[Review] - Captain America: Civil War


In which the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

A review, a critique, an evaluation of a film should not be a comparison to another. This is especially true and vital if the other film is unrelated to the focal subject. However, there is an elephant in the room with Civil War, and that elephant is Bat shaped, has a big ‘S’ on its chest, and is only a month and a half older than this film. So, for this one paragraph only, let’s break this down: Civil War is a better film than Batman v Superman, on a technical level. The movie is simply made better than its DC counterpart. The narrative is better constructed, the characters are more fully realized, their motivations are clearer, the consequences of their actions more distinct. Behind the scenes, the people making the film are better at their jobs, are better writers, filmmakers, actors and craftsmen. If the goal was to produce a film where two heroes fight each other due to philosophical differences, than the net result is that Marvel managed to tell that kind of story in a better way.

But that does not mean that Civil War is a good movie. It is most accurately a collection of interesting ideas, a few really good scenes, a lot of excellent character development which have all been strung together in an overly bloated film that could have been really very good indeed if it didn’t have to keep bringing everything back around to a fist fight, and if it realized it wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was. Spoilers from here on out, so consider yourself warned.

It is hard to know where to begin when breaking down Civil War, because it’s hard to get a handle on Civil War itself. It is a Russian Nesting Doll of a film, with at least three cold opens, and as many endings. The bits in the middle meld together to form an amorphous and unrelenting brick of a story that hurtles at you for far too long. Amazingly, the one thing that doesn’t add to this oppressive density is the avalanche of characters, which Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus and the Russo Brothers have managed to all make use of without it seemingly like a sequence of extended cameos, and giving each character their own arc. The mind doesn’t buckle under the weight of trying to carry all the storylines, as it does when trying to remember who is where and doing what in something like Game of Thrones. Here, they all contribute to the same story, each tracing out their own territory in the larger conflict. Mostly this comes down to the characters getting paired up and the conflict, philosophical or physical, stays between them (the movie paints most everyone as having a mirrored character somewhere in the ranks). It’s a stripped down way of doing it, but because it’s about twelve strips on top of one another, you don’t notice who simple it is. Simple is good though. There is no need for triple fake-outs, and secret motivation after hidden agenda. Everything is as it says on the tin, pretty much from the start.

The two characters that make the least sense taking the positions they do are Hawkeye and Spider-man, and the writers clearly know that the former is ridiculous, as they purposefully had to add in lines drawing attention to the fact that Clint and Natasha are best friends and have no interest in punching each other (I’ll get to Spidey in a minute). Fundamentally, it seems like Clint would more naturally fall on the other side of the fight, alongside the notion of oversight and accountability. Considering that he is emotionally closer to the characters on Stark’s side also makes his taking up with Cap’s team odd. Considering that he enters the film three quarters of the way through à propos to nothing, it is clear that he was added into the script just to even out the numbers, and used his one scene with Wanda from Age of Ultron as justification for his being on that side. And that gets to the larger issue I have with the film, much the same issue I had with Winter Soldier and Ultron: Marvel’s ambition is getting in the way of making good movies. This movie is a Hulk: a lumbering, uncontrollable beast that is reined in only by periods of calm introspection. The rest of the time, it is carnage and destruction and an unrealistic size.

There simply is too much movie here. And the excess is obvious. I say obvious, in that when two things occur that manage to produce the same result, the immediate reaction is that one of them is superfluous. Like Age of Ultron, this movie needed a good trimming in the script stages, and like Ant-man, a good editing in post. These things would have made the movie tighter and stronger, and better able to communicate their very appropriate and well developed perspectives. Instead, there is a lot of repetition in the place of decompression, and that is equally frustrating. For instance: removing the Lagos sequence entirely, the action piece that opens the film,  and allowing the Vienna sequence to stand by itself in terms of moral importance would help dramatically, and I mean that in both senses of the word. Since the Accords are already being drawn up and are named for Sokovia rather than Lagos, all that sequence represents is mindless, pointless action. Likewise, the Siberian sequence at the end of the film is utterly worthless, especially considering that it was immediately preceded by a much better final climax in the Berlin Airport fight. Think on this: how does the film change if Cap and Bucky fly off in their Quinjet instead of hobbling out of a Soviet bunker? Really, it’s just Tony’s personal revelation and T’Challa’s personal growth that would need to be shifted, and Tony’s traumatic discovery really should have occurred mid-film anyway as, in the words of the woman sitting behind me during my screening, the audience “figured that out an hour ago.” It's like they took the ridiculous Hydra reveal from Winter Solider, and went hard the other direction, and decided that the entire emotional fulcrum of the film should happen at the very end and have been easily discernible from the literal first scene of the movie.

