'Captain America: Civil War' Examines Fascistic Undertones in U.S. Heroes

A new superhero film that does not blindly accept America’s image as a mighty, heroic entity, but touches on the moral ambivalence of its power.

Captain America: Civil War Official Trailer

Every new superhero movie released for the summer – and there will be quite a few more this season – arouses two immediate reactions. First, if the new offering is even a little better than “Batman v Superman” – not very difficult, considering how bad that movie was (though it performed well at the box office) – it already seems like a mature, intelligent work. And second, even if the mega-budget production began before the U.S. presidential election campaign devolved into its current surreal, yet horrifying, form, the genre’s theme of proper leadership cannot help but be perceived in the context of the political reality. Even though we’ve seen better movies of its kind, “Captain America: Civil War” evokes both of these reactions. Its 147 minutes are therefore interesting to follow, even if we know all along that every single component is a product of a filmmaking effort whose supreme and only goal is to turn a profit.

Steve Rogers, who became Captain America and is himself America reincarnated as a superhero, is interesting to me. Beyond the usual duality of superhero figures, Rogers as a symbol for America does not blindly accept the nation’s image as a powerful, heroic entity, but rather touches on the moral ambivalence of its might. In other words, not only is the character itself doubled, but it has multiple attitudes towards its own origins, its symbolic nature and the reality in which it operates.

The first Captain America movie, “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), was set during World War II, when the comic-book superhero was first invented to boost the nation’s morale. The film, directed by Joe Johnston, was lackluster, but its focus on the competition to create a supreme form of man, mixed as it was with nostalgia for that war, might have been interesting, if only the movie itself had not been so threadbare.

Captain America then returned as a main hero in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (who also directed the new picture) and set 70 years later, after the superhero had spent decades in a freezer. It was much better than the previous film – one of the best in the genre, really – in part because it exposed the arrogant, irresponsible and even fascistic dimension of the American government in its different branches (the movie’s ironic sophistication was expressed, among other things, in the decision to cast liberal icon Robert Redford as the arch-villain).

Between the first and second pictures, Captain America made an appearance in “The Avengers,” and since then he has also been part of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” both the rather uninspired creations of director Joss Whedon (the Captain also made a cameo appearance in Peyton Reed’s 2015 “Ant-Man,” but the actor playing him, Chris Evans, was not even listed in the credits). Now he has returned in a picture whose main source of interest is not the many action sequences, but rather the dilemma it explores: what are the ideological and moral boundaries within which a superhero can operate? Is the American hero a vigilante, like many of the gunslingers seen in Westerns, or a cinematic cop such as Clint Eastwood’s legendary “Dirty Harry,” or should he be subjected to government control because of the destruction and loss of life that he and his fellow superheroes cause?

Hero or menace?

This image released by Disney shows Elizabeth Olsen, left, Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan in a scene from Marvel's 'Captain America: Civil War.'
Disney/Marvel via AP

In other words, the new “Captain America: Civil War,” whose blunt sub-heading seems to refer to a current danger within America itself, continues what “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” started. It examines the fascistic undertones of America’s heroes, including its superheroes – a quality that has recently become part of the Republican race for the presidency, with Donald Trump seeming as though he stepped out of some new kind of comic book, where the entertaining hero gradually emerges as a menace. 

“Captain America: Civil War” reunites us with many figures from the “Avengers” movies, and we also get to meet some characters we’ve never seen in this franchise before, such as Spider-Man (Tom Holland, star of the new “Spider-Man” movie scheduled for release in 2017). There are also brand new comic book figures, such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, who will appear in a movie of his own in 2018 – the comic-book industry does not rest for a minute). But the central conflict of the movie – which opens with a fight scene in Lagos and reaches a peak in a showy battle fought at the Leipzig Airport – is between Captain America and Iron Man, AKA Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who actually supports the secretary of state (William Hurt) in his plan to have the United Nations supervise the activities of the Avengers, an idea that Captain America opposes. 

Staging a showdown between two superheroes seems like a sure recipe for drama. But whereas the recent clash between Batman and Superman seemed forced, operated in a vacuum, and yielded a cinematic failure, the one between Captain America and Iron Man enhances the convoluted plot of “Captain America: Civil War” (which I will leave to readers to follow with leisurely suspense), adding a level that makes this more than another thoughtless summer product of the Hollywood machine. 

Speaking of the plot, it unfolds at an appropriate pace and includes several surprises and even some intimate scenes nestled in all the action. The Russo brothers’ direction contains the right degree of enthusiasm; the characters are well crafted, and the movie even finds time for the occasional welcome bit of humor and emotion. “Captain America: Civil War” is not a movie whose memory will stay with me long; it will probably fade by the time the next chapter in the franchise rolls around. But it is an enjoyable movie to watch, and that’s something.