How Captain America: Civil War Reflects America's Soul
It’s almost impossible to avoid all the hype about the upcoming Marvel Comics-inspired film – Captain America: Civil War.
Hollywood is banking on the legions of loyal – some might say crazy – fans who dress up as their favorite character, attend conventions, flock to YouTube with speculation about comic-inspired movie storylines and buy lots of expensive merchandise. These fans extend to other comic-book inspired movies and the comics themselves.
These fans aren’t passionate simply because it’s a fad or a “youth” thing. It’s because these comics and the movies they inspire are a window into America’s soul, said University of Central Florida history professor Richard Crepeau.
“These heroes are outside the constraints of social institutions and the rule of law, which is at the center of our social order,” Crepeau said. “In the real world, they might be seen as a threat to a democratic society, but in the world of fantasy they are seen as a means to swift and sure justice.”
That’s the case in the latest movie, which will be released May 6. The Captain America movie begins with an Avengers (superhero group) operation that goes awry, causing civilian casualties. The botched mission leads to the United Nations passing the fictional Sokovia Accords, aiming to rein in superhero collateral damage by placing them under governmental supervision.
UCF political science professor Aubrey Jewett said the movie explores questions that are at the root of American democracy.
“One of the themes is security versus liberty, and finding the right balance between them. In Captain America: Civil War, the superheroes split up into two camps and fight over an issue that we have been trying to find the right compromise for since the founding of the country: Who watches the watchers? How can we make sure people in power are doing the right thing? If they do something wrong, how do we handle that?”
The movie also features prominent African American and female heroes in the form of Black Panther, Falcon and Black Widow. According to Jewett, that reflects American society’s changing image of itself.
“As our society is becoming more diverse, our vision of who can be a superhero has become more diverse as well. Movies like this can help bring down barriers or get people to think about issues in a different way.”
UCF film analysis teacher and former Orlando Sentinel movie critic Jay Boyar, who worked at Marvel in the late 1970s, agrees.
“Seeing someone who looks like you and has some of the same issues you have can be very powerful and can raise people’s comfort level with more diversity,” he said.
Several characters go through traumas, both physical and emotional, that humanize them and make them relatable to the audience.
“For example, Iron Man has a bad heart,” Boyar said. “In the comic books, Spider-Man is always called neurotic and angst-ridden. He was tormented psychologically. Marvel seems to look to include people with disabilities – there’s a message there that they can overcome – that there’s no reason why they can’t be heroes.”
The comics and movies may draw in fans for even more deep-seated reasons, according to anthropology assistant professor Beatriz Reyes-Foster.
“Captain America, especially, really speaks to that yearning for a pure hero,” Reyes-Foster said. “At the end of the day, it’s reflective of the Abrahamic traditions – Judeo-Christianity – that have greatly influenced our worldview. I think that Western culture really wants to believe that there are things that are clearly right and clearly wrong because it’s comfortable to do so.”
For others, the comics and movies offer an opportunity to connect generations. Jewett, who has been collecting comics since he was a kid, introduced his children to the Marvel world and will be taking his family to watch the newest movie on opening night.
UCF finance student John Kann can’t wait to see the action and some of his favorite characters again. Like Jewett, the comics and books connect him to his family. He said he’ll watch the movie with his older brother and enjoy the amazing visual effects and witty dialogue.
“My older brother was a huge fan, so when I was really young, he would tell me about all the epic twists that were going on in the Marvel universe,” Kann said. “We were both into Star Wars and other epic fantasy series, so superheroes fit right in. Ever since then, reading comics and watching the movies has just always been a part of my life. Marvel does a great job of keeping things fresh. It’s just so cool seeing that world progress and take on new stories that change the characters and our perspective on them. ”