Why We Fight
Okay, the first thing about this movie is Patty Hearst.
Yeah, you gotta be at least THIS old to get this film.
Patty Hearst, if you can remember the '70's, is the perfect symbol of the violence of that era (it wasn't really all John Travolta and the reinvention of the BeeGees). The heiress to a fortune, kidnapped and brainwashed into violence and bank robbery, and the question was: was she responsible for what she did because of her captivity and suffering and, well, mental breakdown?
The jury said: Yes!
But that's the same issue with "Bucky," the infamous winter soldier, except now we find out he's been brainwashed so thoroughly that a series of Russian words, said in the right order, will send him into both a fighting frenzy, and make him the puppet of whoever says the magic words. So: Patty Hearst with a metal arm and a serious desire to destroy things.
Wrapped around that is the problems of duty and loyalty and who is in charge. The action of "Civil War" is predicated on the stories in "The Avengers" and "Age of Ultron" and "The Winter Soldier", "Captain America," and even "Ant-Man." So basically if you don't know those, you won't watch this. Which should be a weakness (and, in a way, it is), but nobody seems to notice.
(By way of contrast and aside, I can still tell you most of the story line of the much maligned "Batman v. Superman," a movie often unfavorably compared with "Civil War." But that's because the former tells a story complete in itself (Aristotle would be so happy) while CW tells a story that assumes you know all the characters, all their relationships, their backgrounds (especially Paul Rudd's character), or you don't need to know (Spider-Man. And by the way, when did Aunt May ever look like Marisa Tomei? Not that I'm complaining....). It's that assumption that allows the story to start in 1991 in Siberia (you find out where later), jump to 2016, and then bounce around from Cleveland to New York to Berlin to Queens to....well, I lost track at some point. I also lost track of the story, though I know what happened, who it happened to, why it happened, and how important it was to the plot. I've read reviews that said major plot points or characters could have been left out, which leaves me wondering: "What movie did you watch?" I honestly don't see how you remove the Sokovia Accords, Zemo, or even Spider-Man, without damaging the story line (yes, I've seen reviews suggesting all three are superfluous). But I also have a hard time recalling the story line. It's a bit of a blur, actually.)
The problem of who is in charge, for example. Nick Fury ran SHIELD in order to protect Earth from non-terrestrial threats, the kind that appeared in the first Avengers movie. He was still trying to to that in "Ultron," although, as I say, Stark created that threat. Hydra created the Winter Soldier (and destroyed SHIELD), and Thor (in a wholly unrelated story line) fought off some dwarves, or something (I only vaguely remember that one, either). But what matters is that, since no one can obsess over chasing down the Hulk (who doesn't appear here at all, though most of the Avengers do), the government must obsess over controlling the Avengers. Whose major crimes seem to be protecting people from alien invasions or whatever technological monster Tony Frankenstein...er, Stark...cooks up.
I mean, when you really get down to it.
It's supposed to reflect, somehow, the problem of superpowers and the nations that aren't superpowers, and while there is an African king from a fictional country who has a cool black suit and the stamina of Captain America, no one says "When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." Which is probably as African a proverb as "May you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse. (Not so much, IOW.) I couldn't help thinking of it, though, even as I thought that reining in the superpowered people is an idea handled better in "Kingdom Come," and that the real issue here is society v. individuals. Basic Romanticism, in other words; even if Steve Rogers is nobody's idea of a Byronic hero.
You see, the issue in this film is that William Hurt, as the Secretary of State (who apparently has a military record, which is a really interesting blurring of the lines between military and diplomatic worlds. Oh, yeah, Colin Powell; except Hurt seems far more ruthless), really wants to control the super guys. Which kinda seems sensible, since collateral damage is their worst offense, and that can be pretty bad (see the movie; there's more than one person pissed with the Avengers over the fallout from "Ultron"). But is the cure worse than the disease? Maybe it is, because the urge to control is levied against the good guys, not the bad guys. It's the good guys who wind up prisoners; and that in itself is an interesting lesson in who "bad guys" are; because we like to think only bad people are in prison.
