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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Captain America: Civil War" and the Divided States of America


Civil wars are the perfect subjects for the dramatic arts. The sundering of unity and the turning of friend on friend is exactly the sort of thing that makes directors and authors drool. It's heart rending, it's tense, it's emotional, and the losses in the end teach us the valuable lesson that often times nobody wins.

We easily forget sometimes that movies are not simply there for our entertainment. They are entertaining for sure, but the actors and directors who breathe life into the frames are artists, and artists have always served as the windows into the hearts and minds of those whom they live among. People have painted Christ since he walked the Earth and how he is portrayed says much about the attitudes of the society in which the painter lived. 

In the same way, the Russo brothers offer us a vivid spectacle of the mighty heroes we love turning on one another that says as much about the times we live in as it does the heroes on screen. The central conflict of the film is not so much about government oversight (a timely topic in and of itself) as it is about a group of extraordinary people with an identity crisis. Are they members of the society they fight to protect and therefore beholden to the laws that bind mortal men (Iron Man)? Or do they stand above mankind and do whatever is necessary to protect him, even at the cost of human life (Captain America)? 

This of course, assumes that the characters even know who they themselves are. Scarlet Witch wonders aloud if she's still who she was before she was gifted her powers. Vision isn't entirely sure what it is that gives him his powers or why he suddenly is not the perfectly calculating synthetic being he has always been. The boy Spider-Man struggles with whether he can still be a normal teenager or whether or not he is completely set apart from them. Iron Man and Cap only seem sure that they can't stop doing what they do because they don't want to. 

All of these uncertainties break apart the mighty Avengers from within. In the dazzling airport sequence, men and women who we have always known as the most steadfast of friends duel: Black Widow with Hawkeye, Vision with Scarlet Witch, and Iron Man with Captain America. The lines become blurred when, at different points, Black Widow, Black Panther and even Iron Man himself switch sides. The Winter Soldier briefly turns on both sides when Colonel Zemo reactivates his hidden Hydra identity. 

This dramatic spectacle draws from the current state of American culture where we have perhaps never been as divided as we are today. Even the War Between the States presents a more black and white picture than the myriad shades of grey that have proliferated in the past two decades. Our political affiliation, our religions, our views on government, our sports teams, our styles and music, our lack of religion or our views of morality and law all divide us. In a society obsessed with identifying oneself with a larger group, we're not even sure anymore what gender we are. All we know is that anyone who thinks differently than ourselves is not only wrong, but by disagreeing with us they are impinging on our very right to exist and must be bludgeoned into accepting our viewpoint as valid. 

Like Agent Carter so eloquently put it, when the world asks us to move, we defiantly plant our feet and demand that they move instead. This works when men work together for a common good. When everyone does it for their own individual agenda, it fractures a society.

There is hope. At the end of the movie, Tony Stark reads a letter written to him from Steve Rodgers. Steve knows that his relationship with Tony will never be the same. They both know that the Avengers have been sundered for a length of time to be determined. But along with the letter is a cell phone and the promise that "If you need me, I'll be there". There is the hope of healing and of being brought back together again.

As is so often the case, we look to our heroes to do the impossible and to show us the way. 

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