This article contains spoilers about both movies.
Pitting superheroes against each other certainly sounds like a great idea.
That way, comic-book movies have another way to acknowledge the world isn’t just about heroes and villains, that there are ethical gray areas – and audiences won’t get sick of superhero movies so quickly. Plus, multiple superheroes in the same movie? Studio executives’ eyes must light up with cartoon-dollar signs.
So we get “Batman v. Superman,” purportedly about man vs. God, earthling vs. alien. And “Captain America: Civil War,” about checks on superpowers, and freedom vs. security. Think of how these issues could resonate today: Immigration! Military intervention!
But superhero movies are imperfect vessels for topicality, and as a result, neither of these films really deals with its issues in a substantive way.
Though critics have dismissed it as drivel, “Batman v Superman” raises some interesting questions: To what extent should we fear what’s unfamiliar? If something powerful has a small chance of being evil, should we put it in check?
But a superhero movie, understandably, doesn’t have much time for such topics – it mainly needs to position its heroes so that they can start punching each other. Toward the end of “BvS,” Lex Luthor threatens to kill Superman’s adoptive mother unless Superman kills Batman. This means that the eventual grand showdown is spurred by blackmail from an evil Mark Zuckerberg figure — not exactly the stuff of allegory.
Superman decides to go along with Lex’s plan (and trust Lex will release his kidnapped foster mom) rather than just telling Batman what’s going on and uniting forces – which is what they eventually do, of course. And since Superman is immortal and Batman is mortal, they’ll never be evenly matched unless the movie conveniently adds a bit of kryptonite to stifle Superman. While the showdown purports to be a grand battle of man vs. god, it’s really a grand battle between some guy who’s allergic to some substance and a vague amount of that substance. When the revelation that their moms have the same name is enough to stop the fight, you know that maybe they shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place.
Similarly, “Captain America: Civil War” does raise an interesting hypothetical: If superheroes did exist, should they be regulated by the United Nations? With Iron Man leading the group of yays and Captain America leading the nays, it’s basically a version of the musical “1776” — in which the Continental Congress delegates argue about whether to be independent — with Captain America as John Adams. Except instead of deliberating, they try to kill each other.
You’d think pitting hero against hero — especially ones as evenly matched as these — would bring new life to the age-old action sequence, adding more emotional complexity. But there are three problems:
1. The action scenes are just less fun. The outcome of good guy vs. bad guy might be predictable, but at least it’s cathartic. Sitting there thinking “Yeah, bash the bad guy’s face in!” is more pleasurable than thinking “Hey, you all, maybe just stop fighting and talk to each other because that might be easier on everyone.” I found myself just waiting for the back and forth to end so that the movie could tell me who sorta won.
2. The real reason for the fight is a misunderstanding – just like in “BvS.” Tony Stark thinks Bucky Barnes is a terrorist, so he’s angry at Captain America’s team for harboring him. Only later does Stark learn that Bucky was framed. (Maybe whatever system they have of assessing guilt is the problem, not the U.N. regulations.) But then Stark finds out Bucky killed his parents, so Stark fights Bucky. But as Captain America notes, Bucky was under mind control, so it’s mainly about Stark being a hothead – a tech mogul going overboard, once again similar to “BvS.”
3. The action scenes don’t relate at all to the ideas being pitted against each other: Talking really is the best (and most interesting) way to work out the core political issues. Captain America’s anti-regulation team wins one fight by making it to a getaway plane. Yay, anti-regulation! But does that have anything to do with whether the U.N. should regulate superheroes? Of course not. It’s like if instead of debating issues, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced off in tae kwon do.
A superhero movie like “Civil War” is ill-equipped to deal with other the reality-based complexities it raises. Wouldn’t the State Department and the U.N. make the superheroes a part of the initial process of coming up with a regulatory system, rather than just handing them an already written document of “accords”? It’s easy to assume that the governments have little leverage –there’s no clear way to enforce their regulations against a woman who can create fireballs with her hands. Speaking of which, how will they enforce their regulations? The U.N. and secretary of state’s best idea seems to be to have Tony Stark rustle up whoever he can find, including a Queens teenager who just months ago discovered he discovered he has spider-like abilities.
These could be compelling issues, but the movie glances past them. Yes, it’s a tall order for superhero movies to deal with real-world issues in a substantive way. And perhaps that’s too much to expect — especially since most of them do perfectly well regardless.