Here we go again. 8 years after Iron Man kick started a blockbuster movie franchise that’s now 13 films in, Captain America: Civil War is less of an event movie than it is “a very special episode” of an ongoing serial or rather the cinematic equivalent of binge-watching a handsomely budgeted TV show in the span of 2.5 hours for all the positives and negatives that entails. After being thoroughly impressed with the last Captain America-centric movie helmed by Joe & Anthony Russo and penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Winter Soldier), this latest installment is less concerned with pushing these films forward the way that one did and more so with keeping things on brand. Despite a strong central concept and thesis, by focusing on “hitting its marks” with little fuss or any guts to do anything but color within the lines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) playbook, Civil War isn’t necessarily a great Marvel movie so much as it is the “Platonic Ideal” of a Marvel movie. It’s the best of MCU and the worst all at once.
One of the biggest criticisms of the MCU movies is that they look and feel less like movies and more like high-budget television. I never really bought into that criticism completely until perhaps Avengers: Age of Ultron released last year. Small and intimate stakes are a good thing but somehow this movie mistakes intimate with low-to-nonexistent. It doesn’t start out that way though. In fact, much of this movie’s 1st 2/3rds show refreshing promise of emotional turmoil driven by character as opposed to plot. The plot, such as it is, finds our favorite gang of super-friends, the Avengers, sharply divided over public policy in response to the destruction left in the wake of their activities. The world governments have drafted “The Sokovia Accords” (named after the fictional nation that was decimated in Age of Ultron) and it would place the Avengers under control of the UN. Iron Man (still Robert Downey, Jr.), an Oppenheimer type inventor and futurist is desperate to share the burden of his personal guilt, and is ready to sign up. Standing in his way is the title character Captain America (a bored Chris Evans), a product of WWII who believes that the superheroes are capable of policing the planet on their own. Iron Man is ready to accept regulations; Rogers believes they are the regulations. It’s a good way to use superheroes in order to extrapolate 21st century debates about America, or any global superpower’s place in the world. Until it isn’t. So much about this movie teases you with the best of what superhero movies could be, unfortunately the rest is a slow but steady swan dive into the absolute worst of what they so consistently are.
The central villain, Helmut Zemo (played sharply by a Daniel Brühl) is easily the best villain in the MCU since Tom Hiddleston’s turn as Loki but his role and plan is obvious from the start, rendering a lot of the posturing in the movie about conflicting ideologies ultimately moot. Yet Zemo is a villain worth rooting for as his motivations and feelings towards the characters oddly mirror my own about the MCU as whole, something I couldn’t help but be amused by. Still it’s a shame that when all the superhero vs superhero smackdowns begin, it turns out rather predictably, that this film is much too gutless to actually confront the conflicts it works harder than the rest of the stake-less MCU to actually establish. It’s as if the movie turned around and started pointing and laughing at us for fooling us into believing it could be something more because ultimately it doesn’t even want to try. All because nothing matters in these movies, nor ever will because they are less concerned with creating a singular experience than selling you on the next edition. More than any other Marvel movie, this noxious realization had a much harsher sting because of all that posturing. You want to believe in the dream, just as Captain America did, and like him you find out it’s all a lie.
In focusing on hitting the “checklist” and marks, the plotting of the movie feels more than a little dumbed down and compromised. There’s a lot of padding to stretch the movie out to the now seemingly blockbuster standard 2.5 hours. Time and time again we go through scenes of “the same thing happening twice” and the “idiot plot.” There are times when there are relatively justifiable reasons to go through such contrivances but it’s not enough to overpower how frustrating it makes the film from a narrative point-of-view. Meanwhile, character point of view is integral to Civil War’s conceit itself as while the movie ends up being yet another consequence and resolution-free MacGuffin chase, part of the charm the movie has is seeing the cast struggle with the dilemmas they are confronted with despite none of that truly going anywhere as per the nature of the MCU. It’s also hurt by the actual performances of all involved. Chris Evans is 1st billed but somehow he’s never been less compelling and less likeable in the titular role than he has ever been and I’m curious as to why that is? It can’t be chalked up to a deliberate character choice because quite honestly even though it’s still ostensibly his movie it really doesn’t give him much to work with and do besides lecture and mope. Evans only comes to life in scenes opposite Robert Downey Jr, who effectively runs away with the movie given he’s the only character with an arc and a range to play; or Sebastian Stan as Bucky/The Winter Soldier, Captain America’s WWII buddy attempting to recover from being transformed into a brainwashed war machine. In fact, Evans’ sleepwalking performance is largely indicative of most of the veteran cast besides RDJ (especially Scarlet Johansson and Jeremy Renner); only relative newcomers to the MCU step up such as Anthony Mackie as Falcon, Sebastian Stan, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany as Vision but especially Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. However, the actual newcomers end up faring the best in terms of enthusiasm for their roles despite not playing actual characters. Chadwick Boseman makes for a fine Black Panther and Tom Holland may not be quite a shoe-in as Peter Parker/Spider-Man that Andrew Garfield was but he definitely makes a positive impression.
