Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.
Boomer: After the success of Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers were invited back to direct the next Captain America sequel, confirming their involvement in March of 2014. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who had previously drafted the scripts for both First Avenger and Thor 2 in addition to Winter Soldier, presented the Russos with the script for Civil War around the same time. Early reports featured the production team stating that they saw the film as more of a direct follow up to Winter Soldier, and that the intent was to further pursue the Bucky/Steve relationship in this flick.
There were mixed reactions to the announcement that the film would adapt (however loosely) the basic plotline of the Marvel Civil War plot from the comics. I’ve mentioned how I feel about this particular storyline in a few of our earlier reviews, but it’s worth outlining here and seeing how it stacks up against the plot of the film. One thing to bear in mind is that the Marvel comics universe is full to the gills with super-powered people. Mutants, Inhumans, actual alien refugees and expatriates, mystics and magicians, survivors of experimentation, people who were involved in chemical/radiation accidents: there are a lot of them. A decade or so back, the company tried to cull its ranks by reducing the number of mutants– just mutants– to less than 200, and there were still too many to allow time for each to be sufficiently developed. It’s also important to bear in mind that the books had spent the past few decades showing bigoted human legislators attempting to pass a Congressional Act that would require all mutants to register with the government. Marvel took the correct stance on this issue, demonstrating that (a) such a thing would be utterly unconstitutional and (b) that the advocates of this act were unequivocally in the wrong from a moral and ethical standpoint.
The plot of the comic Civil War opens with a team of third-tier superheroes, called the New Warriors, filming an episode of the reality show in which they were participating in exchange for funding of their operations. The group finds themselves involved in an altercation with a few villains; though they realize that they are out of their depth they press on, and their interaction with the villain Nitro results in an explosion that incinerates 612 people, including 60 schoolchildren. In the film, the circumstances are different: it’s the new Avengers team (minus War Machine and Vision) taking on a mission in Lagos that is successful but not without collateral damage, mitigated by but blamed upon the heroes. In the comics, Tony Stark is confronted by the mother of one of the children who died in the “Stamford Incident” (here he is confronted by a woman whose adult son died in Sokovia, which was a separate incident from the Lagos mission that opened the film). As a result of this shaming, Comics!Tony works with the U.S. Government to draft the Superhuman Registration Act, which would require all Americans with enhanced abilities to report their nature to the government without complaint.
It’s immediately obvious how questionable this is, especially when readers had been taught to expect (and, it bears mentioning again, rightfully so) that proponents of these types of laws—laws that require vulnerable minorities to essentially surrender not only their right to privacy but also the expectation of protection from hate violence—are villains. Comics!Tony may have had a point in that there should be a system of accountability in place for superpowered people, but the methods by which this was introduced resulted in a fandom backlash that Marvel should really have expected but seemed to be utterly surprised by. The miniseries later further added that not only did the SRA require powered people to register, but it also made them part of a de facto superhuman draft; people who registered (and remember: not registering is not a choice) could be called upon to act as agents of the government at any time, even in conflict with their own political and moral ideals. For a miniseries that was very much born of the paranoia of the War on Terror and the global politick of the Bush Administration, Marvel seemed shockingly out of touch with how its readership felt about that administration and its policies.
Worse, Marvel doubled down on the idea that they wanted readers to be on Team Iron Man instead of Team Cap, who was the much more reasonable figure, voicing the logical issues that come from drafting unwilling innocents to participate in missions that could be in violation of their beliefs in the name of political agendas.
Film!Tony’s proposition, that the Avengers act only when called upon to do so by a U.N. Accord, is much more sensible as an act that isn’t in violation of anyone’s civil rights or political autonomy. It has its own problems, some of which Cap points out (like the potential for the Avengers to be called upon to act against the greater good or their own consciences in the name of someone’s agenda) and some of which he doesn’t (there’s no way that an emergency session of the U.N. could be called together quickly enough to confer and vote upon deploying the Avengers in time to save anyone if, for instance, Thanos’s fleet appears in the skies above earth with the intent of burning all living things to ash). Overall, however, it strikes enough of a compromise between freelance vigilantism and wholesale surrendering of one’s right to forced government employment that one can feel conflicted about which side to choose, instead of everyone being Team Cap by default.
