It used to be that the death of a superhero was an “Imaginary Story” or a What If…? tale. Then, with the death of Superman in 1992, it became all about the publicity, the sales boost, the net dollars.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the accountants. The impermanence, the easy reversibility of death trampled on the audience’s feelings; we felt disrespected and we fought back in the only way we could – with our wallets. And the companies answered with more stunts and more exploitative stories in which heroes like Captain America and Spider-Man died and were brought back, or supporting characters like Aunt May and Jason Todd died and were brought back, and when that stopped working, they revived long-dead characters like Bucky Barnes.
Sometimes it works out. The morphing of Bucky into the Winter Soldier was and continues to be a brilliant piece of storytelling.
And sometimes people who are dead stay dead. Gwen Stacy. Uncle Ben. Karen Page. Thomas and Martha Wayne. Jor-El and Lara. Their deaths are constant echoes in the lives of Spider-Man and Daredevil and Batman and Superman. Their lives continue to reverberate in the hearts of those who loved them.
My father died a week ago today. His death will be a constant echo in my life. His life will always reverberate in my heart.
Captain America: Civil War is complicated, and sprawling, and intense, and funny, and dark, and in the end, nobody wins. It has one of the best multi-superhero fight scenes out there, and yet the first half of the movie is held together by a series of quiet and deeply personal moments that develop numerous character arcs without feeling random or forced. Neither side of the fight along which lines are drawn – over the issue of whether to sign the Sokovia Accords, which will hold the Avengers accountable to the United Nations after their actions in saving the world have caused multiple instances of massive civilian casualties – seems entirely right.
Captain America’s stance of not wanting to abdicate personal responsibility for the Avengers’ actions to people “with agendas” is shown to be dangerous when he violently defends his childhood friend and WWII army buddy Bucky (a.k.a. the Winter Soldier) against all comers, after Bucky is accused of having bombed the conference in Vienna where the Accords are to be ratified. On the other hand, Iron Man’s position of signing over accountability to the UN and his inability to ever consider that he’s “in over his head,” as the Spider-Man of the comics crossover observed, result in pretty much all of his friends ending up in prison for trying to stop the movie’s actual villain, Helmut Zemo, from activating an elite death squad that can be mind-controlled like the Winter Soldier. And with the intricacies of so many main characters with their own views on the issue, there’s a lot to unpack and consider.
So are you confused yet? If you haven’t seen the movie, a) go see it; what are you waiting for? It’s worth it! and b) I’m not surprised at the confusion. The cool thing about the modern MCU is also one of its drawbacks – these movies (thirteen and counting, with a lot more to come) have managed to stay believably within one universe and interweave references to each other in a fairly natural manner while still maintaining their individual styles. That keeps each film fresh and interesting, while also ensuring we want to see more of the whole universe.
The downside of this is that eventually, with the ensemble movies in particular, there is a lot to pack in to make the films work, and they are in danger of collapsing under their own weight. It’s a testament to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo that they got all the moving parts built into this movie to work together like a well-oiled machine instead of dissolving into a messy disaster (did someone say Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice?)
We’ve gotten to a point in the overall MCU story where to fully comprehend the depth of events in Captain America: Civil War, it helps to be familiar with at the very least The Avengers; Captain America: Winter Soldier; and Avengers: Age of Ultron. (It’s best if you’ve seen all the others, too.) What begins in The Avengers – S.H.I.E.L.D. recruiting a bunch of heroes who start out with pretty different viewpoints and struggle to form a cohesive whole – continues in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where we see Steve Rogers/Cap’s resistance to following the government when it strays from his personal values and morality, and his belief in caring for individual people. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we see the results of Tony Stark/Iron Man’s serious accountability issues in pursuit of what he sees as a better future, when he uses something he doesn’t fully understand to complete an A.I. that is supposed to protect the entire world but then tries to kill everyone instead.
By the end of that movie, there’s a fissure within The Avengers – who were not all that stable to begin with – and Captain America’s belief in personal accountability versus Iron Man’s futurist viewpoint stand in stark (no pun intended) contrast to each other.
Captain America: Civil War builds on this and on events of the previous movies by using the immense destruction in New York City during The Avengers and the destruction of the capital city of Sokovia in Age of Ultron as the backdrop for the opening act, in which yet another Avengers’ attempt to stop criminals ends up causing civilian casualties, when Scarlet Witch, the youngest Avenger, accidentally redirects a bomb blast meant for Steve Rogers into a building and kills several Wakandans on a peace mission (a nod to the accidental hero-caused explosion that killed civilians at the beginning of the comics’ Civil War crossover event). This leads to the Sokovia Accords, which 117 countries intend to sign, and which will make the Avengers accountable to the United Nations. The decision of whether each hero will sign the document or “retire” brings out the core issue around which the plot is built.
