Like most folks who saw it, I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. It was inferior to the previous two Captain America films, in my estimation, but it was better than Age of Ultron. Much can and has been written about the drawbacks of the Marvel/Disney entertainment monolith, and I’ve been ruminating on the film since I saw it. Chuck Bowen recently used Civil War as the occasion to reflect on the State of Summer Cinema. Allow me to use Bowen as the occasion to reflect on everything that Marvel has done right so far. This will get a little dialectical. Bear with me.
Contrary to a cliche that dogs film critics, I don’t enjoy disliking nearly every movie that earns a significant amount of money. My words are carefully chosen. “Disliking” rather than “hating”, because to inspire such a passionate response as hate would require more than a preordained blockbuster usually offers. Works of art are like people: to hate either, one must be accorded a glimpse of their personality first, and a failure to exhibit personality provokes a muffled, low-risk indifference. But try telling people this sort of thing about a Marvel production and you’re a snob.
Of all people, I can empathize with Bowen’s gripe about his own audience’s bad-faith reception. The fact that one may simply not like a film (as opposed to hating, disliking, or any other strongly-agential gerund you please) does not compute for most people. When you’ve seen enough movies, the most common reaction, sadly, is non-reaction. Movies that most folks “love” or “hate” or think of as “just okay” or (God help me) “interesting” are, to the jaded cinephile, just sort of there. It’s almost a mercy when I actively hate a film, because I’m relieved to have my emotions excited by the experience. So what I’m saying is that I totally get what Bowen’s saying here. He’s got some other pity observations, such as when he compares blockbusters to the cautious personality of job interviewees, or that, given the choice simply to skip the requisite blockbusters, “Unending exclusion is dull and estranging,” so it’s probably better to be in the loop than out.
People have short cultural memories, but blockbusters used to occasionally be enjoyable. Even weird. Their plots might have been recycled and disposable, but they had plots, and some of them had ineffably powerful images. Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the most influential of all blockbusters, is almost quaint now in its fealty to the idea of one hero, one villain, a heroine, a few colorful supporting characters, a MacGuffin, and a story that tied all these elements together with pleasurable simplicity. And while its protagonist, Indiana Jones, was an indestructible superman, he also has discernible human characteristics. For one, he clearly liked sex.
Whuh? Not quite sure how Indiana Jones is an “indestructible superman” (fridge-nuking notwithstanding), because the first and third films end with literal di ex machina that emphasize the hero’s relative powerlessness. Also, what the hell does it mean that “he clearly liked sex”? is that the most readily identifiable human characteristic—liking sex? Unlike Tony Stark, for instance?
I’m also unsure how the Thor movies or the first Captain America weren’t pleasurable in their simplicity: one hero, one villain, a heroine, a few colorful supporting characters, a MacGuffin, and a story that tied these elements together. Guardians of the Galaxy had multiple heroes, but it stands as this decade’s superlative example of exactly the kind of film Bowen is complaining that the blockbuster machine doesn’t produce. I haven’t seen some of the other films he name-drops, but if some ivory-tower-bound neckbeard like myself, who sees maybe ten new movies a year anymore, can think of several counterexamples out of hand—taken from the very franchise he’s arguing about—one might get the sense that Bowen’s punching a bit above his weight class. Or simply being obtuse. To wit:
“On a scene-by-scene basis, this new Marvel uber-movie makes almost no sense, hopscotching across dozens of cities and a couple of different timelines, plugging new superheroes such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Spider-Man (Tom Holland), while dropping cute little in-jokes designed to pressure audiences into catching up with past Marvel installments that they may have missed. This is the most irritating component of the new corporate blockbuster: it’s always heckling you to buy more, without ever giving you what you already paid for. It may be called Captain America, and more or less be a sequel to the vastly superior The Winter Soldier, but it offers a buffet of superheroes designed to abound in so much as to offer each audience member enough of what they individually like, so that they can each retrospectively assemble a different, more focused movie in their minds.”
