Captain America: Civil War confirms our national dumb-down. While the mainstream media pretzel themselves over the presidential primaries, Marvel Studios has steadily accomplished a rejiggering of the American public’s cultural and political consciousness. Civil War completes this devolution in its story of superhero combat where one faction of pop icons, led by Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), faces off against another faction, headed by billionaire genius Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).
As momentary adversaries, Captain America and Iron Man almost represent the schism that now divides American voters, politicians, and pundits. I say “almost,” because the film’s comic-book premise doesn’t inspire reflection upon the dire seriousness of our current ideological civil war.
If anything proves the triviality of Hollywood’s comic-book franchises, it is this disregard of the class realities that truly separate Americans. Working-class poster boy Steve Rogers has no common cause with wealthy authoritarian Tony Stark; the superficial show of patriotism that binds them doesn’t erase the difference between the former’s grunt-worker sacrifice and the latter’s aristocratic expertise. It’s the ultimate sentimental cynicism when Captain America’s devotion to his dangerously conditioned childhood friend Bucky/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) — who represents war’s emotional cost — is used to evoke ambivalence toward the military, while Stark’s authority celebrates the Military (and Hollywood) Industrial Complex.
Is it overreaching — or being humorless — to recognize and critique a piece of entertainment that takes America’s schism lightly? Will fanboys — or for that matter film critics — ever understand that Marvel Studios has engineered a cultural coup that prevents viewers from thinking? How did we get here?
Since comics and graphic novels became popular as counterculture, adolescents have been encouraged to reduce mainstream politics to their own sentimentality. Thus, Marvel’s various superheroes appeal to teenage rebellion: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and the others personify juvenile sensibility. They remain trivial, even as their divisions play out in serial chase scenes, explosions, and technological butt-kicking. Each one’s predicament represents a denial of the moral complexities that come with maturity. Fear of growing up is implicit in both the devious terrorist plots of supervillain Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who harbors childhood dreams of vengeance, and the supercilious wit of Tony Stark, the George Soros/Steve Jobs–type to whom the superfreaks all feel indebted. (As Stark, Downey achieves the same promiscuous waste of talent as hammy British actors of old.
Despite the supergeeks’ arguing either against working for the restrictive capitalist government or for their own sense of doing right and correcting injustice, the fact is, nothing here has gravitas. Civil War is politics as adolescents misperceive social/global crisis. This has been going on for so long (ever since Hollywood realized the bounty to be had in cajoling comic-book culture’s ready audience; since, say, the 1978 Superman film, then 1989’s Batman) that, by now, the brainwashing is complete. The trivializing has grabbed such hold that when a genuine pop artist like Zack Snyder deepens comics lore into visionary, moral art (the profound Man of Steel and Batman v Superman), many fanboys, and critics, react with anger, resentment — and ignorance.
To praise Civil War as entertainment is to accept its puerile conflicts. This is the moral reduction that has happened to American youth culture in the wake of the generational dissents of the Vietnam War. Movies as violent as the Marvel flicks are not pacifist but are proof of anti-military sentiment — such as became evident in the confused Ferguson protestations about “militarized police,” a foolish, redundant term exploited by manipulative media outlets and politicians. Civil War furbishes aggression simply to excite viewers who are as programmed as poor Bucky.
In a similar sense, Civil War exploits recent political trends such as Black Lives Matter. Black actress Alfre Woodard (whose portrayal of a comically psychotic wench was the only convincing characterization in 12 Years a Slave) appears as a grieving mother who blames Stark — standing in for the Military Industrial Complex — for the death of her child, a promising youth with a 3.6 grade-point average. Woodard’s “Who’s going to avenge my son?” shamelessly taps the illusion of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice as Boy Scouts and potential Rhodes scholars. That’s way out of bounds.
This pandering passes for political relevance among non-thinking viewers. So does the film’s multiracial superhero team, especially new inductee Chadwick Boseman (superb as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up) as the offensively named Black Panther, a pseudo-African potentate who possesses suspiciously feline/feminine powers of vengeance. Black comics fans are an immediate target of Marvel Studios’ exploitation. Note the scene where Black Widow, played by the white, ultra-sexy Johansson, is confronted by Black Panther’s aide, a Nubian queen with fore and aft protrusions and powerful swagger. She threatens Black Widow: “Move or you will be moved!”
This patronization is consistent with Marvel Studios’ political infantilizing. The vigilante Avengers’ inability to avoid collateral casualties when fighting the bad guys raises the global body count. These blithe depictions of tragedies precipitate the film’s basic ideological quarrel, similar to that in the powerful Batman v Superman. Yet Civil War’s evaluation of this dilemma, of what’s at stake in American politics, is petulant and trite. Stark critiques the roguish Rogers: “Even when he’s wrong, he thinks he’s right. That makes him dangerous.” This tempts a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren–style American self-reproach, just as Sanders is the model for an early scene of Stark at MIT funding every student’s research proposal. It’s alarming — if not offensive — to see an entertainment film feed this fatuousness to juvenile moviegoers so as to shore up their political fancies.
No wonder Civil War’s big blow-out — half the superheroes pointlessly battling the other half in a Leipzig airport — becomes repetitious and calamitous. It’s the most pointless, decadent scene of the year so far. Directing team Anthony and Joe Russo work by-the-numbers, staging blurry, undecipherable action and rounding up extraneous Marvel characters Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider Man (Tom Holland) for comic relief. It’s rebooting on top of rebooting simply because fanboys love a reboot; that’s how pathetically indoctrinated we’ve become. The Russos’ Iron Man versus Captain America competition appeals to comics fans’ sophomoric cynicism, but the head-banging among invincible beings amounts to nothing; it lacks the magnitude of Batman v Superman’s soulful contemplation of wounded people who are torn and fighting against themselves.
Marvel Studios shows no appreciation of what “civil war” actually means. At least the Wachowski siblings were genuinely implicated in the race/sex struggles of The Matrix (1999), but here, the Russos’ imitation of the Wachowskis’ diversity carnival doesn’t work; it’s not heartfelt theorizing, just exploitation. Without Zack Snyder’s visual wit, Marvel’s tedious, hackneyed formula costs this film’s political allegory its metaphorical heft. And a generation of filmgoers, now accustomed to comic-book pettiness, will lack the proper moral outrage. They’re ill equipped to realize how Civil War’s quasi-politics cheer our current state of incivility as a thrill ride. When everybody’s vengeful this is the trash we get.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.