The Spider-Man is having you for dinner tonight… Review of Civil War

It’s so good.  Go see it.

I struggle to understand why Marvel films continue to succeed where DC’s are failing.  Civil War all but taunts us: ‘This is how good Batman v Superman could have been.’  Marvel has got stock standard superhero movies down to an art form.  If you go to the theatre and you see a by-the-numbers Marvel movie, you are generally satisfied.  Avengers 2 and Ant-Man were mostly of this kind and they were mostly okay.  But where Marvel is excelling is where they take risks.  Guardians of the Galaxy looks like a disaster on paper and yet it’s easily a favourite.

Civil War is another risky film.  There were so many ways for this to go wrong — would, as in Batman v Superman, the need to generate a conflict between heroes take a backseat to a coherent plot?  In almost all respects, the risks pay off.  It was much better than I expected, and I went in with high expectations.

As per the comics, the conflict is between two different ideological positions: should there be a state monopoly on legitimate violence, or should individuals be free to use their talents to bring about just outcomes?  That’s largely where the comparison with the comics ends.  Quite surprisingly, the movie does a better job of exploring the philosophical issues of both sides of the debate than the comics, and largely without sitting all the characters down to explain their political positions.  For the most part, it’s slogan free.  Even when Captain America — who wants to champion individual liberty to invade other countries and blow stuff up — is at his most idealistic, he still refrains from quoting Thomas Jefferson.

I’m on the side of authoritarianism and wary of individualist political philosophies.  In Civil War, this position is largely covered by Tony Stark and the United Nations who want to regulate superhero activities.  At no point did I feel like this side of the debate was created merely as a crude strawman for Captain America to wail upon.  They present a persuasive case, even if it’s somewhat ambivalent about whether the case is principled (power needs to be tied to legitimacy) or merely pragmatic (if we don’t regulate superheroes in this way, we will be regulated in a worse way).  And, most importantly, they show that the position gets really dark and troublesome at the edges.  The American Secretary of State moves incrementally close towards fascist displays of power — even to the extent that he goes to extraordinary lengths to punish a fairly ordinary civilian criminal with capabilities given to him to deal with supervillain threats.

And the bit that they really nail is a very subtle bureaucratic sadism.  One minor character practically wets himself with joy when he can exercise legal power over the powerful.  On the broader philosophical level, constraining power might make sense, but on the individual level you have terrible, tiny people like this who play out power fantasies.

Meanwhile, the other side of the debate is presented in a similar way.  Captain America’s position sways between pure idealism about the rights and authority of the individual, and concern for his own interests — particularly his love for his best friend.  There are numerous points along Captain America’s character arc where the omniscient audience can see that there are better ways of him achieving his goals, but his narcissism and self-righteousness prevents him from being able to resolve his problem.  People keep telling him that he keeps making things worse, and he never quite accepts this lesson.

The film repeatedly flags Captain America’s hypocrisy: he’s been created by the State using the technology and resources of the State, and now he wants to disregard the authority of the State when using those resources.  When you take away Captain America’s shield and Sam Wilson’s wings, they’re just really good at punching things.  For all the posturing about the individual, the ‘good’ guys can only succeed by stealing public property.

The result is a debate between two authentically flawed position.  The film does a fairly good job of holding them in conversation, compromising and repositioning as the conversation unfolds.

Parts of the film drag a little bit.  The number of characters involved in the conflict is maybe a bit too large.  Although I loved both characters, adding Spider-Man and Ant-Man was probably a stretch too far.  That said, this was perhaps my favourite film version of Spider-Man to date.

And the dynamic between The Vision and Scarlet Witch didn’t quite work.  On one level, this is the conflict that makes the most sense: here are the two most overpowered characters in the film, and they both deal with unintended consequences of their powers.  Vision is hyper-rational; Wanda is chaotic.  Vision is cerebrally trying to come to grips with himself while Wanda is working through her emotions and trauma.

Despite this awkwardly sexist presentation, they have this weirdly unpleasant sexual tension.

Part of the problem is that Wanda’s age keeps sliding around.  The actress is only a few years younger than me, and yet she’s referred to as a ‘child’ and could be in high school if she doesn’t want to be a hero.  Meanwhile, The Vision might as well be Boomer-Bot 3000 (even though the actor is only in his 40s).  The Vision comes across like a possessive creeper who gets menacing when she tries to leave his ‘protection’.

Gender is still the aspect to these films that is failing to impress.  Wanda’s attempt to deal with the collateral damage of her powers is entirely overshadowed by a masculinity play between Captain America and Tony Stark.  When the woman — who’s clearly the MVP on the field — does something off script, how will the men (including the Secretary of State) resolve the issue?  I feel like the Captain Marvel film just can’t come quickly enough.

And because I should end this on a good note: Chadwick Boseman.

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