BIG-TIME SPOILERS BELOW. BE WARNED.
By Aaron J. Amendola and Jarrod Jones. It just wouldn’t do to review Captain America: Civil War, Marvel Studios’ thirteenth superhero film, without taking a moment to address the big elephant in the room — namely, that other superhero slugfest that occurred just five weeks ago. If one is to drag a film through the mud while praising another, when both films superficially accomplish the same thing (smashing two of the world’s most iconic superheroes together in the name of corporate superhero myth-making, if you’ll excuse the argument that they actually don’t), then one had better back it up with some solid reasoning.
Captain America: Civil War is a superior superhero slugfest to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in almost every conceivable way. And after a single viewing of Joe and Anthony Russo’s latest Captain America yarn, where the culmination of eight years and thirteen movies finally coalesced into a satisfying summer blockbuster, one can’t help to look upon Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice with a dissatisfied sneer. But rationale is always better than outright snark, right? (Riiight.)
Submitted for your perusal are six reasons why Civil War does its job far more ably than Dawn of Justice, guest-starring Aaron J. Amendola, host of Chicago’s The Geek Show and Artistic Director at VStheUNIVERSE. Enjoy.
1. Allegories! Allegories everywhere! Comic books work best when they bring superhumans and gods down to our level and tell a story that can parallel what is going on in our lives. (What up, Hawkeye!) Civil War has a subplot that can be seen as a stand-in for those who face addiction. Bucky is out-of-his-mind and becomes a completely different person when he’s under the Winter Soldier programming, and Steve wants to help him “recover,” so to speak. Steve sees Bucky being affected by outside forces and wants to help.
Let’s look at Spider-Man and Iron Man. Peter and Tony share a connection: a love for science and protecting the innocent. Tony steps in to play a father (uncle?) figure and doubles as a hero. Parker just wants to impress Tony so he tries going above and beyond for him. Haven’t we all known someone who’s been there before?
Many of us have been in these situations before, and seeing them play out onscreen is not only cathartic but helpful for those looking for answers. BvS doesn’t bother with allegory, it goes for shock value. DC’s heroes may be gods, but in order for them to work, somebody needs to remember that the appeal of superhero stories is decidedly the human connection. Being able to relate to Tony’s thirst for more and Steve’s rampant idealism is one thing, but seeing these titans deal with muggle-level threats is what makes them culturally relevant. — AJA
2. It makes do with what it has — beautifully. To say that Warner Bros has every advantage over Marvel Studios is just plain fact. It has the entire DC Universe at its disposal, hindered not by contractual handicaps — something that only seems to be working in Marvel’s favor more and more as the years progress. (Hello, Spidey!) What’s funny about this is that that advantage used to be Warners’ greatest blockbusting strength. Remember, there used to be a time when Batman and Superman were considered the only two safe bets in Hollywood, as far as superhero spectacle was concerned.
Once Marvel’s The Avengers left the rest of Hollywood reading the writing on the wall, long after its one-two punch of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, Warner Bros had only the widely-derided Green Lantern to show for it. In an attempt to build DC a Hollywood dynasty of its very own, Warner Bros’ response to Marvel’s success was a thinly-veiled attempt at recreating lightning in a bottle. Years later, Warners’ attempted to right things by going their own way with Dawn of Justice. The results, it can be safe to say, did not work out in their favor. (Justice League is coming, but it seems that there remains trouble looming for the studio.)
Civil War is made by a studio that has only so much access to its own source material, but it belts out the opera anyway. There’s no Reed Richards or Galactus or Magneto or Wolverine to throw on this superhero schism, a fact that never mattered primarily because Marvel has put their lesser-known properties to work, finding more success with them than they ever had any right to. (Iron Man and Black Panther, especially, have only benefitted from Marvel Studios’ loving care.)
Make no mistake: DC and Warner Bros still have the advantage over Marvel. They have access to every single toy in its toybox. And the fact that Marvel Studios can still blow them out of the water with two of its biggest guns (X-Men and Fantastic Four) tied behind their back speaks volumes to Warners’ near-pathological failure. — JJ
3. It has moral and emotional conflict. One of Civil War’s strongest plays is combining their moral and emotional conflicts into one. We know that the moral conflict of Civil War is that Cap and Iron Man don’t see eye-to-eye on the subject of registration and freedom, but each one of the characters’ stances is backed up by a very strong emotional core that is consistent throughout the entire film.
Let’s be honest here, Cap & Tony are both wrong about their stances to an extent. They’re both being arrogant and pigheaded, two sides of the same coin. Steve plays the part of mascot for morals and liberty, but he is able to showcase that with an emotional connection with his best friend (and returning ‘shipping’ favorite) Bucky Barnes. Tony Stark represents the flip-side, and believes that superhumans need to be put in check, and that idea reaches fever pitch when he sees that The Winter Soldier unceremoniously offed his parents, forever depriving him of a family. Having a disagreement about privacy rights and where the UN should stand on superhumans is one thing. Both sides exacerbate their problems because of the subjectivity tied to the situation.
