Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War hit theaters this weekend, and thus far, the film’s combination of hero-on-hero violence and ideological exchanges is striking a chord with viewers and critics. But it’s been daring audiences to "pick a side" for months, so The Verge’s own Bryan Bishop and Tasha Robinson sat down (at their keyboards) to figure out whether Civil War lured them to #TeamCap, #TeamIronMan, or #TeamWe’llHaveToWaitUntilNextTimeToKnowForSure.
And in case it wasn’t clear, let’s make it crystal: we’re going to talk spoilers.
Bryan Bishop: Civil War is finally here! People fight! People get hurt! Nobody dies because they have to save something dramatic for the next two movies! But War Machine’s injuries aside, I’ve been able to watch the movie twice now, and I found myself having two pretty different reactions depending on which hat I put on: the emotional moviegoer (it’s a visor), or the journalist (fedora, obviously).
Steve Rogers drove me crazy in this movie
The emotional moviegoer in me was fully on-board with Tony Stark throughout this entire film — but not because of his guilt-driven decision to support the Sokovia Accords (though I understood why he, feeling adrift without Pepper, would have gone down that path). It was mostly because of Captain America’s stubborn insistence to help Bucky at all costs. Bucky potentially blew up a building? Whatever. Killed a bunch of people as a brainwashed Hydra agent? Meh. Keeping Bucky out of psych evaluation means burning bridges with some of his fellow Avengers? Later, folks. Steve Rogers drove me crazy in this movie, and that’s exactly the kind of reaction directors Joe and Anthony Russo (not to mention writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) are going for. They want to hit you hard, in the gut and in the heart, and whether you love or hate what Captain America is doing, that emotional pull keeps the movie cooking.
Start digging down, though, and the seams start to show. I’ll leave my second set of reactions for later, but which direction were you tugged in?
Tasha Robinson: First off, let me say that I hope your journalist fedora has a press card sticking out of the brim, so you look like a '40s noir character. Second, I had my fangirl hat on for this whole movie. (It’s a propeller beanie, because a fedora wasn’t retro enough for me.) That is to say, I didn’t watch the movie critically the first time through: I just sat back and let myself love the big, creative fight choreography and the "Whee, we’re showing off our powers!" action and the hero-vs.-hero drama. And I’m willing to forgive a lot of the silliness that enables the action. But man, it’s some serious silly.
Motormouthed snark and bone-deep sense of duty
I didn’t go into this movie with a side picked, because the marketing hype around #TeamCap vs. #TeamIronMan has been so annoying. Whipping fans into a mock-frenzy over which side they want to be on in a debate they haven’t heard yet is just self-serving commercial nonsense. Still, I was a little predisposed toward Tony Stark, because his particular blend of motormouthed snark and bone-deep sense of duty has always resonated with me. Also, he’s just more fun to watch onscreen than Steve Rogers, with his scoldy pure-and-Puritan vibe. Besides, in advocating for the Accords, Tony is coming down on the side of responsibility, accountability, and democracy, right? All good things, I would think.
But when it came down to the way the film actually treated these things, I’m on #TeamThey’reBothIdiots. I’m down with Captain America’s loyalty to Bucky, but what really bothered me, from both Steve and Tony, was the way they charge into battle with each other, and drag others along with them, with minimal consideration of what they’re really fighting over. They spend one hot second debating the Sokovia solution, but neither of them can even consider the other’s perspective, or admit that the Accords might take some work and compromise. Like Ultron in Avengers 2, they both rush to action without making a convincing argument for that action.
Does it bother you that they’re both being angry meatheads? Or is that just the necessary price of the big airport throwdown?
Bryan Bishop: That was definitely when the other shoe dropped for me. Both claim the moral high ground, yet both demonstrate the same desire to blow up things (and relationships) and put innocents at risk. Hell, Tony Stark recruits a freakin’ high schooler off a YouTube video. High fives for Spider-Man and all, but imagine the scene where Aunt May elevator-ambushes Stark if things at the airport had gone wrong.
Both Marvel and DC’s cinematic worlds have been interested lately in the consequences of superheroes’ actions, and it’s a potentially great driver of story and character — but there’s a disconnect between that concept and the actual movies themselves. I’d have had much less issue with Captain America (or Stark, for that matter) if they were simultaneously struggling with how to deal with some larger, global threat — you know, the usual "Marvel villain of the week that’s trying to blow up the world." In that scenario, all these stakes scale quickly, and rushing into action isn’t just forgivable — it’s an imperative.
