Roundtable: “Civil War” Comics vs. Movie

Time for another roundtable – we’ve published one of these before, right? In preparation for the DVD release next week, Janes and I talked through the differences between the comic book series and the MCU movie, and how we felt the movie stood on its own.

Keets: In case you didn’t know, Internet, Captain America: Civil War (out on DVD Sept. 13!) is based on a Marvel Comics crossover event (X-Men and Fantastic Four and Avengers, oh my!) of the same title, which was published in 2006-2007. That storyline was truly massive, spanning a total of 106 different comic issues released over 7 months, so there was a lot of material for the movie to draw on—and a whole lot that had to be excised—in order to boil down the story to two and a half hours of screen time.

The overall arc in both stories is a conflict between freedom and security—in 2007, the parallel to Guantanamo Bay was much more urgent, but the theme itself is timeless. In the movie, Elon Musk—sorry, I mean Robert Downey Jr.—aims to achieve security by compelling superpowered humans to register with the United Nations, and only use their abilities when that famously decisive body orders them to. This changes the stakes in an intriguing way from the comics, in which heroes are required to register with the US Government, and turn their powers towards arresting the non-compliant heroes that remain within its borders: the difference between disuse and abuse seems meaningful. Captain America, true to his red-white-’n’-blue outfits, takes the side of freedom, which in this case means allowing the Avengers to continue deciding on their own when to tie-or-blow-or-shoot-or-otherwise-fuck bad guys up [keets: future historians will remember this sentence as the greatest instance of parallelism in world literature]. [janes: adding a complimentary ed. note to your own section is the equivalent of liking your own Facebook comment. I approve.]

The much wider universe of the comics, among other things, still has an active and effective S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, and a mutant gene that makes actions against “superpowered” individual seem more like a racial pogrom than a judicial crackdown. With that backdrop, the securitarians’ actions almost immediately take a totalitarian flavor. The stakes in the movies seem lower: there aren’t more than a few dozen specially-abled persons whom we currently know to exist in this universe, so it’s hard for the events of the film to feel like a crime against humanity in the same way. The more numerous bodies in the comics also allow for a higher body count than the one-half of Don Cheadle that doesn’t make it through the film, which necessarily darkens the tone of the comics.

The biggest loss from the comics, plot-wise, I’d argue, is Spider-Man. This is fairly counterintuitive, because he’s also one of the best things about the movie, but since this is his first appearance in this universe, all of his relationships are starting from scratch. In the comics, on the other hand, his long-standing friendship with fellow scientist Tony Stark and his adulation of Captain America are strained over the arc, and provide several of the most dramatic moments in the story. Most famously (which I say because this is the only thing I knew about “Civil War” before this year), Cap delivers his strongest defense of his position to Spider-man, in a speech which, in the film, is cut down and given to Sharon Carter:

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I’m not sure Chris Evans has the obliques to pull that look off, but I’d have loved to see a climax built around that scene.

With all this said, though, I thought Civil War was easily a top-3 movie in the MCU, and one of the better comic book movies we’ve ever seen.

Janes, what say you? Did we lose too much by leaving the comics?

Janes: Plot-wise, I would say no. I’ve never been too much of a stickler for slavishly adhering to the source material—so long as the adaptation captures the spirit of the comics. And as someone who very much enjoyed the movie for the humor and performances, it was a total failure in that respect. The comic series was a brazenly political exploration of the ideological schism between security and liberty and, in the end, a doomsday warning about the dangers of authoritarianism. Captain America: Civil War, on the other hand, took the bare bones of the plot and made a feel-good movie about male friendship.

But at the same time, I wasn’t terribly disappointed, because we couldn’t have expected anything else. The comic Civil War’s appeal partially derives from its boldness, its willingness to blow up the entire universe. The MCU quite literally can’t afford to do that. They can’t afford to kill Captain America and lose Chris Evans’ blue eyes and pecs. They can’t make Tony Stark a full-on villain, as Iron Man essentially becomes in the comics, because Robert Downey Jr. is too valuable a commodity. And while the Avengers are ostensibly “split down the middle” in the film, their friendships are never really in jeopardy, because Marvel isn’t in the business of making sad movies about deeply flawed heroes destroying their relationships and painstakingly putting them back together.

I would agree that Captain America: Civil War was a top-3 movie in the MCU, but only because the MCU is pervasively lacking in substance. This sounds like an insult, but it’s not, it’s simply their brand. They’re Different from DC. They’re light where DC is dark, they’re funny where DC is deadly serious, they’re self-aware where DC is self-righteous. They make comic book movies fun again, and to many fans, that’s an end in itself.

I find it strange that so many fans and critics have hailed Captain America: Civil War as a “darker” comic book movie with unusual philosophical heft. It’s dark for a Marvel movie, for sure, but that’s like saying John Kasich is tolerant for a 2016 Republican presidential candidate. It doesn’t mean a whole damn lot, and speaks more to our diminished standards than anything else. And as for that much-touted ideological conflict—if anything, watching Captain America: Civil War is like watching a master class in demuring on philosophical questions. For better and for worse, the Russos made a movie that is 100% grounded in the characters’ relationships with each other: in regards to sensibility, it’s all guts and heart, with a tiny smidgen of brain. It’s enjoyable, and completely on-brand for the MCU, but thoughtful/intellectual it is not.

