As much as I like the Watchmen as a standalone piece of work, I often dislike what it has done to the landscape of comic books. Before Watchmen it was easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys. The bad guys were the ones trying to destroy/take over the world/country/city and the good guys were the ones trying to stop them. Sure there were the occasional battles where hero was fighting hero but they always fell under either the “I thought you were the bad guy! No, I thought YOU were the bad guy!” or “please stop me, I’m being mind controlled” scenarios. Even a grim hero like Batman had a pretty impressive morality.
Watchmen changed all that. The best of the characters in that series had flawed moralities with flawed goals. While this was certainly more realistic, it was not nearly as satisfying. It did not happen overnight but the rest of the comic book universes slowly followed suit and it became steadily more common for heroes to have complex moralities, goals and agendas that could throw them into conflict not only with the villains in their world but also the heroes. This is far more interesting and challenging, but not always as entertaining.
Which brings us to Civil War. I wasn’t reading a lot of comics when the storyline was first published and pretty much skipped it all. About the only thing I can really say about it is that I found it amusing that the non-mutant heroes suddenly cared about something that mutants had been dealing with for 25 years or so. The Avengers Initiative was just the Mutant Registration Act in a different and expanded form. Not that I didn’t have an opinion on the matter. I’m definitely on Team Cap. I think people should be able to follow their conscience to do good and that too many laws simply limit the good that can be done. Actually, when I think about it, I’m always on Captain America’s side. It’s hard to argue against a paragon of morality. The best you can usually do is argue that while he’s morally correct, his views are too naïve. There are a few rules of the Marvel Universe that are (almost) always true: Hulk is strongest there is, nothing can stop the Juggernaut and if you’re opposed to Captain America, you’re on the wrong side.
So, I wasn’t looking forward to Captain America: Civil War. Although it wasn’t just because I wasn’t particularly interested in the theme. One of the flaws of Avengers: Age of Ultron that only made it a good movie and not a great movie was that there were simply too many heroes. As long as it was, there was no time to focus on any of the heroes or villains and it was difficult to care about them. Civil War crammed even more heroes on the screen and I assumed it would be more of the same.
I would say I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the movie. But that would be an understatement. In actuality, Age of Ultron made me wonder if the days of awesome Marvel movies were coming to an end and I thought there was a good chance that Civil War would just be the next step on that path to mediocrity. Instead, Civil War convinced me that Age of Ultron was just a bump in the road of awesome.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the basic plot revolves around a disagreement between Captain America and Iron Man over the course that the Avengers should take going forward. Tony thinks that the kind of power the Avengers wield should have some outside oversight. Steve thinks that outside oversight will eventually lead to morally questionable usage of that power.
Like most questions of morality, both sides have merit. On the one hand, that much power in too few hands is a recipe for tyranny. After all, many of the villains in both the comics and the movies are just tyrants with too much power. On the other hand, dispersing the power into too many hands means that it can take too long to be used for good and that there are simply more agendas vying to use it. It’s been proven time and again that people can be convinced to do terrible things if they feel like someone in authority is telling them to do it. And authorities can tell people to do terrible things simply because they aren’t doing those things themselves.
Much of the difference in opinions between Tony and Steve has grown out of their own personal experiences and the writers have done a good job having the movies that have gone before lead up to this moment. Since the Avengers Tony has been trying to get a handle on the changed world he now lives in, a world he did a great deal in shaping, whether he wanted to or not. As is pointed out in Civil War, since Tony became Iron Man, the number of enhanced humans has grown exponentially as has the threats that require those enhanced humans to stop them. Between the massive destruction in New York and Sokovia, all too often it is ordinary humans who suffer in these conflicts. In fact, the destruction in Sokovia was a direct result of Tony’s attempt to prevent these kinds of events. Ultron grew out of his desire to shield the Earth from all potential threats and, like all such plans, the control put in place proved excessive.