This paragraph foreshadows how Bowen misunderstands Marvel’s project in some very fundamental ways. First, I’m not sure how the film makes no sense on a scene-by-scene basis. It doesn’t really hopscotch different timelines so much as parallel storylines. Most of these scenes are united by the MacGuffin (that’s right, folks—there is one!) of the Sokovia Accords, a multinational agreement among the world’s nations that superheroes require some sort of civilian oversight. Coming on the heels of Ultron’s robot uprising and Hydra’s hijacking of the U. S. military-industrial complex (not to mention the emergence of the Inhumans, if one still considers Marvel’s TV franchises to be part of the same universe), one can understand that non-superheroes might want a say in how the Avengers conduct their affairs.
Civil War is a sequel to Winter Soldier, but it’s more properly a sequel to every Marvel movie to date. Unlike virtually every major franchise produced by Hollywood, Marvel has made a point of making sequels that actually push their characters forward. It’s TV-style serialization—which, in turn, was influenced by early film serialization, so I guess the blockbuster has essentially come full circle. Unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark, which borrowed liberally from the early serials’ tropes, the MCU has borrowed from their episodic structure. More accurately, it uses the serial structure that has been the backbone of superhero comics for going on a century. While it’s fair to say that there are not really any long-term consequences in serialized comics (the medium that gave us the term “retcon”), there are often short- to medium-term consequences. Superman today is (sorta-kinda-pretty-much) the Superman of the 1940s, plus or minus a few powers. But there’s a gravitational power exerted by the shared universes of the two major comics publishers that basically requires their worlds to maintain a certain status quo. Mostly for business reasons: after all, it makes it easier for new readers to jump into a series when the basic premise and stakes are never-changing. There’s also a storytelling exigency, though: long-running series change creative teams from time to time, and it’s easier to do new(ish) things within an established paradigm if you’re not hamstrung by a never-ending series of paradigm shifts introduced by each previous team. It’s more about finding interesting new facets of a superhero (and that hero’s mythos) to explore, rather than totally reinventing the superhero from scratch. The Marvel movies do this better, in my opinion, than the Marvel comics.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe simply has exigencies that the comics do not, and that makes them more appealing to a certain kind of audience. The primary reason why I never got into superhero comics when I was collecting them is that I didn’t have the money or patience to go read everything I needed to know in order to fully appreciate the context of a current story arc. Storytelling in mainstream superhero comics is intransigently incestuous. After all, the whole point of having a shared universe is to do crossovers. That’s great when there’s only, like, a dozen titles in a given universe. It’s enough to induce a panic attack when dozens of titles and hundreds of characters are in play over the course of decades.
What’s worse is that so much of the pathos from these titles comes from the assumption that readers are at least somewhat familiar with the histories of these characters. Imagine watching Star Trek: Generations without ever having seen any TOS episodes or movies and maybe only a handful of TNG. It’s not a great film anyway, but watching Captain Kirk die for real and for good is kind of a kick in the gut if you’re a Trekker in any sense of the word. If you only have the vaguest idea who he is, due mainly to pop culture osmosis, maybe the moment works, but mostly not, I’d wager. The entire film hinges upon two legendary Enterprise captains meeting for the first time for the last time and the torch being officially passed from one generation of the franchise to The Next. If you haven’t been watching Star Trek, there’s no legend. No impact.
For me, reading virtually any major superhero book was like jumping straight into the final season of Lost. There were a few exceptions, as there always are. (I loved Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil, for instance, but then, I’d already read most of Miller’s run and most of Bendis’s thanks to my local library’s shockingly capacious graphic novel collection.) On the whole, though, it simply never mattered to me. Any of it. Or most of it, rather.
However much the Chuck Bowens of the world complain about each installment in MCU being a product placement for other installments, the product line is comparatively sparse if you put it alongside the comics. You want to get caught up before Civil War? ‘Kay. Rent Iron Man (just the first one), the two Avengers movies, and the first two Captain Americas. You don’t need any Hulk, Thor, or Guardians. You don’t need the TV shows. You don’t need the films produced by 20th Century Fox. Will you miss a few inside jokes? Sure. Are you on the hook for 10+ hours of entertainment. Yep.
Know what you’re not on the hook for? Approximately 82,946 comic books, including back issues and current releases, because you happened to pick up the latest X-Men and you don’t know who the hell any of the characters are or why the one guy you do recognize is now a gay psychopath who’s also apparently the clone half-brother of some other character who’s Professor X’s great-granddaughter from an alternate future who is responsible for the sixth (or seventh?) time Wolverine got amnesia and had to go work as a short-order cook in Laos, where he eventually teamed up with the Punisher to take out the assassin/warlord who will (tune in next month! Excelsior!) be responsible for murdering Matt Murdoch’s latest doomed girlfriend, which will somehow precipitate the third superhero Civil War.
