Film Review: “Captain America: Civil War”

Warning:  Spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve long thought that the Captain America parts of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) are the most artistically, narratively, and philosophically mature, and Captain America:  Civil War proves to be no exception. As is the case with the best superhero films, it asks the thorny questions, such as:  at what point does vengeance slip from justified into outright murder? What is the line between the individual conscience and the collective good?

The plot, in brief, is this. Tony Stark/Iron Man still feels conflicted over the events that happened in the previous film, in which the Avengers managed to foil Ultron (the AI system created by Stark that unfortunately went rogue), in his attempt to literally destroy the entire planet. While they saved the world, the Avengers also inadvertently killed several bystanders. Civil War opens with another unfortunate incident of collateral damage, which leads the UN to want to leash the Avengers through a set of legal injunctions. Cap and Tony find themselves divided on this issue, as with so much else, and the rift soon spreads to the others as well. Black Widow, Vision, War Machine, and the newly introduced Spider-Man and Black Panther align with Team Stark; Falcon, Ant-Man, Bucky, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch align with Team Cap.

This conflict intersects with the return of the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes, who has at last begun to reclaim a measure of his own identity and sanity after the brutal events of the last Captain America film. Unfortunately, it is gradually revealed that is responsible for a number of important deaths, including that of Tony’s parents. The three men, and the rest of the Avengers, are actually being manipulated by Helmut Zemo, a survivor of Sokovia whose family was killed during their foiling of Ultron’s plan. While the three leads survive their titanic final clash, the rift remains largely unhealed as the credits roll.

I have heard this film referred to as a male weepie, and that is certainly an accurate description. Each of the three primary heroes has good reason(s) to feel as they do, even as we also recognize that it is their own stubborn belief in their rightness that is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. It is hard not to feel for each of them, as we know (even better than they do), all of the trials that have endured and how much baggage they continue to carry. It’s also hard not to feel a mingled sense of sadness and uncomfortable exhilaration as the three of them battle it out in the frozen wastes of Siberia.

The fraught relationship(s) among the three leads is troubling precisely because it intersects with the larger political and philosophical questions the film raises. And it is even more troubling because of how irresolvable they are. Should superheroes be subject to the stricter rules by the government, especially when their rise seems to cause that of the villains and threats they are then called on to confront? Is Tony justified in wanting to kill Bucky for the death of his parents, even though he was not in his right mind while he did it? These questions, like all of those asked in the Captain America films, resist the easy answers that the genre seemingly provides, precisely because the various opposing answers are equally valid. As always, the film ultimately denies us a satisfactory conclusion.

While the primary conflict is, of course, between Cap and Tony, and while the primary (b)romance is between Bucky and Cap, the supporting players are given plenty to do. Each of them must ultimately choose which side of this rift they are going to occupy, and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch are extraordinary in this regard. Both Scarlet Johansson and Elizabeth Olsen shine in their respective roles, though (as is unfortunately all too usual in the MCU), they are criminally underused in this film. It still confounds me that Black Widow has so far been denied her own stand-alone film, but hopefully that will change as the MCU makes a more concerted and genuine effort to diversify its offerings.

The two newcomers that enter the stage at this point deserve especial merit. Tom Holland as Spider-Man is truly one of the breakout stars in this film, as he manages to bring out just the right blend of nerdy and sassy. He is clearly star-struck by being in the presence of these magnificent superheroes who have been his own role models, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of his fighting ability. Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther likewise delivers a star-worthy performance, combining a resolute sort of honour with an ability to adapt. I know that I, for one, am really looking forward to the release of his own films (2018 can’t get here soon enough!)

The fight scenes are carried off with characteristic aplomb. I’m always struck by the strong bodily response these films elicit, as they encourage a feeling that through these antics the spectator can achieve a similar measure of bodily (super)agency. These superheroes are, in a way, our own bodily ideals sold to us

There are also a few moments of genuine sadness, as when we learn that Agent Peggy Carter has passed away in her sleep. While this is not shown on-screen, we are left in no doubt as to the effect this has on Cap, who clearly carried a torch for his former compatriot. Equally sad is Tony Stark’s regret over his adolescent petulance toward his parents on the night that they died, a traumatic memory that clearly casts a shadow even into the present. Both instances, different as they are, remain potent reminders of the central humanity of these superheroes, and a troubling reminder of how much gets left behind in their efforts to make the world a better place.

In the end, though, Captain America:  Civil War also leaves us with a troubling question. Are the Avengers really performing a service for the human race (as the surface narrative would suggest), or are they actually giving birth to the very forces that so frequently threaten the world and that they must then contend with? The question is actually posed by Vision who, as the sole nonhuman voice in the film, actually possesses a measure of intellectual and emotional distance from the events and their consequences. This is a question that the Avengers will continue to struggle with, and the fact that it is ultimately irresolvable may be the greatest hurdle they will have to collectively overcome.

