Why So Serious? Captain America: Civil War Reviewed

In many respects, the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a triumph. The cinematography was beautiful, the acting was excellent, the costuming was marvelous. The fight scenes were well choreographed and easy to follow, and they did indeed drop my jaw. Not to mention that the story held together with only a few holes  despite an enormous number of important characters. But alas, there was something missing from Captain America: Civil War that has been such a major part of the franchise.

What happened to the witty banter and quirky moments?

Like, we get it. Big, serious things are happening. Everyone’s down in the dumps. Are they really going to crack jokes when their friends keep running off to who-knows-where (like Thor and the Hulk)? Or falling on opposing sides in a political power struggle? Or getting seriously injured?

Sure, Iron Man makes a few fun comments. But there’s a reason that Spiderman webbed in and stole the show — he was having fun! Why wasn’t anyone else having fun? Or at least chilling out with some shawarma after a hard day of misunderstanding and brutally beating their friends?

And this is not just a problem with Civil War. I’m sure you’ve all noticed that grit is having a moment right now. Has been for the last few years. From Game of Thrones to Batman v Superman to The Walking Dead, what’s popular in broadly defined speculative fiction is dark and dour.

And I’m kind of done with it, because we can actually do better. I haven’t seen the show, but the book series of The Magicians walks the tightrope between realistic with realistic consequences and big colorful magic, and then finishes with a triple backflip and sticks the landing. Robert Kirkman’s other big comic book series, Invincible, isn’t a TV show like The Walking Dead yet, but it too manages to juggle serious and fun. Deadpool continues to blow my mind for being so crass, so funny, so over-the-top, and so real all at once.

I watched The Witch, a horror film peopled entirely with unsmiling, sin-obsessed pilgrims.  And even they knew to punch up the MAGIC at the end. So what happened, Civil War? Why so serious?

My hypothesis is that our current wave of blockbuster comic book movies is still riding the wave whipped up by Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which were notably dark and gritty in a complete departure from earlier comic book to film adaptations. They did have their fun, colorful moments (the Joker, cough cough), which is why they mostly worked, but grit was the main theme.

So maybe the big studio exec default thinking is if they don’t have utter genius writing the script, at least keep it serious. People take serious things seriously, right? And this is a big, serious story. But the problem is that serious by itself is boring.

Tell me, which would you rather see?

(1) A bunch of characters state that they will or will not sign the Sokovia Accords, give brief explanations as to their positions, and then rather than talk about it Captain America goes to a funeral for a character that — to be honest — only he really cared about.*

(2) A bunch of characters order Chinese take out and have an actual conversation about the Accords, argue its merits back and forth, make each other and the audience laugh about it, have difficulties with their chop sticks, and ultimately agree to disagree without yet fully grasping how bad things are about to get bad. Skip the funeral scene.

Two sounds better, doesn’t it? It still deals with the weighty subject material, but it doesn’t make the audience suffer for it.

I’m not arguing for pure escapism, like a certain serious “literary” subset seem to think all this super hero, giant robot, and magic stuff is. If you divest these characters of their moral confusion and PTSD and just have them fly around and hit each other with wiffle bats and rainbows, you’ve lost my interest and don’t have a story.** It’s a balance.

Here, I’ll make it simple. I liked Civil War, especially the big six-on-six fight which was the entire reason we were all there. But I would groan if you asked me to rewatch it.

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*It could be that Peggy Carter is a major character in Agents of SHIELD, and I’m just ignorant. I have my own books to write, I can’t watch, read, or otherwise imbibe everything! 😛

**Some amazing art though…

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Is a Drag (a Review)

I’ve talked a few times about my reading practice — and considering how easy it is to take all your enter/edu-tainment by screen these days, it is a practice. I’m always reading at least one book. I choose books to fill in gaps — foundational speculative fiction I missed growing up, more current books by female or minority authors, and the odd piece of classic straight fiction.

So when we were sorting through my grandparents’ stuff, I kept a few choice pieces of straight fiction for myself. And one of those books was Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

If my copy had not once belonged to my dearly departed grandparents, I would have put it down about 100 pages in, because this book is not worth it. Certainly it has its good points — it wasn’t a bestseller in the 80’s for nothing — but it is not worth it. It’s 900+ pages, it’s a friggin’ commitment. What do I expect in 900 pages? I expect an adventure, a transformation, a truly notable series of events, enjoyable characters. What did I get?

A vivid picture of what history looked like on the ground, among the commons, during the late 1800s and early 1900s in the American South. A memorable narrator, plucky Lucy Marsden, the titular widow.

And victims.

Every single character is developed as a tragic victim of circumstance, pushed into a certain mindset and mode of behavior by the intersections of gender, race, age, and the politics of the post-Civil War South. Even the characters who should have been villains — the slave-owning grandmother-in-law, the abusive and neglectful Confederate veteran husband, the parents who force Lucy (fourteen year old) into her burdensome marriage with said husband (who is fifty) — are instead portrayed as victims with their own struggles.

And that’s fine, except no one is held accountable. It’s all just a tragedy embedded in distant, impersonal history.

Don’t get me wrong, I love historical fiction. But Gurganus makes a big mistake. He frames the whole novel as a story told by elderly Lucy to a visitor in her retirement home. So rather than tell the past as if it were present, Lucy/Gurganus keeps reminding us that it’s the past. Everyone’s already dead. Lucy’s story is over, and no, she never left her husband.

And even that would be fine, except Lucy Marsden likes to pretend there was some love in her travesty of a marriage. She reassures us there were good times with Captain William Marsden, but never tells us about them.

And maybe that’s just fine too. There are lots of battered, neglected wives who don’t leave their abusive, self-centered husbands. But to ask me to spend 900+ pages worth of my time in their loveless disaster of a marriage?

Yuck.

But hark — 400 pages in, Lucy hints that she does spend some time on the loose, run away from her old Captain. So that’s what I was banking on for the next 400 pages. When does Lucy run away? How does she handle her nine kids when she does? Is it anything like Carolyn Jessop’s FLDS memoir Escape, only fleeing her bearded husband-patriarch in a Model-T instead of an SUV?

No, it’s nothing like Escape. Lucy doesn’t escape. She leaves for an evening, then creeps back at 4AM filled with guilt for nearly abandoning her kids. She makes plans for a second escape attempt, this time with the kids, only to learn the Captain just had a stroke on a hunting trip.

So she soldiers on, caring for her now disabled, senile husband along with their nine kids.

To add insult to injury, with less than 100 pages to go the book breaks character. The endless, relentless, historical “realism” of victimhood and tragedy lifts for a chapter about baby poop. Baby Marsden (the character’s actual name) swallows Lucy’s wedding ring, and the whole chapter that follows is a weirdly unfunny poop joke.

With the book’s character broken, I couldn’t take the ending seriously. Captain Marsden, intermittently violent throughout the book, has lost his mind to his stroke. So he tries to strangle Lucy. Twice. The second time, Lucy kills him with his own Civil War scabbard in self defense.

It’s a solid ending, but tacked onto 900 pages of poop (literally and figuratively) it’s too little too late.