The thing is, the movie does a really good job explaining both sides of the argument: Persons of Mass Destruction need to be regulated, represented by Stark; or with Great Power comes Great Responsibility, led by Cap. And large portions of the film are devoted to this debate, from all the various angles. No character, save Clint, makes their choice for a shallow reason. And, importantly, each character sides with the opinion that is most in character for them. The characterization is both consistent and informed by the character arcs that have been present in the past films, and making the best possible use of them. Tony and Cap, with the most films under their belt, have obviously come the farthest, essentially swapping the positions they would have taken had Civil War taken place after their first films. The Tony Stark that “privatized world peace” is now emotionally crippled, guilt ridden, and alone in the world, his addictions having gotten the better of him (Civil War is a serviceable Demon in a Bottle adaptation, on top of everything). Cap, meanwhile, has had every bit of faith in “The System” stripped away, and is constantly learning that he can only rely on himself. The film also, despite being a Captain America sequel, subtly shifts the narrative perspective from Cap to Tony by film’s end. However, because their respective positions are absolute, it is the secondary characters who are far more interesting. Vison and Wanda have a whole dynamic that really begs for more attention than it receives; Black Widow, once again, proves to be the most enigmatic of the Avengers; and T’Challa steals the movie from everyone. Everything about T’Challa in this makes the Black Panther movie impossibly appetizing, and every scene between T’Challa and Natasha is measured and dynamic.

Of course, when I say T’Challa steals the movie from everyone, I’m lying, because the real thief of the film is Tom Holland. Never once while watching the Amazing movies did I feel excited about Spider-man. And really, once you get past how technically impressive the Raimi films were, there isn’t much to like about Peter Parker as a character in those films either. It is no hyperbole that it felt like, for the first time, movie audiences get to see the real Spider-man on screen now, or as close as we’ll likely ever get.  Maybe it’s because he never stopped nervously babbling. Maybe it’s because he’s full of so much youthful energy, he’s constantly on the edge of panic. But if Spider-time doesn’t plaster a goofy ass smile on your face, you’ve got issues. The problem is, he, like Clint, is on the wrong side of the fight. He straight up tells Tony that he became Spider-man because he got powers and he needed to use them for good. That there is a moral obligation towards heroism. Not that he needed a minder, or a principal, or a team leader, but that a kid from Queens put on an onesie and took action. That is opposed to Tony’s position, and shows how far Tony was willing to go to achieve his end: razzle dazzle his way into this kid’s life, give him money and toys and tell him that “a guy named Steve was wrong,” and the kid does it without hesitation because his personal hero asked him to. For a subplot that was admittedly plugged in at the last minute, it might be one of the most expressive of character, showing Tony’s descent into desperation, and showing Peter Parker for being the idealistic yet naive child he is. A year ago, another Spider-man movie was the last thing I wanted to see. Now… I’m really excited to see what happens next.

2000 words into this review, and I might be willing to admit that maybe Civil War just isn’t my kind of movie. It’s my kind of movie, inflated by 75 fist fights. Where I was most interested, where I was actually immersed in the drama, was when characters were interacting with one another. Talking, treating each other as humans. Steve asking Tony about Pepper made me as happy as the entirely of Guardians of the Galaxy. They weren’t being snarky at one another, they weren’t suited up, they were just being fucking people. Friends, co-workers, asking each other about their lives and actually caring. Where the movie works the best is in the personal interactions. Black Widow and T’Challa actually have a conversation. Scott Lang gets flustered when meeting Cap. Sam and Bucky bicker like school children. No one, for the most part, talks in speeches. They aren’t talking at one another, they are actually discussing things. And that is fantastic and accomplishes a lot. But then some CGI spectacle takes over and it’s all just so much punching. They punch, and then they jump, and they kick and jump at the same time. And it goes on like that, pretty much start to finish, for two and a half hours, and it gets boring after the first twenty minutes.

