Monday, May 9, 2016

The Politics Of: Captain America - Civil War

When The Omnivore was taking a Karate class--back in the day--one of our Jr. black-belts (yeah, yeah, the guy was like 17--not 9--it wasn't that bad of a class) did a board-breaking demonstration and broke his hand. The instructor said it was good for the audience to see that every once in a while so they knew it wasn't "that easy."

The way Marvel makes complex super-hero blockbusters, it's maybe good that we have things like Batman vs. Superman or The Green Lantern to remind us that, yeah: it isn't that easy.

The first part of this reviews the movie. The second part assumes you have seen it.

Captain America: Civil War

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is its own thing. It borrows from the comics--but it does not hew to them. In the Marvel Comics Civil War story, the battle was over registration of heroes. It's fortunate they fixed that for the movie where it would seriously not have made sense.

In what is effectively The Avengers 3, Civil War gives us a United Nations mandate that the Avengers submit to global authority rather than doing whatever they feel like doing. Tony Stark, confronted by the mother of a child who was killed in one of his actions, sides with the government. Steve Rogers, however, won't submit to the authority of another when he knows he must follow his internal moral code.

As a terrorist begins staging attacks (including one on the UN itself) using Roger's friend, The Winter Soldier as a weapon, Rogers is forced to go rogue (to help his friend) and Stark is dispatched to bring him in. This gives us the set up for one of the best super-hero fights in cinematic history. The movie itself has been criticized for having some of the action scenes go on too long--but really? It does so many things so right that it's hard to criticize it at all.

It brings us the Black Panther, one of Marvel's first black super heroes (and with the exception of the Black Widow, everyone with "Black" in their name, tends to be, well, black). He's cool. He gets some good moves. We get enough of an introduction without having to sit through a lengthy origin story.

Where the movie really excels, though, is Spider-Man. Marvel studios has gotten permission to use their character in conjunction with Sony, who bought it as one of their A-List titles before Marvel started doing their own thing. Sony has made five Spider-Man movies ranging from decent to poor. The more recent ones showed how super-hero movies can do "everything right" and still get it wrong.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had a good actor, great F/X, was even enjoyably light-hearted. The problem is that without any other hero characters, and with a slew of less than interesting villains, the movies keep contorting themselves into narrative knots in an attempt to (a) keep the story moving along but (b) make everything personal and compress it all into 2 hours.

Marvel, conversely, gives us a handful of minutes with Spider-Man and just nails everything. He's younger than the other Spider-Men (and his Aunt May is much younger)--closer to the teenager he's supposed to be. He's got a likable goofyness about him and he's star-struck by Tony Stark. On the battlefield he moves right, he has the chatter down--everything.

Marvel does all of this without an origin story or even an introduction (other than showing NYC and telling us it's QUEENS). After all, who in that theater doesn't already know who Spider-Man is? Of course if Sony had come to the same conclusion they might have saved us yet another Uncle Ben dying scene.

Captain America: Civil War shows that these individual-character stories aren't necessarily limited to that character's spot-light. Yes: Captain America is the central character--but only barely. Marvel isn't afraid to break the mold. They aren't afraid to take chances--and they perform again and again so well that they make it look, well, easy.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics Of: Captain America: Civil War

The central question in Civil War is whether or not the super-humans will agree to operate as required by the United Nations--or follow their own conscience. Tony Stark doesn't want the responsibility for deaths to fall on him alone. Captain America knows he won't be able to leave his conscience aside and rejects the controls. This is the core issue.

Is Civil War Right-Wing?

Nick Schager at The Daily Beast thinks Civil War is a Conservative Manifesto! After all, Captain America rejects the UN Nanny-State in favor of rugged individualism. He's got a point--the UN is probably best known for not getting seriously involved unless the situation aligns with China, the USSR, and America's interests. It's a recipe for inaction.