Back on the production side of things, the Russos acknowledged the difficulty of referencing this much-contested miniseries in their films, but stated that they were confident that they had found the right balance. It was announced early in production that Chadwick Boseman had joined the cast of the film as Black Panther and that Daniel Brühl of Goodbye, Lenin and The Edukators had been cast in an undisclosed role, although early internet speculation that he would be playing a version of Baron Zemo turned out to be correct. Other speculations, such as the much-touted fan belief that Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk would appear in the film, turned out to be unfounded, although virtually every other superpowered person who had previously appeared in the MCU films was back (so no Thor and no TV-only characters like Jessica Jones or Quake). Other returning characters included Emily VanCamp’s Sharon “Agent 13” Carter, who ends up reciting a remixed version of one of Comics!Cap’s speeches in her eulogy for her Aunt Peggy, and William Hurt’s General-cum-SecDef “Thunderbolt” Ross, who was last scene in the Norton Incredible Hulk film.
Other new characters announced included Martin Freeman’s forgettable Everett Ross (no relation) and, the big news, Brit newcomer Tom Holland as Peter Parker. In a recent interview with ScreenJunkies, the Russos admitted that they always intended for Spider-Man to inhabit the role that he plays in the final film; it was their insistence that this story would not work without the character that eventually led to the Sony-Disney deal that allows for crossovers. The two never considered for a moment presenting Marvel with a script that included a different character in that role. As a result, we also get our youngest Aunt May to date, played by Marisa Tomei.
Brandon, what did you think of Civil War?
Brandon: In the current media landscape where the borders between cinema & television have become increasingly blurred, I’ve found myself becoming most attracted to films that buck the trend. Formally bizarre titles like Under the Skin, The Duke of Burgundy, Upstream Color, and Beyond the Black Rainbow are so magnetic to me because they remind audiences that there are still things film can achieve that television can’t. As a franchise, the MCU has gone in the exact opposite direction. After a dozen films’ (and a difficult to calculate amount of supplementary televised content’s) worth of worldbuilding, the MCU can’t help but function as the cinematic equivalent of televised fiction. Each individual movie in the series, sans maybe the origin stories, is starting to feel like a compact season of absurdly well-funded television. With Civil War, the MCU seems to be hitting its stride the same way the Fast & Furious franchise did around its fifth installment. I enjoyed the film thoroughly, but felt as if I were enjoying it more as one small piece to a much larger whole than as a standalone property. I can’t even say for sure if Captain America was the star of his own movie here, despite his name being slapped on the title, since the series has adapted the sprawling cast format of a long-running television show. As much as this film seems willing to break nearly every rule of avoiding superhero conventionality, however, I couldn’t help but to enjoy every loud, bloated minute of it.
My most hopeful expectation about Civil War going in was that Tony Stark would essentially do what pro wrestlers call a “heel turn” and finally reveal himself to be the villainous prick I’ve taken him for since movie one. I would still love to see that dynamic play out (and I vaguely understand that it works that way in the comics), but Civil War goes a whole other route that may be an even better take on what superhero movies can be. A dull take on this story would be to have Cap & Tony fight for a minute, realize they have a bigger enemy at hand, and eventually team up to fight the film’s true baddy. If this sounds especially familiar at this moment it might be that it sounds awfully parallel to the way Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice structured its d.o.a. conflict. Despite the two movies’ striking thematic similarities, however, Civil War makes a much bolder, stranger turn. The film threatens to back out of its central hook of having its franchise’s two most popular heroes feud, but instead doubles down & gets murderously vicious in its brutal, climactic battle. Sticking to its guns in this way is a brilliant move, as was keeping the film’s true villain, (expertly portrayed by the always-welcome Daniel Brühl) a small pawn in the larger chess game who can stealthily cause a lot of damage. This is a superhero movie where the bad guy wins, which is not something I can’t remember on this large of a scale since, what, The Dark Knight? Because Civil War is just one puzzle piece/stepping stone/drop in the bucket in regards to its massive franchise, that aspect can feel a little drowned out. You know for a fact that the discord will eventually be undone, but for now it feels refreshingly pessimistic considering the supposed sameness of the superhero movie as a medium.
The most impressive thing Civil War did for me was revive my giddiness in the novelty of seeing all of its various “superpeople” sharing the screen in its titular centerpiece action sequence. It’s been at least since the first Avengers film hitting the theaters that I got this excited watching superheroes battle each other. Ant-Man going kaiju, Falcon toying with drones, Spidey geeking out, and Black Widow kicking close range ass (Remind me again why she doesn’t have her own movie yet?) were all touches of pure joy for me, as was the premiere of the fierce feline Kitty Cat Man, er, Black Panther. You could point to so many similarities Civil War shares with Dawn of Justice, not least of all its fretting over superheroes’ dead mommies & the collateral damage incurred while saving the world from an Apocalyptic threat, but the DC films so far seem to entirely miss the point of what makes the MCU so enjoyable. Civil War may wring its hands over concepts like “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all” & the necessity of “doing what has to be done to stave off something worse”, but it’s nowhere near the dour mess delivered by Batman v Superman just a couple months ago. Even early glimpses of the as-yet-unreleased Suicide Squad movie look like the cinematic equivalent of a sad sack’s depressive trip through a Hot Topic lingerie section and that film’s actively trying to ape some of the MCU’s Joss Whedon jokeyness in a conscious effort to lighten the fuck up. It took a lot of work to get there, but the MCU can now have its heroes beat each other into near-death, paralytic submission and somehow have the audience walk away thinking, “That was fun.”
