Exploring the depth and moral complexity of Captain America: Civil War

29 Apr 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

9 mins
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War

Any fan of comic books will inevitably wonder at some point: 'Which superhero is stronger than the other?' 'Who would win in a fight between X and Y'? 'What would happen if...'? These questions are brought to the fore in Captain America: Civil War, the latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following the sprawling Avengers: Age of Ultron and political thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the film sees Cap go head-to-head with Iron Man, when - after numerous instances of mass destruction - political forces decide that the power of the Avengers needs to be kept in check.

After already establishing their many characters over several films, a central challenge for Marvel's filmmakers now lies in keeping the tone fresh and evolving the story while preventing everything from becoming stale. For Civil War, the answer is to pit the characters against each other, presenting them and the audience with real dilemmas over what their politics are and which is the 'right' side to be on. One of the strengths of the series is the depth of its characters, and in this film, complex arguments take place between them, and audiences will emerge debating which of them has the stronger position. This is not a story of good vs evil,but rather a film full of dilemmas, where all characters are both protagonist and antagonist, and each side has a legitimate point of view.

Reflecting the vast canvas of the series, filming took place around the world. While much of the shoot was on a sound stage in Atlanta, the production also visited Germany, Austria, Iceland, Puerto Rico, Indonesia, Brazil and the UK. The filmmakers were keen to use practical locations as much as possible. This was vital in capturing the film's tone and style, and ensuring everything remained grounded in something like the real world. It also allowed for characters to physically interact with the spaces around them - an opportunity not afforded when using green screen. 

This all lends the action its kinetic, physical feel. The use of many European locations combined with the visceral hand-to-hand combat style is reminiscent of the Jason Bourne series. Similarly, an early sequence set in Lagos, Nigeria is clearly influenced by the legendary market scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film still contains its fair share of things blowing up in spectacular fashion, but that element seems to have been consciously scaled back, following criticism attached to previous MCU films about the incoherence of their third acts, which often seemed to lose sight of character and story in favour of spectacle.

Indeed, the film cleverly turns that criticism into a central focus of the plot. It is because of numerous instances of destruction and loss of life that the Avengers' powers are being called into question. With its themes of vigilantism, challenging authority, and political struggle, the film is a complicated mixture of westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance; left-wing political thrillers of the 1970s like The Parallax View; and patriotic World War Two films like Flags of Our Fathers and Patton.

Another challenge for the filmmakers is balancing the huge number of characters in the MCU. Many films that attempt to juggle similar-sized casts fall down under the pressure of having to give a decent amount of screen time to everybody, struggling to weave them into the narrative in a way that serves the story organically, rather than feeling artificial or constructed by committee.

Civil War even sees the introduction of several new faces to the already-impressive Marvel roll-call. One of the most prominent is Black Panther. A long-standing figure in the comics, this is the first time the character has appeared on screen, ahead of his upcoming solo film in 2018. Just as powerful as Captain America and Iron Man, Black Panther brings a third point of view to the story, and is not definitively on either side of the central divide. His character is an intriguing paradox: King of the fictional and technologically advanced African country of Wakanda, he is a man very connected to tradition and lineage, but also a radical thinker and a maverick.

The film also sees the reappearance of Spider-Man, who is making his first appearance in the MCU, following the resolution of complex rights negotiations over the character. For the first time, the actor playing Peter Parker/Spider-Man is closer in age to that of the character in the comics. British actor Tom Holland brings a new spark and energy to the role, but also plays him as naïve and very recognisably a teenager. Following the mixed fortunes of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield in previous Spider-Man films, Holland looks set for a hugely popular run as the iconic web-slinger.  

With new characters, come new costumes. While many have seen subtle tweaks made to their previous costumes, other outfits are being seen on screen for the first time. Costume designer Judiana Makovsky looked to the comics to inspire Black Panther's look, but the process went through extensive redesigns in order to accommodate the flexibility needed for the character's movement and to fit the demands of the storyline. Aesthetically, the costume is a combination of a number of facets of the character: part ninja, but also incorporating elements from different types of warrior from around the world, while also reflecting the Panther's African heritage with various decorations.

With so many films to come, the challenge for Marvel (and other superhero franchises) is to keep everything fresh and innovative, exploring complex issues but also retaining the brand's trademark humour and lightness of touch. Many fear audiences will begin to feel superhero fatigue - although their continued commercial success at the box office makes this seem unlikely. However, the films may have to deal much more seriously with the notions of heroism and responsibility that they appear to advocate. Civil War looks to start this discussion, opening up debates around the consequences of our behaviours (however well-intentioned), government control, attitudes to authority, and what it means to do the right thing. The film appears to be grappling with these issues as much as its characters.

Civil War demonstrates a commitment to diversity in its racially diverse casting, and the increasing prominence given to female characters - not to mention a distinctively homoerotic edge to the relationship between two key figures. However, for superhero sagas to remain relevant they will have to go further. They must continue evolving and exploring ideas related to the real world, and questioning just what characteristics we associate with superheroes; why so many people are drawn to them; and whether or not they are indeed positive role models. After all, with great power, comes great responsibility...  

We cannot guarantee that all films discussed in this article are covered by the PVSL and are part of our catalogue, but where possible we aim to ensure that this is the case.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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