Part of me appreciates the operatic plot lunacy and behind-the-scenes organization it takes to pull of stuff like that even halfway successfully. It’s the same part of me that, in the abstract, thinks that soap operas and pro wrestling are kind of cool, in theory. The other part of me looks at my wallet and my time commitments and goes, “Yeah, I can check out the latest Marvel flick every eight months. That’s way more doable.”
It’s doable for movie audiences because the kind of money and organization required for large-scale blockbuster film production can only make movies like this happen every eight months or so. The most marketable part of these movies, apart from the franchise branding, is the truly impressive roster of performers Marvel has assembled. You only get RDJ or Chris Evans for so many movies, so you better spread ‘em out and make ‘em really count. Similarly, Marvel’s scored big with some of its behind-the-scenes hires. Joss Whedon, obviously. James Gunn, though, was a stroke of genius. Guardians of the Galaxy is the single best film in the Marvel MCU, and apart from the first Iron Man, it is the least dependent on the films’ shared mythos.
What will be even more interesting to see is whether Marvel has the ambition and vision to continue the current MCU well past the tenure of its founding players. Chris Evans will be done with Steve Rogers after the Avengers two-parter. Downey, Jr. is likely to bow out sooner than later. Marvel can always recast or reboot, but the cool thing about movies like Ant-Man or Guardians is that they do well without necessarily being based on known quantities. I get that making a movie about Marvel’s first black superhero is a big deal (and more than a little overdue), but seriously: did anybody outside of the comics nerd-o-sphere know who Black Panther was until Marvel stuck him in Civil War? Would Ta-Nahisi Coates have gotten a shot at writing the comic right now without Marvel deciding to branch Panther off into his own film? Would they have chosen to do so if they couldn’t have spliced him into a strong, stable franchise like Captain America first? Things like this are part of the upside of the entertainment-industrial complex. Money + hype = willing viable franchises into existence. (Not always, but you have to admit that momentum is on Marvel’s side at present.) Unlike the comics publishing arm, it’s quite possible that MCU can survive the retirement of its initial flagship characters if there are folks like Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland waiting in the wings. (Or, for heaven’s sake, Scarlett freaking Johansson, who has already appeared in more Marvel movies than everyone but Downey and Evans.) Put another way, it’s possible for MCU to evolve in ways that the Marvel comics universe simply can’t, because we’re talking about two different markets and two different media, one of which depends on real, flesh-and-blood people to play the characters.
Not likely, I admit. Just possible.
I like the idea of the MCU growing and evolving, as it were, in real time. One of the distinct pleasures of watching the Marvel movies since Iron Man has been watching talented stars and writers collaborating to find interesting things to do within the constraints of the franchise. They age. They mature. Downey is a better Tony Stark now than he was in 2008. Chris Evans is a better Steve Rogers. Most movie actors get one film in which to get to know their characters. Downey and Evans have gotten six and five, respectively. To me, their performances reflect that process. And that’s tied to the thing that Bowens gets so, so wrong in his reflection Civil War. It is, in fact, the thing that he misses the most completely.
Would it kill the film-makers to offer just one memorable bit of dialogue? Every spoken line in Civil War serves an expository purpose. Or how about just one image that strives for poetry? Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? Or crying? Or changing allegiances? Or having money problems? Or loving, in a visceral, personal way, rather than in the usual platitudinous fashion that testifies to the needs of teaming up yet again to mount yet another adventure?
Watching Captain America: Civil War, in which positively nothing is at stake, I checked my watch 25 minutes into the film, sighing at the realization that there were nearly two hours remaining. How can audiences stand this? By submitting to the anesthesia of the loudness, I suspect, by comforting themselves with the knowledge that they are, at this moment, doing what culture expects of them. Seeing the “big” thing, the Super Bowl of yearly adventure epics.
The whole point of Bowen’s piece is (I think) to chastise audiences for letting Hollywood get away with selling them all of these films that are structurally the same, but he displays no grasp whatsoever of what has changed from film to film. So doing, he cannot understand why audiences keep showing up.
