Tony Black on Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice…
By now, you’ve probably seen both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. If you haven’t, here be spoilers. If you have, has it dawned on you yet as it did me by the end of Civil War, that they are essentially the exact same movie? Naturally, the goal posts are different. One is Marvel, one is DC. One is at the very epicentre of an almost decade old cinematic universe, the other marks the beginning of a new one. Plus, of course, they feature entirely different characters with, historically, universes that have very different tones to each other. Not so different, however, that they don’t share thematic DNA. Because both Civil War and Dawn of Justice are making the exact same point in their respective narratives: that with great power comes great responsibility, and we live in an age where that can’t go unchecked. The conflict Bruce Wayne has with Superman is the precise same conflict that puts Tony Stark and Steve Rogers at loggerheads. The major difference is that one of these films understands the argument, and one absolutely misses it by a country mile.
Essentially, the conflict, the moral and political argument, goes like this: we live in a world dominated it seems by terrorist acts, by rogue states acting without consequence, and wealthy dictators holding power, many seemingly attempting to destroy the Western world’s way of life, our treasured democracy. That’s the simplistic version. And that central conflict, about ideology, about the way we live, informed both Batman v Superman and Civil War this year. In Dawn of Justice, the threat is Superman, or considered to be such not just by US Congress but also Bruce Wayne. The cataclysmic climax of Man of Steel, which saw Superman defeat Zod by destroying half of Metropolis, allows for one of DOJ’s few meaningful moments as at the beginning Bruce races through the very ‘ground zero’ carnage to fruitlessly save the indiscriminate civilians these ‘Gods’ don’t seem to care about. This fuels his anger and his fear of who and what Superman is, which informs the rest of the picture and conversely plays into the hysteria felt by the US military which allows the villainous Lex Luthor to pit Batman and Superman at odds. Superman believes he shouldn’t be accountable, as the government want him to be, to a military machine with political agendas. Batman believes he’s too dangerous to even be held to account, and must be destroyed – only to of course realise, as the scope of Luthor’s deeper villainy unravels, that men like Superman may be what humanity needs to survive the greater threats. Only, of course, this dawns on him a little too late.
Compare this with Civil War, and you can see the parallels. At the end of Age of Ultron, in trying to stop the titular AI from destroying humanity, the Avengers inadvertently destroy the city state of Sokovia and a great deal of civilians die in the crossfire. Consequently, after another set of civilian casualties trying to stop Crossbones at the beginning of Civil War, the United Nations in Marvel’s case cook up the ‘Sokovia Accords’ which replace the ‘Superhero Registration Act’ from the comics as the law binding, controlling and ultimately imprisoning the superhero community so they cannot operate without accountability. In the DCU, Congress are worried about ‘meta humans’ and seek that element of control. In the MCU, because they can’t use the word ‘mutant’ (thanks FOX), they have no name or brand but military forces such as William Hurt’s now Secretary of State Ross with their own agendas use the media and political spin of civilian casualties to bring these powerful beings to heel. Tony Stark, having created Ultron and almost being the arbiter of humanity’s destruction, believes the cost of their unfettered protection of the Earth is too high, whereas Steve Rogers considers accountability to mean state control, bound by the agendas of men, which ultimately won’t protect anyone but themselves in the long run. Substitute Bruce for Tony and Steve for Superman (or Clark), and you have the same ideological argument; two jaded, long in the tooth superheroes who have forgotten what they’re fighting for, afraid of their own power, against two ideologically pure heroes who believe they should have the right to choose in the name of the greater good, with a government sandwiched right in the middle perpetrating the fear of men in the face of ‘gods’, plus Machiavellian third parties such as Luthor or in Marvel’s case Colonel Zemo manipulating the heroes into battling internally rather than externally.
Taking into account then that both of these franchises have reached a point where they’re telling the same ideological story, why does it work perfectly in Civil War, and barely works at all in Dawn of Justice? Simply, it comes down to investment.
We’ve spent almost ten years building to a point in Civil War where the MCU and its characters mean something, to us and each other. We have followed many of them through their own personal battles, confronting their demons, witnessing their origins, and we’ve seen them grow together as an organic unit of friends and heroes. By the climax of Civil War, when Cap and Iron Man are genuinely beating the crap out of each other, the reasons are clear and they hurt – by then they are not just bound by ideology, by how they should exist, but their conflict becomes personal. It’s about friendship, about loss, about tragedy. Come the end, both men are as far apart as they have ever been and are likely to be, and many wounds will have to heal before ultimately the Avengers will need to reunite in the face of Thanos and his universe-ending threat in Infinity War.
Conversely, there is no investment in the DCU or the battle between Batman and Superman. While you understand Bruce Wayne’s motivations (and he’s by far the best element of a seriously flawed movie), Superman’s murderous actions in Man of Steel make little sense in the context of his character and engender a conflict that you always feel is forced. Unlike the final battle in Civil War, a battle way past words, throughout the noisy smackdown between Bats & Supes you always feel it could be prevented or resolved by a calm conversation that would enlighten both sides. Cap & Iron Man know why they’re fighting, and their fight becomes the climactic point of the movie. Batman & Superman are fighting because there’s a ‘v’ in the title and it ends up just being an entree to the overblown, CGI headache that is the big Doomsday battle we all knew was coming thanks to the trailers anyway. Had perhaps this battle been escalated over numerous pictures, with context and scope, we might have cared half as much as we did by the end of Civil War.
Either way, perhaps now as the greatest superheroes of our age have waged war against one another, their eyes may turn to the greater threats we have waited in some cases years for them to face. Let’s just hope that for both the MCU *and* the DCU next time, the fight ends up worth that wait.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.
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