Captain America: Civil War represents the divisions in post-Iraq America

Captain America: Civil War is surprisingly good. Enjoying it does depend fully on one having seen (and liked) all the previous Marvel superhero films. Don’t come to Civil War expected to be properly introduced to any of the characters or to be brought up-to-speed on eight years of plotting. But if you already know and love these characters, get ready to jump in to two-and-a-half hours of frantic action, humorous quips and, wait – what? – interesting political metaphors?

Civil War splits the Avengers into two camps. Confronted with the reality of the collateral damage surrounding their previous adventures, the Avengers are forced to choose sides. Presented by the US Secretary of State with a UN proposal to hold the Avengers accountable, half of our heroes (led by Iron Man) want to acquiesce and the other half (led by Captain America) resist.

Hollywood’s superheroes usually represent America’s traditional obsession with militarism and the projection of force around the world

Iron Man, likely driven by guilt at having created Ultron, believes the Avengers have run amok for too long, and have caused too much harm in their pursuit of heroics without facing any kind of accountability for their actions. But Captain America fears how political agendas could subvert the cause of the Avengers if they were subject to UN control, preventing them from doing good or forcing them to do evil.

Much as Team America recognized, Hollywood’s superheroes (and action heroes in general) tend to represent American values. Usually, they represent America’s aspiration to noble ideals like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; but their violent methods and rejection of authority also represent America’s traditional obsession with militarism and the projection of force around the world in any situation where they think it will do some good, and America’s reluctance to subject itself to any kind of international accountability (see the USA’s refusal to recognize the International Criminal Court). This is how the Avengers have operated for the past eight years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, Iron Man, pre-Civil War, was a major proponent for the independent operation of superheroes, memorably defending his independence before a government committee in Iron Man 2.

In this real-life political context, it became rather incongruent to see crowds lining up to watch American superheroes kick ass around the world.

I get the feeling the Avengers would have approved of President Bush and his neoconservative administration’s military campaign in Iraq, which was waged without approval from the United Nations Security Council. It had everything: a plausible humanitarian cause, a clear villain, and an opportunity to unleash a massive amount of flashy military power in front of the cameras. I can even imagine Iron Man and Captain America leading the fight on the front-lines.

But as we know, not everyone supported the Iraq campaign, either domestically in the United States or around the world. During the subsequent occupation, and following Iraq’s descent into chaos and the rise of Islamic State, the campaign seems to be more widely recognized as unwise in hindsight. The neoconservative impulse in America to intervene in conflicts around the world has largely waned, and been replaced by a stronger desire for diplomacy or isolationism.

The Marvel films were in grave danger of looking out of touch.

In this real-life political context, it became rather incongruent to see crowds lining up to watch American superheroes kick ass around the world. Sure, it was awesome, but wasn’t this the exact kind of gung-ho fist-bump heroics that people had lost faith in? Gradually, it started to dawn on people. Audiences watched the city-wide destruction left in the wake of the Avengers films (and also in DC’s superhero films) and began to wonder: seriously, how many people must have died in this crapstorm?

But our superheroes would move on to the next film, the next wry quip, the next consequence-free punch-up, without so much as a sorry-did-I-break-something? The Marvel films were in grave danger of looking out of touch. They needed to recognise that what the Avengers were doing – even in the pursuit of truth, justice, etc – had consequences. They might not have shown all the dead bodied in a 12-rated film, but we all knew they were there, off screen. There were consequences to the Avengers’ actions, so there had to be consequences for the Avengers.

Civil War wisely acknowledges that our heroes might have genuine political difference without an evil force being behind it all

This is where Civil War comes in, recognising the collateral damage and how the world would react to superheroes operating with impunity. It’s a necessary move for Marvel, to keep their heroes relevant and, well, heroic as opposed to anarchic. It was also necessary for our heroes to adapt to changing American values. America is not as gun-ho or as self-confident as it once was. And politically, the country seems more divided than ever, with each election seeing increasingly polarizing candidates pit against each other. The Avengers in Civil War begin to reflect this.

Iron Man and the Avengers who are willing to submit to governmental oversight represent the internationalists, the diplomats, the ones who no longer believe in American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, Captain America and the Avengers who refuse to give up their freedom to act as they see fit represent the moralists, the eternally self-confident, the ones who see countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia on the UN Committee of Human Rights and think “why would we take advice from them”?

For our heroes to reflect the real America, they must also reflect the fact that serious divisions can’t be papered over easily

To Civil War’s credit, it picks up this theme and runs with it until the end. It doesn’t jettison it in favor of meaningless explosions, and it doesn’t undercut itself by blaming the whole conflict on another evil Hydra plot. (Actually, the “villain” stoking tensions between the Avengers is one of the strongest points in the film.) Civil War wisely acknowledges that our heroes might have genuine political difference without an evil force being behind it all, just as normal Americans have sincere differences of opinion without one side or the other being brainwashed or infiltrated by lizard people.

Initially I was disappointed that the film didn’t conclude in favour of one side or the other. The ending is ambiguous, and makes for a bit of an anti-climax. But for our heroes to reflect the real America, they must also reflect the fact that serious divisions can’t be papered over easily, and the wounds caused by years of culture war will take time to heal, if they ever do.

As always, there are plenty of things to complain about with Civil War. It’s a fun and interesting film, but not a great one. But I’m going to resist the urge to nit-pick and just say that this is a superhero film worth watching because it’s the first in a long time to accept that the world has changed from the time these characters were conceived, and it’s about time they change with it or risk turning from heroes into relics.

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