Flying high 

Capt. America boldly goes where no superhero has: inside the human mind


by Willie Krischke

Of all the individual Marvel titles, “Captain America” was probably my least favorite origin story. “Iron Man” introduced us to the lightness and wit that would come to be a Marvel trademark (DC wishes they could manufacture an iota of it,) as well as a character with a believable arc. “Thor” was plenty of fun because director Kenneth Branagh made it feel like Shakespeare. I even liked Hulk – both of them. But “The First Avenger,” the first in the Captain America series, just didn’t work for me, and still doesn’t. It’s too hokey, too romantic, too forced. 

The funny thing is, as all the others got worse with each sequel, Captain American got better. The bottom of the list of Marvel sequels has to be “Iron Man 2,” “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World.” The order doesn’t matter, they all suck. But “The Winter Soldier” (2014) was really, pretty good. And now “Civil War” – which is both a Captain America movie and another team-up – is even better.  

Maybe this movie lacks the whizz-bang, geeky enthusiasm of “Avengers,” which was clearly made by a comic book lover. And yet it’s not overly serious and dark, like – cough – another movie about superheroes versus each other. (DC, are you taking notes? Here’s a note: DO NOT let Zack Snyder direct another movie.  Ever.)

“Civil War” miraculously manages to juggle a ton of characters while also introducing some new ones – most notably, Tom Holland as Spiderman, who effortlessly steals just about every scene he’s in. Instead of saddling him with yet another franchise, can Spider-man just make absolutely awesome guest appearances in all the other movies, like he does in this one? No? OK, thought I’d ask … they won’t give me the “Black Widow” movie I’ve been asking for, either. Sigh. 

It’s really fun to see a comic book movie that is both action-packed and surprisingly, character-driven. We’re pretty used to our superhero movies giving as much thought and nuance to their morality and motivation as they do to their costumes. Good guys fight bad guys, and, at best, the bad guys are sympathetic in a tragic way that doesn’t excuse their behavior. Things are clean and simple, black and white. 

And while “Civil War” has all that – there is a bad guy, with a secret plan and bad motivations who needs to be stopped – it’s definitely a subplot and not all that interesting. It may be what happens in the movie, but it’s not what the movie’s about.  

“Civil War” is about two very different people. One trusts his gut, and it’s never led him wrong. His sense of right and wrong is infallible. He dives headfirst into sticky situations and always comes out on top. He doesn’t need anyone else to tell which battles to fight and which to back away from, maybe because before he was all muscly, he was a little guy who lost a lot of fights. But now he’s a superhero; his body has changed, but his mind hasn’t. He’s always wanted to do good, but now he has the strength to do so. 

The other comes from wealth and privilege. He’s brilliant and has spent his whole life making the impossible possible. But perhaps because of who he was before he was a superhero, he’s not very good at predicting and understanding consequences. Most of his life, his wealth and privilege have shielded him from consequences. Just recently – after the construction of a robot that almost destroyed the world – this truth has hit home, and shaken him to the core. He wants to do good, but knows that left to his own devices, his ego and brain take over and he can’t tell the difference between what he can do and what he should do. In a moment of guilt and humility, he submits himself to oversight, to supervision, because he knows that without it, he can’t be trusted. He can’t even trust himself. 

And that’s the central conflict in “Civil War” – not between good and evil, but between oversight and independence. Who is right? Which is better? It depends on who you trust – your own limited experience or a community that might help you see things you’re blind to but also might decide to use you for their own purposes? Neither is the right answer, black and white, simple as math. And that’s what makes “Civil War” a compelling movie, even when nobody’s punching anybody. It’s really possible to be “Team Cap” or “Team Stark” and defend your answer. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have gone to great lengths to balance the story – including leaving out parts of the comic book series that made it clear Tony Stark was the bad guy here (and personally, I don’t miss the Thor cyborg for a second.) 

To make things even more interesting – I’m telling you, there really are layers to this movie about flying men in tights who shoot lasers at each other – once upon a time, Tony was the rebel who refused to be guided by anyone else, and Steve used to be more than willing to take orders from unseen authorities. But look how far they’ve come, and what they’ve been through over the last several films. Their role reversal is both startling, and completely logical. They both think they’re right, because they both are.  

“Civil War” is great. I doubt there will be a better movie this summer. The Russos have made a movie that richly rewards those who have invested a ton of time in this series but won’t be wasted on those who only watch for the popcorn entertainment value. I watched with my wife, who has seen all the movies but doesn’t remember a thing about them, and her only question was “what are Black Widow’s superpowers again?” Yeah.  About that.