Superhero fights are going to be all the rage in 2016. We’ve seen same team fisticuffs before, but next year features a pair of high profile pictures that will spend much more time and emphasis on these conflicts than ever before. Warner Bros. and DC’s BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR are after more than quick dustups to provide cool action beats. These are philosophical debates with far more at stake than super-powered pride.
A key objective in both of these films, since they star beloved characters who still need to be beloved by audiences at the end, is going to be managing the conflicts in a way that allows all opposing sides to still come across as heroes. The footage at last weekend’s D23 EXPO shows Marvel already has a leg up in this area, having given Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) equally valid, but conflicting opinions on what their roles as heroes should be and how they should be held accountable.
Going into CIVIL WAR, we already know that Tony and Steve, while they can work very well together, do not always get along. They nearly come to blows in Marvel’s THE AVENGERS when Steve, the greatest of “The Greatest Generation,” sees in Tony a self-serving non-hero who would never make the kind of sacrifice Steve once lied on enlistments forms to try and make. Tony, ever the cynic, (incorrectly) sees Steve as a blindly loyal soldier who isn’t willing to ask the questions that need to be asked.
Over the course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Two, we see a reversal of roles that sets up each character’s position in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. In CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, Steve watches as S.H.I.E.L.D., the covert agency he’s served since his 70-year nap, crumbling under the weight of an infiltration by Hydra that began as soon as the agency opened its doors. His faith in authority falls along with his employer, but even before he knew how bad it was, Steve was already seeing a troubling disparity between the ideals and principles he fought for and the fear-based leadership of the modern world. Steve is not anti-authority now. He’s just having a difficult time finding people who can be trusted with power.
Philosophically, Tony has evolved into exactly the kind of person Steve is fighting against. At the end of THE AVENGERS, Tony sees what he considers “the end game.” There are plenty more Chitauri where those New York invaders came from and Tony can sense a bigger threat than Loki pulling the strings. We see him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in IRON MAN 3, learning to cope with it, and then having it triggered again by the vision Scarlet Witch put in his mind in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.
Tony is afraid. It’s a reasonable response to all he’s been through, even for a superhero. To reestablish the sense of security he’s lost, Tony is searching for something, anything, that can be a central, theoretically full proof defense system. His desperation is so intense that he is willing to hand over all authority and responsibility for Earth’s protection to artificial intelligence, resulting in the accidental creation of Ultron. It’s easy to look at Tony Stark and see the cockiest guy in the room, but the reality is that he’s the most insecure.
He says the point of all the fighting is to end the fight, but he also shares the real reason behind his hope to pass his responsibilities on to artificial intelligence. Simply put, Tony does not believe in himself and, by extension, his team’s ability to protect the world the next time an alien army comes knocking. Tony knows how flawed he and his teammates are, so he tries to create something better than human. He succeeds with Vision, but only after failing so badly with Ultron.
Tony is an interesting position when AGE OF ULTRON ends. He’s leaving The Avengers without sharing his reasons beyond it being time for him to “tap out.” He doesn’t seem to be haunted by his role in the creation of Ultron. He verbally eschewed that responsibility earlier in the film since, technically, he and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) actually failed to create their artificial intelligence. Even so, Tony opened the door that Ultron eventually walked (or was sent) through.
It can be counted as a flaw in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON that Tony does not directly address his feelings on his indirect creation, but this is a fluid situation and we know that what Tony says does not always match how he feels. That Tony, the man who once relished the opportunity to poke holes in government oversight (see all of his appearances in Phase One), is now advocating an official government body to control all superhero activity shows that he indeed recognizes his responsibility in what has happened to the world in his time as Iron Man, including Ultron.
Tony wanted Ultron to make up for what he saw as a gap in his abilities. He now thinks government control of superheroes is necessary to compensate for the flaws in his own decision-making. As much as guilt and insecurity are factors here, Tony’s position is still completely valid. In the CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR footage, Tony tells Steve, “We have no boundaries; we’re no better than the bad guys.” Tony is not wrong there, as power left unchecked is rarely a good thing.
Tony’s sentiments are shared by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), who appears to be highly involved in the movement Cap opposes. He tells Rogers, “The world owes you an unpayable debt. A great many people see you as a hero, but there are some who prefer the word vigilante. People are afraid.” It is the same fear-based mindset with which Steve was in conflict during CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.
