Captain America: Civil War
Commencing Phase Three then. While Daredevil and Jessica Jones ruled the streaming world and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter didn’t disgrace themselves on television, it was a somewhat mixed performance for the MCU on the big-screen in 2015. Age Of Ultron was a fun, bombastic superhero romp, let down badly by an insatiable need to stuff the narrative full of jokes and a humdrum villain, while Ant-Man, an overall enjoyable and welcome “back-to-basics” exercise, had its own plot-holes and unfulfilled potential.
The MCU needed to shrug off the creeping sense of mediocrity that was starting to rear its ugly head around its behemoth of a franchise, especially with so many more films already in production or pre-production. Re-enter the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joseph, to offer their second crack at the Captain America character. Their The Winter Soldier remains one of the really stand-out examples of the kind of adventure the MCU can bring to the table, and Marvel certainly seems willing to bank on them and their continuing vision for the universe. And so, Civil War, something that essentially seems to be Avengers 2.5, with all bar the Norse God and the big green monster having a look in here. Was Civil War the MCU’s new high water mark? Or was it an over-filled mess, invoking a Spider-Man 3-esque sense of a franchise gone too far?
After a disastrous mission in Lagos results in dozens of civilian casualties, the Avengers are left with a choice: sign up to the new “Sokovia Accords” and accept international oversight, or became true vigilantes. On one side stands the remorseful Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), left in turmoil after the Ultron incident, and on the other is Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), deeply suspicious of any governmental interference in his work. Soon, their divide will suck in a host of other heroes, and when Caps old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) – aka, the “Winter Soldier” – is implicated in a terrorist bombing, the Avengers, and others, are set on a path towards catastrophe.
If Civil War has a singular problem I care to point to, that contributes to all subsequent problems, it’s sheer overload. It is a film that is trying to do so much, in terms of the wider status of the MCU and in numerous character arcs. And the end result is a film that, regrettably, finds itself unwittingly cast into the role of a feature that I like less the more and more I think about it. I enjoyed watching this film in the theatre, for the most part. Civil War is great spectacle, with great superhero action. But overall it is a shallow, and sometimes worrying, experience, that can never seem to say no to the possibility of expansion in every direction, and that never approaches the same thought-provoking territory of its predecessor.
Leaving aside the central plot structure, Civil War is groaning under the weight of all of the characters, new and previously established, that it must cater for. We get then, two cardinal sins of story-telling in abundance: attempts to give too many characters a sub-plot, and characters introduced and discarded for no good reason at all, at nearly every point of a film that feels every inch of its two and half hour running time. Shall we list everything?
We’ve got Cap and his inner quandary over the Sokovia Accords. We have Stark and the same, with the addition of his unresolved issues regards his parents and his crumbling love life. We’ve got Bucky’s efforts to rehabilitate himself (or not as the case may be). We’ve got Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) and his mission to take down the Avengers. We’ve got Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) and her brief romantic plot with Cap. We’ve got Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) general funk. We’ve got the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) somewhat weird interactions with the same. We’ve got Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) caught in the middle, essentially, of the two larger factions at play. We’ve got Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) and his mission. We’ve got Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) arrival to the MCU, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and all. We’ve got the origin for T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his own revenge storyline. And then thrown into the mix, without adequate care for their own characters, are Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Clint Barton/Hawk-Eye (Jeremy Renner), Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), a little bit of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Brock “Crossbones” Rumlow (Frank Grillo), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and a few other assorted hangers on.
That is a long list of plot/sub-plot critical characters and others, and Civil War just cannot adequately account for them all. It isn’t that the film’s plot and sub-plots are hard to follow, it’s that there are so many of them that they dilute the whole. The main focus should so clearly be on the divide, ideological and physical, between Cap and Tony, and Barnes should be the overriding cause. But instead, seeking to make something that caters to a need for big bangs in terms of action and to constant references to a growing universe, Civil War turns from an intensely personal affair to something that grows rapidly uncontrollable.
At the heart of it too might be the problems with the leads. Neither Evans nor Downey Jr seem as if they are as up for this as they used to be. It’s not hard to blame them: both are making their sixth appearance in the MCU with Civil War, and it’s hard to keep up the enthusiasm for that long. What’s comparable, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (six films, and one cameo)? Evans’ growing weariness with the role and RDJ’s money demands are well noted: here, the two frequently seem like they are just going through the motions, Evans especially, no longer making us truly feel like this potential cardboard cut-out of a character is anything more than that. In the last act, Downey Jr rouses himself to reach heights he previously scaled in his first appearance, but he’s treading water for the most part. The relationship between these two should be the driving force of Civil War, but it lacks that crucial spark.