I don’t know exactly how to rank this movie. Did I enjoy it on its own merits or as yet another chapter in a much larger story? These divisions are getting much more difficult to define as I become something closer to an in-the-know fan with these characters’ particular trajectories. Realistically, Civil War is probably just as good as The Winter Soldier or the first Avengers film, both of which I ranked slightly lower, but my enthusiasm has been raised merely through longterm familiarity. I’ve become too entrenched in the Marvel mindset to really look at these films with that outsider perspective anymore. If I end up reading the comic book source material as the next step (and I’ve already broken the seal with the first run of Howard the Duck), I’m in danger of losing total perspective of where I fit in here, except maybe as a Johnny Come Lately. Either that or Civil War did a fantastic job of encapsulating the totality of what makes the MCU a continuously entertaining product, even if its structure is more television-adjacent than it is cinematic. All I know for sure is that I’m enjoying what I’m seeing.
Boomer: I put my non-spoilery notes in the individual review of this film, so please note that here there be spoilers.
I’ll be honest right out of the gate and admit that I never really fully bought into the relationship between Bucky and Steve as something that would be so all-consuming for Cap. I know it’s a popular pairing in the fandom and that the film franchise spends a lot of time telling us about how important they are to each other, but it’s hampered by the fact that Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan share fairly limited screen time in The First Avenger. After Bucky goes off to war, he disappears from the narrative for the entirety of Steve’s training and transformation, only reappearing when Steve, now Captain America, shows up to rescue him from Hydra captivity.
Then they have a montage about all their victories against the Axis, and go on a mission where Bucky “dies.” Everything that happens after that is about the two trying to reunite, and the framing of this relationship as the most important in Steve’s life never really “read” for me in the way that his relationships with Peggy, Natasha, and even Howard Stark did. Winter Soldier is the best movie that this franchise has churned out to date as far as I am concerned, but my affection for it is completely independent of any particular affection for the Steve/Bucky bromance.
Of course, Howard Stark is dead, and we even get to see how in this film (confirming a long-held film-specific fan theory that’s been circulating for a while). Also dead is Tommy Lee Jones’s character from First Avenger, and everyone else that was a part of Steve’s life before he went into the ice, except for Peggy… until the end of Act I. Peggy Carter, the best character in the MCU, dies offscreen in Civil War, passing painlessly in her sleep. And, yeah, I cried. It was an ugly cry. Rest in peace, Agent Carter. May your televised adventures carry you on forever in our hearts (oh no). Regardless, the fact that Bucky is now the last anchor to the life that Steve had before the 21st century, and in fact the only connection that he has to a time before his life was a never-ending war, strengthens the connection between the two. For the first time, I buy the relationship and its importance as much as Marvel wants me to.
The movie does fail to wring sufficient pathos out of the relationship between Cap and Black Widow this time around. I’m much more invested in their friendship, which we got to see grow and change over the course of Winter Soldier, than the relationship between Steve and Tony, who are barely friends and really only tolerate each other because of Howard’s hero-worship of the former, which was a source of contention for the latter. That tension isn’t fully explored here, especially in comparison to how well Winter Soldier addressed the points of contention between Natasha’s espionage-oriented worldview and Steve’s point of view as a lifelong soldier. As Age of Ultron showed us, Cap fears the end of war (probably because he can’t imagine having a place in a world of peace), which would have been an interesting point to explore here but is ultimately left out.
I’ve been a big fan of Brühl’s work since I was in high school (where the German club hosted a screening of Goodbye, Lenin), and I’m glad that his appearance as a hero of the Nazi army in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds has brought him more exposure in the U.S., but his presence on screen here doesn’t quite measure up. To be fair, a lot of that may have to do with the fact that Civil War has two major plotlines that aren’t happening concurrently so much as intermittently. The framing of Bucky for the bombing of the Sikovia Accord ratification conference sets the stage for conflict between Iron Man and Cap that then takes over the narrative, in a plot that is somehow more light-hearted than the more Winter Soldier-esque plotline involving Zemo and the Winter Soldier Squad. It’s tonally inconsistent, but this is one of those productions that shows having tonal changes in a film doesn’t necessarily mean failure, as the brightly-colored, quippy airport battle brings some much-needed levity to the film before we go back to Siberia (and a quick side trip to an undersea Guantanamo) for the finale. It doesn’t break the seriousness, it just keeps the film from being too dark. Winter Soldier excels because of the consistent grittiness that characterized that picture, but Civil War benefits from mixing it up a bit. Overall, however, any complaints that I have pale in comparison to how much I enjoyed the film.