And again, this isn’t meant to impugn the film, because I think this was completely deliberate on the Russos’ part. While there is technically a liberty vs. security conflict hanging in the background of Civil War, the Russos took every opportunity for political debate and punted, making a calculated effort to make the philosophical conflict irrelevant. In the comics, Steve was standing up for individual rights to autonomy and privacy for fear of witnessing another Holocaust. In the film, he’s standing up for Bucky. In the comics, Tony is motivated by a fear-based, yet ostensibly utilitarian opinion that individual rights should sometimes be curbed for the safety of the many. In the film, he’s motivated by a break-up and the murder of his parents. Every time the characters threatened to start talking about a meaningful ideological conflict, the script reined them in and got them talking about their relationships and their feelings. [Keets: I think you mean “reigned.” I think I mean “rained.”]

And although I sound like I’m coming down hard on the film, I think this was the only route the Russos could have taken to make a satisfying movie. The ideological issues in the Civil War comics are too thorny to tackle in two hours, unless you’re willing to make an entirely cerebral movie without any Giant-Man antics or Peter Parker quips. And if Iron Man had progressed from a relatively well-intentioned man–if an entitled and arrogant one–to a terrifying tyrant who was ready to imprison innocent people indefinitely in the span of one movie, he would have been an irredeemable villain, and that wouldn’t do. (A Netflix series would have been perfect, actually, but it’s too late for that now.)

Of course, I can’t help but think of what might have been. The Stamford Incident (the inciting incident in the comics which involves the mass deaths of Connecticut schoolchildren) would have triggered painful but potent memories of Newtown, setting the stage perfectly for a liberty versus security debate. The entire movie/series would have been colored by America’s ongoing gun control debate (where registering superheroes is the rough equivalent of conservative calls to register the mentally ill). Just as tragedies like 9/11 turned people into conservatives overnight, we would have seen the tragedy in Stamford change Iron Man from an individualist into a fear-motivated leader of the establishment. Iron Man would build a prison in the Negative Zone to inter superhumans indefinitely, and the rest of the world would all but turn a blind eye, just as they have with Guantanamo Bay. Steve would have held the moral high ground at first, and then would team up with supervillains in order to beat Tony, illustrating that social movements have taken morally questionable actions for “the greater good” throughout history. And in the end, when Captain America is assassinated, and his shield falls to the ground, Tony and his supporters would have been left to ruminate on the fact that they just destroyed everything America is supposed to stand for.

Ugh, I just made myself so sad and wistful! Keets, you say things now.

Keets: Violent agreement about the amazing possibilities of a Netflix Civil War, brought forward a decade from the original setting. I actually have the secret hope that the new Defenders series is actually going to be exactly that: set post-Sokovia, and watching the Defenders’ support of Captain America’s faction.

I think it’s a whole different conversation, but liberty vs. security was the political question of 2006, driven by a realization of what Guantanamo represented, which made the first Civil War extremely urgent. The focus of Civil War II [the comic book event happening in the Marvel Universe right now] is driven by a debate over precognition and “precrime,” which is almost ahead of its time: I think we have yet to realize the effects widespread data mining and predictive modeling will have on our lives. I’d argue that the political question of 2015 (and the previous half-decade) was privilege and the power of capital, and I’d love to have seen the cinematic Civil War move in that direction. It seems like a real possibility for this fantasy Defenders series we’re creating: Luke Cage, Jessica, and friends representing a “real-life” superhumanity that Tony Stark’s hojillionaire idealism can’t understand. Man that’d be cool. Netflix, if you’re reading this, we’re very willing to provide script notes for Defenders.

Back to the actual movie, though: you’re totally right about the replacement of thematic with personal conflict. Reading over what you wrote, I’m struck by how pervasive the replacement was. When the Avengers are having their initial debate over the Accords, Steve Rogers is actually pulled out of the room by the news of Peggy Carter’s death—the script doesn’t ever give an opportunity for ideological differences to be argued. In that light, the displacement of the “stand like a tree” speech from Steve to Peggy is actually thematically significant. Steve can’t make that speech in the movie because he doesn’t make ideological choices, he just passively defends his personal relationships.

The movie isn’t alone in replacing ideological with personal conflict, but the comics’ version of that transference is much more tragic. In Civil War: Casualties of War (a one-off comic placed at the middle of the Civil War arc), Tony Stark and Steve Rogers try to resolve the conflict with a one-on-one conversation, but end up unable to get through to each other at all: “I think it’s a lot more personal than either of us realized,” Tony says. The poignancy of the encounter comes from this discovery, that ideological positions are motivated by personal experience, and that neither rational argument nor preexisting relationships provide the common ground that would give a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

It’s this simultaneous entertaining (and failure) of the ideological and personal debate that justifies (for me) the end of Civil War in the comics: Steve’s sudden surrender, seeing the destruction caused by his continued resistance, is close to an ideal resolution of a conflict that depends so strongly on a personal commitment to an ideological conviction. That connection between personal identity and ideological perspective doesn’t exist at all in the movie (since ideological perspectives don’t exist in the movie), and so there’s no way for a personal decision to resolve the split. We head off for the rest of the MCU with Cap in exile because without ideology, there’s no way to resolve an ideological conflict.