He also notes that Captain America is proven right--and Iron Man, thankfully not turned into a villain, is proven wrong (or, at least, pretty wrong).

Going even further, Captain America, while probably registered as an Independent (or something) is definitely a person who stands for some Right-Wing points. He's not down on America. He believes in God. Stark, on the other hand, has shut down his weapons division and has renounced hawkishness entirely. Stark is a drunk, a womanizer. He's really rich--but he's vulgar. He's charismatic--but it's a bad-boy vibe compared to Captain America's wholesomeness. 

On the other hand--

Is Civil War Left-Wing?

Jim Geraghty at the National Review Online takes issue with the above analysis, saying that Civil War isn't conservative. Partially that's because Schager takes a bit of a swipe at conservatism (so Geraghty dryly asks who expanded the drone-war . . . perhaps forgetting that that's one of the things that the GOP agrees with Obama on?). It's also because he thinks that the Iron Man team kinda has a point. In the MCU super-battles are terrifying ordeals (and there are alien invasions too).

He also, rightly, notes that a lot of conservatives would have a problem with a rogue SEAL team going around killing people. Sure, so long as they were killing terrorists, that's fine. What if they decided to assassinate President Trump? Don't answer that.

It's also the case that the UN--the symbol of the left wing--is shown to be pretty much "the good guys" and if you're going to have a hero called Black Panther, well, a lot of people in the Republican party don't have very good reactions to that.

The Reality

The answer to whether or not Civil War is left or right-wing is taken in two parts. The first is on a subtext level--what does the film itself think of these positions? Does it distinguish between left and right at all? The second is in a narrative fashion: what does the characterization and morality of the gestalt say? These are more meaningful questions.

On A Subtext Level: On a subtext level, Captain America is right and Iron Man is wrong. Iron Man isn't far wrong--but (a) he tries to kill Bucky when it's clear that Bucky was being mind-controlled and (b) he tries to beat up Captain America which is pretty much always wrong no matter what. The American general and Secretary of State are jerks. Ultimately the audience knows that whatever the "reality" of things like The Hulk running around would be, the heroes being free and able to pursue their conscience is the right answer. The movie makes Iron Man sympathetic--but not right.

Secondly, in terms of actual politics, the MCU tries to be fairly a-political. In The Avengers, a committee (Shield) releases a nuke on New York without even the president on the line. The Omnivore suspects this is done because (a) it's the wrong thing to do but (b) it absolves the Avengers from having to either cast Obama or have a central-casting president (old white-guy). Either way it would distract.

At a subtextual level The Avengers are probably more "libertarian" than anything else. They wish to have near-zero interactions with the government and when it does get involved with them, it's usually a bad thing (consider that the government--Shield--was infiltrated by Hydra). This, however, isn't making any kind of political statement. The Avengers are the good guys. Anything that gets in their way is kind of a bad-guy. Sam Jackson straddles the line--but by virtue of being Sam Jackson, he gets a pass.

On A Narrative Level: On a narrative level Captain America is the incarnation of "the greatest that America can be." As such, he's almost always right and he's more right than any given government will be (he transcends government). Tony Stark is a hero--yes--but a flawed one--so he can be wrong without damaging the character. 

Various people speculating about Batman (or Daredevil) have speculated about whether he causes more problems than he solves. This is not the position of the comics. The axiom of classic super heroes is that they are heroic and they are necessary. Their super-abilities allow them to rise to the level of super-human challenges--but they are not just over-powered vigilantes (you can see Watchmen for that).

As such, they are almost never left or right wing unless the writer is very far down a particular political rabbit hole. They're worried about good and evil--right and wrong--not who can use what bathroom or how badly we should be bombing ISIS (interestingly, ISIS is evil enough to rate an appearance in a comic-book world--they're comic-book level bad guys!).

In any event, the question of government control for super-heroes is not, in Civil War, about the merits of it. It's about Tony Stark's conscience vs. Steve Roger's conscience. everything else is just window-dressing.

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