Although the movie starts with a bang, the series of quieter moments in the first half establishes the stakes and interpersonal relationships that each hero stands to lose when choosing a side as the plot builds the foundation of the civil war itself; creating a world that is less black and white than the comics crossover. And it almost goes without saying in the MCU, but once again the acting in the Marvel movies is top-notch across the board, and the casting choices for new characters are clear winners. Each of the headliners (Chris Evans/Captain America, Robert Downey Jr./Iron Man, Sebastian Stan/Winter Soldier, Chadwick Boseman/Black Panther, Scarlet Johansson/Black Widow, Anthony Mackie/Falcon, Jeremy Renner/Hawkeye, Elizabeth Olsen/Scarlet Witch, Paul Bettany/Vision, Paul Rudd/Ant-Man, Tom Holland/Spider-Man, and Don Cheadle/War Machine) truly embodies the characters we know from the comics and the previous movies; and brings the emotional heart of the movie to the forefront.
The first of the quiet emotional moments occurs soon after Wanda/Scarlet Witch’s mistake costs civilian lives. As she watches the newscasters vilify her, Steve turns the TV off, and together they accept shared blame for the tragedy, as he tells her that they have to learn to live with the collateral damage of trying to save the world because otherwise, next time they might not be able to save anybody. Their mentor/mentee relationship, and Steve’s recognition of her youth and inexperience in the face of the great power she is trying to wield, are clear. Another scene has Tony giving grant money to MIT students in an effort to assuage his guilt over his mistakes (including the creation of Ultron), when he is confronted in an empty backstage hallway by the mother of a boy who died in the Sovokian tragedy while doing aid work; she blames Tony for his death.
And then we have Steve attending the funeral of Peggy Carter, where he receives an almost beyond-the-grave message from Peggy to stand strong for what he believes in via a eulogy from her niece Sharon Carter (surprise, Steve! The pretty neighbor who was spying on you for S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier is actually your first love’s age-appropriate relative!). And the introduction of Black Panther, occurring on either side of the bombing in Vienna, is composed of two deeply personal moments – the first of which shows T’Challa’s desire to be a politic leader who will make his peace-loving father proud, and the second of which flips to his intensity and willingness to take matters into his own hands after his father is killed by the explosion. (T’Challa also acts as an “undecided voter” in the war, in that his agenda is his own, not Cap’s or Iron Man’s; and Black Widow lends some other interesting shades of grey to the ideological debate down the line.)
The bombing sets off a chain reaction of events which results in insanely violent but elegant fights down stairways, on rooftops, and through highway tunnels as first the Bucharest police and then Black Panther try to take down Bucky, as Cap and his more recent sidekick Falcon try to protect him.
On a purely cinematic level, I absolutely adore the way that each superhero’s unique fighting style echoes the comics and looks completely natural on screen, the way Bucky and Cap fight almost as one person when they’re fighting on the same side, and the fun the movie-makers must have had choreographing these and the other hero team-up and civil war scenes. The end result of this fight, though, is everyone being captured and brought in to where Thaddeus Ross (who is now Secretary of State, what whaaaat) is haranguing Tony Stark on the phone about the whole mess. This leads to one of my favorite interactions between actors Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans as Stark tries to get Rogers to sign the Accords so he won’t be prosecuted.
Downey Jr. shows a vulnerable side of Stark that we haven’t seen very often since the first Iron Man, and Evans ability to emote with facial expressions shines as Steve comes close to signing before discovering that Tony has confined Wanda to the Avengers compound. Disappointment and disgust for Tony’s stance are written all over Cap’s face as he makes the final decision not to sign.
But tell me, have we forgotten about Helmut Zemo?
Who? One thing that’s so great about this film is that underneath all of the straightforward politics of Avenger-accountability, and the character moments, there’s also this little mystery growing. In the background of the superhero clashes, Zemo is seen tracking down old Hydra secrets and plotting to get a face-to-face meeting with the Winter Soldier. Once he does, the movie flips into high gear, with action scenes rolling into character introductions resulting in funny asides, and moving back into action.
Despite the intensity and dark elements in this film, it doesn’t lose the trademark heart and humor that runs through the MCU. Vision trying to cook for Wanda to comfort her even though he’s never tasted food; the introduction of Spider-man and his running fight-scene commentary; Ant-Man meeting Captain America (I love other heroes’ reactions to meeting Cap for the first time. I mean, he’s Captain America. I get it.); everything about Hawkeye (can I even encompass how much I love what these movies and Jeremy Renner have done with Hawkeye? Probably not); Cap’s two best friends/sidekicks grumping on each other (tell me there isn’t a little bromance jealousy up in there) – these are the bits that make the heroes seem like real people.
Even in the epic fight scene that has twelve superheroes squaring off against each other, the humor is not lost, and each hero gets to showcase his or her moves and have at least one lighter moment as the battle rages. Every. Single. Thing. About this battle is cool – but hands-down, the stars of the show are Spider-Man, doing his thing for the first time in the MCU proper; and Ant-Man, who literally takes over the scene and has a blast doing it. This is one fight scene I will inevitably rewind and watch twice during any home viewing of the movie (the Guardians of the Galaxy Xandar ship-crash scene is another one).