Janes: I desperately hope Defenders deals with the ramifications of Civil War. The Netflix shows, particularly Jessica Jones, have been refreshingly conscientious about righting all the wrongs of the movies. JJ didn’t need to hit $1 billion at the box office, so it could afford to dwell on the collateral damage of superhero narratives, where Civil War only flirted with it. Daredevil could afford to explore the ideological differences between two well-meaning but morally compromised heroes in detail and (some) depth, while Batman v Superman devolved into a near-incomprehensible, misogynistic, and unforgivably cheesy team-up against an amorphous CGI blob. And to your point, Keets, Luke Cage can afford to delve into the chasm between the haves and have-nots, and what happens to those who are left behind, while economic struggles are a little too close to humdrum reality for escapist blockbusters.

I disagree, however, that privilege is the primary political question of the day, at least not to the exclusion of the questions that plagued us in 2006. With a couple of exceptions (abortion and gay rights, for example) every contentious issue in this upcoming election can be broken down to a conflict between liberty and security. Gun control, immigration, Syrian refugees, the militarization of the police, US support for Israel, all of these issues can be boiled down to individual rights and freedoms vs. national dominance and the feelings of safety that come along with it. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain has become a bad and overexposed joke, but in all seriousness, the right wants to restore security by flexing our muscles and proving that we’re still the world’s greatest military power, while the left wants to restore our status as the “land of the free”—the world’s leader in human rights and democratic ideals.

America is still very much a post-9/11 society in the sense that we are still dealing with the fallout of drastic measures taken in the War on Terror, particularly state-sanctioned torture and undue surveillance of our citizens and allies. (You mentioned Guantanamo, for example, which isn’t as timely in the news anymore, but is still open.) And in that same vein, if there is any one political event that defined America’s 20-teens like 9/11 defined the aughts, it’s the NSA leak. Edward Snowden started a long-term firestorm of controversy, not to mention the first genuine conversation America had had about privacy in the digital age and, more relevantly, in the War on Terror.

Although the Civil War comics didn’t reflect burgeoning internet and social media technologies (I can only imagine the national Twitter trends after Spider-Man revealed his identity), privacy was very much at the heart of the conflict. Realistically, for heroes like Captain America who take on vigilante roles that will inevitably lead to collateral damage, some oversight only makes sense, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. But civic-minded Steve was still right to be concerned about the Superhero Registration Act, because it didn’t make a distinction between “superheroes” and “mutants.” There’s a fundamental difference between protesting Avengers’ hubris in leveling several major cities for the greater good, and marching into the peaceful family home of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones when they were, at that point, mostly just genetic/radioactive mutants minding their own business.

In the comics, Iron Man and his followers failed to make this distinction; but in the movie, the writers did. The film only focused on the Avengers, who had, in fact, royally screwed up and killed thousands of innocents, so systematic invasion of privacy never really became an issue. If you take out widespread discrimination against heroes who were born with differences they didn’t ask for, then you only have Steve throwing a tantrum because he can’t do exactly what he wants at all hours of the day. That’s precisely why the Russos were able to change Spider-Man’s role in the arc so significantly, because Peter never had to worry that his loved ones would be in danger, so the entire “secret identity” dilemma was moot. The co-directors claimed that they were softening Tony Stark’s stance in order to make the conflict more balanced, but in reality, they expertly muddied the philosophical waters.

But on the positive side, this is another reason why the Defenders would be a perfect venue to rectify those mistakes. Of the heroes we’ve seen so far, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Punisher run the gamut of the potential consequences of superhumans running amok. Punisher, who indiscriminately kills criminals with hard-to-control machine guns, is essentially the nightmare vision of anyone who’s Team Iron Man. Jessica Jones, who only uses her powers for small-scale PI jobs and drunkenly throwing her shoes at the ceiling, is a nearly perfect example of a mutant who hasn’t forfeited her right to privacy by taking on tons of collateral damage. Daredevil, meanwhile, is somewhere in the middle, a hero with generally good intentions, but no actual qualifications to decide what’s right for his crime-riddled city.

Just do it already, Netflix!

Keets: I’m inclined to agree, Janes. In fact, it seems somewhat embarrassing to realize that there’s sort of a Mazlov’s hierarchy of societal struggles, and it’s mostly because I’m lucky enough not to feel threatened personally by the “freedom vs. security” questions you mentioned, that I’ve been more aware of the “privilege and capital” debate in the last few years.

Regardless, we definitely agree that none of these issues got raised in any meaningful way in this movie. It was actually amusing, looking back, to note how much more fleshed out the “freedom vs. security” debate was in Captain America: Winter Soldier… before it turned out that the “security” side was actually a Trojan horse for HYDRA a.k.a. “The Nazis’ Nazis,” which put a pretty swift end to any nascent philosophical debate. So close.

Here’s hoping Netflix bails out the MCU again.

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