By now it is cliché to say that our current obsession with superhero movies is the nation working through post-9/11 trauma. From 2002’s Spiderman II‘s most memorable scene reenacting the idea of “New Yorkers coming together to thank those who saved us” with Toby McGuire’s limp body being lifted and passed from hand to hand, to Batman v Superman two months ago with its dark grey mano a mano fight between alien and technocreated super soldier, like some refocused through a funhouse mirror humanoid looking version of Godzilla v Mothra, the overtones are hard to ignore. When the centerpiece battle seems to involve a skyscraper imploding into a cloud of asbestos and concrete dust every other movie, you might be trying to process something.
Tony Stark: “If we don’t do this, it will be done to us.”
The best of these movies, all of which have come from the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008, do not run at the issue directly, but rather angle their hits off a side wall that surrounds the center trauma. If the Avengers movies suffer from their attempts at processing the destruction of our city centers by malevolent forces we did not see coming and cannot control, the stand alone sidecar movies, which deal with the issues that surround and contribute, are all the better for it. The strongest of these have been the Iron Man and Captain America series. The former dealing with our guilt that it is our own weaponry that we sold for fun and profit, that are being co-opted and used against us by terrorist forces. The latter have been meditations on how trusting our government and the laws put into place to keep us safe only serve to destroy our freedoms, and hurt the ones we love.
If this is how we view the movies, then those saying that this movie should have been titled Avengers 3, (I joking called it Avengers 2 1/2, The Smell of Fear) due to the sheer number of superheroes involved, are incorrect. The theme of this movie is once again about whether we trust our government, and the moral of the story, by the end, is that giving up our freedom for a bit of safety is a dangerous thing. This puts it squarely within the realm of the Captain America movies. That the co-stars of the movie, like Captain America: Winter Soldier, happen to be other superheroes is merely a function of the world Steve Rogers has found himself in. Unlike Iron Man‘s Tony Stark, he does not theoretically have a home full of gadgets, an underling who relationship with him has serious boundary issues to go home to, or Thor‘s Thor, who has an entire other universe to go hang out in. His only friends (and family) are either powered people or the SHIELD bureaucracy. In that way, he is a man who is married to his work.
Tony Stark: I’m trying to prevent you from tearing The Avengers apart.
Steve Rogers: You did that when you signed.
To bring in Tony Stark as part of that family was a savvy move, as this allows some of the Iron Man themes of not having control over the weapons you create to interweave with the notion of how much government overreach is too far. The franchises have tackled these themes separately from each other up until now, but as we all know, that’s not how reality works. Government overreach doesn’t happen in a vacuüm. It happens because we create weapons that we then cannot control. And though we like to pretend that 9/11, in the end, didn’t really change anything but the architecture of the New York skyline, every terrorist attack, and every Avengers adventure that functions in parallel, has traumatic consequences.
By tying all these themes together in a movie still driven by the theme of government overreach, Marvel has done something that was very necessary by the 13th movie in a market that could arguable be considered reaching oversaturation–it made every movie it has done thus far seem like it had a specific purpose, and that it was all always leading up to this moment. Was it? Does it matter? The result is that those who have invested in the series feel as if their dedication has paid off, while those who go to candy colored action films seeking a deeper meaning feel fulfilled.
Falcon: Dude showed up dress like a cat and you don’t want to know more?
It helps that, even in the overstuffed-with-characters moments, everyone is given a chance to have their thread carry through. That means this movie works on several levels. For the old timers, we have Rogers and Stark, and their curious sibling rivalry relationship that stems from Rogers having been a peer of Stark’s estranged late father, and now a peer of the son because that sort of thing happens when one is embedded in ice for 60 years in between. But in between the push and pull of their themes we have the splendid introduction of T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, and wearer of the Black Panther suit. By the time the movie ends, there is no need to introduce him via origin story–the Black Panther warrior status is a thing that’s passed down, and how he comes to rule his faux African country is covered here, as is the introduction of his stand alone’s bad guy, a The Office style nasty piece of work bureaucrat played by Martin Freeman. The movie also takes the time to establish him as a hero of reason and decency, and that it is left to him to bring in the movie’s nominal big bad alive establishes him as someone too on par with Rogers, Stark and company to be considered a newbie character.
