Sunday, May 8, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

In retrospect, I might have been a bit too hard on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This realization dawned (of justice) on me around the 1h45m mark of Civil War (hereafter CW sans italics) when the characters had yet another oh-so meaningful conversation regarding the inextricable tensions between liberty and security. The purity of BvS occurred to me, that film's insistence on mythology over real world political analogues struk me as more palatable, more tasteful than the "topical" attempts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. CW tries, with all the exertions of an old man attempting to depart from a comfy chair, to be thoughtful about the massive property destruction that's characteristic—and demanded—of these blockbusters. 

The most egregious of this film comes after the opening action sequence. A building on Lagos is destroyed, killing dozens, including some Wakandans, who are outraged (as is typical of Hollywood films, actual Africans, specifically Nigerians, are absent and denied any voice). The Avengers are called by the Secretary of Defence or State or whatever, it doesn't matter, and he shows them clips from previous Marvel films involving massive property destruction. After each clip, the camera cuts to the guilty face of an Avenger, who averts their eyes from the evidence of their complicity in the deaths of untold people. The mournful non-diegetic score wails, demanding pathos of the audience. 

This type of waffling strikes me as more offensive than the blatant disregard for humanity that BvS showed in spades. CW wants the characters to be held accountable for the CGI destruction that the audience paid for. There's something acutely irritating about all this. The audience pays their hard earned small amount of income to see good looking actors beat each other up with lots of collateral damage. That's literally the point of these films, especially this serial narrative that is working towards a galaxy-spanning conflict between actual gods. To have the film turn around and chastise the characters, and in turn, the audience for wanting to witness this, to participate in this, sticks in my craw a bit. The gleeful abandonment of care and attention paid by BvS (synecdoche: Wonder Woman's smile as she fights Doomsday) is perhaps a better thematic and tonal fit than the moralistic hand-wringing of CW.

The big showdown between superhero team versus superhero team reveals that this virtuous self-righteousness is all but a shell game, a masquerade to indulge in destruction. Captain America and Iron Man assemble their various teams and then completely destroy an airport to stop each other. The Vision uses his overpowered forehead beam to slice off the air traffic control tower, letting it tumble with countless 1s and 0s flying each and every way. Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man and rips the wing off an airplane to hit War Machine. Both the Winter Soldier and the Falcon destroy the terminal in their attempt to evade Spider-Man. And so on and so forth. Each of these beats in this action sequence evokes a "WOW" or a "COOL" from the audience... in opposition to the dour moralizing that we were asked to perform earlier in the film. CW, like BvS, wants to have its destruction and its innocence at the same time. Just like in BvS, there's an awkward insert shot of a character informing another that the battleground has been evacuated. And just like in BvS, the A plot hinges on the collateral damage suffered by the victims. 

Of course, CW is infinitely more entertaining than the smug mythologizing of BvS. The secret to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not in their plotting or in their serial nature, but in their absolutely canny sense of casting. Every actor cast in these films seems born to have played the character, none as perfectly cast as Tom Holland as Peter Parker. His Peter appears in two scenes and Spidey appears only in one, but these three scenes are intensely brightened by his perfect characterization: his non-stop chatter, his quips, his dorky enthusiasm, his scientific acumen. The film completely captures what Peter Parker is: a huge geek trying to stand up for the "little guy" as he says. Unfortunately, the film doesn't have the space for Peter to have his crisis on conscience (that he always has) as he does in the comic version of Civil War. Nor does the film have the space to invest in any deeper characterization of any B or C level participant, including its primary villain. But, as always, the canny casting lets the film coast on the actors' bountiful charisma.

In a film of charming people, Daniel Brühl seems to stand out. His charm feels effortless and never cloying, never arrogant. I would kill for half the charm this guy has. In a masterful move, the Russo Brothers allow his Zemo two scenes with a German housekeeper in a hotel. Firstly, the genius of this inclusion comes in its setup-payoff structure: we see them interact once; the second time reverses it for a shock. Secondly, it provides the audience a glimpse into the humanity of Zemo. The housekeeper brings food and Brühl thanks her for this and spends an extra second remarking on how good it looks and smells. I was, of course, smitten with Brühl in this tiny moment, as we're supposed to be. Later in the film, Zemo calls the housekeeper to trick her into entering the room of her own accord to find the dead body (not sure what this accomplishes, but whatever). In this two second long interaction, we get the sense that Zemo doesn't want to hurt her, that she's an innocent, but it's a necessary evil. It's Brühl's performance that allows for this to work, certainly not the writing. 

The film's plot doesn't quite make much sense. Something I knew used to bother Roger Ebert was when plots required characters to be dumb in order to function: somebody acting counter to their characterization to let some plot contrivance to happen. CW hinges almost entirely on this annoyance. There's nothing stopping Steve from explaining to Tony his suspicion regarding Zemo. But again, these films aren't about plotting but about casting and punches.

