The joy of taking sides

Every scene in Captain America: Civil War is written to build to its final, discomfiting face-off between the charming Tony Stark in his glorious Iron Man suit, and my most favourite Avenger, the honourable Captain America. It didn’t help my unease as a viewer that this was happening even before the wounds of watching Batman try to take down Superman had healed. Although, I am sure it happens a lot in real life, there’s something unsettling — and somewhat unexciting even — about a good person taking on another good person in films, especially in those that are supposed to be crowd-pleasers. It seems to me, that at least part of the enjoyment of watching films like The Avengers lies in the catharsis of seeing the antagonist getting destroyed, in the realisation of the fantasy that is the annihilation of evil. That’s partly why Loki getting slammed by Hulk, like clothes by a washerman, was so satisfying to behold.

The good-versus-good trope is usually a ‘lawful good’ fighting a ‘lawless good’. Think of Javert vs Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Think of Prabhu vs Karthik in Agni Natchathiram. Even in Captain America: Civil War, the rival factions — one championed by Iron Man, and the other by Captain America — are divided by their resistance to legality and the lack of it. This trope’s antithesis, of course, is evil vs evil, as seen in, say, Alien vs Predator, where it doesn’t matter to the audience if either or both died. The good vs good subject often unties, at the very end, into a straightforward good vs evil subject when the good characters reconcile — as was the case in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In a gritty drama like Les Miserables, such a conflict, when at the heart of the story, helps paint a realistic portrayal of the setting, and brings out the pathos inherent in watching two good people get pitted against each other by circumstances. The conflict between the law-enforcing Andrei Taganov and the rebellious Leo Kovalensky in Rand’s We the Living achieves the same purpose. The trope is a reflection of the tragedy immanent in reality.

In superhero fiction like Avengers and Civil War, entertainment, to a large extent, is born out of action sequences and punch lines; the gratification is usually momentary and instant. It comes from watching a docile scientist turn into a huge green monster as he reveals that he is “always angry”. It comes from watching a vampire hunter in shades taking the beating of his life and yet, managing to take down his seemingly invincible adversary. It comes from watching a dorky student suddenly realise that he can use his newly-acquired sensory ability to take on his bully. It comes from watching a man hang upside down from a chandelier and pump round after round of ammunition into those who killed his family. It comes from watching a broken vigilante make an impossible leap to escape his imprisonment.

It is commonly said that a hero is only as good as his villain. What, when you have two heroes fighting each other then? In the case of Civil War, I felt a strange distance from the fight, almost bordering on apathy. Apprehension over the safety of both parties in duel means you can’t take sides, and when you can’t take sides, there can be no real elation in victory. The good news, however, is that the next Avenger films, Avengers: Infinity War (Part 1 and 2) will bring back a supervillain — Thanos, with superhuman strategic ability, strength, endurance and agility. I never thought I’d say this, but that Thanos intends to destroy humanity comes as a source of huge relief. It means we can take sides again.

This column was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.

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