We’ll set aside haggling over what counts as a memorable line or a poetic image, or even what counts as “loving, in a visceral, personal way,” because I would argue that Civil War utterly hinges on what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls homosociality, and even tweaks it a bit with the role that Black Widow plays in the character dynamics. Let’s focus on three questions. “Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? Or crying? Or changing allegiances?” Let’s take these one at a time. The correct answers (phrased in the form of questions) are, in order:
Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? What, you mean like Peggy Carter? Title character of the Marvel Television Universe’s best series? The love of Steve’s life who kicked ass with him in the first film and died and was buried in Civil War?
Or crying? What, you mean like Wanda, after she blames herself for killing those civilians in the first scene? Or Tony, expressing a mix of sorrow and rage after Rhoadie gets shot down in the climactic fight at the airport? I’m sorry, does a character have to bawl uncontrollably—cry on cue, as it were—in order to count as “crying”?
Or changing allegiances? What, you mean like THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THIS MOVIE? Like how the first Avenger, Captain America (remember the first film’s title?), breaks his allegiance with the Avengers as a matter of conscience, and spends the whole film fighting with his former teammates as a result? Or how Black Widow totally confounds the entire idea of allegiance by trying to remain loyal to both of her friends and teammates, and also has to leave the Avengers as a result? Or how Black Panther goes from trying to murder Bucky to apprehending the real killer when he realizes he’s been duped? I’m actually thoroughly confused by this question. Just so I don’t cause any confusion, this question is not rhetorical: Chuck, did you actually watch Captain America: Civil War?
The purpose of Bowen’s series of facetious queries, of course, is to buttress the claim that “positively nothing is at stake” in Civil War. Again, this would be a totally baffling claim, even if we took Civil War as a case by itself. In the context of the MCU, it is about as objectively wrong as you can get. That is, if context and character development matter to any criticism based on a method of close textual analysis. (Hint: they really do!)
As others have already noted, both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have actually had quite distinctive character arcs across the films in which they’ve appeared. Stark starts out as the reprobate Ayn Randian hero who worships at his own altar and must continually learn and re-learn the principle of self-sacrifice for the greater good. As the films progress, his sense of responsibility becomes less personal (due in large part to the lessons learned from the consequences of his own arrogance) and more based on principle, more directed toward the global community. In the Iron Man films, Tony repeatedly is forced to pay for his mistakes or the mistakes of his family or his corporate empire. Avengers is the first instance we get of Stark sacrificing himself genuinely selflessly. He invents Ultron partly as a psychological defense against his own perceive weakness, but also because he wants to protect Earth proactively from global threats. It is his greatest failure, the culmination of the arrogance displayed in each of his standalone films, and it is what leads this individualist bad boy to push for the institutional restraint of the Sokovia Accords. He knows that he cannot be trusted to hold himself accountable, so he welcomes the prospect of oversight. As the final confrontation with Cap at the end of the film shows, he knows himself quite well—he is unable to stop himself from trying to exact revenge for his parents’ murder. But the Tony Stark of Civil War is one making a conscious effort to restrain his arrogance; only someone with such a fatal flaw could recognize it manifesting in someone else: Steve Rogers.
A paragon of the Greatest Generation, he becomes a superhero principally out of a willingness to put himself at the service of the government to fight evil. Not just for his own sake; because he believes the world to be at stake. When Nick Fury taps him for the Avengers, it’s not much of an issue for him. It is, in fact, Tony’s innate resistance to institutional trust that persuades Cap to question Fury and discover the weapons program that provoked the alien invasion in the first place. He tries to carry on in Winter Soldier, but finds that the institution to which he has devoted his life is utterly infested with the evil he sacrificed himself (in the first film) to wipe out for good. Skepticism toward technocratic solutions to world piece underwrites his hostility to Ultron in Avengers 2, after which it is Tony who is forced to agree. By the end of that film, Steve takes over the Avengers because there is no institution left on earth that he can trust. That need for moral independence is what informs his rebellion against the Sokovia Accords in Civil War. His blind loyalty to Bucky is not merely personal affection and perhaps guilt over what happened to his oldest friend; Steve’s experience in each film has led him to value loyalty among comrades in arms above all else. External constraints, such as SHIELD or Ultron, have only compiled evil upon evil. In his arrogance, Steve believes that he can trust only his own moral compass, so he defies international law, deceives Tony about his parents’ death, and ends the film by founding his own rogue group of vigilantes. The consummate team player has become the ultimate loose cannon.