The other big problem is the respective betrayals that the script and the direction undertake for the two characters. Captain America, the very personification of the free world’s fight against fascist totalitarianism, is presented with the united representatives of the same free world asking him to no longer operate without oversight, to accept some responsibility for finicky things like crossing sovereign borders and the repeated collateral damage he and the Avengers have been responsible for: his response is to give them the middle finger, and get amazingly self-righteous about the possibility that he will not be allowed to do as he sees fit. Sure, we saw Cap take on authority before, but that was an unequivocally evil, mass murder planning authority: this is the United Nations. An easy out would have been to frame Cap’s objections entirely around his devotion to Bucky, but that just isn’t the case in Civil War, with Barnes more of an extra motivation.
And Tony Stark is in many ways re-booted: in a reference to the events of Iron Man 3, as close to an ending for the Stark character as you could realistically hope to get in the MCU, Downey Jr waves a hand and dismisses both it, the character arc inherent therein, and his relationship with Pepper Potts (maybe Paltrow wanted nothing more to do with this and I wouldn’t blame her). Now that there’s a civil war to be had, Stark’s self-realisation and willingness to change himself, to move behind the deadest vigilante that he was, are inconveniences to be ignored. There’s something tiresome about seeing Stark’s actions continually backfire on him in some way at this point, and the narrative gymnastics that must be done to accomplish both this and Stark’s insertion back into the superhero world, first with Age Of Ultron and now here, are making me feel increasingly numb.
So, two characters that I’m having trouble getting behind, maybe Cap more so, his stunning lack of care for democratic will rather horrifying. Civil War has you covered though, going out of its way to portray Cap as in the right and the villainous governments trying to curtail him as being in the wrong, lest we begin to question why Cap really feels he has the right to do the things he does. I’ve always previously balked at criticisms of these movies that described as right-wing wet dreams, fascistic and “might makes right” in their philosophy, but I can’t deny it for Civil War, a film that introduces the idea of the governments of the people trying to get a handle on lone wolf vigilantes and being portrayed as both wrong and easily overcome by the same. And Hulk isn’t even around to really make the point.
I suffered a lack of engagement in parts, and Civil War suffered from a lack of tension as a result, and has become a film that has made me growingly unnerved as I continued to ponder it. But there are additional flaws that bare some notice. The world doesn’t need another Spider-Man origin story, so it’s all well and good to cram it in here, and Tom Holland’s webslinger is a decent addition in his brief time. But more patience could easily have been shown with Black Panther, Boseman, giving a good performance but badly relegated in terms of importance as things go on, just sort of turning up in the third act for no good reason. The main plot and the key relationships suffer incredibly by the decision to allow Civil War be used as an intro for two new characters, not to mention the running time.
Guilty of affecting that two are the Avenger cameos, and make no mistake about it, this is Avengers 2.5. Neither Hawk-Eye nor War Machine should really be in this film, both showing up more as a matter of course than anything, and poor Don Cheadle is wedged firmly in the role of a largely unimportant side-kick by this point, following the disastrous use of his character in Iron Man 3 and his bit-part in Age Of Ultron. At least Paul Rudd gets something very cool to add to things, and even Falcon, who doesn’t really have an arc, is intimately involved in most action sequences from start to (near) finish.
You can’t give Vision a bare semblance of an attraction to Scarlet Witch and leave it at that. You can’t have her facing fears in one scene and then shrugging them off in the next. You can’t give Sharon Carter stuff to do that propels things forward, then have her vanish from the narrative when she gives Cap a peck. You can’t cast someone as great as Martin Freeman in an utterly nothing part like he is here. There’s so much waste here. People praise this film for its balancing act, but my question is why it had to perform such a balancing act at all? Thor and Hulk aren’t involved in Civil War, why do so many have to be?
Perhaps the apex of the waste is Daniel Bruhl’s nominal villain. The MCU has nearly always struggled with its antagonists – Loki aside, they haven’t managed to come up with any one that I would credibly describe as truly standout, and several have been ghastly – and the curse strikes again here, as Zemo wanders in and out of the narrative, leading up to a rather lame double-reveal in the last act, the first part of which is a re-hash of things brought up twice already before in the film, and the second is something lamp-shaded from the opening minutes.
