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How to do a superhero conflict right

From time to time, two movies come out with a very similar premise, from two different studios, at approximately the same time.  This happens often enough that TVTropes has a page dedicated to the phenomenon: Dueling Movies.  Back in March, Dawn of Justice came out, which was about two beloved superheroes who ought to have been working together fighting each other instead.  (Plus Wonder Woman, inexplicably cosplaying as Xena, putting in an appearance for no good reason.)  I didn’t much care for it, for various reasons.

First, it took the characters so badly out of character that it really didn’t feel like the movie I paid to watch.  The guy with the S on his chest was not any Superman I recognize.  The guy in the mask driving the machine-gun-equipped Batmobile didn’t feel like Batman.  And I have no clue who the evil mastermind was, but I know for certain he was not Lex Luthor!

Second, and just as important, the changes to the characters were not for the better.  They took characters that were supposed to be heroes and made them dark and ugly and brutal, and there’s really no call for that.

Well, as you can probably guess, I saw Captain America: Civil War over the weekend.  And once again, the MCU shows us how it’s done.

(Note: I’m just calling it like I see it.  I have no dog in this fight.  I would absolutely love to see a well-done Justice League-based film universe.  But that’s simply not what DC’s recent movies are setting up, while it seems that, thus far at least, the MCU team just keep on nailing it.)

To be fair, there were a few things I didn’t like, and I really didn’t like them.  First off, I bet there were some really great fight scenes and chase scenes in the first half of the film, but I don’t actually know, because I couldn’t see them, because they kept shaking the freaking camera!!!  Seriously, when are directors going to learn that audiences hate shaky-cam?  It got better as the movie went on, but the first half or so was really bad.  Like, Bourne-grade bad.  The MCU has mostly avoided shaky-cam so far, and it was extremely disappointing to see it in this one.

Second… well, I’ll get to that in a bit.  But first, I really liked how they did a good job of a hero-vs-hero conflict that the audience can actually care about.

From the trailers, the plot appeared to go something like this:  World governments are getting tired of superpowered conflicts causing collateral damage, so they come up with something called the Sokovia Accords to establish some sort of oversight of the Avengers.  Tony Stark is all for it (which seems weirdly out of character for him if you remember the Senate scene in Iron Man II,) while Captain America is against it, believing that “the safest hands are still our own.”  (Which feels weirdly out of character for him, given that he got his start as a soldier in the US Army.  Isn’t civilian oversight an important part of that?)  Oh, and also something something Bucky Barnes, and then Spider-Man shows up and appropriates Cap’s shield, which everyone in the audience thinks is awesome, and they all fight.

The movie follows that basic concept pretty well, but it expands on it and makes the parts that didn’t make sense make sense.  (Stop reading here if you haven’t seen it yet; beyond this point lie spoilers.)  Tony, emotionally immature as usual, feels guilty about having the weight of civilian casualties on his shoulders, and he wants to offload that burden by putting the ultimate responsibility upon someone else’s head.  Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is still shaken by the events of his last movie, in which SHIELD, which he believed in and worked for, turned out to be harboring HYDRA.  He doesn’t want that to happen again and have the Avengers used for evil–or simply being prevented from intervening for good purposes–so he would prefer to remain independent.

DC guys, take note:  These motivations actually make sense!  They flow logically from established character traits and experiences.  It’s not simply conflict-for-the-sake-of-conflict.

Of course, it can’t actually be that simple.  This is a MCU movie, afterall, and so we’ve got multiple intertwining storylines going on at the same time.  But I think this is the best job the MCU team has done at integrating them all into a cohesive whole so far, definitely better than The Winter Soldier or Age of Ultron.  We’ve got a conflict being set up between the heroes on Cap’s side and the heroes on Tony’s side, each of which has a very understandable point, but they’re still actually keeping things in perspective, understanding that they’re all teammates.  In the big airport battle scene, they’re not fighting to defeat each other so much as to stop each other, and during the few points where it looks like someone might get seriously injured, everyone involved looks horrified each time.  At one point, after Spider-Man’s been on the receiving end of a bit too much abuse, Iron Man even tells him, “go home, you’re done,” so he won’t end up getting too badly hurt in what really isn’t even his fight anyway.

