Chris Evans as Captain America.
Chris Evans as Captain America.
When you first wrap your head around its plot, the new film Captain America: Civil War seems to have abandoned most of the pointed political content of Marvel’s 2006 comics series Civil War, on which it’s based. (“Loosely based”? Let’s say “semi-loosely based.”)
In the books, the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man is fundamentally about the Registration Act that would require superheroes to abandon their secret identities, be registered and tracked, and become government employees subject to oversight. The Act follows a tragic series of events that are not actually the fault of The Avengers; in a way timely for 2006, they are the fault of lesser superhumans who have gotten entangled in reality television. Moreover, those events become the excuse for violence against superheroes — notably Johnny Storm, otherwise known as The Human Torch of the Fantastic Four (who aren’t in the movie). Tony Stark says yes to the act, embracing the stability and certainty that regulation would bring; he’s also riddled with guilt after a grieving mother insists her son’s death in the tragedy is attributable to his influence. Cap says no, fearing the implications and horrified at orders that he personally subdue and arrest those who don’t comply. When S.H.I.E.L.D. insists, Cap goes rogue and creates what becomes the resistance.
There is, in the books, a fairly potent political story about civil liberties, hate crimes, and the tension between safety and security that constantly inspires vigorous debate over both its existence (or not) and its proper resolution (or not).
In the film, on the other hand, the initial tragedy is caused by The Avengers, and the attempt at regulation comes in the form of a multinational, UN-led oversight plan. While Tony again assents and Cap again doesn’t, that issue becomes the backdrop for a more immediate (and more filmable, and probably more domestically and internationally salable) fight over Bucky Barnes, Cap’s old friend, now brainwashed and performing various bad deeds as Winter Soldier. The implications of registering people based on their status, including the abundant history of papers and markings and databases as opening salvos for oppression, are mostly back-burnered in favor of the fight between Cap, who refuses to abandon Bucky in the belief that he isn’t responsible for his actions, and Tony, who believes that a dangerous criminal is a dangerous criminal and needs to be captured and locked up.
The questions from the Civil War books, with their consideration of power and freedom and potentially outsize policy responses to disaster, seem remarkably current. It would have been an opportune moment in which to delve deeply into those issues, as well as some of the books’ other nods to things like the proper role of policing and the effect of mass tragedies on civilian populations.
But the film is far from apolitical. In fact, it considers an equally pressing question, more fundamental and less frequently discussed: the ability of people with similar values and similar goals to navigate profound and serious disagreements without, in the words of one of the new characters to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ripping each other to pieces.
There’s a fascinating sequence, perhaps unique among movies of this budget and scale, in which a group of characters who are all known to be decent, known to be moral, known to be noble, and known to be literally both Super and Heroes sit in a group talking through this critical disagreement about acceding or not to outside supervision — to acting only when a group of governments working in concert tell them they can (and must). They find themselves forced to balance legitimately compelling arguments on both sides. They argue back and forth, not in the “fight” sense but in the “argument” sense: Someone offers support for one answer, then someone else offers support for the other. Everyone has a point. They all respect each other. They all know they cannot split the difference and cannot find a choice in the middle. They cannot punch or shoot or zap their way out of it. The choice is binary: They will say yes or they will say no, and despite the breadth of their agreement on the relevant issues, they cannot agree on the answer.
The rest of the film is admittedly full of entertaining fistfights and one-liners and bad guys with accents and a shot of Chris Evans’ arms that ought to come with a red bow tied around it, as it is unambiguously a gift to those who like arms. But it also becomes a story about not merely this conflict, but all conflict — a story about how people behave toward each other when they disagree on matters of extraordinary importance.
Over and over, Cap and Tony give away their discomfort with battling each other: Downey does a beautiful job with the vulnerability of Tony’s urgent, nervous pleas to Cap to surrender as the stakes rise. He is more nervous in part because he has the entire power of the world’s governments behind him. He believes Cap will probably lose, and he himself will carry the weight. Evans, meanwhile, continues to give Cap the same stubborn quietude he’s had for several films now. Cap always wants to persuade when he can, and this is no different. He is driven by the depth of his friendship with Bucky, even to the detriment of his friendship with Tony.
At one point, a character says ominously that an empire toppled by its enemies can be rebuilt, but one that tears itself apart on its own is dead forever. This turns out to apply not only to empires, but also to super-teams. Just as the most powerful weapon The Avengers have had is their ability to work together, their most potent potential weakness is not external forces but anything that divides them — ideally enough to force them to fight each other to the death.
