With a wealth of sci-fi movies about the future, the trope of a society which suppresses the emotions of its citizens has become so frequent that watching them is like playing a game of spot-the-differences. In this sea of similarities, there are a few that stand out for their excellence (and some for their failures). Not many make their way into the grey zone of uncertainty, but the sci-fi dystopian romance Equals fits in there quite comfortably. Contrary to what reviewers will tell you, it’s a movie that will leave an impression—just not for the reasons one might expect.
The movie tells the story of a post-apocalyptic society in which all illnesses have been cured except one: Switched-On Syndrome, called S.O.S for short, which causes infected people to experience hypersensitivity and emotions. The infected go through four stages, after which they are taken to a special care facility and isolated from the rest of society. There they undergo electrical shock treatment to be “cured”.
The protagonist of the movie is an illustrator named Silas, who discovers that he has this very illness. The movie follows the story of how he copes with the illness, and how it transforms him into the kind of person we would encounter in today’s society: laughing, crying, and feeling sad, but above all: falling in love. The subject of his affections is his co-worker Nia, a writer, and the two struggle to find a way to maintain their relationship in a society where emotions are frowned upon and any intimate physical contact is a sign the illness has reached its peak.
Unlike most dystopian movies, Equals doesn’t begin with the familiar prologue of how humans were on the verge of destroying each other before some organization stepped in and stopped them. In fact, the movie does very little to provide even a vague framework of why things are the way they are. There is a brief mention of a war and how only two populations managed to survive, but beyond that nothing else is revealed; no details of the vaguely-described bombings or why it was decided that emotions are a hindrance.
The positive result of this decision is that viewers can focus on the relationship between Silas and Nia without worrying about extraneous details. In this sense, Equals has a rather minimalistic approach to its storyline. The plot only contains the details that are deemed most necessary. This will prove challenging for an attentive viewer who hates loopholes and loose ends, as there are quite a few of both that pop up over the course of the movie. For instance, a whole scene is devoted to citizens sitting in an outdoor amphitheatre to watch the landing of a spacecraft. The broadcast states that space exploration has always been important, but why this is the case is never specified, and the topic is never touched on again.
Similarly, the documentaries that Silas illustrates for the company are given no context, while the articles Nia writes are given no more than a few brief mentions. All of these are missed opportunities in the end, for if there’s one thing the reviews are accurate about, it’s the fact that Equals brings barely any innovation to the sci-fi genre.
What makes the movie memorable and worth seeing? If there is something that director Drake Doremus was able to do beautifully, it was the minimalist aesthetics. The movie is a true wonder from an artistic and architectural perspective, all straight lines and pale lighting that accentuates the paleness of the actors. The entire movie is shot in a cool colour scheme with white and grey as the dominant colours. Some shots integrate Instagram-like filters and effects similar to a ray of sunshine across the screen. This is where Kristen Stewart’s typically expressionless face lights up, like a subject stepping out of a painting.
The movie lays out all its cards from the beginning, and it is up to the viewer to decide what to make of the story of Silas and Nia’s romance. The Shakespearean twist near the end will come across as cliché for some, though I admit I sat and yelled at the screen for the two of them not to repeat the same mistake.
It’s a movie that won’t leave an immediate impression. It’s not one that can be readily talked about—much is left to the eyes and ears to experience, though some thought provoking moments do swim up at times. Equals is what you make of it, leaving a lot of unexplained ambiance, a cliffhanger ending, and a mostly unexplained title. The rest is left up to the imagination, and to how much one is invested in Silas and Nia’s journey.
Did you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid and think, “Hot diggity, that was great!”, only to leave it for a long time, get some grey in your hair (seven hairs exactly), and then come back to that movie you loved as a kid only to finally realise how brilliant it was?
Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982).
When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. I wasn’t equipped to appreciate how Nicholas Meyer paints his space opera of revenge with themes from classic literature. I can now.
After Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)failed to gain the box office numbers that Paramount wanted, The Wrath of Khan was given a much slimmer budget (11 million US dollars to the first movie’s 35 million). Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a sequel to the plot of the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed. The result saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted that his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie was shot in a series of tight angles and close ups. The acting, and the script, had to rise above the special effects.
The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. The young Vulcan trainee Saavik is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody dies. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus the movie starts with the idea that at some point, we must all face a no win scenario.
I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best run as Kirk. Never before or again is this character so nuanced or layered. “How do you feel?” Bones asks near the beginning of the film.
“Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.
And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of aging, sacrifice, and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario. And if aging and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended, Dr. McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf:
Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.
Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the tribute this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan literally hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly, the reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr. Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can literally make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.
But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Space Seed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew. He and his followers are abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan answers, “Tis better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.”
So if Space Seed is Satan being cast out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for the purposes of this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off-chance either William Shatner or George Takei ever read this and explode (each for completely different reasons).
As for King Lear:Kirk is the king, and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.
What runs through all of these great works are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the movie is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (AKA the most well done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own. In this, Spock takes a step forward and manages what none of these classics of literature ever managed to do: he beats The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Lear or Paradise Lost.
All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the enterprise are getting older. Yes, Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the aging of its actors, this movie actually makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of aging, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and whose chest is still shiny and visible at all times.
Kirk admits at the end of the movie that he has never faced death. “Not like this,” he says. At this point Kirk has beaten the adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched the creation of new life with Genesis. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.
“How do you feel, Jim?” asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. At the end, Kirk has lost his best friend, and watched as a new planet roared to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been, or ever will be again.
While I should have been studying for exams, I finally gave in to the hype and watched the first episode of Jessica Jones… and then the second episode, quickly followed by the third. Several days later, I found myself finishing the entire first season and dealing with that strange post-series depression; the kind of ache that arises only after you know you have finished a great show.
I know I’m late to the party since Jessica Jones aired on Netflix in November 2015, but this empty, void-like feeling after finishing this great show has got me thinking—why do we feel this way only when we have finished something that we really enjoy? After mulling over this for quite some time, I decided to do what I always do when I do not know the answer to something: write about it. I have decided that the answer to this question lies within Jessica Jones itself, or more specifically, its treatment of human psychology.
For those of you who haven’t seen the show, Jessica Jones is a Netflix series produced by Marvel that follows the titular character’s quest to stop a mind-controlling psychopath named Kilgrave. Kilgrave himself is fixated on Jessica, and will stop at nothing to possess her. The show is one of the few television programs that accurately depicts a psychologically-tormented protagonist with an equally psychologically-complex villain. Characters on both sides of the good/evil spectrum suffer from mental illness. This is one of the reasons that Jessica Jones is so complex and compelling—it shows that people with mental illness are neither inherently bad nor good. Illness has no direct causal effect on a person’s morality, and thus we must examine the other, deeper reasons behind a character’s actions.
Everything about Jessica Jones is phenomenal, except for one glaring aspect that I find myself somewhat troubled with: Kilgrave’s death. There were so many interesting avenues to develop—Kilgrave was obsessed with gaining power and in one of his last scenes, his father warned him that the serum to expand his abilities might kill him. It was the perfect set-up for his death: in trying to develop his powers, his quest to become more powerful would end up killing him. Jessica’s ethical conundrum of having to kill someone would be avoided because Kilgrave’s own mad desire for control would do it for her.
So imagine my disappointment when Kilgrave falls for Jessica’s trap and gets himself killed in what felt like the most anti-climactic death in the entire series. I was so upset at this seeming cop-out of an ending. I ranted to all my friends about it, wrote this angry blog post about it… until I started thinking about why I was really so distraught by Kilgrave’s death.
I missed him.
I missed Kilgrave, the psychopathic, mind-controlling, cold-blooded murderer who rapes women and makes people commit suicide with his voice alone—but let me explain. I did not miss the unspeakable acts that Kilgrave committed. Rather, I missed Tennant’s chilling yet incredibly entertaining performance of him. I missed seeing what Kilgrave was up to next, and guessing at how he was going to carry out his next grand plan. Most of all, I lamented the potential to explore the possibilities of Kilgrave’s powers as a villain.
It is here that we come back to that empty feeling, that “post-series depression” we all get when we finish a great show. I would like to examine the effects of post-series depression first through the series’ most captivating (albeit disturbing) character, Kilgrave. He is a textbook psychopath, cunning and manipulative with an aura of superficial charm, and a complete lack of guilt for the atrocious acts he has committed. He does not see people as individuals, but rather as tools for his entertainment; characters in a play of which he is the director. We see this in the way he treats and imagines Jessica—although he claims to love her, he has no problem in trying to kill both her and the people she loves. What Kilgrave loves about Jessica is his ability to control her, to possess her, and it is this control that Kilgrave misses about Jessica when she is gone.
On a less extreme level, we miss our shows in the same manner. We miss our everyday interactions with them, seeing the characters we love, and the degree of control in what we choose to watch and when. Once the show finishes, we do our best to find other shows similar to the one we have just finished, but it is never really quite the same. Kilgrave’s character demonstrates the darker implications of this emptiness, since he tries to replace Jessica with Hope Schlottman (with the hope of filling the void), but this ultimately fails. Kilgrave’s behaviour demonstrates that possessiveness towards the things we love is not by any means the kind of relationship we should strive for.
Jessica is the offered solution to this problem in the show. Although she suffers from depression and PTSD, she does not let these illnesses define her, nor is she isolated by them. On the contrary, Jessica has people she cares about and people who care about her. Despite her repeated attempts to “not give a shit,” she finds herself caring about people anyway, and in the end she chooses to accept these friendships rather than reject them.
It is worth noting that all of Jessica’s plans to defeat Kilgrave fail, and it is not until she starts including her friends in her plans that they start making progress. She includes her best friend, Trish, in her plan to take down Kilgrave. In addition, the very last scene shows Malcolm, one of Jessica’s allies, answering Jessica’s phone at her apartment, and viewers are left with the hopeful assumption that Jessica and Malcolm are to run Alias Investigations together.
Maybe the right way to love our shows is not to find another one to replace them with, nor to let post-series depression keep us from discovering new things, but to share our experiences with the people we care about. Having a good relationship with art means having a good relationship with people; we should want to share the things we love with others, not keep them exclusively to ourselves. It’s the reason we always want our friends to watch the same shows that we do, so that we can talk about the shows with them and have a shared experience. In a way, it is like we are keeping our experience of the show alive in our everyday conversations so that, technically, a show is never really over if we keep talking about it—and that, I think, is a comforting thought.
Did I love Disney princesses? Of course I did. We all did. Don’t even try to lie. Everyone is an 8-year-old at some point in their lives.
It probably would have been a healthy obsession in my case—stopping after a few cute Halloween costumes, some fairly awkward conversations with animals, and an assortment of charming husbands—had it not been for Mulan.
I knew there was no going back from the moment I first watched it. I went from wearing plastic tiaras to whacking my brothers with sticks faster than you can say, “The Huns have invaded China.” Maybe it was the lucky cricket. Maybe it was the silly grandmother. It was probably Mushu. But I like to think that it was watching Mulan discover herself with a sword in hand, rather than in ballroom slippers.
Let’s fast-forward (a shamefully small amount of time) to the present.
Now that I am much older and think about things (before hitting them with sticks), I have long since come to the conclusion that I was merely drawn to a strong, empowered female character. Done. That was easy.
Events transpired, however.
I recently stumbled upon something called the Bechdel Test, which is an unofficial measure of female portrayal in films.
Here is a 20-second history to get you up to speed:
The Bechdel Test was invented by Alison Bechdel and came from a comic titled “The Rule” in her series Dykes to Watch Out For (pictured here).
A movie must meet three very simple criteria in order to pass:
It must have two female characters (with names)
They must have a conversation with each other
That conversation must be about something other than a man
It sounds laughably easy to pass, but it turns out that 69% of IMDB’s top films fail that simple little test.
I’ll admit I was doubtful. I read through page after page about it.
I bet you have a favourite movie, they said. Look it up, they said. YOU WILL BE SUPPRISED BY WHAT DOESN’T PASS, they said.
So I looked it up. I saw a little green check mark next to Mulan. Hah, thought I, and gave my laptop a smug little smile. I was confident in my superior judgement. I was about to move on when the words “although dubious” caught my eye.
How could Mulan be dubious? She was the pinnacle of female kickassery, the definition of feisty and unafraid, a raw, unadulterated shock of battle tactics and brute force with some kooky chicken feeding methods to boot. What could possibly be lacking?
Well, it seems that the female conversation was very scant in Mulan. Yes, there was some chit-chat between female ancestors, but they were unnamed. Yes, there was some mother/daughter/grandmother musical numbers, but those all circled around getting ready for the matchmaker to find a good husband. And yes, the protagonist was FEMALE but get this: Mushu had more lines in the film than Mulan did.
Here’s how the movie scraped by:
Fa Li: I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck.
Grandmother Fa: How lucky can they be? They’re dead. Besides, I’ve got all the luck we’ll need.
Fa Li: Grandma, no!
Grandmother Fa: Yep! This cricket’s a lucky one!
How progressive for the dark ages of 1998.
So I re-watched Mulan and came to the conclusion that in terms of women’s representation, it’s far from perfect. But then again, so is the Bechdel Test.
Although there was an utter lack of meaningful, non-male-related conversations between women in the movie, it’s not a stretch to attribute some of that to the largely (and in this case logically) male cast. Not to mention that this test doesn’t take into account the historical context, in which Mulan shows considerable independence and strength of character compared to the rest of the female cast as well as her fellow warriors. So perhaps this test is superficial, but it’s not entirely wrong.
Re-watching Mulan, I realized it wasn’t the perfect embodiment of female power I once believed it to be. Mulan says very few noteworthy things over the course of the movie, and the speaking parts are all largely male. Mulan is fighting for the greater glory of China, but the victory of the movie is more about winning the Emperor’s and her father’s approval, and Li Shang’s admiration.
I’m sad to say that I could summarize Mulan by saying, “Girl pretends to be a man, girl successfully blends in and is a very good man, girl wins huge victory for China and is offered a place as a woman in a man’s world but rejects it to return to domesticity. Then girl gets boy.”
That being said, for me, this movie will always be full of important victories: the cross-dressing imperial army, a Disney princess in armour, the most flattering of compliments (“Um… you… fight good.”), and an unlikely girl showing up all the boys.
Anna Biller’s faux-1960s alternative horror film, The Love Witch (2016), follows the narcissistic and eyeshadow obsessed Elaine in her search for the perfect fairy-tale romance. The self-proclaimed “Love Witch”, Elaine (played by Samantha Robinson) is a woman who uses home-made love potions, sex spells, and her own mysterious allure to seduce men until, of course, it takes an unexpected turn for the worse.
Aesthetics and visuals are central to the film. The costumes, scenery, cinematography, and soundtrack are all carefully directed and consulted on by Biller herself, a Cal Arts graduate. The sequences seem spontaneous, taking on a life of their own beyond the linear plot of the picture. These vivacious, colourful, and intrusive statements guide the film from the tropes of a mainstream horror flick to the unconventional features of an independent art film.
In the director’s statement for The Love Witch, Biller mentions, “While I am quoting genres, I am using them not as a pastiche, but to create a sense of aesthetic arrest and to insert a female point of view.” Although Biller takes influence from aspects of the alternative horror/thriller genre, she uses a perspective that twists the typical male gaze of that genre, and brings about a sense of female empowerment. By using her knowledge of what men want, Elaine controls her own sexual agency.
This feminist concept is intermingled with the rules of witchery and the occult within the film. This is evident when the members of Elaine’s cult discuss how the strength of a woman’s sexuality both excites and challenges men’s patriarchal position in society, and how this makes men feel inclined to “put women in their place.” It is the figures of magic who bring attention to this, and the concept is juxtaposed with Elaine’s controversial behaviour regarding her lovers. Elaine uses her attractive persona to seduce men, but with her potions and her high expectations of romance, she “loves them to death.”
In a twist, Biller presents the dichotomy of Elaine’s lack of concern regarding her lovers with their increasing emotional attachment and eventual toxic separation from her affection. Elaine lacks any moral conflict in her actions, believing that the tragedies that result are simply a shame.
Biller borrows from the trope of the 1960s femme fatale, utilizing their hatred of betrayal by former lovers and twisting it so the woman gives the man what he wants physically but uses magic to separate herself from the emotional response he desires. Here, Biller references the social ideology in which men are thought to lack an emotional response in relationships. The moment Elaine denies her lover an emotional response is the moment that he starts to long for her love and support.
Another vital aspect of the plot is Elaine’s obsession with fairy-tale romance. Despite the contrary ways she exhibits this, she greatly desires a relationship in which her love is fully requited and without complications. While Elaine presents herself as imposingly stern and careless, she fantasizes about a pseudo-medieval scene in which she rides off with her prince charming, away from the difficulties of a mundane life.
When Elaine’s curious landlord Trish (played by Laura Waddell) snoops around in her apartment, we are exposed to the hyper-erotic drawings and paintings that cover the room. These depict explicit scenes in an artistic style that is unexpectedly harmless and bubbly. This seems contrary to the darker erotic aspect of the film’s visuals, but its absurdity and spontaneity are central to the alternative rhythm of the plot, and play on the extreme paradoxes in Elaine’s character.
Overall, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch explores the rhetoric of the ill-fated search for a perfect love affair. In unison with the occult genre, this results in over-the-top dramatic sequences, stunning visuals, and a soap-operatic flair. Although the film is identified as a horror/thriller, it most definitely isn’t the type of film that has you at the edge of your seat in anticipation. Rather, the overly dramatic acting, quick-cut sequences, and flashy and comical costumes leave you with a smile plastered across your face.
Book-to-movie adaptations have always been a natural indicator of a literary work’s popularity.
When cinema was only beginning, black-and-white adaptations of Shakespeare’s work served as an indication of what society perceived as “good” literature from an academic standpoint. Today, that hardly seems to be the case.
Movies and TV shows show us that today’s focus is a bit less on the quality of scripts and a bit more on the quantity of bills. The adaptation of literary works is no longer a novelty, translated to add dimension to the original series. Instead, it’s all about taking a series as far as it can financially go.
Cassandra Clare’s New York Times’ bestselling series, The Mortal Instruments, shamelessly mixes many common (and more importantly, popular) speculative elements. From werewolves and vampires to the legend of the Nephilim, the spectrum is quite wide.
First, we have a standard love triangle between the female protagonist, Clary Fairchild, her best-friend-turned-vampire, Simon Lewis, and the Shadowhunter (read: demon slayer) Jace Wayland. There is also a romance between Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane, which explores not only the issue of racism in the division between the higher Shadowhunter society from the lower shadow world, but also addresses duties to one’s family in the case of Alec’s homosexuality.
The series came out at a time when the hype was still in full swing for the more familiar aspects of the speculative realm, and the call for more vampires and werewolves, along with the growing demand for magicians and fairies, caused publishers to narrow their vision.
It’s safe to say that the original 2013 film adaptation of the first book, then, did not come as a surprise. Not only did it guarantee that many fans would see it, but it would also act as an extra push for the book series, whose position on the bestsellers’ list began to grow shaky in 2012. The film’s poor reception, however, demonstrated differently.
The movie received mixed reviews and failed to recoup the budget, causing directors to speculate whether or not a second movie would be released. Petitions were posted online for sometime by fans who trilled their undying love for the series, wanting to see more. Their request was partially satisfied when an announcement was made stating there would, in fact, be a TV adaptation of the series starting from scratch, with a new cast and a different interpretation of the plot.
I will readily admit that I have been guilty of falling into the trap of popular series. I jumped onto the bandwagon with The Hunger Games as soon as the first book came out. Others, such as the more recent Divergent, I hoped to stay away from, but after watching the first two movies my curiosity got the better of me and I did end up reading the books.
With The Mortal Instruments, however, my patience ran out after the first two books, and after hearing that the series’ immense popularity caused Clare to add three more books to her initial trilogy, I was adamant in my refusal to touch it. Yet I must also admit that I saw the movie when it came out a few years ago and (perhaps against my better judgement) just finished the first season (yes, there’s a second season coming next year) of the TV show.
Why? Because of the curiosity to see what came of these attempts.
I thought to myself, was it worse than the books? Was it better?
Turns out it wasn’t great. For me, The Mortal Instruments proved itself to be a case study of sorts in a discussion of profit and the coexistence between the film and publishing industries. It’s partially understandable that a TV adaptation, rather than a movie franchise, allowed for a new start and possible changes in the way the original plot was presented.
The irony lies, however, in the similar reception the show, though some credit should be given to the overall higher reviews. The insistence on running a second season, given the way in which the first sloppily crammed subplots and events from various books into one, is the more puzzling aspect.
Perhaps we should be worried more about addressing a different kind of “dark force” that books skid around or fall prey to: the allure of franchising and riding the wave of popularity. While there are certainly some interesting plot points and witty dialogues within the books, there is not much that The Mortal Instruments, along with its tangle of prequels, sequels, and spin-offs, adds to the literary world.
The very fact that the franchise has expanded so much makes one wonder whether the author really is so enamoured with her own construction, or whether the influence of popularity has a bigger role. Making a remake of something not entirely successful the first time is a similar case of trying to keep the popularity alive for a series that is difficult to evaluate as a literary work.
The series focuses too much on appealing to its audience with its modern references and speech, and the way it falls prey to character archetypes that earlier New York Times bestsellers have already exploited.
Series such as The Hunger Games have arguably warranted their film adaptations. Moreover, even with the shortcomings and plot errors that occurred, a handful of these film adaptations did it right the first time they took on the job.
The fact that there is a remake of an adaptation should already act as a warning sign that begs the question of how much say the writer has in their own creation, as well as how much dignity they carry forward with it. It’s common nowadays to meet those who say they write in order to produce the next “big thing” and become a bestseller, and to a degree the allure of profit is understandable.
Yet it is hard not to go back and wonder about some great novels that may not have received movie adaptations, such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It also begs the question of why other great works—Shakespeare being the most common—have received so many if the possibility of them being forgotten is practically impossible. Perhaps it is because few have come to recognize the modern incarnation of the classical demon, and the way in which it has precipitated into current society in a quiet comfort.
Captain America: Civil War needed to be a lot of things. As the introduction of both Black Panther and a new Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the final instalment in the Captain America trilogy, and the sequel to both First Avenger and Winter Soldier, this movie is also the culmination of a journey that Marvel has been headed towards since Robert Downey Jr. first appeared on screen in Iron Man.
It feels very much like we were always heading for this.
Amazingly, it works. Civil War works as an Avengers movie (with, oddly enough, more Avengers than either of the movies to actually use the title), but more importantly, it works as a Captain America movie. The grander scope and moral debate at the heart of Civil War is all filtered through Cap. Even if you disagree with him, the morality makes this not only a thrillingly engaging action movie, but also one of the most emotionally investing that Marvel has ever produced.
Let’s set the scene: the characters in the Marvel U have finally noticed what we the audience have been pointing out for years. When the Avengers save the day, there is always a ton of destruction and collateral damage. Avengers fought a war in New York, (the ramifications of which are still felt on the Marvel Netflix series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones), The Winter Soldier destroyed Washington, DC, and then Age of Ultron lifted the city state of Sokovia thousands of feet into the air then vaporized it.
The Avengers come to fight and people die. Finally, the world has noticed. When an Avengers mission chasing the mercenary Crossbones through Lagos in Nigeria ends with the accidental destruction of a building, and the death of several diplomats from the nation of Wakanda, it seems to be just one step too far.
The Avengers are issued an ultimatum in the form of “The Sokovia Accords”.
Once signed, the Avengers will no longer act autonomously, but be sanctioned and controlled by a United Nations panel. This mirrors the “registration act” of the Civil War comic which ordered heroes to register with the government; however, since practically nobody in the MCU has a secret identity, this element has been stripped away.
What is brilliant about the motivations of the characters in this movie is that they all make sense. You understand why some characters sign the accords and others don’t. When the lines are drawn, you understand why each Avenger has chosen the side they do.
Tony Stark (Iron Man) began as the ultimate capitalist. In his second movie, he famously stated that he’d “privatized world peace”. But over the years, from the first Avengers movie and Iron Man 3 to Age of Ultron, we have seen Tony becoming increasingly paranoid and obsessed with security. He is shown time and time again that he and others are not responsible enough keep the world safe on their own. So this is the Tony Stark entering Captain America: Civil War. He signs the Accords because he believes the Avengers operating above the law is no longer the right thing to do.
Then we have Captain America. Steve Rogers, who, in his first movie, had such a powerful faith in the systems of government, has been repeatedly shown that these systems fail. The Army tried to stop him when he could save the lives of Bucky and his friends, so Steve disobeyed orders and saved the day. In The Avengers, Steve finds a government that lies to him, and a Shield that pilfers Hydra technology and is willing to launch a nuclear bomb at the island of Manhattan. Then, in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Steve finds his trust in systems totally shattered as Shield is revealed to be mostly controlled by the Nazi death cult of Hydra. As Steve says in the movie: “The safest hands are still our own.”
Tony can only trust systems, and Steve can only trust individuals. So with a small push from Sharon Carter, who gives Steve a speech that Cap famously gives to Spider-Man in the Civil War comic, Cap refuses to sign the accords and the Avengers are split. It’s a testament to the even footing that both points of view are given that even after having seen the movie twice, I still can’t completely commit to one side or the other.
That could have been the whole crux of the story, but of course it isn’t. This is a Captain America movie, and the sequel to Winter Soldier. And that means Bucky, and not just as an afterthought. The movie starts with a flashback to the 1990s of the Winter Soldier making an assassination on an old lonely road. When the signing of the Accords are sabotaged, the Winter Soldier takes the blame.
This is where the mysterious villain Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) enters the picture, having uncovered an old Hydra book containing the code words that can hypnotize poor Bucky, bringing out his murderous Winter Soldier side.
Zemo’s backstory is simple. He was Sokovian military, he feels that the Avengers killed his family in Age of Ultron, and wants revenge. He is a surprisingly effective villain, and (though still a little lackluster, as almost all Marvel villains tend to be), I actually really enjoyed his simple, subtle, and ultimately tragic character. I was also pleased to find a villain who understood he couldn’t just kill the Avengers. Finally, we have a bad guy who doesn’t think himself stronger than Earth’s mightiest.
It is the hunt for the Winter Soldier that truly drives the movie: Cap’s insistence on saving his old friend and everyone else’s insistence on his guilt puts Cap up against UN orders. When Zemo sneaks into the UN under the guise of a therapist, he activates Bucky to escape (who then basically walks through all the Avengers because Bucky is Marvel’s equivalent of The Terminator). But it is Cap grabbing hold of Buck’s helicopter and crashing it down into the river below that brands Cap, Bucky, and Sam Wilson (Falcon) as fugitives from justice.
Falcon, by the way, seems to be almost solely motivated by the desire to make Steve Rogers smile, regardless of his own personal investment in whatever is happening. And it is amazing.
On this note, Falcon and Bucky share relatively little screen time together, but when they do it’s also incredible. If this were a romantic comedy, Sam and Bucky would essentially be Steve’s two boyfriends jostling for his attention while glaring at each other and thinking “Steve likes me best.”
At this point, it is also important to talk about Chadwick Boswin’s “King T’challa” (Black Panther). The actor invented his own accent for the role, since Black Panther is the king of a fictional African country. Black Panther isn’t on one side, so much as he just really wants to kill Bucky, for reasons that make perfect sense. The character is regal, lethal, and fights like an actual cat. Even his costume is amazing, and I’m incredibly excited for his solo movie. In the end, between the voices of Cap and Iron Man, Black Panther works as the third perspective. He is essential to the plot, and at no point does his inclusion feel forced.
The Avengers eventually meet at the Berlin airport, Cap and his team racing to capture Zemo, and Iron Man and his side determined to bring Cap to justice. Everyone gets their moment in this fight. Scarlet Witch gets a whole bunch. And Ant Man, a character who I was ambivalent about in his own movie, gets a moment here which might go down as one of my favourite in movie history.
Tom Holland’s motivations and reality as “Spider-Man” and “Peter Parker” are set-up beautifully in just one scene. Through his conversations with Tony, we see Peter as the shy awkward kid who just wants to make a difference and protect the “little guy”. Which, by the way, perfectly mirrors the moment Steve had in the first Captain America movie, when Dr. Erskine asks why he wants to join the war effort.
Then we get Spider-Man for the long and glorious airport Avengers brawl.
He’s perfect. Spidey holds his own against even the Winter Soldier (where all the other Avengers have failed), fighting against Cap and his team. He’s strong and fast, flipping through the air with webs flying around him, and he won’t stop talking.
This is the Spider-Man we’ve always wanted to see. In the twenty-five minutes he appears in this movie, Spider-Man acts more like the famous chatty, annoying kid who’s swung through comic pages for fifty years than any of the five whole Spiderman movies. As a criticism, there is no real reason for Spider-Man to be in the movie at all from a narrative point of view, but he makes up for it by being incredibly fun.
But this is all leading towards a confrontation between Cap, Bucky, and Iron Man. Without spoiling anything, the climax of Civil War has surprisingly low stakes. There’s no classic world-ending scheme or invading army. All of that is traded for emotional stakes.
Civil War is in many ways a tragedy, as the heroes don’t make amends in the end, but instead fall into a greater split that goes beyond politics. Come the end of the movie, Iron Man is fighting for vengeance and Cap is fighting for friendship, in a harrowing, violent confrontation where just for a moment, you might really believe that one of these heroes is going to kill the other.
What’s really well done is at no point does this conflict feel forced. You understand, as everything is slowly stripped away from him, why Cap will fight for Bucky at all costs. But similarly you understand why, by the end of the movie, Iron Man feels he needs to kill the Winter Soldier.
Usually motives in a superhero movie are pretty simple. The good guy wants to be good, and the bad guy doesn’t, and then they fight. That isn’t Civil War. We understand and accept the motivations driving each opposing side, and that is why this movie works so well. It’s also why at the end, as Captain America and Iron Man fight so brutally, it really is tragic.
In all this, Steve Rogers seems to have completed the arc he began all the way back in his first movie, to transform from a man into a legend.
“You’re trying to do what you think is right,” are nearly Cap’s last words of the film. “That’s all any of us can do.”
Because this is who Cap is: he’s going to do what he thinks is right.
I’m sure everyone will be back together again by the end of the next Avengers movie, but that doesn’t change how powerful this movie was.
Captain America: Civil War, is arguably both the best solo and team movie Marvel has produced. For the first time, we are wrapping up a superhero trilogy without a weak link.
Civil War raises the bar for everything that must follow, and incidentally, this is the first I can remember where I walked out of the theater considering the movie to be better than its source material.