron) Zemo for (a) not being Yet Another Evil Tony Stark and (b) having a decent Evil Plan that, for once, almost works. Best Evil Plan since Evil Robert Redford’s plan, from Captain America 2, in fact: tear the Avengers apart by using Cap’s loyalty to Buck against everyone else. Easy enough when you can also use Buck against himself with a few keywords from the old Soviet brainwashing manual.
So Cap rejects everyone’s calls for him to stand down and let the combined anti-terrorism forces of the world catch Bucky on their own. This brings him afoul of Black Panther, so all we fans can finally see T’Challa put a handful of scratches down the face of Cap’s shield. Falcon and Sharon, naturally, join Cap’s cause to actually figure out what the hell’s going on, along with Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch. Tony, in what must be a fit of the DTs, insists on Letting the Process Work, and forms his own splinter-team with Widow, War Machine, Vision, and Spidey Mark 3, to try and punch Captain America into his way of thinking – always a great idea. Oh, and Hawkeye stops by San Francisco to pick up Ant-Man, too. It’s almost like I’m watching Avengers 3 two years ahead of schedule…oh wait. Fuck.
Sing it with me once again folks, now and forever: too many characters, not enough time. And, in this case, barely enough story to go around. We do spend some time with Vision and Wanda as they play the get-to-know-each-other game. I guess their ending up on opposite sides of this War counts as a stress-test of their relationship. And I like how Hawkeye remains one of the most fun Hawkeyes in the multiverse. Benefits of being rebuilt from scratch for these movies…Let’s see…what else did I like?
Evil Me: Spider-Man?
…eh. Better than the last two. At least in live action. I’m not going to complain about how damn quippy he is, because we, his fans, expect a certain amount of quippage per fight…but he has even less to do with the rest of this plot than T’Challa.
Evil Me: But did you see that one shot of Spider-Man with Captain America’s shield?
No, because there’s no way your colleagues put it in every goddamn trailer they put out. There’s a grand total of one exchange I actually like.
Evil Me: Queens?
Brooklyn. Yes. That one. And when he pauses to remark on how cool Bucky’s cyborg arm is…but Bucky’s so damn taciturn, even when he isn’t under the influence, I can’t really call that an “exchange,” now can I?
Evil Me: You can do whatever you want. Don’t you see? There are no rules! My colleagues released Avengers 3 two years early and made over a billion dollars. And we’re going to do it again next year. And the year after that. And all you willing fools will line up to see it. Who cares about the on-going character arcs of these…puppets?
Evil Me: You don’t count, you freak. You never have. Don’t you see? You thought the popularity of these films reflected some great sea change in the philosophical make-up of your world, yes?
Evil Me: Little did you know, it was all branding and market saturation. Become so huge, you displace all your competitors, both in the market – and, more importantly – in your consumers so-called minds. Think about it: there are comic fans out there who’ve never known a world where crossovers didn’t interrupt the story every six months. Some have never even read a single-issue story in their lives. And there are many, many more of them than there are of you.
Doesn’t make it right.
Evil Me: Well, look at you, pretending you’re God’s Righteous Man. And unlike some, I actually can physically throw up in my mouth.
Well, you go do that while I finish this review. Without insulting anyone, hopefully.
Evil Me: Oh, please. You know your tender comrades will take everything you say personally. The least little difference of opinion is all it takes to make you attack each other. You’re as vicious and hypocritical as the mortal gods you worship.
So our two competing teams of Avengers wind up having a big fight at a decorously-evacuated airport in Hamburg, Germany. Cap and Bucky get away, everyone else gets to show off, and the only real casualty is poor ol’ Col. James Rhodes. It took a movie and half (and one re-casting) to get him in his suit, which was promptly stolen in the next movie. He disappeared halfway through Avengers 2, and only appears halfway through this…for no other purpose than to backup Tony and get his back broken when Vision accidentally blasts him…hmm…friendly fire. Could this be a metaphor for the inherently self-destructive nature of everything Tony Stark sets his hands to? Making Iron Man set off an arms race that led directly to Extremis and Ultron. Making his own team leads directly to his BFF landing in leg braces, and most of his other former-friends landing in The Raft – a secret prison for superpowered beings someone (probably the US, since Ross seems to have the run of the place) runs out of the Indian Ocean.
That’s the other thing I like: Hawkeye’s line when Tony walks in on their cellblock, looking for the climactic battle’s location. “The futurist is here! He sees all! He knows what’s best for you…whether you like it or not.” But now that Rhody’s a candidate for the MANTIS armor, Tony’s actually looked at the evidence Cap was trying to show him before their big fight, so Clint gives up the goods, and we’re off. To Siberia, where the Soviet section of Hydra kept Bucky on ice for all those years. And where Col. Zemo’s waiting to drop the last shocking plot-twist on everyone: Bucky killed Tony’s parents back in the early-90s.
Thank god for that little plot cul-de-sac in Iron Man 2, where Tony reconciled with his dead dad’s memory. Now he and Cap can haul Zemo back to civilization and…oh, wait. No. Now Tony can try to kill Bucky because Bucky killed his mom. Whom we’re suddenly supposed to care about. I barely care about Bucky, and he was the tragic villain of his last film…and this one. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of Tony’s mom until…well, the beginning of this film. And even then, we only see her because Tony’s premiering his newest bastard child of science and technology: a VR headset that lets you live out your memories in glorious, photo-realistic 3D…like an e-meter…Hey, why isn’t Tony a Scientologist yet? That would be an easy get for them. Unlike so many of us, Tony’s actually seen the aliens. They’ve spoken to him personally, thrown him out of his own windows, and he’s had dog fights with ’em through the streets of New York and everything.
Evil Me: You’re distracting yourself.
Because this whole ending is pointless and stupid. Except for the part where Black Panther figures everything out, actually brings Zemo in, and volunteers to take Bucky off of everyone else’s hands. That’s nice. But the rest of this a pointless, time-wasting, clock-punching stop-gap measure, so cynical it makes Diogenes’ ghost cry. They did this to sunder Our Heroes from each other so they can waste the first have of Avengers 3 Getting the Band Back Together. They did this for name recognition inherent in its title, and the billion-dollar payday they knew that would generate, even before they put Spider-Man in it.
All of which takes me back to two years ago, when everyone was bitching and moaning about the seemingly-endless deluge of superhero origin stories. (Two or three a year counts as an endless deluge when you think they’re the death knell of Cinema Itself). Well, surprise, assholes. Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers 2 made a billion each and, almost overnight, single character origins became a thing of the past. It’s all team-up movies all the time, now. Especially since Marvel comics used this film as an excuse to put on Civil War 2. I expect the films to steal that title before too awful long, and make another film that has no relation to comics besides brand recognition.
Evil Me: Wait…What about Dr. Strange…?
…hey, ya know what? For once, you’re right.