"Lord, when did we see you?" Well, when you visited me in prison, for one thing. Remember that one? Yeah; start to see my point now?
Who is in charge, and what are they doing with that power? Hurt's character uses the power of the United Nations to control the good guys. Why? Largely because he can; because they operate in the open at all times. He can't get the bad guys, so he'll do the next best thing. And Tony Stark, still reeling from the revelation that his weapons created death and destruction, is still trying to cope with the power (money, corporation, technology) that makes him both rich and, in a fancy red metal suit, powerful. He crooks his knee to the powers that be because he knows how power works. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, only knows how to be a good American. He follows orders, but not when they stop making sense. And his friend is Patty Hearst, which means his friend is now wholly responsible for what he does. Maybe.
But the interesting thing, I realize this morning, is the consistency of the character of Captain America throughout these movies. SHIELD crashed and burned because it was a huge secret agency bent on being in control, and that very desire for control undermined it's legitimacy (taken over as it was by the force it sought to oppose. The more you oppose something, the more you come to resemble it.) Steve Rogers was hardly a reluctant warrior in "Captain America," but he was a volunteer in a war that was fought by a citizen's army. America didn't not have a standing army before World War II, and didn't plan to have one afterward. The Pentagon was built as an archive, not a permanent HQ for a permanent, standing military (that's the reason it survived 9/11 as well as it did. It was build to hold tons and tons of paper.) The citizens of America were reluctant to enter World War II until Pearl Harbor, and then they only wanted to win and go home (watch "The Best Years of Our Lives," and not the pivotal moment for one of the characters is dismantling the bombers he flew in for the war). So Captain America is not an Ayn Rand libertarian (not my idea, Amanda Marcotte's at Salon) or a confused liberal or a closet authoritarian. He's loyal to his friend from Brooklyn (his best line in "Captain America" is when he tells Red Skull "I'm just a kid from Brooklyn."); what he's not loyal to, is whoever holds the power and claims to be the legitimate authority.
Partly because that's what the people in SHIELD said; partly because Cap understands that the power of war, the power to direct force against a target, is a power that should only be used when the fate of the nation is involved. It should not be used to decide the fate of the nation, to extend its power, to improve its standing in the world. William Hurt's Secretary of State wants to use the UN to control the Avengers and then use them as he, and the U.S., see fit. Tony Stark, ever the weapons manufacturer (he hasn't really changed since he was demonstrating weapons systems just before he was kidnapped, in "Iron Man"), is good with that. Captain America, the throwback to a pre-Pentagon, pre-CIA/NSA world, is not.
Who you gonna call?
The movie actually turns on personal grievance and private motivation. T'Challa sets out to avenge his father's death. Tony Stark, in the end, wants to avenge his parent's deaths. Notable reasons to fight, or we'd all have turned against Batman some time ago. Cap fights to save his friend. His loyalty is concrete, not abstract; he fights for his friend from Brooklyn, not for some vague notion of justice and the American Way. And for this, in many of the reviews I've read, he is wrong; he is the outlier, the Ayn Rand disciple, the loose cannon.
Let me just pause and say how sad that analysis is.
Vengeance is really a poor reason to fight. The movie concludes with that: T'Challa realizes he can't resurrect his father, and his desire for justice by killing his father's killer, is not a desire for justice at all. Tony finds out who killed his parents, and he wants only and eye for an eye. By that point one might feel sorry for Tony, but it's hard to feel sympathy for him. Captain America defends Patty Hearst/Bucky because he is Cap's friend, and Cap is loyal, above all, to his friends. After all, he's not America, or the savior of the world (how'd that work out last time you tried that role, Tony?), or even the king of a fictional African country. If he seeks justice, it is only the justice of a fair shake for his friend who is still, despite his deeds, a friend.
He's just a kid from Brooklyn. And if we really aren't that country anymore, then we really have lost something valuable and precious.