A while ago I posted a list of films I’d seen and not reviewed, offering to get down to it on any that were of real interest, and Maksim asked me to “go deep” on Civil War. I recently had the chance to re-watch it and I feel ready to take the plunge. Because this is months late and about one of the year’s biggest commercial successes, I’m just going to assume everyone’s seen it and so spoilers ahoy!
When I reviewed Doctor Strange, one of my friends came back with the best one-line review I’ve seen, unfortunately applicable to almost every superhero film in this new wave, which I think almost needs to be on the poster of these films as a kind of intellectual warning label. We warn people about super, right? Or peanuts? If anything people are more susceptible to this problem and our adversarial justice and political systems seem almost predicated on it:
Contains Inane Dualism
The only thing worse than Dualism is where one of the sides is patently the wrong side. My favourite punching bag for the idea of balance having run amok is climate change debates. In the past couple of weeks I caught a snippet from, I think CNN or somewhere, with a atmospheric scientist and a denier as a “balanced” perspective, when really what I want to see is the all-in grudge match across the median position: are we in for 2 degrees or 6 degrees warming? Because Climate Change is real, and now inexorable, so we just need reporting on the various degrees of pessimism being advocated.
The basic problem with Civil War is the same – the justifications for the accords from within the fiction are so paper-thin and transparently wrong that no matter how much you may try and talk up a balanced perspective, it’s not easy to see why anyone would side with Stark and want them signed. The incidents cited as a justification are all very much about true collateral damage, which makes them inevitable as a collateral consequence of the structure of the basic conflict and hence no amount of “oversight” would have mitigated any one of them – as in fact, SHIELD oversight didn’t mitigate the damage to NYC. These are not “collateral damage” events in the sense we’ve come to expect from the US Drone warfare, for example, in which pre-emptive action is taken against potential foes and civilian lives are measured against the potentiality of a later attack. Without super-heroic interference, the attack on NYC or the successful implementation of Hydra’s death-satelites are little less than the end of conventional civilisation on earth. What on earth is a committee in the UN going to do differently, except introduce delays?
But let’s assume for a moment that in true cinematic fashion, all these things are synecdochic, and there’s a lot more going on that we don’t see. The basic problem then becomes the unreliability of bureaucracies to remain functional within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How long do we give the UN oversight committee to function properly before it follows SHIELD to become a Hydra-adjunct? Best case, it’s going to be subject to the kind of hoodwinking achieved by the power behind the Mandarin, or the kind of profiteering attempted by the villains in Ant Man, or, in fact, the systemic weaknesses exploited by Zemo in this very film. None of which sounds great, and none of which is expressly articulated by the advocates for either side. The reasons each side holds as their motivation are left inscrutibly instinctual. There are a number of plausible, even good, reasons for this, including that extended moral debates are not the right kind of drama for a film being sold on the basis of Iron Man punching Captain America in the face.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for skirting the issue however, is that when I wrote above that the UN couldn’t have changed anything, I was obviously and critically wrong about Ultron. Ultron is precisely the kind of unintended side-effect of meddling with things beyond man’s comprehension, and proper oversight of Stark would pretty severely curtail that kind of misadventure. If the issue at stake is really accountability, then Stark and Black Widow are certainly culpable for their carelessness around the creation of Ultron and the release of SHIELD/Hydra secrets into the public domain. Delving into that can only make Tony out as even more of an angst-ridden martyr than he was in Iron Man 3. If the argument is that the Avengers are all care and no responsibility, that’s an argument that bears some weight – but nothing connects that responsibility to actions in a coherent way, and the argument is thus stillborn, because even if it did there’s not even a gesture towards what mechanisms might be envisaged for monitoring, control, or censure. I can’t help but feel that we’re really not supposed to take the debate seriously in any way, in which case, it’s instructive to ask ourselves why the accomplished creative team behind the film sets up this obvious straw-man, beyond its patent success as an advertising strategy.
What the accords really represent is the democratic impulse, and the paucity of its advocation fits perfectly with the genre-wide ideology that nothing is more dangerous than democracy. Superhero fiction would be uncomfortably fascist in feel if it didn’t take every opportunity to say what it’s not doing and advocate vocally for Truth and Justice and Freedom. What you have is nothing short of Nietzchean Ubermencsh running around proving that they’re necessary. In a way, the rise of the super-villain has alleviated this problem, but the Spiderman I remember from the 1967 show fought mostly ordinary criminals – as did Batman and even Superman in the early days. These heroes don’t so much operate outside the law, as they provide the certitude that law enforcement can’t. Do you ever wonder how successful a prosecution could ever be for a criminal trussed up, mostly sans evidence, left for the police on a corner somewhere? Good luck with that. These ubermensch are effectively and silently grafted onto our system of justice, and every storyline questioning the appropriateness of their methods is given the same truncated support as the accords are given in Civil War. Every failure of conventional law when facing a conventional criminal is an indictment of the system of democratic justice and an endorsement of the validity of the ubermensch as shepherds to our sheepish ordinary public. Where Civil War becomes interesting is in exploring what the personal consequences for this system are, in the character of Tony Stark.
Tony Stark is justly reviled as basically a bad person who essentially makes a single good decision that unfolds over the course of, what, 6 films now. Becoming Iron Man was not a traditional dramatic arc, but a way of expressing his Iconic characteristics via super heroics. The destruction of the “House Party” at the end of Iron Man 3 is a temporary destabilisation of that iconic identity, and rightly, swiftly reversed the next time Iron Man was needed for saving something. A secondary definition that Robin Laws often uses when discussing Iconic characters is that they “restore order”, but it is just the opposite in the case of Iron Man: he and the other Avengers ultimately create disorder as a byproduct of their controlling/ubermensch role and construction. Stark’s flagrant disregard for SHIELD instructions and protocols has helped lead to a world where the heroes have dismantled the state intelligence and defence operatus at the moment when the world is confronted by a genuine existential threat, as glimpsed through the wormhole in The Avengers.
The conflict in Civil War can thus be framed as a crisis of Iconic Identity for Tony Stark, who has begun to recognise the effect his Iconic Identity has had on the world. By endorsing the awards however, Stark is actively searching for a curtailment to himself, for the security he has rejected at every turn. What Stark lacks now, however, is the same thing that allowed him to seamlessly morph from a total arsehole to an arsehole who occasionally saves the world – self awareness. Instead of recognising that he must change – undergo a real dramatic arc – he seeks to act in accordance with his oblivious iconic identity and destroy the remaining order: the Avengers. It is the ultimate act of abdicating responsibility while ostensibly calling for accountability.
Bucky provides the perfect figure onto which Tony’s guilt can be displaced. His crimes are unquestionable, and the specific personal crimes against Tony allow the weakness of his basic logical position to be masked by providing a kind of more righteous vengeance as a motive. Ultimately too, Bucky does feel the consequences of his “crimes”, being sequestered until a solution can be found, and however cynically we might expect that to be very shortly, in the forthcoming Black Panther, it is more of a consequence than anyone other than Nick Fury has ever experienced in the MCU. Because of that scapegoating and deflection, none of these deeper issues are explicitly resolved within the fiction. Captain America is not challenged on his status as a real ubermensch, but nor is his justified lack of faith in bureaucracies demonstrated to be understood by the fiction. It’s a film without a climax, without a resolution of its underlying messages. Effectively it sets up a variety of issues and then abandons them, hopefully to be resolved in the next instalments.