Batman v. Superman had many failings, but one of the biggest ones lied in the fact that the audience wasn’t invested in the emotional conflicts laid out by Zack Snyder. The circumstances that surrounded the death of Superman were so slipshod that viewers couldn’t feel any weight to the proceedings. When Captain America and Iron Man fight, it is because they have morally different views on something. What ratchets up the tension is knowing that these two have emotional investments the size of the Appalachians behind them. The audience believes in the stakes that Civil War has set up, and that makes the film juicier than BvS ever hoped to be. — AJA
4. Even when ‘Civil War’ fails, it succeeds. Come on, now. Even the most die-hard BvS filmgoers admit that Zack Snyder’s DC movie had its flaws. But there’s a problem with accepting Dawn of Justice on its base level. When Snyder decides to pull the trigger on Batman, erm… pulling a trigger (again and again), or creepily fetishizes The Death of Superman — for no other functioning reason than it made a ton of money for DC Comics that one time — the more discerning viewer begins to notice that there are far more flaws underneath Snyder’s hi-def zeal. It’s like yanking off a Band-Aid only to find the wound has reached the bone.
Civil War has its problems too, and they’re fundamentally identical to Dawn of Justice: it’s ambition is oversized, certain characters — primarily Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo — are all but jettisoned in order to make the conflict between our heroes come full circle. But where Civil War falls short is when it’s working overtime to make sure that future installments matter, and with a lived-in universe to inhabit, those moment carry far more heft. It makes repeat viewings mandatory and marathon screenings of the MCU more cozy.
When Dawn of Justice overreached (which, for this viewer, was far too often) it was for identical reasons, only that it didn’t have the benefit of working with established characters already made familiar to its audience. Warner Bros took the name recognition of Wonder Woman and The Flash for granted by shoving them into their ludicrously angry movie and letting us decide what kind of characters they were (or worse — deciphering their motivations) when we had no idea who these people are — and still don’t.
Civil War‘s biggest sin might be undermining the emotional toil of Black Panther’s imminent solo movie. But therein lies a narrative challenge for Marvel Studios. And that’s a challenge that we as an audience already know they’ll handle with care. The same simply cannot be said for Dawn of Justice. (So… is Superman gonna be the bad guy next time? Who the hell knows?) — JJ
5. It has power and knows how to wield it. Marvel movies are about power. Thor grappled with power and his self-importance. Iron Man’s films were basically a swing at how your privilege can prevent you from seeing the extent of your actions. Even Ant-Man was about creating abilities, but restricting them from people who would use them to do harm. Civil War operates on the same themes but cranks them up to 11. Zack Snyder can’t fathom how to articulate a cogent thought on the idea of power let alone how to wield it.
Civil War offers up incredible scenes of war but they rarely revel in it. The Russos comment on the consequences of this spectacle and how the citizens on the ground level respond to them. Scarlet Witch makes a mistake early on in the film and the look of horror on her face says it all. She has the capacity to not just kill, but slay others if she has to. Spider-Man isn’t the only one who wrestles with great power and great responsibility. Vision, the freakin’ VISION, makes a mistake which costs Rhodey the ability to walk, to which Tony says, “I thought that couldn’t happen.”
Neither could I.
Vision has an Infinity Gem attached to his forehead and controls near-limitless power. In a moment of weakness, he became the subject of Tony’s will and fired a shot that took away a friend’s ability to run. Vision has a hard time understanding how he could’ve done this because a mistake was never a possible conclusion in his mind. He sees firsthand what it means to have power, and how that can affect other people. Seeing a complex machine like Vision ruminate on these events inspire thoughts and discussion that BvS never could’ve dreamed of. Thought-provoking moments like Vision watching Rhodey in the hospital just don’t exist in Zack Snyder’s world because to him it’s not people that matter, but violence. — AJA
6. Two words: Spider. Man. What’s that, you say? “How is that even a point?” Well, I’m getting to that. Civil War had its work cut out for it in juggling the myriad subplots featuring its B-list (Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch) and its heavier hitters (Black Panther, Iron Man, The Winter Soldier), say nothing of its leading man. That’s right, it managed to clearly convey the disparate motivations for every one of these characters, and when the film yanked the rug out from under some of them (either due to nagging allegiance or a revealed secret) you felt the Earth move too. Then the movie decided to throw in the recently-procured Spider-Man, and instead of collapsing under all this weight, it committed.
Admittedly, Dawn of Justice had a tougher time introducing the members of the Justice League, considering it only had one film to work from. But for whatever reason (beyond Snyder’s own hubris), Warner Bros refused to commit to any of them. It insisted that we look towards the future of its own ambitions instead of giving us one reason to care about characters like The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman, leaving us blithely scrolling through our Facebook feeds alongside Wonder Woman while we waited for the Justice part of Dawn of Justice to matter. Spoiler alert: it never did. — JJ
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.