In short, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’s character arcs have had an inverse trajectory that has been developed carefully and (shockingly) subtly over the course of the last decade, and what is at stake in Civil War is both thematic and personal. Thematically, the film presents two paradigms of the ethical use of force. Iron Man is a good guy, but he requires institutional constraints to use his power ethically, because he fears being a loose cannon. Captain America is a good guy, but he’s a loose cannon, because he fears that institutions will use his power unethically. Personally, Iron Man once again finds that his family’s tragic history traps him in an apparently unending cycle of retribution. Captain America is offered a final chance to save his oldest friend. Iron Man is spends most of the film seeking justice, only to have it turn into vengeance. Captain America is trying to redeem one friend by—to put it bluntly—screwing over another.
There be stakes all over the place. And that’s just for the two lead characters.
More significantly, the stakes really only come into focus if you have, as Bowen says, done what culture expects of you: always checking out the Next Big Thing. Marvel counted on viewers having already invested their time and emotional energy into Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Without that investment, there’s no payoff in Civil War. Just a bunch of latter-day demigods punching each other into buildings and making wisecracks. With that investment, the payoff is witnessing the tragedy of a broken friendship, of an already-broken man being denied justice for his parents, of a once-upright man turning lawless because the lawful institutions have, one by one, betrayed him for half a century. Amid all this tragedy remains hope, of course. That hope is stipulated by the money machine at the heart of MCU. Steve and Tony will reunite in Avengers: Infinity War because they have to. That doesn’t erase the manifold tragedy in Civil War, but it does structurally affirm that, despite the heartbreak and tragedy, heroes will ultimately do what they must simply because they’re heroes.
 If Civil War succeeded in nothing else, it made me terrifically excited for the Black Panther and Spider-Man movies. Boseman will be a great leading man, and there are a ton of exciting possibilities for T’Challa in the MCU. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was both the best and most extraneous part of Civil War. In an already overstuffed film, his was the only new character who didn’t really serve a plot function. The scene where Tony recruits him, however superfluous, at least felt fleshed-out on a character level. In a story that leans so heavily on Tony’s troubled relationship to his dead dad, we get to see Tony get paternal with a kid who has so much in common with him. Peter and Tony both lost their father-figures (Uncle Ben and Howard Stark, respectively), both are nerds, both have taken it on themselves to be heroes outside the law. It’s a rather sweet scene. Also chilling. Just like Howard, Tony places unreasonably high expectations on Peter to manipulate him. The line between Tony turning Peter into his weapon and Tony relating to Peter paternally is blurry here, but that makes it all the more real and resonant, given how the film ends. Still sort of unnecessary, all things considered, but if the writers were going to shoehorn Peter Parker into the film, at least they did their best to make it make sense that Tony would recruit him. Holland and Tomei are sort of perfect as Peter and May, and the airport scene, in retrospect, feels mostly like a proof of concept for the kind of awesomeness (stunning high-flying acrobatics and nerd-witty banter: check!) we can expect from the next Spidey solo film. Sign me up.
 And by the way, I get that Bowens is trying to be cheeky when he asks rhetorically, “Wouldn’t Captain America: Civil War be a more interesting movie if Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) fought over, say, the affections of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose approval they are both clearly jockeying for anyway?” Yes, what a Paulette you are, Chuck, ever-so-subtly and perhaps-(perhaps-not!)-unironically insinuating that Natasha character would be far more effectively deployed as the object of affection in a male rivalry love triangle. Or, wait. No. Actually, I think that makes you a sexist jerk. My mistake.
 Civil War’s villain is also tragic. He is a direct product of the last Avengers film. Zemo has no superpowers, no great resources. Just a keen intellect and the drive to exact revenge. Like Steve, he’s a former soldier whose institutions failed him and those he cared about. Like Tony, he is a genius operating without restraint. Zemo is who Tony Stark might be if left to his own devices, but he justifies his villainy according to Steve Rogers’s ethos. If he’s the dark mirror to each of this film’s heroes, it reflects rather badly on their inability to resolve their differences.