Brandon: Something that’s difficult to pin down here is the film’s sense of humor This was one of the quieter trips to the theater I’ve had with an MCU picture in terms of audience laughter. A one-liner or two landed here or there, but for the most part that typical Joss Whedon-type yuck-em-up humor was more than a little muted. Ant-Man & Spidey felt like necessary injections of silliness into the two sides of level-headed pondering on the balance between ignoring terrorism & combating it with outsized, unchecked aggression. I had a ton of fun watching this film, but my giddiness was less “That’s hilarious!” and more “That’s so cool!” In the absence of the Whedon-esque humor I found myself reaching for jokes that might not have actually been there. Was the line “Help me, Wanda” a subtle Traci Rearden reference? Did I actually see the Bluth family stair car hiding in the background of that epic airport battle? Was Spidey shooting little web wads in his teen boy bedroom subversively spermy for anyone but me? I can’t tell how far I’m reaching for these.
It seems like Captain America as its own isolated series (as much as it’s allowed to be one) has become more of a political thriller than a joke-a-minute action comedy, despite the lighter tone that made The First Avenger a franchise favorite for me. The next Thor movie is being billed as a road trip buddy comedy helmed by the almighty Taika Waititi, so the MCU is obviously not done with humor altogether. It’s just becoming increasingly unlikely that we’ll ever get my dream title of Captain America: The 100 Year Old Virgin off the ground (especially if Cap’s uncomfortable relationship with the unceremoniously dispensed-with Peggy Carter’s niece continues on its current, inevitably, oddly slimy path; Yikes!).
Boomer: If you’re looking for a basic introduction to the Black Panther mythos, I found the Black Panther animated series created by BET a few years back to be pretty good. It features Djimon Honsou (who appeared in the MCU proper as one of the Kree in Guardians) as the voice of T-Chaka, and features cameos from Captain America, Nightcrawler, and the Juggernaut as well as a recurring role for Storm, as voiced by R&B artist Jill Scott. I never loved the Storm/Black Panther pairing in the comics (it always came off as Marvel curtailing their individual, separate story arcs in order to create a “tokenistic” pairing; admittedly, I might be a bit biased since I always preferred Ororo’s relationship with Forge and hated how their breakup was handled), but it works in that series.
As for how this film relates to the MCU at large, the impact of this film on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was not as immediate as the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier. Agents has been focusing on more Inhuman-related plotlines in the past season and a half, and there was much speculation that the MCU would be using the Inhumans in place of mutants in the franchise, featuring a mass-empowering that would require more government oversight and lead into Civil War. Although that ended up not being the case, the events of Civil War did lead up to an argument between Director Coulson and General Glenn Talbott over the merits of the Sokovia Accords vis-à- vis Inhumans, with Coulson obviously being Team Cap (surprisingly, Agent May was as well, perhaps because the showrunners already used up their May vs. Coulson chip last season with the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.” arc and felt it would be too early to go back to that well). Talbott is eventually brought around to Team Cap, too, but it remains to be seen whether or not the show can recreate the strong endings that characterized the respective finales of Seasons 1 and 2.
And what of the man who can do whatever a spider can? The new Sony-produced flick starring Tom Holland will be titled Homecoming, which was one of the words that was used to activate the Winter Soldier’s sleeper programs. There’s also been news that the new film will include Tony Stark in a key role, possible revisiting the Iron Spider arc from the comics (which led up to Civil War on the page). It remains to be seen how these will become further connected. There are still many other connections that have yet to be followed up on even now (like the fact that the first season of Daredevil revealed that Matt Murdock grew up in the same orphanage as Skye/Daisy, which hasn’t been mentioned since), so it’s unclear what the future holds for the MCU.
In conclusion, this will be the last Agents review for a while. I’ve already written up a piece detailing why we won’t be performing a review of Doctor Strange while it is in theaters, so you can expect to see that review only once it becomes possible for me to watch the movie without contributing to it financially, maybe in early 2017. The next MCU flick that I’m excited for is the sequel to Guardians, which is set to premiere in about a year, so be on the lookout for us then!
Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America 3 – Civil War (2016)
-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.