Saturday, May 7, 2016

On Captain America: Civil War

In a 2013 review for Sean Howe's wonderful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, I wrote the following:

"For most of its history, Marvel Comics, practicing good business sense, tried not to alienate its readers for political reasons. In the ’60s, Captain America, who had killed thousands of long-toothed Japs in World War II, did not travel to Vietnam. Peter Parker avoided joining the Columbia University-like protests that raged at his own school. More than a decade into the AIDS epidemic, the company flinched but finally relented when one of its writers wanted a minor superhero to come out, though they balked at permitting a superhero with HIV. Like half the Democratic Party, the company would come to embrace the gay-rights movement only when it seemed absolutely safe to do so. There’s an anecdote that Howe tells early in his history that we just want to be true. About a year before Captain America punched out Hitler in 1941, one of Timely’s forgotten heroes punched out a dictator named Hiller. Why not Hitler? “Goodman, it was said, was afraid Adolf might sue.”
"These political restrictions, despite their amorality, strengthened the comics. Gay readers didn’t have an out hero in the Marvel Universe until the ’90s, but they also knew that every one of the X-Men, teenage outcasts who run off to a special school where they wear tight clothes and kick ass, had a lot in common with themselves. Captain America never talked about Vietnam, but readers could imagine the pathos he could not voice when he thought about the atrocities committed in the name of the flag he wore. Save for Ditko’s weird interjections, Peter Parker’s failure to take a strong political stand only cemented his loner status. Strong myths are democratic. They allow enough space for the reader to do his own writing.
The newer comics are more ballsy. Mark Millar’s take on the Avengers and X-Men, in particular, depicted a post-9/11 dystopia. Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White and Black riffed on the story of the Tuskegee airmen and inserted the history of eugenics into Captain America’s origin story. The recent film adaptations, which must appeal to an enormous audience, are more careful. The premise of Iron Man – a reckless weapons manufacturer whose enemies either employ or are inspired by the technology he creates – could have made Jon Favreau and Shane Black’s movies more cynical. The first hour of Joe Johnston’s Captain America was a nostalgic blast, even if its depiction of World War II-America was lily-white. The gay-rights drama in Bryan Singer’s first two X-Menmovies are a happy exception. Still the Marvel movies are at their best when they overcome the confines of their political moment. When Ian Mckellen’s Magneto breaks out of his plastic prison, he exudes a royal contempt for humanity. When Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man submits himself to the bosom of New York subway riders, he surrenders to his fellow man. Again, the openness of these myths allows us to identify with both hero and villain, to examine the divisions within our own selves. At these moments, the stories are Shakespearean."
I'm not all that happy with any of this, but the third paragraph might seem particularly un-prescient with the release this weekend of Captain America: Civil War. I never read the series upon which the movie is based, so I can only talk about the movie. 
The premise is as follows. The Avengers' various adventures, both as a group and as solo heroes, killed a lot of civilians. No one is throwing around hard numbers in the film, but you can guess that there were many dead bodies we never saw in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The team is operating as an unchecked force, and 117 of the world's governments including the US have decided that such an organization, which has been created to fight massive threats, must answer to a larger international authority. The teammates take sides for reasons that are both personal and political. 
The hero most willing to accept such oversight turns out to be Tony Stark, whose conscience troubles him. He comes face-to-face with the mother of a civilian who was killed in a previous battle. Several super villains have used his weaponry. In Iron Man 3, he suffered from PTSD from his experiences in The Avengers.  
Captain America is resistant. He agrees that such a higher entity sounds like a good idea, but he's not sure exactly who is behind this plan. Call him a vigilante if you want, but he trusts himself to make the right decision and he knows that he has saved a lot more people than he's ever hurt.
The Black Panther is the son of an African king, who is learning the rudiments of diplomacy as he ascends this country's throne. His father was the voice of this new international prerogative and after witnessing his violent death, he believes it is right.
 We learn that an old Sokovian agent, an unflashy man with no superpowers, has engineered a situation that makes their debate more violent and eventually, more tragic. The Sokovian saw his entire family killed in the battle of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and he wants to see the Avengers hurt as much as he did.
In real-world terms, this is the fight between the guys who think that internationalist organizations like the EU, the UN, and NATO, prove feckless in crises, and the guys who think that the equivalent of nuclear weapons should not be entrusted to an unchecked group of people who are tragically human and thus unpredictable. The problem with the metaphor should be obvious. In the real world, the EU, the UN, and NATO and they have proven feckless at moments of crisis, as in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and now Syria.  There have been stories about UN peacekeepers who tried and failed to prevent horrors occurring just miles from them due to bureaucracy, but those peacekeepers weren't walking around with The Avengers' firepower, the equivalent of America's nuclear arsenal. And Black Panther might be cool, and I know it's canon in the Marvel Universe, but I would hope in 2016 that we could avoid celebrating the world's remaining monarchies. So yeah, it's hard for me to see any hard questions here...
And yet...
Watch Bicycle Thieves or Umberto D. There are no dead bodies in Bicycle Thieves, but there are long long takes that capture the West's most beautiful city in ruins. A people destroyed by hunger. Peeling walls. Insects on food. Broken windows. Broken faces. This is a city whose destruction is captured without what we think of as special effects. The mise-en-scene was created by objects placed in front of the camera, not by a computer with the aid of a camera. The destruction in The Avengers: Age of Ultron never really convinces you of any real horrors. It's a simulation of a war game. And the interior logic of The Avengers: Age of Ultron ignores these dead civilians. Only one person dies who we didn't want to see die. Civil War confronts our heroes with people who have lived and are living Bicycle Thieves.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an appalling film morally and a boring film aesthetically. Civil War is a good movie. It has an interesting dilemma, which offers some character development. The fight scenes are fun. The film dramatizes our heroes' powers. But in the end it's as clueless about the state of the world as the previous film. The filmmakers might have included some characters who are living Bicycle Thieves, but it's pretty obvious the filmmakers never saw Bicycle Thieves and never will. And in an attempt to obtain gravitas, they valorize a lunatic who they think of as an exemplar from a kinder, more honorable time, namely the 1940s, when Jim Crow was still a thing and the US was putting its Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. 
Side note: Andrew Garfield is beautiful man. His Spider-Man was a 30-something's idea of an 18-year-old, which means he was just a little bit of an adult. He worked. Tom Holland is a sweet, good-looking kid and he's fun to watch, but he's an 85-year-old's idea of a 16-year-old. His jokes are lame. He's excited by all the cool stuff he sees, and he loves old computers and DVDs and stuff and Tony Stark and Captain America and wowee that's a cool toy and that's a cool superpower and did he say "shit"? He said "shit"! Oh my god, he said "shit"! 
I hate jokes for people who are afraid of not getting jokes.   

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