This attitude is interesting enough in its own right, but it also sets up a stark contrast (no pun intended) with newcomer T’Challa, the Black Panther.  He believes that the Winter Soldier murdered his father, and wants revenge for that.  Unlike the Avengers, T’Challa is out for blood.  His goal is to see Bucky dead, and if Cap and Falcon want to protect their friend, well then they’re targets too.

Now in the Civil War comics, the writers made it quite clear that Iron Man’s side was right, and Captain America was wrong, that he was out of touch.  As interesting a development as this was, since Cap has always been the moral center of the Marvel universe, taking that stand over this particular issue didn’t go over well with a lot of the fans, who saw Iron Man’s side as essentially standing up for fascism.  But this film isn’t Marvel’s Civil War, or The Avengers: Civil War.  It’s Captain America: Civil War, so you know right up front that they’re going to do it differently:  Cap has to turn out to be the good guy in this version.  This happens by way of the other major plot thread: the “something something Bucky Barnes” part.

It turns out that the bombing that killed King T’challa, T’chaka’s father, wasn’t actually carried out by Bucky.  He was framed for it by the real villain, who set up all of this as a distraction to get the Avengers to turn on one another.  After a while, Steve finds evidence that there’s something else going on, and he tries to persuade Tony that this is worth looking into–but Tony doesn’t listen.  That was the other major thing that annoyed me about this film.

The bad blood between Steve and Tony has been building for a long time.  Steve never did like Howard Stark much, and he sees his son as more of the same.  (Which, if you’ve seen Agent Carter, isn’t too far off the mark!)  Between the testosterone-dripping “put on the suit!” scene in The Avengers and the equally intense–but quieter–wood chopping scene in Age of Ultron, it’s clear that the two have never seen eye to eye, but they’ve always been willing to put aside their differences and work together when it came down to it.

But here, that’s gone, and instead we get an Idiot Plot, where the plot hinges on one or more major characters uncharacteristically acting like idiots.  In this case, it’s Tony Stark holding the Idiot Ball.  When Cap comes up with evidence that something bigger is going on, he repeatedly just dismisses it for no good reason, refusing to listen.  To his credit, he does eventually come around when he receives independent confirmation of what Cap was trying to tell him all along, but if he had just been willing to listen to his teammate from the beginning, they could have avoided a bunch of the conflict in the story!

I don’t like Idiot Plots.  Like most things that take a major character out of character, they cheapen the story.

I must say, though, I did like the ending, which was full of reversals of expectations.  The point where the villain says, “did you really think that…” was an awesome twist, the sort of thing I’m a bit sad to see show up in a major film because now it means I can’t use it without ripping off this movie.  And then, when he drops the final shocking reveal on them, it manages to actually turn them on each other to the point where now the good guys are trying to defeat and/or kill each other, while at the same time convincing T’challa of the futility of seeking revenge.  By the time the curtain falls, things have been done and said that can’t be undone or unsaid, changing the dynamics of the Avengers, possibly permanently.

Oh, and BTW Spidey was awesome, one of the best parts of the movie.  It’s worth the price of admission for his scenes alone.  They’ve done enough with his character, and with the character of T’challa, that I’m already looking forward to seeing each of their upcoming films.

It was also a bit disappointing not to see Nick Fury anywhere, or (as near as I can tell) anything that had anything to do with the upcoming Dr. Strange.  But I guess you can’t have everything.  What we did get was really good, though.

Now if they could just fire that epileptic camerman, and the guy handing out Idiot Balls, they’d have had a truly incredible film.

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