Some may find it a little silly to ascribe deeper meanings to a movie like “Captain America: Civil War,” which after is meant primarily to be a source of entertainment and profit, a summer blockbuster to maintain ongoing Marvel franchises and jumpstart new ones.
On the other hand, his name is Captain America . . .
It’s hard not to see the red, white and blue superhero as a stand-in for American values, sometimes even if that means standing against American policy; the last film in the series, “Winter Soldier,” put Cap on the wrong site of government forces who wanted unlimited power to spy on ordinary citizens, and assassinate them remotely if necessary.
“Civil War” is interesting because it continues a conversation that’s been going on both inside and outside of superhero movies over the last few years. Essentially it boils down to collateral damage – what do the powerful owe to the powerless? What do the saviors owe to the saved? The answers “Civil War” offers up are interesting – and not a little disquieting.
This debate over collateral damage began in the first “Avengers” movie and, over at DC, “Man of Steel,” in which cities became battlegrounds for good vs. evil, citizens fleeing in terror as skyscrapers toppled in CGI glory. “Man of Steel” was particularly targeted by some critics, with Superman seemingly showing indifference to the almost certain suffering of victims on the ground.
The second “Avengers” movie, “Age of Ultron,” explicitly rebuked “Man of Steel” by showing its heroes spending time in the middle of battle evacuating innocent Sokovians as Ultron lifted their city into the air. Then “Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” did its own sort of commentary – Batman’s rage at Superman is fueled by the destruction wrought in “Man of Steel,” and in particular the loss of life at his own Wayne Enterprises.
Now comes “Civil War,” which arises from the same moral gray areas. In the exciting opening sequences, Captain America and his team are in Lagos, Nigeria trying to stop the supervillain Crossbones from stealing a biological agent that could cause mass casualties. They succeed, but when the Crossbones turns himself into a human bomb, Scarlet Witch errs in trying to telekinetically move the bomb out of harm’s way. It explodes in an office building, killing 11 and wounding more.
The Avengers are blamed for not preventing the casualties, and, adding this to the carnage in Sokovia and New York City, governments around the world push the group to make themselves subservient to the United Nations, a weapon to be used rather than an independent force. The movie does a good job showing the different arguments for and against the move (Iron Man is for, Captain America is against), but there does seem to be an underlying whiff of ingratitude here. Us puny humans are upset that the Avengers didn’t save the world enough.
It’s an idea we see again and again in the film. A mother (Alfre Woodard) tells Iron Man that he murdered his son, who died during the fighting in “Ultron.” The film’s major bad guy Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is motivated by grief at losing his family in the same fight. In both cases, the actual villains who started the fight are rarely if ever mentioned. It’s left to the viewer to fill in that blank space and say “Hey, c’mon!”
Which is what we’re led to say, because Captain America and the Avengers are too noble to do so. That’s the part about “Civil War” that bothers me a little. Because it’s not hard to extrapolate from that to defending America’s actions around the world with a similar “Hey, they started it!” mindset. Wars begun on false pretenses, civil liberties violated, innocents killed in drone strikes? Hey, they started it.
It’s interesting that, just down the hall from where “Civil War” was playing, audiences could still see “Eye in the Sky,” a tense thriller about the closed-door arguments over whether to launch a drone strike in Nairobi that would definitely kill terrorists, but might kill innocents as well.
That film presented all sides of the argument very persuasively, and didn’t let the audience off the hook with easy platitudes or obvious villains. Instead, we saw how different versions of the “truth” could exist uneasily side by side, each perfectly valid. “Eye in the Sky” didn’t give us any answers, but subtly reminded us that we need to take ownership of the questions, since what our politicians are doing is in our name, for our protection.
Meanwhile, Captain America tells Scarlet Witch in the film something to the effect of “We can’t save everybody, and if we don’t learn to live with that, maybe we won’t be able to save anybody.” There’s something about that “for the greater good” argument that’s a little pat, a little smug in a way I didn’t like to see in a Captain America film, which have been the most thoughtful of the Marvel universe.
Which is not to say that we expect our heroes to be perfect, or to not make mistakes. They’re more interesting when they do. But when they do, it brings them closer to being human, and it seems like they ought to take the opportunity to deal with the consequences in a more substantive, human way.