It feels like I’m trashing this film, so let’s just dial it back a little bit. The debate over the Sokovia Accords is genuinely interesting, it’s just the execution of having everyone choose sides that nullifies it. The film trips along nicely for the first hour and a half, notwithstanding the character problems, and follows much the same ratio of dialogue to action that have made the other MCU films a success in terms of being summer blockbusters. There’s plenty in the acting stakes to praise: Johansson, Stan, Boseman, Holland and VanCamp are all great, doing the utmost with the limited time that they have, and it’s actually quite nice to see William Hurt back, reminding us of that most unloved child of the MCU, The Incredible Hulk.
The script is actually decent enough too, only really failing when the actors aren’t up for giving it the punchy delivery it deserves. Sure, it will never make me buy a Cap that is so willing to turn his back on the wishes of the United Nations, but at least the argument is present, and the words of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are particularly great for Stark, facing up to the horrors of what he unleashed with Ultron and content to be the governments man in the fight against Cap. There are some really spiteful words to be had between the two as time progresses, and it’s a shame the two actors weren’t as dynamic as they have previously proven themselves to be.
Many of the minor characters, notwithstanding their very brief screentime, are written perfectly: Spidey is wonderfully talkative at all points, quipping with gusto as he takes on the “bad guys” (hilariously trying to read them their rights as he goes), Panther carries with him that sense of real injustice, and even the humour has been, thankfully, eased back on significantly after Age Of Ultron threatened to turn into an all-out comedy movie: sure, there are some painfully out of places jokes, like an interaction between Hawk-Eye and Black Widow even as they fight each other, but for the most part the correct balance of drama to humour is found.
And the real attraction, and Civil War’s big saving grace is the visual. The cinematography isn’t anything truly special, and even the CGI is nothing beyond what Marvel Studios has already accomplished (indeed, at moments it actually looks a little the worse for wear). But the action scenes are among some of the best that the superhero genre has created, from the opening tussel with Crossbones in Lagos all the way to the much spoiled triple threat match that makes up the finale. The costumes, the choreography, the music, it all merges wonderfully in those moments, and not even some poorly executed shaky cam can ruin it.
The real big moment is the actual civil war, a superhero slobberknocker at Leipzig airport around the end of the second act, when ten heroes pick a side and face off in an extended set-piece, that is everything the genre can be in terms of just sheer, unadulterated comic book action. It has lots of interesting pair-offs, lots of neat visual ques, and a host of nice surprises: it effectively mixes and matches humour, seriousness and property destruction, to form a fight scene that, dare I say, is actually the best that Marvel Studios has ever created, that almost makes up for everything bad that comes before and after it. It is the only part of the film that I am interested in seeing again, and needs to be seen to truly understand its scope and audacity.
Civil War winds down to an ending that struggles to really grab your attention, if you’re anything like me that is. It features two characters so badly handled that their final come together just can’t enthral as much as it should, and the final botching of Zemo and Panther also deflects from what could have been a great, emotionally charged finale. At least Civil War leaves off on an interesting place, with the MCU irrevocably changed and decent set-ups accomplished for Spider-Man and Black Panther, who may have to take the entire universe on their shoulders very soon.
Some spoiler talk follows
-I want to be very clear about the central problem of this film. Forgot the lazy ways it tries to account for Cap’s viewpoint, by showing Ross as not very nice, and the secret prisons and what have you. At the end of the day, Rodgers, Barton, Wilson, and everyone else lining up beside them, are presented with a request by the representatives of over a hundred nations that they stop acting unilaterally, that they accept some measure of responsibility for the damage they cause in the pursuit of their goals. And their response is an arrogant, undeserved and utterly baffling “No thanks”. Cap practically rolls his eyes at the news reports making the point. What’s wrong with this guy?
-And we’re talking more than just the four places Ross lists out in his fairly awesome introduction. In order, the Avengers, together or alone, have caused a lot of damage to L.A, Brooklyn, Monaco, Flushing Meadows, a town in New Mexico, downtown New York, L.A again, Greenwich, Washington D.C., Wakanda, Seoul, Sokovia and now various parts of Germany. You can’t make a big deal out of Cap’s declaration to save everybody in the finale of Age Of Ultron, and then present him as uncaring as this. At least Tony is reacting like a human being.
-One scene for me that caused great confusion was when Cap, Falcon and Carter observed Zemo’s psychological evaluation of Barnes. Cap just jumped to the realisation that Zemo was the bad guy in two sentences, like there simply wasn’t time to set it up properly (like finding the body, a moment thrown into the mix way too late).
-Thank God the Russo’s only took the bare bones of the Civil War story arc from the comics, a terrible and wasted opportunity for a genre defining tale. The only thing that I would have retained would have been the death of Cap: if he had a similar volte face and accepted democratic control of his actions, and then died, it would have a nice end to his overall story arc, which really doesn’t appear to have any places it can still go.