"We're still friends, right?"
Instead, the the focus is on the Accords as an idea, which focuses the movie on friendship and relationships, but never provides a great reason for the fight sequences everybody wants to see. If anything, it makes them unfathomable. There’s that moment where Hawkeye is fighting with Black Widow, and says "We’re still friends, right?" And that’s the thing: if they were friends, they would have talked about these things before it came to a punching free-for-all. The fact that they didn’t makes them come off as socially inept at best, sociopathic at worst. And now that we’re talking about it, isn’t that actually a fantastic argument that they should all be monitored or put out to pasture?
Tasha Robinson: I’m with you on the heroes’ need to be monitored. I got a huge thrill out of Black Panther in this film, and I can’t wait for his solo movie, but he’s a political nightmare in Civil War. Here’s a vigilante who ignores national borders and legal protocol as he sets out to murder a superpowered individual for purely personal reasons, based on extremely sketchy evidence (and with no concern for the people or property damaged in the process). Absolutely no one in this film should be backing his play, especially the people calling themselves heroes. His vendetta is exciting, but it isn’t remotely defensible. And it wouldn’t be even if Bucky had killed his dad.
But his irrational behavior is necessary to move the plot along. The fundamental conflict in Civil War isn’t between hero teams, it’s about Superhero Smackdown Fun vs. Behaving Like A Goddamn Grown-Up. If Steve, Tony, et. al. were actually responsible people, they’d talk to the UN about Steve’s entirely sensible concerns about being hampered during global catastrophe, while waiting on votes and debates. They’d use their considerable celebrity and charisma to drive a better solution through diplomacy and politics. They’d insist on fail-safes, to keep the Avengers from being compromised and used like SHIELD was in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
It's about Superhero Smackdown Fun vs. Behaving Like A Goddamn Grown-Up
But what kind of movie would that make? No one’s showing up to Civil War hoping for a rousing six-hour UN Security Council session. The biggest problem with Tony Stark’s accountability argument for signing the Accords isn’t that they’ve been assembled hastily and he isn’t questioning them: it’s that he risks coming across as a killjoy who wants to shut down the action and adventure that makes MCU movies fun for fans. To make the film exciting, communications have to break down into violence.
Here’s the thing: both Steve and Tony are making all kinds of dumb mistakes here, but I don’t mind. I’ve spent dozens of hours watching and re-watching these characters, and I understand their motivations even when their arguments are weak. Tony’s still paying guilt dividends for the mayhem his family’s weapons have caused, as seen back in the first Iron Man. And he’s taken out second and third guilt mortgages over his estrangement from Pepper and his responsibility for Ultron. Alfre Woodard’s elevator ambush just put an immediate face on his misery. No wonder he wants to abdicate responsibility, and put someone else in charge of his choices. Cap, meanwhile, still feels responsible for letting Bucky "die" the first time, and letting him get Manchurian Candidated. He feels a natural connection to Bucky, his only remaining buddy from his own era. And he’s leery and distrustful of government oversight after the SHIELD debacle. No wonder he wants to stay in charge of his options. Both men are acting irrationally for solid, well-established reasons. Civil War isn’t about the rightness of their causes, it’s about the disaster of them both letting their emotions override their intellects. And the big climax, where Tony outright says he doesn’t care about the facts, he’s a-gonna kill Bucky anyway, should make that clear.
But caring about why they do what they do requires a certain affection and goodwill for these characters. And it sounds like you don’t have that kind of investment in the MCU hero stable. How does that change your take on Civil War?
Bryan Bishop: This hits on why I was surprised by my two distinct reactions. I’ve been on board with the MCU from the get-go, and have stayed there even through its rougher patches (cough Thor 2 cough) because of the way the larger Avengers arc has progressed. The movies have gotten more mature, and more willing to explore new sides to these characters. Marvel wouldn’t have had the guts or the clout with audiences to pull off the '70s spy drama of Winter Soldier, or Tony Stark’s ennui in Iron Man 3, back when things were first getting started. But over time, movie audiences have gotten to know these characters better, and learned the same thing comics readers have known for decades — that this kind of long-term familiarity opens up the door to take things in exciting new directions.
