There appear to be two main rules for superhero films. One is shared with many action movies: there has to be a lot of damage to property. Cars burn, streets are ripped up, tall buildings flame and topple. This is great fun, like smashing all your toys so you can get another set, and it allows you to make terrific noises on the soundtrack. The other rule is that there has to be a good deal of brawling, slugging it out man to man, woman to thug or robot, synthetic arm to cyber face. The modern city becomes a high-tech Western saloon, and although there’s plenty of trashed equipment, no one dies, everyone crawls off to film another day. This conclusion is a big attraction to movie producers: the 22nd film in the Marvel series is scheduled for completion in 2019. Captain America: Civil War, now finishing its opening run in the UK, is the 13th in the chain, and the third to have that hero’s name in its title.
Captain America, alias Steve Rogers in the story and Chris Evans in real studio life, is a superhero but doesn’t have superpowers. Well, this statement needs a little qualifying. He can’t stick to a wall, he can’t fly like a rocket or turn himself into a transformer, but he can jump so far and so high that some people would call this flying, he can run faster than a speeding motor car, and his shield doubles as a flying frisbee that never misses its mark and always bounces back into his hand. In an earlier film with his name in the title (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011) he takes on a Nazi work-camp singlehanded, rescues 400 prisoners of war, and in so doing transforms ‘Captain America’ from the name of a tacky bond-selling persona to that of a national hero: the joke becomes a myth, a favourite form of the American dream. It’s true he has received a serum that converted him instantly from an asthmatic weakling into an all too credible hulk, a foot taller than he was, and ready to pose for a body-building ad. But this is offered to us as the magic of science rather than part of the wilder stretches of scientific fantasy.
‘Magic’ is perhaps the key word here, or whatever word we find for infallible, enduring good luck. Our guys and gals can’t lose, and this is surely what the fantasy is about. Not power in itself, or powers in themselves, not making America great again or reminding us how great it always was, not being right about everything or saving the world, but turning every scramble, crisis or mishap into a fight we can and will win. The new film tracks this fantasy faithfully, and indeed has no way of escaping it. But it also does something else. It remembers that if our heroes can’t lose, others can, and the damage in the movie is not just scenic and generic, it is collateral.
The film opens with a battle outside and inside a hospital in Lagos, the heroes trying to prevent the villains from stealing a biological weapon. Captain America is there, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Between them, they can fly, mechanically calibrate distances, drop bombs, kickbox like maniacs, and shoot fire from their fingers, but they have a hard time winning the day, and they do burn a chunk of the hospital and kill some people by mistake. This is not the first time such accidents have happened in the course of the team’s performance of good deeds, and the world is worried – the world here being 117 nations, including the US. Some accords are to be signed that will place a supervising committee in charge of the Avengers’ actions in the future, so that they will look like instruments of some sort of government rather than vigilantes. The Avengers themselves are divided on the subject, with Captain America leading the noes (the team’s freedom to act and to be responsible for their actions is an essential aspect of who they are), and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) leading the yeses (he’s just had a difficult encounter with the mother of a young man they accidentally killed in a preceding film). Both are reasonable positions, and we may, according to our own politics, think either is confirmed or denied by the bomb explosion that hits the UN session in Vienna where the accords are being signed. But nobody looks for another solution, and the film just rides out the deadlock.
Things get complicated when Captain America’s old best pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is suspected of planting the bomb, and the captain decides to save him from what other people call justice: friendship overrides all other claims, even when your friend has been brainwashed by the Russians into being a contract killer. Especially then, perhaps. Needless to say, Bucky is not guilty of the Vienna crime, but no one actually knows that for a while, and the yes-group among the Avengers find themselves trying to arrest the no-group for protecting Bucky. There aren’t quite enough Avengers at this stage for a really good scrap, so Captain America calls on Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Iron Man recruits Spiderman (Tom Holland). There is a great free-for-all at Berlin airport – lots of planes crumpled but no loss of human life – and then the story adjourns to an old Russian fortress where the real killer is hiding among the ice. His plot, like everyone else’s at heart, is to avenge the death of a loved one, and since he knows he wouldn’t be able to kill the Avengers, he thinks he may get them to kill each other off. He does set some of them at each other’s throats, allowing us to witness a truly ludicrous final fistfight that sets Captain America and Bucky against Iron Man. The two vigilantes win against the more corporate hero who has sided with the system, as they could hardly fail to do, for excellent isolationist reasons as well as because there are two of them. Captain America later writes a letter of apology, which we see Iron Man scrutinising quizzically. What will their future relations be like?
This is not the interesting question, though. It’s important that the story starts in the middle of the Second World War, and that our fresh-faced young captain was asleep for seventy years because his plane crashed into an ice-mountain. The premise is that there will always be Nazis of some kind, whenever you wake up, and therefore always a need for the Avengers or some gang like them. The question is when they themselves turn into Nazis, and how we or they would know. There is a moment in The First Avenger, when Captain America in his rubber suit, chasing Germans on motorbikes, seems to be uniformed exactly like the enemy; I couldn’t tell whether he was riding with them or against them. Until he killed them all, that is. A kind of counterpoint to this moment occurs when Hugo Weaving, as the crazed leader of the first set of the putatively eternal Nazis, having already broken with the old, literal lot, takes off his human mask to show the bright-red face a mangled experiment left him with. The monster-mutant face is not half as scary as the one we have been seeing so far, impeccably attuned to the old war movies and the Nazi impersonation of evil.
The fantasy of delegating our fights to our heroes, and enjoying the simplicity of their tussles, will bear a little examination, especially if the fantasy is not only or chiefly about superpowers but about never getting anything wrong. This good fortune would include exceptional moral luck, allowing our virtuous actions, or the ones our delegates perform for us, to have no adverse effect on anyone at all, as if we could clean up the world without getting our hands dirty.