Captain America: Civil War begins with an operation in Lagos, Nigeria, as the Avengers defend against an armed incursion on the Institute for Infectious Diseases. It’s the sort of furious set piece one often sees in the first minutes of action movies, as conventional as Saturday Night Live’s cold open, and the point of reference is James Bond, or perhaps Jason Bourne: Our heroes rely as much on the amnesiac agent’s rapid-fire form of jujitsu as on their special powers, and the chaos that ensues is akin to the collapse of a building on the Day of the Dead. Even the supernatural becomes an entrée to issues of collateral damage and civilian oversight. When the Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), loses control of one of her hexes, it lands with the force of a misdirected drone strike, an unintended consequence in a war much like our own.
That the film’s interest in the moral quandaries of the present conflict is no more than hand waving might be the kind of criticism that provokes a sigh, or worse, from fans. (“Why do you have to analyze everything?” the polite ones ask. “Why can’t you enjoy things? It’s just a movie!”) But the curious politics of the latest installment in Marvel’s “cinematic universe” demand consideration, if only because the film ultimately deflects its own central question. Though framed as a complex, multifaceted treatment of the responsibilities that come with being the world’s policeman, Captain America: Civil War turns out to be an entertaining, globetrotting paean to unfettered Western might, superhero neo-liberalism in shitty 3D.
The (self-) seriousness of the modern actioner is not unique to Marvel—from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the Bourne franchise to Daniel Craig’s dour Bond, it’s the movies themselves that seem unable to enjoy things these days—and, if anything, MCU mastermind Kevin Feige has guided his stable of writers, directors, and stars toward the playful patter of another era. The most diverting sequence in Civil War, for instance, is essentially apolitical, an intramural confrontation among the Avengers’ two factions peppered with so many inside jokes and sight gags that the ideological underpinnings of the contretemps finally, mercifully, melt away. The rest of the film, by contrast, is fraught with mutant messages from a past with real-life referents, a nauseating brew of misappropriated historical symbols that snatches the ostensible “nuance” of the storytelling from right under the viewer’s nose.
After Wanda’s deadly mishap in Lagos, support swells for U.N. monitoring of the Avengers, and Civil War at first gestures toward a debate between internationalism and the sovereign state—at a moment, notably, in which Britain is reassessing its participation in the European Union and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trumphas deemed NATO “obsolete.” Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) argues in favor of signing on to the Sokovia Accords, claiming that “working without boundaries” makes the Avengers “no better than the bad guys,” while Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) refuses, worried that they’ll be rendered ineffective by bureaucratic red tape. “The safest hands,” he counters, “are still our own.”
That the film prefers the ease of Rogers’ black-and-white worldview over the difficult diplomatic muddle of Stark’s is clear, in retrospect, from the title: This is Captain America’s movie, and despite the title cards that introduce each new location as if it were a timely spy thriller, it bears the retrograde imprint of his wartime creation. In Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the skinny, asthmatic Brooklynite, transformed by Dr. Erskine’s experimental serum, comes of age in combat against Hydra, a super-Nazi world-domination cult—and, within the film’s exaggerated homage to USO tours and Why We Fight, Rogers’ patriotic fervor, if simplistic, is understandable. In the battle against a fascist with a ray gun and a God complex, I’ll take American exceptionalism every time.
In the effort to bring Captain America into Marvel’s near-apocalyptic present, however, the character has been ripped from the context in which his old-fashioned politics might’ve applied, and the result, in Civil War, is a narrative at once obsessed with history and utterly innocent of it. With reference to Lend-Lease, The Manchurian Candidate, Siberian gulags, mind control, and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the film sands down its rich subject matter—the role of the Avengers, sole superpower, in a fast-changing geopolitical landscape—until it resembles a Reagan-esque dispatch from the moral high ground: Captain America: Cold War.
Against the nettlesome (if at times incomprehensible) intricacies of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), in which a fifth column of Hydra loyalists within the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D) sows crisis to win the public’s acquiescence to a dictatorship of surveillance, Civil War reflects a dispiriting retreat into facile us-versus-them thinking. For instance, the villain, Zemo (Daniel Brühl), hails from the “failed state” of Sokovia, where his family perished in the Avengers’ destructive wake, but the details of his plan to pit the heroes against each other suggest one of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist delusions: Wishing “to see an empire fall,” he reactivates brainwashed Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) by reading from a Little Red Book, drawing his adversaries into an internecine tussle that weakens their defenses. By allusion to the actual American POWs (wrongly) suspected of indoctrination during the Korean War, the film subsumes the salient point—that said empire’s unchecked power might in fact create the conditions in which Zemo’s violent extremism takes root—under the more familiar rubric of the Iron Curtain and the Axis of Evil.
In the end, Stark and his erstwhile ally, Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson), maintain their support for the Sokovia Accords only long enough to set up the superhero showdown on the airport tarmac: Civil War’s widely praised interest in a sober, clear-eyed assessment of the Avengers’ function proves more feigned than real. Rather, by mixing (and misapprehending) its historical metaphors—part War on Terror, part Cold War—the film positions Captain America’s call for the Avengers to be free from supervision, to which Stark ultimately accedes, as the extension of a noble cause. “I don’t like bullies,” Rogers says in The First Avenger, passing Erskine’s test of mettle. “I don’t care where they’re from.”
Captain America: Civil War is no more than a fantasy, perhaps, but a fantasy of what, exactly? Of the return to an era in which war’s moral calculus included fewer variables? Of the world’s lone superpower as benevolent superhero? Of America unconstrained by compromise and unquestioned in its judgment? In drawing its political and historical analogies so loosely, Civil War appears to want it both ways: To be seen as “serious” as well as fun, “insightful” as well as exciting, without submitting to the slippery, multivalent meanings that such connections might contain. The danger comes not in enjoying the film, but in seeing its many delights —Tom Holland’s Spiderman, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, the deft weaving together of the comic and the captivating—as an excuse not to analyze it, for in truth Civil War is as blind to the consequences of Cold War logic as its titular character, its peculiar politics frozen in the immaculate ice of 1945.
One need not condone the crimes perpetrated by its adversaries to suggest that the collateral damage wrought by the United States in its successive struggles against communism and terrorism is evidence of our own penchant for bullying and empire building. But for all its supposed commitment to gray areas and tough questions, Civil War falls back, in the final estimation, on the superhero’s superficial shorthand: You’re either with us, or you’re against us. Thus shorn of the understanding that even “the safest hands,” untied, are prone to egregious excesses, to assassinations, invasions, and coups, the film’s allusions to past and present alike register not as a thorny critique of power but as a shallow, even cynical, endorsement of it, one anathema to the spirit of Captain America’s antifascist origins: Might makes right.