Marvel’s The Avengers 2: Civil War

In the wake of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was more than ready for someone else to take the series in a new direction. Joss Whedon’s skill at writing witty banter felt forced and awkward in a film that rightfully should play the role of a second part of a trilogy — primarily, in setting up the team we’ve been following for a defeat, from which they can rise from the ashes from in the third chapter.

Ultimately, this didn’t really happen in Ultron, and even the film’s stronger moments were colored by Whedon’s clumsy handling of character (Natasha Romanoff being the primary victim of this) and his almost equally clumsy handling of character death for dramatic effect. In the final battle of Ultron, there is a death presumably meant to evoke some feeling of loss from the audience, but having only known the character in question for a few minutes, fails to do so.

Civil War almost feels like Ultron didn’t happen — and that’s a good thing. The Russo brothers (now at the creative helm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Whedon’s departure) show that their vision for how to use these characters is far more as socially critical than just shiny men in suits.

Story-wise, Civil War comes nipping at the heels of both Ultron and the previous Captain America film, The Winter Soldier. While playing off of the events of Ultron, the film is primarily concerned with the actions of the Winter Soldier, also known as James ‘Bucky’ Barnes, Captain America’s old sidekick-turned-Russian-supervillain.

In contrast to Ultron, Civil War manages to do a lot in a single film and not feel cramped or overly fast in its introductions. We learn of new superheroes seemingly every twenty minutes, and each one feels fleshed out and understandable almost from the get-go. Granted, I’m coming from a background in the comics, which not every audience member will be, but I had some less-superhero-aware friends who’ve backed me up in their sentiments as well.

Moving beyond the actualities of the film, Civil War tackles something about the superhero genre that always looms in the back of every big-budget smash-em-up: necessity. The costumed vigilante — the classic comic book hero — runs up against established protocol time and time again, and eventually someone has to answer for all the wanton destruction.

Civil War opens with a ‘successful’ Avengers mission that ends in the death of 11 civilians (later revealed to be foreign aid workers, adding insult to injury). The Avengers, as a team, are brought to task by multiple federal and international entities. The question posed by the film quickly becomes “what do we do with all you superheroes?”

In the hands of Joss Whedon, I feel like this would have gone very differently. The titular ‘civil war’ would be boiled down to platitudes that opposed one another: “the people must be safe” vs “superheroes are dangerous”. To a certain extent, these arguments happen. But they’re not played as a ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy.

Even in the moments of argument between the ‘sides’ of the ‘war’ (let’s be real: we’re talking about six superheroes versus six superheroes. It’s a high-powered disagreement more than a war) both ‘sides’ seemed… salient. Both sides had a point, and it was deeper than simply “punch bad guys”/”have the cops handle it”.

The end of the film roughly states that both Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Steve Rogers (Captain America) have more in common than they’d ever like to admit. They both are fighting for what they believe is right, and that’s what makes them so dangerous. There is a strength that both of them find in believing they are doing the right thing, and ultimately it’s what gives them a grudging respect for one another.

Superherodom is a complicated thing. There isn’t really a ‘right answer’ all the time. Civil War eschews the classic Marvel supervillain formula (wronged man finds method to blow up superheroes; fails) in favor of a final confrontation between two men who really should be on the same side. The orchestrator of the chaos is a man whose family was killed by the events of Ultron — so, really, by the Avengers. He has every right to feel completely broken by these demigods, seemingly fighting over the planet without care for the rest of earth’s lowly mortals.

Marvel now has a universe that’s big enough (and most importantly, profitable enough) to embed critiques of their own formula into their own film. I’m not a film studies person, and I don’t want to act as if I know that much about the history of film critique — but I do know superheroes, and the one thing superheroes couldn’t live without is an unwavering ability to do things, then question them, then do them again. It’s a method of storytelling that comes up in superhero comics again and again, because there really isn’t a good answer to the question of vigilantism.

Even the act of punching someone until they’re unconscious (the classic ‘nonlethal’ superhero tactic) is an incredibly violent act. It’s not something that you do lightly. I don’t want to get into a critique of superhero violence, because I think it’s somewhat pointless and also already been run into the ground, but the ideology behind it — that a single person with good in their heart is better than a democratic, mass solution — is both key to the superhero myth and its downfall. In a peaceful world, you don’t need superheroes. They exist in broken places, because they have to. They don’t work in peacetime.

And at the end of the movie, after hearing all these arguments about the necessity of superheroes, the questions of safety and public good, the Russos choose to give a nuanced answer. Which really is the most surprising part of the film — their answer is “there isn’t a clean answer.” It doesn’t really end with either ‘side’ winning the ‘war’, just with a lot of people thinking they’re doing the right thing.

It’s all going to be undone in Avengers 3, we all know that. There’ll be a sounding call for the Avengers to reunite, because earth needs heroes again or whatever, and all beefs will be squashed and we’ll all get together to punch the bad guy. Which is fine — I mean, we all expected that. But it’s in this second chapter of the Avengers story where the characters are really shining. Because there isn’t an enemy, really. I mean, there are bad guys, there are small-time villains and I guess Hydra is still out there, somewhere? But really what this movie is showing us is the heroes of the last adventure as soldiers in peacetime. They just still have all their guns, or psychic powers, or whatever.

The film ends with Cap and Tony coming to an agreement and deciding, or being forced to decide, that Bucky Barnes will not face justice for his many, many murders during his time as a mind-controlled assassin. Is this right? I don’t know. Is it ‘just’? Absolutely not. But it ends, so it’s… something.

One of the strongest moments I saw in the film personally (and a vindication that the Black Panther is being characterized well) is the confrontation between the young king T’challa and the man who orchestrated the Civil War, a Sokovian citizen named Zemo.

Zemo is the son of a Hydra agent, but he doesn’t seem aligned with Hydra. He’s just a guy whose family was killed by the Avengers. He is desperate to see them torn apart from the inside. In a sense, he wins. While Tony and Steve are fighting below him in an ancient Hydra experimentation facility, he is sitting in the snow with a gun, prepared to commit suicide.

T’challa, just before the man fires the trigger, knocks it out of his hands and incapacitates him. He tells him that justice will come for him, and that the living were not done with him yet. It’s the ultimate vindication of this idea of justice, that we must both rid ourselves of vengeance and also pursue an eternal quest for ‘justice’. It’s hypocritical. Do we forgive, or do we fight for ‘justice’?

In the end, Zemo is thrown into super-jail, and T’challa goes home to Wakanda. It’s ‘just’. The ‘bad guy’ who did the ‘bad things’ goes to jail, and the heroes walk free. The film seems so aware of this even as it perpetuates the exact structure it critiques, that I have to think there’s some intelligence behind this decision. Superheroes get special treatment. They always do, because, well, we need them? Right? We need heroes. So much, in fact, that we forgive them more than regular people.

I don’t think that Civil War comes to a clean ending, and I’m actually really into that. Turns out, things ending messily is usually how it happens in real life. People get mad at each other, and they still have to work together. Tony Stark and Captain America both believe in the public good, they just have different ideas of how best to do it. It’s an imperfect truce. Maybe I’m reading too much into this (probably) but that’s how life is, sometimes.

Civil War doesn’t live up to its name when it comes to number of combatants, but ideologically it presents something a lot deeper than the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grappled with before. It’s not so much a story about heroes and villains as it is about heroes and how they can be villains as well. It’s a marvelously 21st century look at superheroes.