The film puts in so much work to set up Tony and Steve as equal opposites, ideologically speaking. The audience can't help but sympathize with Tony's guilt and shame regarding his complicity in deaths, but on the other hand, Steve's determination to stay free of political agendas is just as compelling. Yet, none of this matters because the logic of the plot vindicates Steve almost right away. At no point is Tony ever in a higher moral position because he is operating under the sway of a lie. It's a bit galling to have all these thematic pontificating that results in nothing perceptive or insightful by the end, as Steve was always in the right, even if he's being stubborn about Bucky anyway. 

There's only one scene of heteronormative desire in CW: Steve kisses Sharon Carter (the niece of his first love... weird). The rest of the film is dudes working out their dude problems with their bros. CW is perhaps the gayest Hollywood film since Carol: all sorts of physical interactions, grunts, stolen glances, seething inner turmoil as the characters resist their queer desires and subsume them under the aegis of "loyalty" and "brotherhood." It is not a novel observation to see a queer subtext in the drama of superheroes, but certainly CW strains plausibility that the filmmakers did not know they were making a gay love triangle. Sam Wilson memorably tells Steve that the same people who "shoot" at Steve end up "shooting" at him as well. Shooting their wad? Blowing their load? Peter Parker blasts a sticky white substance on Tony's hand—in Peter's bedroom—with the door closed. Tony literally rummages in Peter's closet. Black Panther rakes his claws against men, grunting and groaning the entire time. Paul Rudd's Ant-Man, when faced with the legendary Captain America, can't help but touch Chris Evans' muscles. 

This begs the question of what does this mean. What does a queer subtext teach us about these characters? In their important essay "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?" Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner editorialize on the benefits of a rigorous discourse named "queer theory." At length, I'll quote an important section.
We can say that queer commentary has been animated by a sense of belonging to a discourse world that only partly exists yet. This work aspires to create publics, publics that can afford sex and intimacy in sustained, unchastening ways; publics that can comprehend their own differences of privilege and struggle; publics whose abstract spaces can also be lived in, remembered, hoped for. By publics we do not mean populations of self-identified queers. Nor is the name queer an umbrella for gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and the transgendered. Queer publics make available different understandings of membership at different times, and membership in them is more a matter of aspiration than it is the expression of an identity or a history. Through a wide range of mongrelized genres and media, queer commentary allows a lot of unpredictability in the culture it brings into being.
Apologizing for their very 90s usage of "transgendered," we can see that a queer reading of CW doesn't necessarily predict a queer film. Rather, a queer reading of CW opens up a public (Warner has written extensively on the concept of different publics) with increased political and social possibilities. The different publics that queer theory creates helps us best understand the benefits of a queer reading of CW. Which is to say that CW, a film hyperbolically concerned with belonging, membership, and the credentializing of juridical processes, lends itself to a discourse that's fundamentally about thinking critical about the politics of membership and the intersecting vectors of political influences, publics, and desires. They continue, writing that:
Much queer commentary has been on the political environments of sexuality; it sees intimate sex practices and affects as related not just to family, romance, or friendship, but also to the public world governing both policy and everyday life. While to many these spheres are separate, in queer thinking they are one subject. Queer commentary has tried to challenge some major conditions of privacy, so that shame and the closet would be understood no longer as isolation chambers but as the architecture of common culture, so that vernacular performances would no longer stammer with the ineloquence of tacit codes, barely self-acknowledged, and so that questions of propriety and explicitness would no longer be burdened by the invisible normativity of heterosexual culture.
CW imagines the collapse of spheres, as queer theory asks of commentators: the private spheres of Tony's money, his friendship with the Avengers, the geopolitical interference of the superhero team in non-sanctioned acts. The private sphere and the public sphere collapse into each other at the same time, an epistemological change in affect for the characters as their queer desires become the same as their ideological desires. The creation of publics that can address this collapse in a critical manner while still politically advancing their causes call for a cultural object with the subtextual obviousness of CW.

This is what makes the topical self-seriousness of the film so hard to swallow; the political aspect seems like a smokescreen, an excuse to engage in these romantic squabbles that have to "stammer with the ineloquence of tacit codes" instead of announcing their queer desires with the same pride as they wear their formfitting uniforms.

A queer reading of CW teaches us nothing new about superheroes, but it does create a public in which queer readings are legitimized by both: academic rigour and dissemination; and relevancy as the vectors of disposable pop culture objects and academic rigour meet. Queer readings show themselves amenable to the mass culture and the mass culture shows itself amenable to queer publics. In other words, a queer reading of CW advances the political position of queer folk by representation. The Marvel Cinematic Universe currently lacks any canonical queer character (in the comics, Loki is genderfluid and pansexual) but a reading of their homosocial spaces as an arena for clashing queer desires perhaps provides representation to the young queer fans desperate for heroes that resemble them.

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