In pretty much every fight, Cap falls down something and ricochets off a ledge or balcony on the way down. It happens multiple times. And it looks just as fake and terrible the first time as the last. Likewise the fully costumed Black Panther and Spider-man, it is immediately obvious when the CG double replaces the suited actor, if only because T’Challa takes on an unfortunately case of Physics-Free-Legolas Syndrome. You know what I miss: when movies had to actually do stuff. And I mean, they had to do stuff or it didn’t happen. And that made for more interesting movies because filmmakers had to be innovative in order to achieve what, now, they just pass off to Weta or ILM. There is a genuinely impressive sequence at the start of the film, in which Black Widow combats several goons. Despite the Russo’s inability to keep their damned cameras steady, the fight is real, the consequence of hiring amazing fight choreographers and using their talent and skill to build a sequence that is worthy of attention. Compared to shots where we are just straight up watching a cartoon, and where my mind begins to drift. CG should be used to augment scenes, not replace them, but that is the backbone on which the entire movie industry is currently built, so I suppose I’m the one with a problem here, not them.

Unlike other movies, I can see how one would consider Civil War to be a good movie. It is very entertaining, and on a certain level that’s the beginning and end of the purpose of these things. I’ve belittled other movies for failing to be just that. So, yeah, Civil War is fun. But it could have been shorter, tighter, less physically big while avoiding being personally small. I suppose I should be thankful that it paid as much attention to character development as it did, because most films now are just the punching and that's it. As a character piece, I loved it, and hope the Russo Brothers bring that same dedication to characterization to the Infinity Wars. But let Marvel remember that there is a point where any structure, be it narrative or built out of steel, will collapse under its own weight. A slight scaling back, something akin to the way they were when they began, while maintaining the dramatic grandeur, will serve them better than not. Because Civil War is the first time I’ve walked out of a Marvel movie not excited about what comes next. Right now, I could honestly care less about Infinity Wars. This film dissolved that much of my interest in the Avengers as a group. Bring on Black Panther and Spider-man, and it’s past time Marvel replaced America as the resident Captain. But I just don’t want more… more
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

1 comments :

  1. Shame you don't see it as a great movie. I love these movies and have a bias so honestly can't trust my own judgement anymore. However, when my girlfriend told me she liked it a lot (she hates action films, loathing Winter soldier - one of my favourites) meant my loving of this was perhaps not complete blind devotion.

    I agree with your Clint stuff, was a bit shoe-horned in, and perhaps getting Ant-man in also. I mean, why couldn't they have flown all to a different place to meet, i.e. Siberia? However, the joy's from that Airport fight made it all worth while. Agreed on Spider-man I can't wait for his film (although you also said that and then said you left the film not excited for what comes next?!). I haven't had such heart singing moments from a film since the first Avengers.

    I think, as you mention, the characterisation is strong, and from what I've heard from Russo's and the writers is that they try to drive the story through character. I think that's a nice way to do it and to keep the consistency of the characters too. One thing marvel has done is respect the source material (for the heroes, they've kind of pooped on the villains -Mandarin?!?!) which I loved as a youngling.

    As for the fights, I was a little annoyed by the shakey cam, this and the quick cuts are a bit annoying. It's obviously because these actors aren't real fighters (check out Jackie Chan - How to do action comedy video on youtube, excellent description on the difference between western and eastern action). The Matrix is one of few places I can remember clear western action being allowed, even Jason stathan films have lot's of cuts and he can supposedly fight. Having said that, these films are action comedy. I'd be pretty disappointed if they resolved it with a nice cup of earl grey. Also I like the final scene, I can't tell you how many people felt the tension in that last battle, especially as cap lift's his shield over Tony's beaten body. And Ant-man's big reveal! Ok, i'll calm down now.

    The beginning I did feel was a little all over the place, as you say many cold opens. However second viewing solved a lot of those for me. Similarly I agree about some of the CGI especially with the bike chase stuff. Black panther has some of the pooerest CGI and took me out of the movie. Also I noticed that the CGI the first time I watched was poor in the airport scene. The characters with the backdrop was odd to look at. However I then saw the film in IMAX and it was amazing. They said they'd filmed the entire sequence in IMAX camera's I'd didn't expect to see any difference but I am actually really excited now to see the Infinity war films which are supposed to be entirely IMAX.

    I think for me it is those glorious moments for me probably erase over some of the problems so when I came out it was with a huge amount of excitement for the next one.

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