Steve is not an insensitive jerk. He understands the concerns people have, but he’s also observed the cost of taking drastic, preventative action in order to feel safe. In AGE OF ULTRON, he tells Tony, “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time.” Government oversight isn’t automatically the same as a drone strike, which Steve surely recognizes. He also acknowledges that The Avengers’ track record isn’t perfect. In the CIVIL WAR footage, he tells Ross, “This job, you try to save as many as you can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everyone.”
This is not something Steve says lightly. He feels every civilian casualty and we know from AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON that his goal actually is to save everyone. He just can’t successfully achieve that result every time. The idea of checks and balances on superheroes is something Steve Rogers likely agrees with, but he’s been given enough reasons to distrust those who demonstrably do not share the standards and principles of the leaders he took orders from in World War II. We know that those in charge of superheroes are just as susceptible to corruption as anyone else and the last thing Steve wants to see are The Avengers held back by bureaucratic red tape when there are innocent lives that obviously and immediately need saving.
Point being, both sides have a point and a rather good one at that. Tony’s argument has just as much merit as Steve’s which is why audiences won’t have to assign the label of villain to either one of them in order to process and relate the story. Even the Earth-based heroes who find themselves on opposing sides don’t really hate each other with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) asking Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), “Are we still friends?”
Hawkeye responds, “Depends on how hard you hit me.” It’s a funny line, but also speaks truthfully to the situation these heroes are in where they want many of the same things, but disagree over how best to achieve those goals, all while seeing and understanding opposing viewpoints. There is going to be some animosity, with Tony telling Steve in one heated moment, “Sometimes I wanna punch you in your perfect teeth,” but that looks like an instance of frustration boiling over as the philosophical debates become fruitless. The line delivery is not sadistic or villainous.
Marvel has an inherent advantage in presenting a major conflict between its most popular heroes, as audiences have had the opportunity to see these characters and their relationships with one another evolve over time and through formative experiences. There’s no need for any kind of retcon or immediate escalation. All of this has been building and each character’s position has been developed and defined well enough to take this beyond an over-simplified sense of right versus wrong. Audiences can be divided on the issues at hand just like the characters in the film and carry on the debate as they leave the theater.
Moviegoers can rock whichever hat they like, Team Captain America or Team Iron Man, but the endorsement of one side will not be the condemnation of the other. One can agree with Iron Man while still loving Cap, and vice versa. This is not a cheap cop out, but rather a reasonable, non-partisan way of exploring key issues that naturally arise when super-powered beings get together to try and figure out what is in the world’s best interest and how they fit into achieving those ends.
A few more thoughts
The CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR footage screened at the D23 EXPO shows just how far beyond their superhero genre peers Joe and Anthony Russo are as action directors. From the opening shot of Falcon dispatching his drone-like Redwing, to Captain America battling Crossbones (Frank Grillo) and his bladed gauntlets, to Black Widow brutally yet easily dispatching a few thugs, the visceral action that made CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is back. It looks like it’s even been improved upon.
The stakes are high and the drama is big, but as usual, Marvel will be ready to break the tension with humor when needed. When the newly-minted Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), is pulled out of a van and placed in front of Captain America and he reacts like many would. It’s a total geek out as Lang blurts, “Oh my God, you’re Captain America!,” followed by a way too long handshake which Lang recognizes, “I’m shaking your hand too long, aren’t I?”After a quick, “Hey, I know you. You’re great, too,” acknowledgment of Scarlet Witch, Lang ends with a note of gratitude to Cap, “Thinks for thanking of me!”
It is such a fun and funny moment that is immediately going to endear Scott Lang to the audience that missed ANT-MAN, so Marvel can expect a lot of rentals for that film next May.
Finally, and this is another key factor in managing the major conflict in the film, the heart of this movie is the continuation of the Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) story from CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. Facing defeat, Crossbones taunts Cap, “He remembered you, you know. Your pal, your buddy, your Bucky!” The D23 EXPO sizzle reel makes it clear that this is a Captain America movie first and foremost with Steve Rogers tracking down and breaking through to Bucky as the lifeblood of the plot.
We know Cap gets through at some point. He asks his old pal, “You remember me, Buck?” Bucky responds, “Your mother’s name was Sarah and you wore newspapers in your shoes.” Any fear you had that this plot line was going to be set aside to accommodate the gigantic cast of Avengers and other assorted MCU characters can now be put to rest.