Monday, May 9, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Movie Review by Michael Isenberg

The topic of today’s entry in Nerds Who Read is more nerdy than read-y: The latest movie release from Marvel Entertainment—Captain America: Civil War.

The movie borrows its premise from The Incredibles: people are fed up with the collateral damage superheroes bring in their wake as they save the world. Property destroyed. Innocent people killed.

When a bomb detonates in a Nigerian office building during an Avengers operation, the world decides enough is enough. A bunch of nations get together and draft the “Sokovia Accord,” a treaty that places superheroes under the control of the United Nations. From now on, the Avengers won’t decide for themselves when and where to deploy. Bureaucrats will decide for them.

Tony Stark/Iron Man is all for it. “We need to be put in check,” he says. But Steve Rogers/Captain America is more skeptical. “If we sign these accords, it takes away our right to choose.”

What starts as a theoretical disagreement is soon put to a real-life test. There is another explosion, this time at the ratification ceremony for the accords themselves (An aside: I don’t think the writers understand what “ratification” means). Security footage shows the bomb was planted by Captain America’s old war buddy, Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes. The UN, with Iron Man’s support, want to take Bucky down. But Cap suspects there’s more to the story than meets the eye, and indeed, dirty work is afoot. Helmut Zemo, the former commander of an elite Sokovian paramilitary unit, is definitely up to something. Cap wants answers and he wants to protect his friend; that means finding Bucky first and keeping him alive. Soon the whole Avengers team unravels as the members split between Iron Man and Captain America.

It’s sad when old friends fight. Especially when none of them are really bad guys. The challenge for the writers of Civil War is to put Cap and Tony at loggerheads without it being a downer for the audience. They succeed by making it fun. The main battle scene is full of great special effects and clever wisecracking. A couple samples of the latter: After Iron Man gets knocked on his ass (a temporary setback) his suit’s computer voice informs him, “Multiple contusions detected.” Tony replies, “Yeah, I detected that, too.” And when Black Widow—the member of the team most conflicted about the civil war—comes face-to-face with Hawkeye, she asks, “Are we still friends?” Hawkeye’s reply: “That depends on how hard you hit me.” To add to the fun, both sides, realizing they’re shorthanded, bring in reinforcements from other corners of the Marvel Universe. I won’t say who they recruit—I don’t want to spoil the surprise (albeit it’s in the trailer)—but one of these superheroes steals the show.

If actions sequences and wisecracks were all there were to Civil War, it would come off as campy. Fortunately there’s a great deal to it that’s serious. A second battle between Cap and Iron Man—this time one-on-one (mostly)—is more bittersweet. And there is the very real issue, at the root of Civil War, the conflict between government control and freedom. Indeed, I’m not the first to notice that the Marvel Civil War mirrors the Republican Civil War that is raging as I write this. Not only is the Grand Old Party, like the Avengers, tearing itself apart between the authoritarians and the libertarians, but old allies have turned decidedly bitter. (An interesting side question: Who is Donald Trump in this? Is he the authoritarian leader, billionaire Tony Stark? Or is he the outsider who instigated the conflict, Col. Helmut Zemo?)

I did have some criticisms, and here I get into some spoilers:

  • The plot is overcomplicated. The movie could have stood on its own as a conflict between Cap and Iron Man, or as a conflict between Zemo and the Avengers. But the writers rammed the two conflicts together and it’s messy. Like a set of simultaneous equations that are overdetermined. Also it gives the writers a cheap out: they can resolve the conflict without ever having to face the issue of whether the Sokovia accords were the right thing to do.
  • Zemo’s plan is a house of cards. It depends on Bucky being taken alive and turned over to the UN, who then must take him to a particular prison, which conveniently for the plot has no backup power source in the event of a blackout. Zemo has no control over any of this; there is no way he could possibly count on every one of these elements falling into place.
  • We learn that Bucky is not the only Winter Soldier—the Soviets made five more who are hidden away somewhere. The movie seemed to be hyping an impending conflict between them and the Avengers, but it never comes, thanks to some bulls--t. In a way, I was relieved—it was already a long movie. But still, sloppy storytelling.

In spite of the shortcomings in plot construction, I enjoyed the movie immensely. Perhaps my favorite part was some words of wisdom from Captain America’s almost-but-not-quite old flame, Agent Carter. They were quoted by another character at a time when Cap was torn over whether to sign the Sokovia Accord:

Compromise where you can. Where you can't, don't. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say "No, you move."

These words, like the movie, are a wonderful tribute to human integrity.

Coming up next on Nerds Who Read: a review of the Marvel Civil War graphic novel

Michael Isenberg is senior editor of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a novel about the conflict between government control and liberty. With hospital gowns. Check it out on