Spoilers galore for comics and films.
I really liked Captain America: Civil War. The film’s adventure and its character pushed the story forward and provided some interesting moments. However, in watching the film twice I find myself unavoidably frustrated not so much with what the film is, but what it could have been. The film is adapted from one of the most popular comic stories in history (by the same name), but it fails to replicate a lot of the elements that made the story so compelling. I am going to provide a pseudo-list below to illustrate these differences.
Commitment to the Ideals
By far my largest gripe with this film is the utter lack of commitment to their ideals by the characters. In the comic books, Steve Rogers adamantly refuses to be a part of the superhuman registration act. But in the film, he casually suggests to Tony that he’s “not saying it’s impossible”. In the comics there’s more dramatic tension because SHIELD (which is still active in the comics) knows Rogers will not surrender and almost immediately try to arrest him so that he doesn’t sabotage the registration movement. Captain America should be an incorruptible symbol which people rally behind in opposition to the overstepping of government authority – not a whiny loner who just quietly sulks for a big chunk of the film.
Tony Stark also has problems with his dedication to his ideals. In the comic books, Tony Stark is not caught unaware that people are angry about superheroes. He – along with Mr. Fantastic and Hank Pym – had been planning for the day when the government would clamp down on superhero freedom and demand that they fall into line. Thus, the plan was to cooperate to the fullest extent possible to ensure that the legislation went well. Tony was absolutely committed to his goal – even going so far as to use the help of defeated villains. In the film, at the first mention of the fact that he might have been wrong about details – he abandons his entire system. And by the end of the film, it’s clear that Tony doesn’t really believe in the registration act and will continue to flout authority.
The Inciting Incident is Weak
In the Civil War film the Avengers are on a mission and a bomb blows up – killing people. Obviously that’s a tragedy – but why is it a special tragedy? Other people have undoubtedly died from being around during other battles of the Avengers – why does this one matter so much? If anything, this tragedy is the most benign of the Avengers’ careers. Scarlet Witch is not even directly responsible for the deaths of the innocents in the adjacent building. If anything – she saves lives by moving the bomb away from a crowded street.
In the comics – again there is a far better beginning. The comic shows a young group of heroes (The New Warriors) who use their crimefighting and powers on a for profit reality show. This demonstrates the far end base spectrum of what superpowered people can be. It shows people who maybe want to help, just as long as fame and fortune come with it. Then everything goes horribly wrong when eight-hundred innocent children at a school are killed because of this “superhero” teams’ carelessness. In this version – the tragedy is really their fault. Therefore – the government and the public have more reason to implement their registration act. Even Captain America doesn’t try to condone the actions of The New Warriors, because unlike in the film the event was really their fault.
A lot of people said that Spider-man was the best part of the Civil War film – I would agree. Still, as with other elements of the film – I was frustrated at what Spider-man could have been and not what he was. The Spider-man of the Civil War film is really a great portrayal of the young Peter struggling with his powers. But the Civil War comics was more about the adult Peter. This Peter had been working for Tony Stark for a while, was married to Mary Jane, and really had a secret identity to lose when Tony Stark asked him to comply. Which leads me to my next problem –
The Focus Is Wrong
Captain America: Civil War focuses on the wrong things. The comic arc was about every character in the Marvel universe having to make public their idenitity. They had to tell the world who they were – not just give the government the ability to order them around. In the film this is not even addressed – and Peter Parker gets to retain his secret identity even though in the comics his reveal was the greatest moment of the story. In fact, the moment when J. Jonah Jameson waches Spider-man tell the world his identity is my favorite moment in all of comics. In the film – heroes are given the opportunity to step down and not become agents of the government or be something they don’t want to be, but in the comics they are not given the choice. They can’t retire and they can’t walk away. They can only fight or join.
Most people who’ve been to the internet know that Captain America dies at the end of the Civil War comic. He is killed after surrendering when he realizes the public does not support his actions. I am not one of those people who think because comic characters come back to life so often, that therefore their death is meaningless. For me, the sadness of death (and even fictitious death) is in the fact that you lose time with that person or character. That would still be the case if Captain America had died in the film. He would have come back eventually, but we would have had a true loss because of the adventures we didn’t get to see him on even though we know he would eventually return.
Every problem I had with this film could have been solved by doing it later. It’s clear the directors of this film wanted to tell a story which rapped up the Winter Soldier – they ought to have done that instead of letting that story invade Civil War and mess up what was already a perfectly fine comic. If Marvel had waited to make this film then they could have put more characters in (instead of the limited roster of the movie), made Spider-man a more central protagonist (and explored his change of sides which was so pivotal to the original), and given more time to the set-up and aftermath of the actual registration act. The film was good, but it could have been great.