The aftermath of this fight leads to the final showdown, and for once, I’m not going to spoil things here. Suffice it to say that although hinted at previously, the movie took a turn you might not expect, and that the fallout from the final reveal resulted in an even more personal, we-ain’t-friends-no-more fight than the all-hands-on-deck brawl that came before. (It also brought an epic comic book cover from the crossover to the screen.) And in the end, out of the chaos of the civil war came almost no resolution (with one notable exception), actually less darkness than I expected despite the villain sort-of actually winning this round, and a question as to what the Avengers will look like when next they fill our screens.
I guess we’ll have to wait until May 2018 and 2019 to find out; but in the meantime, this movie is definitely worth the price of admission.
Much like several of my mates here on the ‘Mix, I hit the wall of inspiration. What fell off the top of that wall? Seasonally appropriate random thoughts! So, without further adieu, allow me to waste a bit of your time with all the things I’m thankful for this year!
The Unshaven Comics Fanbase
OK, I know. Pander much, Fishface? Well, suck it, haters. At the top of my comic-centric list of things I’m thankful for are the group of folks who have chosen to flock to my li’l studio make every line I draw worth making. I’ve said it before, and Rao knows I’ll say it again: when a complete stranger is willing to stop and listen to your pitch and see your product and proclaim a positive retort as to the quality of the story and/or visuals, well then, there is little else professionally I find more invigorating. Behind many of those tables in Artist Alley lay men and women still a little bit scared no one will appreciate their wares. And to see that over the last six years or so we’ve raised a small group of loyal fans across Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and over to New York? Well, it means I have plenty of reasons to be glad I spend as much time as I do at the drawing board (er… computer).
Comic Books on TV
How could I not be thankful that my DVR now overflows with the highest quality comic book adaptations on the small(er) screen? They’re not perfect, but Gotham, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and their brethren are delivering far beyond my expectations. Back in the spring when the words “Hail Hydra” were whispered on air, my jaw dropped. Suddenly a decent show became appointment-worthy. And with a few shifts in the team dynamics, some more intrigue, and a little bit o’ Patton, the show continues to be a fancy feast of Marvelous content whilst we wait for the next blockbuster (put a pin in that). Over on the DC side, it’s hard not to smile and geek out over this current iteration of the scarlet speedster. Sure, there’s some similar team-building and freak-of-the-week tropes that were trotted out on the progenitor Arrow, but it was clear from even the pilot that this show was doing it’s damnedest to do it right. And here, almost half a dozen episodes in, and I’m excited to see where The Flash will run to when it’s running at full speed. Natch. Suffice to say, I could go on, but I think it’d be better if I finally type those words Mike Gold was afraid I’d belch out a few months prior:
It’s equally a shame and wonderful when the comic books on TV are higher quality than the ones on the shelf. And for that hypocrisy, I’m very thankful.
Good lord. The Winter Soldier. Days of Future Past. Guardians of the Galaxy. And, heck, Big Hero Six. What more can I say, that hasn’t already been said? How about this: Thank you, Universe*.
* 616, for those who want to be completest. Prove me wrong in 2015, Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Angst.
Giving Up Printed Comics from the Big Two
After my beloved piece from a few weeks back (I mean seriously, it got over 50 likes, kiddos!), I think I made my case for why I’m done with DC and Marvel’s printed fare for the time being. As much as I want to like both of them, frankly, they’ve become too predictable, too bloated, and to prone to too-predictable-too-bloated epic crossovers that I have to read. Well? I’m damn thankful that I don’t have to, and I choose instead to spend my shekels on Image, Boom!, Avatar, and the independent comic book creators who choose to push the boundaries of the medium we all love… and love to criticize.
Not Running Afoul of Michael Davis
I mean seriously, do you read his column? That dude can seek justice, retribution, and vengeance all before breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to when Unshaven Comics gets out to the San Diego Comic Con so we can see the Black Panel for ourselves… and inevitably say something wrong. It’s gonna happen. But for now, I’m totally in the clear. Except I stopped writing reviews for MichaelDavisWorld this year, and uhh… is it too late to take this back? Screw it. Lean into wave, my pappy used to say.
I’m still super duper behind, kiddos. But rest assured, it only took four episodes of Series 8 to assure me two things: Peter Capaldi is my Doctor, and I really do like Doctor Who. I won’t lie. I watched every episode of House so many times I truly wanted the universe to give me Doctor House. Capaldi is as close as I’m gonna get to that, and it’s enough to make me excited to dive into the remaining episodes buried away before the Christmas Special I’m told I’ll need to see. No humbugs needed.
A Bright Present… A Brighter Future
There was so much good in 2014, for us nerds. But the biggest thing I’m most thankful for is that if you’ve read this far? You know that there’s so much more on the horizon. Marvel will continue to dominate the box office. DC will attempt to compete (and competition breeds better products). Once the epic-crossovers are done doing whatever they are doing? The Big Two might even return to telling good stories confined to single books that don’t feel compelled to be unnecessarily gritty, grim, or modern for the sake of a quick sale. OK, that might be a little too optimistic, but I’m in a good mood. Beyond that, I know Unshaven Comics will be launching a major kickstarter when our first graphic novel is complete, and with that will come a new set of problems, solutions, and ultimately fans. It brings everything back full circle, don’t it? Don’t it?