A House of Ideas divided amongst itself cannot stand.
For so long, the Marvel films attempted to dwell in multiple worlds, often at the detriment of each individual movie. It’s difficult for any filmmaker to attempt decent, often politically-charged stories while still pretending to appeal to toy-buying children. This is done while also tying into four or five other films, some of which don’t even have scripts yet. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo did an admirable job of maintaining this balance with their last film The Winter Soldier, and Captain America: Civil War builds off that foundation in some interesting ways. However, just like the scratch marks left on Steve’s shield by the claws of Black Panther, some of the paint is beginning to peel back on the Marvel plan, showing only a Vibranium-strong foundation.
Captain America: Civil War divides our ever-expanding roster of heroes (or “augmented persons” as the film calls them) on two sides of a political battle. There’s a lot of plot here, and surprisingly most of it is relevant, so bear with me. After new Avenger recruit Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) accidentally detonates a bomb near an office tower in Nigeria during a failed mission, Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) presents Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team with an ultimatum: Serve as a regulated and monitored branch of the United Nations or stop superhero-ing. Tony Stark/Iron Man (RDJ), who has spent five movies nursing his Survivor’s Guilt, is totally on board; Cap not so much. This rift is made worse during the actual signing of the accord, when the United Nations building is bombed by someone who looks an awful lot like Cap’s old buddy/occasional assassin Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Cap assembles a team of registration resistors to help him prove Bucky’s innocence, while Tony and his comrades seek to take them in and arrest their former allies.
There’s a lot to like about the chaos that’s happening in Captain America: Civil War, but before getting into that, allow me a quick nitpick. The fan base’s extremely loud and often misplaced response to Man of Steel has put comic-book movies in a really weird position. Studios know that there is negative response to civilian death, which is why there’s been a major push to force “It’s uninhabited/evacuated!” into every fight scene, or to use cars as visual “civilian replacements.” But Marvel also wants to use those deaths to show the consequences of the Avengers’ actions, so the solution is to flash surprisingly-small numbers on-screen while recapping past movies. In the last Captain America movie, Cap dropped three massive aircraft carriers from the sky above Washington DC, which according to Ross, cost 21 civilian lives. Maybe it’s cynical of me, but 21 seems like an incredibly low number, considering the last time Captain America fought Nazis it cost thousands upon thousands of civilian lives. 21 seems like a very good job all things considered, and it’s strange that the Secretary of State doesn’t understand the concept of “acceptable collateral damage.” But on the other hand, many would argue that maybe these beloved children’s heroes should be a little more child-friendly and not focusing on the murder-teams at all. This is where that dual-worlds thing comes in again. It’s not really a strike against the film, just an observation about the state of the genre.
As far as the film itself goes, the worst one can say is that it is uneven.
There are essentially two movies happening here: an A-minus Captain America movie and a B-grade Avengers film. There are also the requisite bits that serve as extended trailers for upcoming films, which are, as usual, the worst parts of the film. (This is not a knock against Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland as Black Panther and Spider-Man, respectively, they’re great. They’re just also extraneous.)
The quality of the film varies heavily based on which Avenger happens to be on-screen at the time. I assume that somewhere out there, fans of Vision, Scarlet Witch, Movie Hawkeye and War Machine must exist, and they will be let down by the dawdling and less-interesting bits those characters have. On the other hand, Anthony Mackie (Cap’s new buddy Falcon, whose action figure now comes with collectible drone accessory) and Sebastian Stan are absolute standouts whose relationship carries the film through many of its dreariest parts. Johansson also shines, though her role is frustratingly reduced from the secondary protagonist she played in Winter Soldier. Paul Rudd’s appearance as Ant-Man also meets or exceeds standard acceptable Paul Rudd levels of charm and humor, so you know what you’re getting there.
But getting down to this film’s main conflict, Steve vs. Tony. Marvel’s military-industrial complex vs American exceptionalism. “I don’t like bullies” against “I just privatized world peace.” The soldier of Brooklyn fights the genius of Malibu, as Jesse Eisenberg would clumsily put it. But these men, and everything they’ve come to represent, are the root of the film. Somewhat insultingly, the movie removes both of them from the women who kept them grounded early on so we know that we’re getting the most pure and unfiltered versions of what they symbolize. What’s fascinating about Captain America: Civil War is how long it resists giving either side the moral high ground, then eventually conceding and giving it to Cap because his name is in the title. Before that, Steve argues that his team doesn’t need to be monitored, then proceeds to Monroe Doctrine the hell out of some foreign police and accidentally assault a newly-crowned sovereign ruler. Not to be outdone in hypocrisy, Tony lectures Steve on his skewed sense of judgement, then immediately recruits a literal 15-year-old to fight a super-strong international terrorist.
This ambiguity serves the film well, but the main conflict is somewhat diminished by the fact that Tony and Steve’s relationship has only been defined by the Avengers films, two movies where their characterizations are vastly different than the way they are written here. As Steve reasons that he has to protect Bucky because “He’s my friend,” Tony responds with an emotional “So was I.” It’s a good line, but it serves little purpose because… when exactly was that? We’ve never actually seen Steve and Tony be friends in this entire decade-long series, in fact every time we’ve seen them together they are either shooting bad guys or fighting over shooting bad guys. This “friendship” developed off-screen and making us take it on faith robs us of emotional punch. This is the biggest problem with the Marvel films in general: They’re so concerned with the movies that are coming up that they forget to be consistent with the ones they’ve already made.
This is another part of the “duality of Marvel” issue.
It’s difficult to talk about Captain America: Civil War as a film unto itself without also having to talk about it as the beginning of the third leg of a 15-movie franchise event. There’s a lot to like about this particular film. The Russos make a lot of interesting stylistic choices and greatly improve upon the directorial progress they made in Winter Soldier. In particular, they’ve gotten better at wide-spread action sequences and using strong foley work and camera restraint to make the impact of these punches and jumps felt. Their strength still lies in the small scale, in close-quarters or one-on-one fights, but there’s definite improvement here and the sprawling sequences no longer feel like plastic dolls smacking into each other.
But taken as part of the overall universal franchise that it’s meant to uphold, or even just as the third film in the Captain America series, it feels like yet another placeholder film. It borrows only what pieces it absolutely needs from the past film, while completely glossing over other essential points, like the whole “US Government agency is literally secret Nazis” thing. Or even the part where the president was kidnapped by terrorists in Iron Man 3. For a film so dedicated to showing the consequences of the past events, it cherry-picks heavily exactly which fallout to address and which falls by the wayside because it’s too hard to reconcile.
As a result, even though Captain America: Civil War ends on a note that promises to shake up the Marvel status quo, it’s hard to take that seriously. We’ve seen this happen and be undone several times before, and the Russos are careful to leave themselves an emergency escape if they need it in the future. Frustratingly, this could all have been avoided by just making the film without the UN accords subsection, and cutting down on the filler characters. “Cap and Falcon have to find Bucky before Iron Man and Black Panther do” is a perfectly acceptable plotline for a movie. But that doesn’t sell as many playsets. It’s that damned duality thing again. Captain America: Civil War is an enjoyable time, but it just continues the Marvel franchise’s goal of being like a TV series that has a Season Finale in every episode.Liked This? Share It!