So this is the year we opened up the toy box and let all our favorite superheroes fight each other. The culmination of countless playground arguments and online debate, two of this year’s biggest films have centered on what happens when comic book characters stop being polite and start getting real.
In Captain America: Civil War, we find Marvel’s cinematic universe at a crossroads. The snappy dialogue we’ve all come to know and love is still there, but humor takes a backseat while our main characters debate where superheroes fit into society’s existing power structures. It’s an interesting premise, but as the increasingly objectionable seven-year-old seated to my right in the theater pointed out, this is not the most accessible movie for kids. Civil War may have earned a PG-13 rating for extended sequences of violence, action, and mayhem, but it’s the lengthy discussions of United Nations’ accords and global peace talks that will make you want to leave the kids at home.
The ripples of large-scale battles in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the fictional eastern European nation of Sokovia continue to be felt as the newly toned-down iteration of the Avengers prepares for an attack in Lagos at the beginning of Civil War. With the Hulk and Thor off on their own adventures, the team now consists of Captain America, Black Widow, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch, who are all doing their best to stop a team of terrorists from stealing some manner of biological weapon. They manage to apprehend the culprits, but not before a suicide bomber takes out a few floors of an office building. This is the Marvel universe we now live in.
The continued collateral damage leads to a push by the U.S. Secretary of State and United Nations to institute a governing body to oversee the world’s growing population of super-humans. As world leaders convene to finalize the agreement, an explosion claims the lives of many of those in attendance. This sets up the main conflict of the film. One of the most commendable aspects of this film is that it takes the time to lay out everyone’s arguments before the punches are thrown.
On one side, we have Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who is trying to make up for the creation of Ultron and the destruction of Sokovia. The guilt-ridden Iron Man puts his support behind the UN’s plan. On the other side, we have Captain America (Chris Evans), who argues that the Avengers need the ability to operate outside of government control. He also wants to absolve his childhood friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), the No. 1 suspect for the UN bombing. This may all seem very grim, and it definitely is at times, but the movie manages to inject a few moments of levity and a truly fun battle royale that serves as the main action centerpiece of the film. So how does Civil War stack up against this year’s other comic book movies?
Well, it’s difficult to talk about Civil War without comparisons to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I’m going to try my best not to rag on DC’s recent franchise launch, which has already taken its share of licks from critics, but looking at the two films side by side says a lot about what works in modern comic book movies and what doesn’t. In terms of superhero showdowns, Marvel wins by sheer screen time alone. The airport battle that was so well promoted during Civil War's ad campaign is easily the most fun moment in either movie. But since we’ve decided to get serious with our superheroes, let’s talk about how each film decides to inject reality into their source material.
Marvel has decided to take the classic characters and place them into real-world situations — terrorist attacks, political jockeying, and talks of homeland security. Dawn of Justice deals with this same subject matter, but the Batman and Superman we’ve come to know and love are barely recognizable. Instead of bringing these two characters into the real world, the filmmakers have just made them miserable, which one might think would make them more relatable to a modern audience, but instead just misses the point about what people get out of these heroes. This becomes clear when you compare what may seem to be two minor scenes in both films.
About half-way through Dawn of Justice, Superman is on a walkabout through some mountains when he stumbles across a vision of Pa Kent, the man who raised him and taught him right from wrong, truth, justice, and the American way. Inexplicably stacking stones on an icy mountaintop, Pa Kent begins to share a story with Superman, who is in need of inspiration. What should be a rousing pep talk that reminds the Kryptonian what it means to be a hero is instead an argument against ever trying to save anything.
As a child, Pa Kent’s family farm was faced with a terrible flood. He and his father worked all night to redirect the deluge and save the crops. The next morning, as a young Pa Kent enjoyed the “hero cake” that his mother baked him, the horses at the neighboring farm drowned because of the actions of the Kents. The floodwaters had to go somewhere, I guess.
While this little story proves to be so absurdly miserable that it comes off as hilarious, it highlights Dawn of Justice’s inability to understand the inspiration that a person can get from superheroes. Luckily, in Civil War, we have Spider-Man, who aside from being the most accurate version of the character we’ve seen on the big screen, is also a reminder that hope does exist in the universe.
Peter Parker has long been the moral compass of the Marvel universe. He doesn’t fit in at high school, and even after he gets his superpowers, everyone still hates him. If that radioactive spider had never bitten him, Parker’s life would still suck. But he still tries. That’s what Spider-Man is about, and that’s what he brings to Civil War.
As Tony Stark recruits Peter Parker to assist in his takedown of Captain America’s team, Stark asks Parker why he does what he does?
In a new spin on Spidey’s old “with great power, comes great responsibility” motto, the teenager explains that when you can do the things that he can do and you choose not to act, the bad things happen because of you. It’s an argument that a person can actually make a positive difference in the world. And that’s why people see all of these movies. People need to be reassured that their actions can matter in a good way. While Civil War may examine both the positive and negative sides of playing a hero, at least it remembers that there are things worth fighting for.