Compare that with the introduction of Peter Parker, who the movie takes pains to carve out is a newbie (he was only bitten by the spider six months ago, he’s still wearing the PJ onesie suit when Stark comes to visit.) Everyone has gone gaga over Tom Holland as the best Spider-man we’ve seen so far, and they’re not wrong–if anything it highlights how badly miscast Andrew Garfield was, and how badly Toby McGuire had aged out of the role by the third movie. Though I understand that Spider-man stand alones as part of Phase III were an inevitable consequence of whatever deal the MCU made with Sony to get the character back, personally I have no need of them–I think part of why Holland works so well is that he works well in the ensemble–like say, a stand alone Hawkeye movie, I question is if he would really hold a movie up alone.
Spider-Man: Hey guys, you ever see that really old movie, Empire Strikes Back?
War Machine: Jesus Tony, how old is this guy?
The rest of the gang at this point are known quantities. I never saw the AntMan movie (because I really hate bugs that much), but Paul Rudd’s cameo appearance (and fantastic role in the airport scene fight) have made me question that decision. Black Widow’s ability to play both sides of the debate was the biggest welcome relief of the evening. (And will probably restart cries for her to have her own movie.) Even characters who were not given that much to do–like Hawkeye, Vision and the Scarlet Witch (who is basically sidelined after accidentally setting off the chain of events in the opening) each have their moment. We even get to say goodbye to Peggy Carter (and hello to her niece Sharon Carter–that’s not weird is it?)
All this and we only now turn to the plot. Said plot is pretty simple–Bucky Barnes, Steve Roger’s soviet brainwashed counterpart called the Winter Solider, and oldest friend, is being used and manipulated by a big bad named Zemo. All the reviews who are struggling to keep the spoilers under wraps suggest him to be some sort of megalomaniac super-villain, suggesting he is a threat on par with Hydra or Ultron, but in the end, it’s not so simple. Instead he is a Sokovian man who lost his entire family during the events of Age of Ultron. Like Alfre Woodard’s cameo at the beginning of the movie, where she corners Stark and spills her grief at him for her son’s death in the same catastrophe, he is merely taking it one step further. He doesn’t want to just scream his grief and force them to look at pictures of his lost loved ones, he wants them to hurt each other.
Winter Soldier: Couldn’t you have done that earlier?
And in that, he succeeds. Much is made of the digitally de-aged Downey at the beginning of the film (which is only doubly creepy because Downey was making Brat Pack movies at that age, so those who were de-aging had a certain look already committed to celluloid to aim for, and hit the mark better than should be legal.) But the point of the scene–to put the day Stark’s parents were killed at the forefront of our minds is a necessity, since by the end, it is revealed that it was the Winter Solider sent to kill them. Somehow Steve Rogers already knew that’s how the Starks died, and Tony didn’t (even though Rogers was still in the middle of his ice encasement at the time), and just never told him. The bloody slugfest that follows, as Stark tries to kill Bucky, and Rogers fights to keep him from doing so, is the battle at the heart of the climax of the film. One might say it’s a cheat to bring in the 11th hour “you murdered my parents” angle. But let’s be real–if Captain America and Iron Man were slugging it out over government overreach versus weapons we can’t control it would have had the emotional punch of…well the Batman versus Superman title fight. If there’s one thing Marvel understands that DC Films has failed to so far, it’s that without emotional heart, a civil war between those who should be brothers is just another unengaging spectacle.
Besides, that’s can’t be the reason for the slugfest, since by the movie’s end, Stark’s agreement to sign the Sokovia Accords has been shown to be the huge mistake any Captain America movie would morally preach it to be–those who might have been uncomfortable with Roger’s commitment to Superhero Imperialism notwithstanding. Half the Avengers are locked away in cages in a maximum security prison under the sea, and Stark has to face that it was his insistence on the accords, and that they should all live a life in fear, because half a life is better than none in the first place that put them there. (He himself then goes and breaks the accords–as does Black Panther–to join in the search for Zemo.) By the epilogue, Stark is turning a blind eye as Rogers breaks their compatriots out of jail, as only an American billionaire can, by ignoring the shrieking of government officials and their insistence on enforcing a law he no longer likes.
Vision: If you do this, they will never stop being afraid of you.
Scarlet Witch: I can’t control their fear, only my own.
And with that–Captain America and half the Avengers as criminal escapees, and Iron Man and the other half as putting on a face while skirting the law– we enter what is known as Marvel, Phase III.