Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Safest Hands

My wife said that if you told her that the Captain America movies would be her favorites among Marvel's offerings five years ago, she'd punch you in the face. She isn't a violent person, so this kind of surprised me, but she said that she would have taken the assertion as a kind of jab in itself. A 'hahaha, you like the boy scout,' kind of deal. On the face of it, he does seem dated and boring. But you know what? The Captain has had the best solo films in Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Civil War makes a hard case for being my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe film, (jockeying against Winter Soldier; another Cap flick). It also holds the distinguished honor of being the best Avengers film. Some spoilers to follow.

Marvel's comic universe has more than a couple problems, but the most serious deficiency is a lack of compelling bad guys. Netflix has done a remarkable job with William Fisk, Kilgrave, and the Punisher. The first Avengers flick also gave Loki a lot more personality than he had in the comics. But deprived of Spider-Man's rogues (who are themselves, hit or miss), and Magneto (Marvel's best antagonist) the MCU has had to scrape for credible and compelling threats. Therefore, turning the good guys against each other is one of the best calls you can make from a narrative perspective. The actual bad guy (because there must be an actual "bad guy") is also refreshing, in that he is not a man trying to conquer the world, but a human with a very credible vendetta, willing to use very human forms of manipulation, subterfuge and cruelty to accomplish his goals.

The movie's centerpiece, an all-out six-on-six slugfest, is the best superhero fight scene I've seen to date. It's a love letter to capes and tights comic fans; an unapologetic nerdgasm captured on film. Reality shattering choreography that shame simple combos like Wolverine's Fastball Special. It's funny too. Great quips between laser blasts, giant punches, telekinesis and webslinging. It's the best Avengers film because the ensemble shines brighter than the other two flicks. There are so many characters that it seems impossible for everybody to get the screen time they deserve, but the personalities are there, and they work the same way they do in comics. I find it interesting that so many people were surprised to find themselves on Team Cap and that they were so bitterly opposed to Iron Man. To begin with, it's Cap's movie; that should give you a big clue, no matter how much you like RDJ's portrayal of Tony Stark. Secondly, Steve Rogers is a paragon of justice while Tony really isn't. He's a juvenile on-again-off-again alcoholic with a god-complex. And, in the Civil War comics, he becomes a straw-man for post 9/11 politics. An avatar of security-over-liberty fascism.

In the movie, his position actually struck me as much more believable. He has a crisis of conscience that echoes the one he had in the first movie; in other words, his actions are coming from the most heroic part of himself. And when he goes full-villain in the last fifteen minutes, his motivations seem perfectly understandable on an individual level. "He killed my mom," is pretty peerless when it comes emotional payloads. I wouldn't have backed the accords in the first place, but if I found myself face-to-face with the black ops bastard who killed my parents? You bet your ass I would try to tear them apart, whether they were brain-washed or not.

My one disappointment with the film echoes the big problem with the Civil War comics. It seemingly sets out to tackle one of the greatest ethical/philosophical problems with superheroes as a concept, and never really articulates a resolution. What can humans do to protect themselves from demi-gods, or at least make themselves feel better about their apocalyptic interventions? The truth is, Marvel can't go there because the answer is very, very dark: we're screwed. Plain and simple. Steve demonstrates that he could sign all the papers the U.N. Security Council wants, but at the end of the day, if one of the good guys decide to go rogue, there is fuck-all we can do about it. Save for Natasha and Clint, he is also the least 'enhanced' individual on the team, and he STILL overcomes everything the world's governments and other heroes throw at him. (Though the movie plays very fast and loose with his speed, strength, and endurance). But image how little we could do against Vision. Or Wanda. Or Thor. Or Hulk.

Super powers are inherently unfair. And the heroes who wield them don't break laws so much as they ignore them. The consequences are laughable. To quote the good season of True Detective, they are "the bad men to keep other bad men from the door." And we love them, because they get to be bad for the 'right' reasons. Their unfair powers empower us, because when we read, we aren't the screaming masses in Manhattan, we're the rule breakers. I know these aren't terribly novel observations, but they feel important all the same.

I also can't help but wonder if there is some form of accountability that doesn't boil down to "my superhero can beat up your superhero; may the best demi-god win." Of everything I've read, Gotham Central is the comic that comes closest to dealing with this issue, because it illustrates that police (and by extension, governments) would be stuck doing damage control rather actual policing. Again: dark. But delicious food for thought if you take this stuff too seriously like I do. I understand that's also the premise of Powers, which I am curious to try.

Back to lighter stuff, Spider-Man was great in the film, and I feel much better about his next outing knowing that we are skipping past Uncle Ben's death, the radioactive spider bite, etc. I was also amused by the deliberate lampshading of Aunt May's uncharacteristic hotness.The humor is there. He belongs in this universe, and his absence was much more keenly felt than the X-Men, or Fantastic 4. Black Panther was also good, but his powers seem a little bland (indestructible suit, martial arts, and retractable claws). Then again, I said the same thing about Cap, so I'm curious to see where they go with him.

There is a special place in my heart for Dr. Strange and they seem to be taking an Inception/Matrix mind-fuck approach with his flick, which is my particular brand of catnip, so I'm sanguine. Whitefacing the Ancient One bruises it, but hopefully the rest of the movie rises above troubling trends.

So yeah. I'm as surprised as you are. I expected to be done by now. But I'm still having fun.

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