It remains to be seen whether they will be able to do so.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron”: A Melodramatic Myth for the Anthropocene

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ll be the first to admit a fair amount of skepticism going into Avengers:  Age of Ultron.  While I am, as a rule, a fan of superhero films, and while I believe that Marvel films in particular are often far more complex and nuanced in their address than might appear obvious at first blush, I am also not a particular fan of Joss Whedon, who I find something of a pretentious (if talented) bore.  Further, I found the first Avengers film to be compelling but not groundbreaking in any meaningful way (though it was highly entertaining).

Fortunately for me, this film managed to trump its predecessor in almost every way imaginable.

Of course, per the usual, it has all of the explosions and titanic battle scenes that have become a staple of the Marvel films, lightly leavened with snappy dialogue and witty repartee between the various characters (Black Widow particularly excels at this).  And, there’s even a little bit of a love plot thrown in, as Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk continue to develop their (perhaps ultimately doomed) relationship.  Each of the characters remains haunted by their pasts and their futures, and it is precisely the fear of future failure that leads everyone’s favourite playboy/philanthropist/bad boy Tony Stark/Iron Man to set in motion the process that ultimately creates Ultron, an AI whose daddy issues ultimately lead him to attempt to destroy humanity.

What struck me as I watched this film was how intensely melodramatic it was.  Of course, melodrama is, it seems, built into the very DNA of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in this film it seemed to take on mythic dimension, as the film articulates a remarkably (and troublingly) reflective take on the brink of destruction.  As Ultron (played with a memorable and menacing growl by the inimitable James Spader) remarks, humans excel at creating the very thing that will ultimately destroy and supplant them.  Just as human parents beget the children that will eventually take over their role on this mortal coil, so Ultron has decided to take it upon himself to rid the earth of the meddlesome, murky, and ultimately destructive presence of humanity.  The fact that he doesn’t succeed in doing so doesn’t really lessen the bite of his caustic remark, which is troubling precisely because it is true; the nature of organic life is, indeed, predicated precisely on change, on a constant sense that our own individual lives on this planet are finite, that our descendants are biologically intended to replace us.  To me, this was one of the most frightening moments on the film, precisely because it cuts through all of the bombast and hyperbole typically associated with this genre to hit at a point that we, as a species, constantly try to forget.

Further, a profound sense of melodramatic melancholy haunts this film, as each of the key characters struggles to find that space of innocence that scholar Linda Williams is key to the ways in which melodrama functions as an affective mode of storytelling.  So much of this film remains predicated on the “too late” moments; it’s too late for Bruce and Black Widow, Iron Man remains haunted by the possibility that he will be too late to save his companions, that he will in fact be to blame for the death of everyone and everything he has come to care about.  These moments are, of course, coupled with “on time” moments:  Hawkeye’s family and his bucolic house in the countryside are saved; Black Widow is saved from Ultron (don’t get me started on the way in which she is basically reduced to a damsel in distress); and, of course, humanity is ultimately saved from absolute extinction.

And yet, for all that the film strenuously wants us to believe that saving the world is the ultimately goal, the most terrifying thing about the vision articulated by Ultron is that, unfortunately, he’s right.  We as a species have pretty much brought the world as we know it to the brink of ecological, environmental, and biological catastrophe (we are living in the anthropocene, after all), and one can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe, the dropping of the city of Sokovia onto Earth (thus triggering a mass extinction of humanity) wouldn’t be such a bad thing, after all.  Of course, the film does everything in its formidable power to disavow this possibility, in the process suggesting that it is not, indeed, too late for the collective us in the audience to do something to save our world from its own doom.  As a species and as a culture, we desperately, one might say hysterically, desire to return to some world of pre-lapsarian grace, when we still had a sense of control over own destiny, when we were not faced so imminently, and perhaps inevitably, with our own destruction (one could even say that the anthropocene is one big “too late” moment).

What emerges from this film, finally, is a stirring melodrama that actually manages to perfect that sensibility into something approaching the emotional heights of Greek myth.  Unlike the Greeks, however, who set their myths in their remote past so as to make sense of their own present, the Marvel films present us with the uncomfortable knowledge that the world onscreen is very much like our own; the possibility of our own imminent destruction, no matter how much we try to disavow it, always intrudes on the affective bounds of the film.

Indeed, the final credits unfold against a backdrop of titanic figures doing battle, a potent reminder of the stakes involved in the film that we have just seen.  And yet, like any great myth, Avengers:  Age of Ultron confronts us with some of the most unpleasant truths and facts about our own culture.  Rather than dismissing it as just another blockbuster piece of junk, I find it valuable to think through what the film can do when thought about as a complex piece of filmmaking with something important to say.  What say you, readers?  Do films like this have something important to say about our present world?  Sound off in the comments below.