But I can’t help but feel that it wasn’t really used for anything in Civil War, other than to justify the brawlfest. It’s thrilling and it tracks in the moment; like the characters themselves, we, the audience, are reacting to the pure emotion of every beat. But at the end we have an entire movie that was sold and premised on a huge conflict between two friends, and at the end they’re pretty much in the same place they were before. The lines are drawn a little clearer, sure, but they’re still open to helping each other out, and nobody’s been permanently damaged. It’s a movie about consequences, but there’s none to be found. We’re basically right back where we at the end of Ultron — waiting for the next Avengers movie to arrive — and after Winter Soldier, I expected a little bit more.
Magic rock hunt
All of that said, I already find myself seeing Winter Soldier and this film as the first two chapters in what will likely be a tightly integrated, four-part series, all built by a single creative team. Other than Kevin Feige, I’m pretty sure nobody understands this corner of the Marvel universe more than Markus and McFeely. They’ve written multiple movies, some of the TV shows, and they’re writing the next two Avengers films. They have undoubtedly set up things in Civil War that will pay off in the next two episodes, and in the future I may very well look back on it and appreciate it even more for the way (I hope) it will function as part of the larger whole. Which I suppose begs the question: where do things go from here, and do you think Civil War went far enough in setting up a lasting conflict that could cause issues when Thanos finally arrives for his magic rock hunt?
Tasha Robinson: At this point, I’m more invested in the interpersonal hero dynamic than in Thanos and The Big Glove McGuffin. You said earlier that you’d have had less of an issue with the movie if there’d been yet another world-threatening object of power, but that’s where we part ways — I’m tired of MCU movies coming down to a glowy thing in the hands of a maniac, and I’m not looking forward to a return to that mode in Infinity War. The Tony–Steve conflict could be interesting, if it’s handled a little more maturely in later films — after this initial outburst, I’d like to see them behaving a little less like sulky kids.
Besides, there was a big world threat in this film — the other Winter Soldiers. It was just handled poorly, as an obvious red herring. Cap finding out about them and saying, in essence, "These people are such a huge and immediate threat that we have to Hulk Smash all our friends to get to them a little faster, but it’s still not worth even trying to tell anyone else about them, because Tony is a doody-head"… Maybe it would have been justified if he’d gotten there in the nick of time to stop a catastrophe, but the More Winter Soldiers subplot becoming a non-issue sets him up as short-sighted and self-serving, two things that are just inconsistent with his character.
I agree with you about the lack of consequences, though. It’s another brain problem in a film I really enjoyed on a gut-level: Markus and McFeely have bragged that this is "the most mature Marvel movie" so far, because of the metaphorical references to real-world politics. But in their symbolic nod to drone strikes and American interventionism, their conclusion seems to be: "People disagree about it, and it makes them mad." Is there more to it? Does the metaphor make this film better, or worse? #TeamMetaphor or #TeamFaceValue?
Bryan Bishop: #TeamTryHarder. The first few times superhero films were used as allegory to address post-9/11 concerns, it was a surprising, fresh turn. Resonance, ye gods! And Winter Soldier raised concerns over the NSA wiretapping fiasco at the perfect moment — and more importantly, it had a clear point of view on the topic. Civil War, meanwhile, is content to ask a lot of questions, but never goes remotely near answering them (other than "punching will fix").
I'm not looking to superhero movies for political insight
Now, I’m not looking to superhero movies for political insight, and I don’t expect Marvel to set out to change anyone’s minds, either. But I do expect some sort of thematic or narrative follow-through, and if a movie’s going to claim that maturity mantle, it can’t use topical themes as an intellectual prop. And what it really can’t do is use the audience’s affinity for its characters to short-circuit any ability to take a holistic view. In that sense, a movie that’s all about #TeamThis and #TeamThat can almost never provide a mature look at a topic because it’s inherently about eschewing nuance in order to distill things down into a Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots match.
I was cruising Twitter after I got out of my initial screening, and a lot of the reaction was about how amazing the movie was, and how it had the sweetest fight scene in any Marvel movie, EVAR. That’s not the kind of reaction a "mature" film usually gets. Which is fine! It’s completely okay that Civil War is a button-pushing emotional action rollercoaster dressed up in its grandfather’s suit — in a lot of ways, the movie is flat-out awesome (and I chose the word "awesome" very carefully). But mature as a self-contained work? Not so much.
Unless, of course, it all pays off in some sort of magical way over the next two chapters. I suppose it could happen. At least that’s what everyone who defended the first Hobbit movie said.