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'Captain America: Civil War' is a fun movie, but it also missed an opportunity

Posted May 14

For the most part, “Captain America: Civil War” is just as good as everyone says it is. However, there was one troublesome plot point that completely threw me out of the movie. I’d like to discuss that point at length, but to do so, I’m going to be talking about things that will spoil the film for those of you who haven’t seen it. Thus I give you fair warning here at the outset: See “Civil War” before reading this column if you don’t want to know what happens in advance.

On Valentine’s Day in 2011, Abigail, my oldest daughter, suffered a burst fracture of the spine in a skiing accident. The injury impacted the region of her spinal cord between the T12 and L1 vertebrae, leaving her partially paralyzed from the waist down. She has managed to recover enough movement to be able to walk with the assistance of forearm crutches, but her experience has transformed the Bennett family into passionate advocates on behalf of spinal cord research. There have been some very encouraging advances in recent years, but a cure remains elusive and thousands of people continue to struggle with the enormous day-to-day challenges of living with paralysis.

If you’ve seen “Civil War,” you know that James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Iron Man’s sidekick also known as War Machine, is accidentally shot down in a climactic battle between warring superheroes, and, as a result, he suffers a spinal cord injury in the same region my daughter did. Actually, his fictional injury is much more severe than Abby’s real one. We’re told that Rhodey’s spinal cord is “completely severed,” which would preclude any possibility of movement below the point of injury. That means that, in the real world, Rhodey would undoubtedly be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

So imagine my dismay when, just a couple of scenes after Rhodey’s plight is milked for maximum dramatic effect, Rhodey gets a magic, comic-booky exoskeleton that allows him to walk again. True, he hasn’t quite figured out how to use it, but it’s pretty clear that there’s no wheelchair in Rhodey’s long-term future, so everyone can breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that his tragedy is only temporary.

This really bothered me.

Now I realize this is all make-believe and that it takes place in a universe where people can fly and shrink and shoot spider webs out of their hands. (Spider-Man was ridiculously awesome in this movie.) In that cinematic context, it makes sense that real-world limitations of paralysis wouldn’t apply. The problem is that “Civil War” still gets the audience emotionally invested in the consequences of paralysis and then essentially lets them off the hook in their need to be concerned about them. This was an opportunity to educate and inspire, but they dropped the ball instead.

Surprisingly, Iron Man and friends aren’t the only superheroes who have recently dropped the ball on this subject. In the TV show “Arrow,” lead character Felicity Smoak suffers a spinal cord injury and spends a few episodes in a wheelchair, only to have a magic computer chip inserted into her spine to make it as if it never happened. To “Arrow’s” credit, Felicity notes that real people don’t have that option, and, in an episode that was dedicated to the Christopher Reeve Foundation, she actually pledges to devote her life to finding a cure for paralysis. But that was, what, two weeks ago? Now she’s back to fighting bad guys, and her injury is all but forgotten.

I don’t want to overstate my objection here. For the most part, I think “Civil War” is an amazing film, and I’m not trying to discourage anyone from seeing it. All I ask is that you pay attention when they drop the ball.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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