-Giant Man! That was pretty awesome, and looked really cool too. Lang, in general, was used quite well, as comic relief (“Think you for thanking of me!”) and as an effective trump card in the fight.
-Speaking of which, why is Barton there? Stark is right to question him, turning his back on his wife and very large brood of children, just to help Cap spit in the face of government authority. It makes him seem so recklessly heartless.
-The MCU has generally done fine with its love plots, that have been limited if they exist at all. And maybe they should stick to the idea of them not being there, after the stupid back and forth between Cap and Carter, culminating in her vanishing from the plot after the most innocent kind of kiss with Cap. Why couldn’t she be involved at Leipzig? Instead of Hawk-Eye maybe? Also, she’s Peggy’s niece. That’s creepy territory Cap.
-It was easy to see the big reveal coming, that Barnes had assassinated the elder Stark’s, lampshaded in the car’s plate and Tony’s hologram family mentioning their sudden departure leading to a death. That the film tried to frame the confirmation of this as some kind of staggering moment was very odd.
-CGI Tony was a very weird addition as part of that lampshading.
-Still, “Sorry Cap, he killed my Mom” might be the best line of the film.
-The resolution of that final battle, two characters I disliked going hell for leather and then walking away, didn’t really mollify me. Cap’s dropping of the shield seemed like an admittance that he no longer deserved the grandiose title that he had, a final insult to what the character should be.
-Kelly Condon’s inane Tooralooraloora babble in Tony’s ear during that fight also ruined it for me. I know she’s actually Irish for anyone compelled to tell me, but that’s a put on Hollywood Oirish tinge if ever there was one, and it’s dumb as hell to listen to.
-The swerve from allowing Zemo to kill himself was pure 12A stuff, and denied Bruhl the chance to at least give his character a fitting end-off. In the end, he was just the third of three characters – the first being the woman in the hallway with the dead son, and the second being T’Challa – motivated by the revenge for dead family. The Russo’s obviously wanted it to be a recurring theme, crudely commented upon by Panther at the conclusion, but it just bored me by the end. It almost might have been better if Zemo was just a HYDRA agent.
-Mid-credits scene: some half-decent set-up for future adventures there, if Evans is of a mind to be involved. His Secret Avengers might have some interesting adventurers. Maybe Infinity War’s two parts might be respective trips for either branch of the crimefighters?
-Post-credits: Another pointless addendum, and not even a look at Doctor Strange, Marvels’ next Hail Mary pass. So bored of these, and I was hopeful Marvel Studios had decided to ditch them.
The natural comparison to this film is, of course, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. I had significant problems with that film, and while I enjoyed it overall, I fully expected Civil War to top it. But, in the end, all I can really say is that Civil War matches it, without surpassing it clearly. Batman V Superman does a much better job with the central divide between the two main characters, helped by the fact that 20 others aren’t hogging the screen for their own plots, and even the backdoor introductions are limited to one person (substantial ones anyway). And I think that Snyder’s film, and this surprises me as much as it will most of you, is just deeper than the Russo brothers’ efforts, a little bit more intelligent, with Civil War constantly coming off as a shallow exercise to me, butter scrapped over too much bread, that can’t satisfy you as much as it really should have been able to.
But, for all of the many faults that drag Civil War down, I actually did still enjoy it in the moment. But, only as a piece of spectacle entertainment, a shut-down-your-brain operation where I had to actively overlook things that were bothering me in that moment, but that I can’t ignore a few days hence, giving it some reasoned thought and adequate reflection. The Winter Soldier is a superior film (to both Civil War and Batman V Superman) in nearly every respect, and it baffles me to see Civil War getting over 90% on aggregators. Is Marvel that bullet proof? Seemingly so.
In the end, when you have a lot of very good action scenes and comic book matchups that have previously only existed in the realm of the imagination, a script that does the requisite and a host of popular characters, you can overcome so many other problems: the gigantic failure of characterisation with the main pair, the sense of things being overloaded to the full, and a lack of real engagement with the really important characters. For that one glorious festival of colour and superhero action in the middle, I would recommend this film, and I’m happy to actually give it a general recommendation as well, just about. Like Michael Bay when he’s actually giving half a damn, you can sit down for a few hours and get a bit immersed in this kind of tale. But the MCU has done better, much better, and I hope that the Russo brothers pull the finger out before they take on the Avengers proper in a few years. But, with the Guardians apparently being thrown into the mix as well, I am less hopeful than I was. Marvel needs to do better.
(All images are copyright of Marvel Studios).