Why Captain America: Civil War Works (And Why Batman v Superman Didn’t)

Why Captain America: Civil War Works (And Why Batman v Superman Didn’t) May 6, 2016
From Captain America: Civil War, photo from trailer
From Captain America: Civil War, photo from Disney trailer

Captain America: The Civil War might just be Disney/Marvel’s best superhero movie yet. It’s fun. It’s gritty. It’s heartfelt. And most importantly, the movie’s creators know their characters, never trying to make them less than who or what they are.

Are you listening, DC?

It’s interesting that Civil War and Warner Bros. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were released in the very same year given how similar they are. Both feature iconic superheroes punching each other. Both acknowledge that there’s a cost in constantly saving the world—that not even the most powerful people in the world can prevent tragic collateral damage. And both hinge on a critical question: Should these living WMDs submit to some governmental oversight?

But only one of these movies really succeeds as top-notch entertainment. After seeing Civil War fly, I think I understand better why Batman v Superman never quite got off the ground. And it all comes down to why these heroes—ostensibly all on the same side—are fighting each other.

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From Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

In Batman v Superman, director Zack Snyder introduces us to his vision of The Dark Knight—a aging, grizzled vet of way too many shady showdowns to count. This Batman, taking his cues from Frank Miller’s classic-but-brutal (and non-canonical) graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, is bitter and cruel—a good man who’s been twisted, his faithful manservant suggests. And he kinda hates this new arrival, this red-and-blue-clad flyboy from Krypton: Bats believes that Superman doesn’t seem to care about the collateral damage he causes, and he worries that if Supes goes bad, he could go really bad. He believes the guy needs to be checked.

Ironically, that’s exactly how Superman feels about Batman. He reads the stories of this masked marauder (and his increasingly brutal acts of vengeance) and sees an unhinged, secretive vigilante—a guy who operates the bounds of the law. Never mind that much of that Superman also hides his identity and rarely gets congressional approval before he swings into action: Batman, he believes, should be stopped.

All this comes to a head through the mechanizations of Lex Luthor, who feeds Batman’s rage and forces Superman to fight Bats by kidnapping Supes’ mom. Thank goodness they eventually managed to push aside their animosity in time to save the world.

We don’t have that sort of Three’s Company-level misunderstanding in Civil War. After all, Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) are quite familiar with each other—sometimes much to their mutual discomfort.

“The only thing you really fight for is yourself,” Steve tells Tony in The Avengers. “You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.”

“I think I would just cut the wire,” Tony says.

So they’re not exactly besties. But they come to have a great deal of respect for one another. Steve realizes that Tony can make the sacrifice play—and Tony sees that Steve’s more than something that (as he spits in the same movie) “came out of a bottle.”

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From Captain America: Civil War. Photo courtesy Disney trailer

Disney and Marvel, masters of the multi-movie story arc, have given us a couple of do-gooders who might not agree with each other about much … except in their desire to do good. And that’s more than enough to make them more than allies, but friends too.

And so when the central conflict comes into play—whether superheroes should place themselves under the authority of the United Nations, courtesy the Sokovia Accords—there’s no misunderstanding. Captain America, by refusing to sign the Accords (and, eventually, openly defying them to save his onetime BFF, Bucky Barnes), is doing what he thinks is right. Iron Man, as the most vocal supporter of the Accords, is following his conscience, too. In fact, I’d argue that Tony Stark  is at his most principled here: A character who has been defined largely by his flaws—his ego, his alcoholism, his womanizing—is here standing up for something he feels is critically important, to both the future of The Avengers and, perhaps, to the future of the world.

I go into the more spiritual aspects of that disagreement in my conclusion over at Plugged In, by the way, but in this space, let’s just think about what that does to our story—and how satisfying that story ultimately is. In Batman v Superman, we in the audience know the whole conflict between superheroes could be solved with just a heart-to-heart over coffee. If they would just talk to each other, they could work it out. The fact that they don’t makes them feel petty. Small. Less heroic.

In Civil War, there’s no lack of communication. There’s no lack of affection. These are two guys who simply disagree—and each of them have really, really good reasons for why they do. They’re each standing on principle. They’re both making what they believe to be the moral choice. Neither they nor their fellow superheroes are being brainwashed or blackmailed. Everyone has their eyes wide open. And as such, they feel principled, not petty. They are, in a sense, more heroic in their differences, not less.

There’s a beauty in how Marvel sets up this conflict—allowing these superheroes to fight for what they believe is “right” … and yet still fight. It’s a mirror of what often happens in our world, too: Just because we may disagree with each other doesn’t necessarily make one or the other of us evil. (If only our politicians could remember that more often.) And as the movie moves into its gripping conclusion, we feel the rupture of these bonds of affection all the more deeply.

Disney and Marvel understands their heroes. They respect them and fit the movies to the characters, not the other way ’round. Most importantly, they understand why we moviegoers love them so. Here’s to hoping that DC and Warner Bros. come to that same understanding.

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