What is the best way to deploy vastly superior abilities against less capable but nevertheless still very dangerous bad guys? How best to minimize collateral damage — of both the human and the infrastructure kind — when those vastly superior abilities are put to their use? What happens when people of good conscience, all of whom genuinely want nothing more than to increase net happiness and general well-being in the world, disagree over the answers to these questions? And who should get the final say: politicians sitting at desks thousands of miles away from the fields of battle, or the soldiers fighting those battles?
There’s a recent movie that Captain America: Civil War feels a helluva lot like, in tone and in objective, and it’s not Batman v Superman, though the two do bear some superficial similarities. No, it’s Eye in the Sky, the superb drama thriller about drone warfare. The philosophies of both films go way beyond the mantra of “With great power comes great responsibility”; they take that as a given as they explore what, precisely, that responsibility means and how it gets expressed.
I predicted in my review of the previous Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier, that public opinion regarding the Avengers was bound to turn more condemning in the wake of yet another city — in Soldier, Washington DC — wrecked by one of their battles with bad guys… and that was before what happened in the most recent Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, when the capital city of the (fictional) Eastern European nation of Sokovia was, well, “destroyed” barely begins to cover it. And all that was before the opening sequence ofCivil War, in which a battle set in the very real city of Lagos (though it wasn’t shot there) ends with a terrible mistake by the telekinetic Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen: Godzilla, In Secret), aka Scarlet Witch, that results in the deaths of many innocents.
Now, the world has had enough, and the UN proposes that the Avengers come under the umbrella of an international oversight panel that will decide where they go, what they do, and also where they shouldn’t go and what they shouldn’t do. But the gang cannot all agree to these limitations, with the two factions aligning behind either Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.: The Judge, Chef), aka Iron Man, who believes they need some reigning in — I like to think this is because he’s still feeling guilty over how he became an accidental mad-scientist villain in Ultron — or Steve Rogers (Chris Evans: Snowpiercer, The Iceman), aka Captain America, who doesn’t want to hand over his autonomy to a governmental body, probably because he hasn’t had the best experiences in the past as a tool of politicians. (His early life as a supersoldier in WWII, after all, was all about political propaganda: looking good, not doing good.)
Now, this is almost an Avengers movie in its own right, with so many familiar faces here: Natasha Romanoff the kickass spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson: The Jungle Book, Hail, Caesar!); Sam Wilson the flying Falcon (Anthony Mackie: Triple 9, The Night Before); James Rhodes, who wears Iron Man-esque powered armor as War Machine (Don Cheadle: Miles Ahead, Flight); archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Kill the Messenger). And they are joined by some newcomers: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd: They Came Together, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) is recruited when his Ant-Man skills will be useful; Peter Parker (Tom Holland: In the Heart of the Sea, Locke) joins in when Stark decides his Spider-Man schtick is pretty cool but needs some honing; and — most excitingly — Prince T’Challa (an absolutely electrifying Chadwick Boseman: Get on Up) of the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda, who is secretly the badass Black Panther. (That there are multiple women, including one significant other whose presence I won’t spoil, and three black men among this cast, all with stories of their own, is beyond delicious. Diversity isn’t a buzzword: it brings genuine freshness to what is too often, across the genre, insipidly monotone storytelling.) When the two factions meet in a spectacular battle over the UN issue, it’s thrilling and often amusing not only because they’re all pulling their punches — none of them actually wants to hurt their friends — but also because we witness them combining their powers in weird, intriguing, and effective ways across a grand canvas. It’s superhero action on a scale we haven’t seen before, and even better, it’s a superhero ballet, not a bloodbath; it’s fantastic. (Ironic that the battle to decide how the Avengers will respond to public opinion turning against them will likely result in even more bad PR for them. This is a major airport, and it gets trashed. It’s gonna cost a fortune to repair.) The brother directing team of Joe and Anthony Russo, returning from Winter Soldier, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — who wrote both Soldier and the first Captain America flick, The First Avenger — ensure that all the action sequences are magnificent, innovative, and, perhaps most importantly, do not drag on past the point at which you’ve had enough.
But this most definitely is not an Avengers movie. When the US Secretary of State (William Hurt: Winter’s Tale, The Host), who brings the UN’s not-really-optional oversight proposal before the group asks a question — “Where are Thor and Hulk?” — that works as both a snarky joke about their noteworthy onscreen absence and as commentary about why some think oversight of the Avengers is needed: No, really, who knows where they are or what they are up to? And this is primarily a very personal story about Rogers and his friendship with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan: The Martian, Ricki and the Flash), aka the Winter Soldier, who looks to have committed another terrible and very public crime as a result of his Soviet conditioning as a supersoldier and is now being hunted by police worldwide. Rogers believes in Barnes’s innocence, and his siding with Earth’s most wanted combined with his rejection of the UN proposal makes Rogers an outlaw, too. But is Rogers deluded about his old friend? Rogers’s supersoldier treatment was targeted only at his body and not at his mind, but Bucky’s brain was messed with. Is there any coming back from that? How do you trust a guy that you don’t know you can trust? How far can faith alone in someone take you? Aren’t some safeguards a good thing?
These are the unspoken questions that hang over everything going on in Civil War, between the world and the Avengers, and among the Avengers and their hangers-on themselves. (I cannot decide if I am #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan… and that’s a marvelous thing.) There’s barely a villain here at all, just unanswerable questions: What legal framework are superhumans best placed in, or can they be placed in one at all? What is the morality of using superpowers even by undoubtedly good people? More than one of these superhumans flirt with the Dark Side here, which never causes us to doubt their basic goodness but instead only highlights their humanity: rage and grief can make almost anyone do irrational things that they’ll regret later. And we all understand that we have to live with the consequences of our actions… or inactions. But rage and regret and consequences are radically different the more powerful you are. And that’s true whether your power comes from a gun or a drone-fired missile or a spiderbite.
One of the things that has made the Avengers movies work so well is that all these characters feel like real people: they are never cartoonish, and, ironically, they feel like they are at their most human when they are behaving in superhuman ways. That’s never been more true than in Civil War. And that’s what makes the questions it asks impossible to dismiss as simple, “mere” fantasy. This is one superhero series that only keeps getting more relevant, more pertinent, and more necessary.