And yet, The Avengers have made moral certitude one of their central tenets. They don’t really believe in ambiguity; they talk in terms of good guys and bad guys. They fight murderous aliens and evil men who turn themselves into monsters. They save kids. They have committed themselves to a life of both righteousness and selflessness, so once their own potentially destructive power is called into question, are they to double down on their righteousness and trust their own decision-making alone (Team Cap) or double down on their selflessness and give up power when asked to do so by those they mean to defend (Team Iron Man)? Is steadfastness the same thing as certainty, in that commitment to your beliefs requires never questioning them? And if two people agree on the constellation of arguments for and against a complex policy idea and differ only on the final balancing, are they enemies as to that issue? What becomes of their significant areas of agreement?
This, too, feels current.
The comics are largely about a specific policy argument; the film is about the risks of an entire with-me-or-against-me mode of engagement. While the political question of Civil War as a comic series was whether the grave risks of registration outweighed the potential benefits, the political question of Civil War the movie is how to stop even profound disagreements from souring into enmity. Into hurled insults. Into trolling. Into being forced to unfollow people on Facebook.
Civil War returns over and over to some of its saddest themes: how friends specifically fight the instincts that tell them they are not enemies. How one wound that is old and deep enough will explode any attempted reconciliation. How most viciousness comes from pain. How the path of forgiveness is often unsatisfying, and the decision to follow it anyway is more about the well-being of the one doing the forgiving.
We are not in a golden age of nuance. We are not in a time in which public conversations leave ample room for good-faith disagreement. Cap and Tony apply similar values to interpret the same evidence about Winter Soldier, reach different conclusions, and cannot figure out how to stop short of a 12-person rumble. Similarly, when discussions of policy and culture take place in public spaces, they often run on the assumption that to reach a final conclusion is to reject (or disbelieve, or not care about) the entirety of the case against it. When that happens, every rejection of a tactic is received as a rejection of all the principles it was conceived to advance; every imperfect alignment might as well be absolute opposition.
Civil War finds itself in theaters in the same week that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton is nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards. Hamilton, too, concerns itself with the problem of life-devouring bitterness between people who largely agree with each other. (Given that Hamilton has been mashed up with absolutely everything, it’s not surprising that the potential for this parallel was spotted at least as far back as the trailer.) How did Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (the fictional versions, that is) wind up in a duel when Hamilton began the show seeking Burr’s counsel and they agreed about so much of what they wanted to accomplish for the country? How do you end up shooting a man you admire at a time when you mostly still admire him?
The easier answers are pride, custom, or, as some reads of the show would have it, Burr’s obstinacy. The harder answer, and the one the show supports, is that both felt they were in the right, both were flawed, and neither could find a way to stop. In fact, there’s a sequence in the Civil War book where a failed plan of Iron Man’s to avoid fighting Cap may remind you eerily of a line from the show explaining that proper dueling always involves a final effort at peacemaking, and it’s only in disastrous cases that it’s abandoned: “Most disputes die and no one shoots.”
Near the end of the show, Leslie Odom Jr., as widower Aaron Burr, explains the choice with which he felt confronted once they’d decided to duel: “I had only one thought before the slaughter: ‘This man will not make an orphan of my daughter.'” By this time, it had gotten so far along that he felt that it was him or Hamilton; there was no exit strategy. He had gradually closed off all of his own escapes.
This realization comes in a song called “The World Was Wide Enough,” as Burr reflects on the flaws in his perspective but also, critically, on the Pyrrhic nature of his victory: “When Alexander aimed at the sky, he may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it. I survived, but I paid for it.” He goes on: “I was too young and blind to see, I should have known / I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” Burr acknowledges here that once mostly-allies allow themselves to become enemies, even winning is terrible, because you’ve only defeated someone you needed. Watching Civil War, you suspect Cap and Tony will both, if it comes to that, learn the same thing.
It’s curious to see two common forms of popular American mythology — superheroes and fictionalized founding narratives — almost simultaneously elevate stories of friendships that underlie strategic alliances and are disastrously undone. It’s hard not to wonder whether it reflects a cultural anxiety about the stability of our own close bonds in times of disagreement, or at least discomfort with the public face of conflict.
So while Civil War dropped some of the political content of the books when it transitioned to film, it retains a certain urgency and relevance. The questions it raises indict us more broadly than the specifics of a story more centered on the civil-liberties questions might have, but no less incisively.