JESSICA ZAFRA | Captain America: Civil War and our turbulent election season
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Captain America: Civil War is set in a time very much like ours, when friends and family are torn apart by opposing views, when everyone thinks she’s doing what’s best for her country and everyone is prepared to fight for his beliefs.
These are scary times. We are fearful because are uncertain. We are fed up and dispirited. We disagree about the right course of action to take, so we fight. We are angry. We act not as a nation but as a collection of tribes with separate interests. What are we to do?
This is what literature and art are for. There is no evolutionary basis for literature and art. Our species can survive without them, but what kind of existence would it be? Unexamined, unmoored, floundering in the primordial soup. Books and art are our solace and defense against the only sure thing in life, which is that we are going to die.
So we turn to them in our hour of need. In this instance the classics are divisive because they remind us of the abyss between us. Not that the classics can ever be irrelevant—everything we read springs from them. There have been superheroes since the Epic of Gilgamesh. There have been ferocious battles since the Iliad. There has been mass destruction since the Book of Genesis. These stories are still with us, but now they are comic book movies.
Those who mock popular culture as commercial silliness disregard two truths. One, as Clive James pointed out there is no successful entertainment fueled by pure cynicism. Its creators are in business for the money, as we all are, but on some level they have to believe in their product. Two, these entertainments reach millions more people than profound intellectual ruminations ever will.
Captain America: Civil War is the latest reminder that Marvel has achieved world domination. It’s awesome: not just a terrific superhero movie, but a terrific movie. My only complaint is that there are so many characters in it so it is impossible to give everyone the screen time they deserve. They all get their moments: Paul Rudd may be Ant-Man, but his real power is the ability to charm our socks off. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is the best friend you want to have. Of the new additions, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther has ferocity and grace, and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is the funny, klutzy, hyperverbal kid of Stan Lee’s comics. One could argue that this movie exists in order to introduce him to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Note: There are two stingers, the first in the middle of the credits, the second at the end.)
Everyone has been given a specific hand-to-hand combat style, from the feline Black Panther (I’m going to nerd out and remind you that in the comics he was married to Storm of the X-Men) to Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) hand gestures to Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johanssen) whirling kicks. Chris Evans has been growing in stature since the underrated first Captain America movie, and now he’s actually a match for Robert Downey, Jr.
Coming off Captain America: Winter Soldier, basically a retelling of the 1970s conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor (complete with Robert Redford), directors Anthony and Joe Russo have made a movie that draws its emotional wallop from real-world issues. To wit:
The world is a scary place.
There is danger everywhere.
Who will protect the people?
Do we look to our leaders as the saviors who will decide when and how to act? Can we count on them to defend us from threats within and without? Don’t they all have agendas? What happens if their agenda dictates that some groups can be sacrificed in the name of order?
Do we take responsibility for ourselves and for our fellow humans? Is this not vigilantism? Do we risk incurring collateral damage? Do we arrogate to ourselves the decision to act?
Captain America: Civil War is a comic book adaptation that acknowledges how difficult it is to do the right thing and to act for the greater good. Friendships are destroyed. Affection turns to distrust. All our assumptions about the people we know fly out the window. But respect must remain. Reason must rule. We must not be motivated by despair.
In one scene, Iron-Man/Tony Stark knocks Captain America/Steve Rogers to the floor and tells him to stay down. Steve Rogers, bruised and bloody, gets to his feet, puts up his fists and says, “I can do this all day.” It takes us back to the first movie, when Steve was a frail and wimpy kid standing up to bullies, and it reminds us that it’s not his enhanced abilities or fighting skills that make him a hero. It’s his spirit. He never quits. He never gives in to hopelessness.
We’re going to need that thought in the coming days.