If you saw that cast of characters and and worried that the film is sort of overstuffed with too many superheroes…it sort of is. The Russo’s do a better job at juggling the unwieldy cast than Whedon did in Age of Ultron but ultimately the way they go about it is simply by reducing most of the supporting characters to shallow cameos which means it works and ultimately the ensemble structure of Civil War makes it more of the the 3rd Avengers movie rather than a Captain America movie despite his name in the title. Unfortunately, that means cast members like Emily VanCamp (Emily Thorn from ABC’s Revenge!), Martin Freeman and William Hurt draw the short end of the stick essentially playing the roles of human exposition machines or in VanCamp’s case a poorly shoe-horned love interest for Captain America. The actual best thing about the filmmaking in Civil War is how it manages to juggle the cast while still focusing on the 3 main players: Cap, Iron Man and Bucky. It’s too bad the action drops the ball.
The 2012 Avengers movie by Joss Whedon and the Russos’ Winter Soldier have different positives to their approach to action/spectacle. The former showcased a visceral understanding of cinematic spatial relations and geometry to extrapolate the newfound unity between the separate parts of the MCU at the time while the latter focused on choreographing movement to express character. Save for 2 spectacular sequences (one is a segment of a longer battle set at an Airport, the other is a 3-way fistfight in a secret Siberian lab), the action scenes in Civil War are a cacophonous hodgepodge of medium close-ups (MCUs, get it?!!) that all seem to exist in a vacuum from one another. The action sequences feel poorly stitched together from gifs. It’s the “Tumblr” style of action filmmaking. The Russo’s and cinematographer Trent Opalach’s baffling insistence on using mostly long lenses and heavy bokeh (the aesthetic in which a blur is produced due to the way the lens renders out-of-focus points) and lack of wide shots attempt to recreate the storytelling found in comics but it’s profoundly un-cinematic and absolutely diminish the scale of sequences much to their detriment. The superhero combat was supposedly assisted by the stunt and 2nd unit team behind John Wick but none of the craft from that film really shows in Civil War which finds many action scenes so clumsily shot, staged and edited (lots of shaky-cam and stuttering frame rates) that they all but completely undermined the drama. The filmmakers handle 1 on 1 or 2 on 1 fight scenes really well (one shot even looks like the Marvel vs Capcom fighting games!) but any more than that is woefully out of their grasp. With some of the inciting incidents leading to many of the film’s tussles stretching the suspension of disbelief even for a movie about the Marvel superheroes, it is only when the cast throws down the fisticuffs does it not only become hard to remember why they are fighting, it ceases to matter entirely.
What makes Civil War so emblematic of the MCU in the best ways is that it still prioritizes human drama to a degree. Ironically it also reveals why nearly all of the unfunny “jokes” (I say facetiously) in these movies boil down to “LOL Superheroes: they’re just like us!” Yet it all feels like empty talk, an impotent civics lesson that’s punctuated by one-liners and and airless spectacle. At this point, the greatest threat the MCU would ever face is a loss of profitability for the brand and that’s sort of disheartening that so little actually matters in these movies. For the most part the MCU is filled with solid action/adventure entertainment and this movie is no different. I had a genuinely good time with this movie when all is said and done and I suspect most will as it’s a real crowd-pleaser. However, while Civil War stands to show that Marvel movies don’t get much better than this (it’s far and away the nest Avengers movie even if it’s the weakest Captain America movie), the problem comes with that they ultimately don’t want to be or do more.