Steve, on the other hand, is still recovering from learning that his old friend Bucky Barnes is actually alive and has been a brainwashed Soviet assassin for the better part of a century. To say they share history is an understatement. Even without the fact that they are both men out of their times, they grew up together and went to war together. That, alone is enough to make them best friends. Bucky is a prime example of how a super powered being can be forced to perform acts of evil by a bureaucracy. Add to that the fact that Steve just discovered that an organization he, and the whole world trusted, S.H.I.E.L.D. was riddled with traitors and was actually largely just a front for HYDRA and it is entirely understandable why he might not trust centralized authority.
All heady stuff but the movie glosses over a great deal of this philosophical discussion. While much of the first half of the movie involves the two sides acting on behalf of their stated ideal, almost from the beginning, their choices are made based on their personal views about the Winter Soldier. By the end, the battle lines are almost entirely drawn based on how the characters feel about Bucky and his history.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While questions of philosophy can be interesting, they’re not always entertaining and the issues with Bucky keep the debate from being theoretical and gives focus to the movie. One of the problems with Age of Ultron was that there was little focus on any characters. There are half again as many heroes in Civil War so drilling down to the personal feelings of the two main protagonists, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, turns what could be a sprawling, aimless plot into something the audience really cares about.
Even though the focus is on 3 of the characters, the remaining characters aren’t ignored and their development isn’t rushed. Black Widow and Black Panther both play prominent roles and often seem much wiser than either of the main two protagonists. Natasha understands both sides of the argument and, for the most part, simply tries to reason with both sides to prevent the inevitable clash and its repercussions. She seems to understand, better than anyone else, that the collateral damage both sides are trying to avoid is only going to be exacerbated when their conflict comes to a head. Black Panther begins simply wanting revenge but by the end realizes how dangerous that path can be and how self-destructive following that obsession can get.
Falcon and War Machine also play prominent roles. While they’re firmly in sidekick territory for their respective main protagonists, they are not simply extensions of Captain America and Iron Man. They support their friends but don’t simply sign off on their decisions, with their own opinions and motivations firmly displayed.
Though they don’t get as much air time, the relationship between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, that any fan of the comics knows is coming, continues to develop. Both of them are outsiders, the Vision because he is the only android in the world and Scarlet Witch because she’s a mu…I mean, because she has powers that she doesn’t understand and can’t control. Vision clearly has feelings for Scarlet Witch and it seems like she, in turn, is surprised to find she has feelings for him. Both have nice moments where they wrestle with who and what they are and they help each other find answers to those questions.
Hawkeye and Ant-Man both have even smaller roles, but don’t feel overlooked. Hawkeye is starting to be that character who keeps getting pulled out of retirement when disaster strikes. Like most characters who fall into this cliché, he’s pulled back in mostly because he wants to be but is torn because he doesn’t want to want to be. While he clearly loves his family, he can’t give up the excitement of the super hero life. Ant-Man’s is on the other end of the spectrum and his career is just starting. He still has a sense of wonder about the larger than life world he’s stepped into and is the semi-bumbling newbie who gets by on what appears to be luck but is actually creativity and skill.
And speaking of newbies, the Amazing Spider-Man that shows up in Civil War is the best one that has appeared on a screen in a decade. Exuberant, uncertain and with a serious case of verbal diarrhea, he’s much more likeable than any of the moping sad sacks that have been in the last three solo movies for the character. Whether or not this version of the character could carry an entire movie by himself is debatable since much of the depth of the character comes from that moping, but he’s certainly a welcome addition to an ensemble group like the Avengers. My only quibble with his portrayal is that the writers did not perform a simple bit of fan service. At one point, there is a perfect set up for Spider-Man’s catch phrase and they almost willfully bypass it.
Despite having more heroes than Age of Ultron, Civil War manages to find a way to make the viewers care more about them, even the ones who appear in the movie for only a few minutes. There is, of course, a titanic brawl between the two sides that is exceptionally well choreographed, clever and interesting and that nicely displays each of their abilities. And while it doesn’t delve deeply into the question of who should have the great responsibility over the great power being wielded in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it does use this philosophical stepping stone to launch a interesting story about two of the bedrock characters of the franchise. It might have been interesting to investigate the questions behind Civil War further but it wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining. I was afraid that Civil War would only magnify the mistakes from Age of Ultron and mark another step in the end of the glory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead, I am thrilled to say that it renewed my faith that there are more great movies to come.