Judging a movie by its trailer

Okay, so just in general, this is a bad idea. Trailers are not designed to provide useful information about movies; they are designed to provoke interest in seeing the movie, not remotely the same thing.

That said… okay, let’s talk about Captain America: Civil War based solely on the trailer that just dropped.

First off, it’s kind of neat how the positionalities of Stark and Rogers have swapped over the course of the MCU films. Initially Stark was the rebellious “bad boy” and Rogers the good soldier, but their experiences have changed them. Now, as the moral center of the MCU, Rogers naturally opposes a policy almost certainly rooted in fear of the Other and the desire to control and weaponize the abilities of “the gifted” (to steal a term from Jessica Jones) while Stark has positioned himself as a protector, so of course to him the fear of the Other is only natural.

And therein lies the dilemma with this film, because… look, any genre, by its nature, has assumptions built into it, and those tend to lead towards particular philosophical, political, and aesthetic positions. That isn’t to say that any work in the genre necessarily endorses or expresses those positions, and still less that those are positions held by the writers or even the characters, but rather that the genre has a sort of gravitational pull that must be actively resisted if you want your work not to fall into those positions. So, for example, a story of aliens infiltrating our society with malicious intent is naturally going to pull toward xenophobia and hostility toward immigrants, and requires active effort to construct a story that resists that reading. High fantasy tends toward nostalgia for an idealized pre-modern Europe, which pulls toward very regressive politics. Anything which is about fear of the radically Other is going to pull toward racism.

And superheroes… well, they’re stories about how society is under constant menace from powerful, unsavory individuals and organizations that threaten it, against which we are helpless. All we can do is cower and hope to be rescued by specific individuals endowed with superior moral fiber and physical abilities. That’s some pretty ugly politics, right there.

So it makes sense to have superhero stories that interrogate their behavior as vigilantes. Who can be trusted with this kind of power, and how do we make that decision?

These are good questions… but they run afoul of the serialized nature of superhero narratives, and that includes the MCU (which, so far as I know, has no more plans to ever actually end than Marvel Comics does). Quite simply, the final conclusion must be that having vigilante superheroes is the correct answer, because otherwise we don’t get superhero stories anymore. (Of course some heroes can work for the government, for a time, but their essential nature as vigilantes means that they will inevitably either eventually go rogue, or else be given so much freedom to step outside the normal rule-of-law limitations that (supposedly) restrain government agents that they might as well be vigilantes.)

Which means that of course the MCU’s moral center is on the side of rampant unrestrained vigilanteism, because the MCU necessarily must be on the side of rampant unrestrained vigilanteism, because that’s what we’re all buying movie tickets to see. Which, in turn, makes it that much harder to resist the strongman politics inherent to the genre. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I fully expect Civil War to be at best incoherent, and at worst actively regressive.

4 thoughts on “Judging a movie by its trailer

  1. And, for all the litany of faults with Age of Ultron, it was a giant repudiation of the reckless vigilantism that the superhero genre “must” be on the side on. It didn’t get to let its ideas breathe, I really liked how Ultron represented that brick wall that the genre keeps barreling towards. Vivek Subramanyam wrote a great piece on that subject here.


  2. Before I begin this, just want to say you are right about the underlying choices of superheroes. It is generally accepted that there is always this underlying fascist undercurrent to superheroes, and that is why they often work best at a metaphorical level. If you treat the characters not of character but more as representative of ideals, then Captain America turns from the individual endowed with superior moral fiber and physical abilities to more of a generalized concept of the ideal version of America’s principles. If not, then you get the unfortunate implication that our society exists solely because two ubermensch’s got into a fistfight while the normals, being normal people, affect nothing and us normals are just lucky that the ubermensch who won was Captain America and not the Red Skull, and we generally agree with Captain America,

    The fact that they work best in that metaphorical sense doesn’t mean those underlying assumptions shouldn’t be interrogated. I love clever interrogation of these things. But from what we can tell from the trailer, there are two massive problems with what you have said.

    First, you have done the common mistake I’ve seen a lot of people do when discussing something like this, and have the expectation that the movie (or in this case, the trailer of the movie) will explore each and every facet of an issue, instead of just one small part (do you want to see a movie where the vigilante is wrong? Watch Age of Ultron, the movie where each Avenger self identified themselves as a monster, as the movie, were stated as unworthy and generally discussed not to be individuals with superior moral fiber. Yeah the movie is overstuffed, and needed to be given an extra 15 minutes due to behind the scenes stuff, but a second viewing makes this sort of stuff very clear, once plot isn’t distracting you).
    Civil War (or at least the trailer) is interested in focusing on one small aspect of the issue, to explore, hopefully, thoroughly. The fact that it doesn’t explore other sides of the issue isn’t important, as another story can do that.

    Second, you are looking at the argument and seeing that the vigilantes are in the right, without looking at the other side. Personally, I disagree with you framing it about how you treat the Other, as while the movie is discussing how to treat a special class, it seems to be focusing highly on accountability. It is asking whether these men should instead work for the government.

    But here’s the thing, in the movies, the sorts of government organizations Tony Stark is suggesting they work for recently enacted a plan to sacrifice the social liberties of the entire world in the name of security. THere plan for dealing with the Iron patriot was to send the Iron Patriot running around shooting up the Middle East while the true villain laughed at how he was exploiting their racism. Jessica Jones had the police force disbelieving rape victims. That is to say, it is just like real life, where the NSA run things like PRISM, the US thinks the answer is to shoot up the Middle East and the police disbelieve rape victims. When Luke Cage comes out, I’m pretty sure we will also learn that the Marvel Universe’s cops have a habit of shooting unarmed black people. And that’s ignoring Agents of SHIELD, which I think is fair to ignore because all the problem SHIELD does there (liking casually rewriting the memories of other people) can be explained as the writers being consistently terrible.

    When the other choice in this case (because, of course, it is not looking at the entire issue, just two sides of it) is to work for the broken systems responsible for more than a good portion of the world’s ills, isn’t it right to say ‘No’?

    Liked by 1 person

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