Before the screening I attended of Captain America: Civil War, the screen was filled with a message encouraging people to take part in the social media strategy of the film by tweeting either #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan to designate which side they favor. Welcome to the political edition of the Marvel Universe. I’ll save my vote until later.
The film is built around a division within the ranks of the Avengers. After an Avenger mission in Lagos, Nigeria creates severe collateral damage, the governments of the world reach an agreement by which the Avengers will come under the authority and control of a U.N.-like body. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) supports the proposal as a step to keep the Avengers working for the good. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) thinks that the Avengers’ work is too important to allow for government interference. The others tend to fall behind one or the other of these leaders.
When the accord is due to be signed, a bomb goes off near the site, killing several. It appears to be the work of The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers childhood friend Bucky Barns. Captain America sets out to keep Bucky from being killed by those sent to capture him, putting himself on the wrong side of the law. Soon the Avengers are divided into two camps (with a couple of notable non-Avenger additions from the Marvel Universe), one seeking to save and exonerate Bucky, and one determined to bring him to justice. In the meantime, a new superhero, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), an African prince (now king) whose father was killed in the blast, operates in neither camp, but is seeking to bring his own form of justice to the man who killed his father. In time this leads to a battle royal as the two teams face off, eventually to a showdown between Captain America and Iron Man to save Bucky.
So the first political issue is whether government oversight is a good thing or a hindrance. The Avengers have done some serious damage in their attempts to save the world from whatever menace they have been facing. As a group of people with enhanced powers, they are something of a global superpower in themselves. How are they to be held accountable for all that collateral damage that accompanies their fight for the right? But if a government power is involved, won’t that reduce their effectiveness; maybe even prevent them from doing what needs to be done? Iron Man thinks that the team has to be held accountable and that government is necessary for that to happen. Captain America thinks that the government will only get in the way. How do you vote on that issue? TeamCap or TeamIronMan?
Then comes the idea of how we know what is right in a given situation. For Captain America, his loyalty to his friend Bucky transcends even the possibility that he has resumed his role as Winter Soldier. Even if Bucky is responsible for the attack, is he truly responsible or is it a matter of mind control? Should he be summarily done away with in the name of justice and vengeance? For Iron Man, it is just a matter of capturing (or killing if need be) the person who has done this. It’s not his job to wade through the facts beyond what seems obvious to all the world. Does loyalty to a friend (Cap) take precedence over loyalty to what all the world sees as justice (Iron Man)?
And then there is the whole issue of personality. Don’t we often pick our leaders based on some sort of personality cult? Let’s face it, Tony Stark is a bit arrogant, but he still believes in doing what is right (and if it turns a profit, all the better). Steve Rogers comes across as the incarnation of virtue. Yet, as the story plays out, it is Rogers who becomes the criminal and Stark who serves as the sheriff of superherodom. Which side of the law do you want to be on? Vote accordingly.
While I call this the political edition of the Marvel Universe, I do not mean that this is some sort of parody of the current election cycle. However, it is not hard to use this as a lens to consider how it is we pick sides in the election. Worse, we may even be willing to be combative, even with friends, over our visions of the world and those who we think should lead us.
Actually, I’m not willing to cast my vote for either Captain America or Iron Man. Both of them are utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause. That makes it almost impossible for them to find common ground, but even worse, it makes it impossible for them to find any transformation for their character. Repentance is outside their vocabulary. Without some sense of flexibility, they are doomed to end up in those battles that make up much of the film. In short, neither of them really grows in the course of the film.
Beyond that, I don’t think either of them is the person who best represents the options that need to be considered in the film—nor even the most interesting characters. There are two minor characters that really drew me to them. I understand that this is a superhero blockbuster that uses broad strokes (sometimes too broad) to tell the story. But within that there should be room from some subtle looks at character growth and to give us people we can truly connect with because in spite of their superpowers they are like us.
The first of these characters is Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). She is consumed with guilt over what happened in Lagos. She is conflicted over the use of her powers. Her vulnerability as a character grows out of seeing the damage that can be done even with the best of intentions. As the Avengers discuss whether to agree to the new proposal, she is pretty much paralyzed by grief. She never really chooses a side, she is just brought in to one of them. Yet in the process, she begins to discover that her power is not her enemy. It would have been nice to know just how that happened.
They key character for me in the film was Black Panther. He has vowed vengeance on the man who killed his father, and like the two main characters he is convinced of the righteousness of his mission. But he is reflective enough to see the problems that come along with vengeance and can be transformed—and even repent of the course he set out on. This is the character who has the most growth and transformation in the story, but we see far too little of it. (The good news is that Black Panther will be getting his own franchise in the future.) So for me, when it comes to #TeamCap and #TeamIronMan, I say a curse on both your houses. Put me down for #TeamPanther.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures