Image courtesy of Marvel/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
“Captain America: Civil War,” the thirteenth installment in the extremely popular “Avengers” franchise, opened to eager audiences in early May. While generally well-received, the movie was ultimately (and unsurprisingly) disappointing in some aspects, continuing Marvel Studios’ pattern of creating stories that sacrifice people of color and women to further the story lines of white male heroes.
The movie opens in Lagos, Nigeria, where a number of the Avengers, including Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), are on a mission to take down Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), a villain introduced in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” While the mission is successful, Wanda is unable to control her powers and accidentally causes an explosion that kills a number of Nigerian and Wakandan citizens. For Wanda, who is still grieving over her twin brother’s death in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” these deaths are a source of pain, guilt, and further grief.
While Wanda’s feelings are understandable, they unfortunately fall in line with a pattern of killing people of color to add further dimension to white (or whitewashed, in Wanda’s case) characters. Using people of color as props for white characters dehumanizes them, but Marvel doesn’t seem to see a problem with this. Instead, they do it two more times in this movie alone.
Part of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) motivation for signing the Accords is his guilt over the death of a young black man named Charlie. The man’s mother (Alfre Woodard) appears for only a few minutes, bravely confronting Tony about how killed Charlie while fighting in Sokovia during “Age of Ultron.” Tony uses this encounter to try to guilt the other Avengers into signing the Sokovia Accords, showing them his picture and telling them what little he knows about this man he helped kill.
(Ostensibly, Tony feels guilty because not only because he’s helped to kill so many people in Sokovia, but also because Charlie was so young. He unfortunately contradicts himself later in the film when he recruits a very young Peter Parker to fight Captain America without giving him a full context of the situation, or considering the fact that Peter Parker is only a child.)
But after twenty minutes or so, Charlie is never mentioned again, and his mother disappears into the void.
One could argue that Tony is mostly moved by the fact that a mother came to him, because the film emphasizes his unprocessed grief over his mother’s death. However, that does not excuse how the film treats people of color — that is, as props that exist only to create painful emotional blows to a white character. Doing this shows the audience that the writers don’t see people of color as deserving of their own stories.
Nor are fan favorites exempt from being objectified in this way. The third time the movie uses people of color is when Rhodey (Don Cheadle) is injured during the most elaborate and overdramatic fight scene I’ve seen recently. It’s an extremely emotional and well-acted scene, but it would be better if the scene’s purpose and focus was not Tony Stark, Sad White Man™, but Rhodey, the person who is most affected by the injury. Again, emphasizing Tony Stark’s White Man Pain™ marginalizes Rhodey’s feelings and experience and tells the audience that they — and by extension, Rhodey — aren’t important.
To be fair, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is not objectified in “Civil War.” T’Challa is about as fleshed-out as he could get in this movie (particularly with its ridiculously large cast), and Boseman’s portrayal of him is one of the highlights of the film. As a king in his own right, he’s also a far cry from the almost sidekick-like role that Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Rhodey play for Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, respectively. This one exception to the rule, however, does not make up for the fact that the movie’s writers treat most of the black male characters as props.
The film’s gender representation could also use some work. Disney’s Marvel Studios is not known to have the best track record when it comes to representing women in their movies. Still, they tried yet again to appease audiences with the few female characters in “Captain America: Civil War.” Now we have three female characters to look up to: Wanda Maximoff, the remaining
mutant twin from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp), ex-SHIELD agent turned romantic interest, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Original Female Avenger, still kicking ass despite not being recognized in a movie of her own.
To their credit, the Russo Brothers do a decent job correcting some of the more outlandish characterizations from “Age of Ultron,” particularly in their treatment of Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff. No longer the pining, helpless sap she was in that film, Natasha has a complex and mature response to the Sokovia Accords. Her character arc through the movie, while relatively short, soothes the balm from the previous movie.
However, her arc WAS short, part of an unfortunate pattern in “Civil War,” where the female characters seem to disappear as the movie goes on. Sharon Carter, who in the beginning of the film works with Rogers to spite the government, shares a frankly out-of-left-field kiss with him before being sucked into the bowels of Marvel Studios’ female character vault, presumably to return when called upon to provide emotional support for the stalwart, patriotic male hero.
Even Wanda, aka Scarlet Witch, who struggles to accept her own power in “Civil War,” is largely dependent on male characters’ decisions and opinions in the film. She spends the bulk of the film essentially held hostage by Vision (Paul Bettany) in the New Avengers Facility, as Tony deems “the world” too dangerous for her to leave the complex. Really, Tony thinks Wanda is the actual danger here, which is ironic, considering that this is the same man who built dozens of iron suits and practically told the US government to go fuck itself in earlier installments, but I digress. Although she escapes with the help of another male Avenger, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), she ends the film in a straight-jacket, held captive by (you guessed it) more men. Obviously this is the result of the fact that Marvel makes all of the government baddies white men, so of course Wanda’s captors would be men, but it still continues the sexist pattern.
All in all, this isn’t a bad movie for women, by Marvel’s standards. Actually, it’s far from the worst, and I’m grateful that we seem to be moving forward again in terms of female representation in this franchise. However, the fact remains that female characters are secondary to their male counterparts, and no matter how “Civil War” tries to spin it, women’s arcs and agencies are subject to the whims of male characters, male writers, and male directors.
And quite frankly, I’m still extremely bitter over the fact that the Captain Marvel movie was pushed back to make room for yet another Spider-man reboot, and if I have to read another interview of Kevin Feige dancing around a Black Widow solo film, I’m going to vomit. Get your shit together, Marvel. I’m tired of writing these reviews, and DC’s “Wonder Woman” is coming out next year. It’s now or never.
Vivian Giang contributed to this article.