I know this review isn’t going to be very popular because I’m in the clear minority of critics when I say this: Captain America: Civil War isn’t very good. As a stand-alone movie, Civil War isn’t the worst that Marvel has put out, but in the context of their shared universe it displays all of the cracks in the MCU.
As far as construction, the direction is still solid. This is the same team that gave us Winter Soldier, and while that same style doesn’t work quite so effortlessly here, it gets the job done. The action sequences are big and plentiful. Gone is the claustrophobic globetrotting and political intrigue, now replaced with a broader and action based story played out on a global stage. The fight sequences are well choreographed, especially considering the number of characters and the variations in their styles and abilities.
Bits of character work shine as well. The Vision and Scarlet Witch begin to develop a fascinating relationship, though Hawkeye shows up just in time to ruin that, and Wanda abruptly abandons an interesting arc to join in the fray1. Ant-Man and Spiderman are in top form here too. In fact, I’d say Ant-Man works better here than in his own movie. Our new Spiderman is full of promise and since he’s been formally introduced there is a chance that his next film won’t include yet another origin story. It’s known by the world and it’s alluded to here; let’s leave it at that. Those two are so good that it’s unfortunate they’re not given more time together to delight the audience and annoy their teammates.
And now the not so good. Parts of Winter Soldier that elevated the franchise, and the MCU, are dropped in this film. The fights and casts are so big that it sometimes feels more like Marvel Smash Brothers than any sort of cohesive story. Powers wax and wane in service of stretching out the brawls; Ant-Man’s relative size to strength ratio is completely dropped in favor of an “I get tired” system, and The Vision just ups and leaves for a stretch of the largest fight because he’s too powerful to be there.
If I’m being honest, the characterization is an utter mess. It’s difficult to believe that this is from the same writers that scribed Winter Soldier. Tony Stark has been established as a person who’s been adamant about keeping his tech out of the capricious and irresponsible hands of governments officials. He quits the weapons manufacturing business to the chagrin of both his business partner and the US Air Force back in the first Iron Man movie. Now he becomes the public face for government oversight. Steve Rogers, an active duty officer, takes a bizarre stand against any government accountability whatsoever.
Rogers’ motivation actually changes during the movie. At first his argument is “what if we want to help people and the United Nations won’t let us?” It’s a weak argument. In the comics, and in the X-Men films, the registration issue is a much larger one, and affects a much larger population. In the movie the issue is much smaller in scope: the United Nations wants a military team to report to an international panel. If they don’t want to they can retire to civilian life. Steve Rogers’ position boils down to wanting to head a privately funded paramilitary group, able to cross international borders with no accountability, while retaining the right to intercept global government communications. That is not exactly a rational counterpoint to the more security-oriented Vienna Accord that Tony supports. And shortly after this is introduced, it’s swept aside for Rogers’ second agenda: no one should arrest Bucky. This story, which has been touted as one of moral arguments, is just a simple clash between two guys over whether or not to talk to or arrest a third guy. There’s some vague hand waving about safety versus security but the large themes from the other times this has come up are dropped for a specific case, and that eliminated all the various shades of hesitation and dissent. The movie tries to form some sort of “liberty vs. security” debate but instead delivers a half-formed “intelligence vs. military action” dichotomy that never pays off.
The above isn’t a quibble. That’s actually how Winter Soldier worked out, using intelligence gathering or physical assaults in much more focused ways, rather than just balls-out fighting all of the time. Asking for some sort of big-picture thinking isn’t unprecedented; it’s how the government trained members of The Avengers have operated in past movies. What is really odd that this movie, perhaps more than any other Marvel release, expects you to have seen the rest of the MCU, but picks and chooses what parts carry over. Ant-Man seems utterly random without having seen his movie and I had a hard time placing Crossbones until I remembered him from Winter Soldier. So perhaps Rogers’ oddly intense anti-authoritarian stance could be attributed to paranoia after the SHIELD/Hydra debacle. Except then the entire movie boils down to Bucky, and isn’t about trust at all.
It’s pretty clear that true motivation for this movie boils down to this one shot:
I’m sorry, I meant this shot:
and then worked back from there. No one has any real motivation since “As a military team, we should probably have a boss” isn’t really that extreme a position to take.
And everything in the movie is just as thinly motivated. Stark’s complete 180° turn is due to being confronted by a woman after delivering a speech (and grants) at MIT. She shoves a photograph of her son into his chest and tells him about the child she lost in Sokovia (Age of Ultron)2. But that run-in was enough to change Tony’s mind about, well, everything he’s ever done. Steve Rogers’ motivation is that he wants to do more good than any UN panel would ever allow and therefore they should operate as a privately funded anarchist collective, I guess. I’m sure there will be insane amounts of slashfic about Steve and Bucky’s love being the driving force behind all of Civil War and if I’m being honest, that makes more sense than anything presented on screen. People have been going on about the moral positions of the two characters but that really is a case where the viewers are filling in blanks that the movie doesn’t actually address. That’s right, your head-canon is probably more comprehensive than the shooting script.
Not everyone has gone completely insane. Vision and Black Panther are handled with nuance and provide a much more fulfilling core to latch onto than Iron Man and Captain America. The Vision takes a step back and aims a rational and skeptical (and cold) eye to the issue, urging people to take public perception into consideration regarding their future ability to be an effective force, among other things. Black Panther also ends up taking a calculated stance after his initial emotional involvement. He finds a balance between oversight and independence, re-evaluating where personal action in the context of a larger justice system belongs. It’s these side characters that elevate the simplified arguments to another level.
While advertised as Team Iron Man against Team Captain America, it’s clear that Tony Stark is just on Team Selfish, and Rogers is on Team Don’t Touch My Bucky. The set pieces are too big when put up against a conflict that is ultimately too small. By the final fight scene these two are so inside their own heads while fighting each other that Black Panther literally walks away from them to single-handedly deal with the plot that they can’t be bothered with. If the two leads can’t pay attention, how can the movie ask that of us?
After all that, I enjoyed watching Civil War. It had some great action sequences and spectacle. As a visual experience it works. But as a movie it’s a dumb blockbuster. Civil War is made up of the parts they wanted to use, and not a machine made of parts it needed. Spiderman isn’t there because it makes sense3. Wouldn’t it be more logical to reactivate the autonomous flying army he had in his last film, which he can obviously manufacture again? It totally would, but then you wouldn’t get Spiderman. So you won’t be getting well thought out versions of your characters this time around (except for Black Panther and portions of The Vision). But you will get to see the faces you want doing versions of themselves that are good enough. But if “good enough” is the new standard for Marvel’s Phase Three than we’re in for a whole lot of bigger, but not necessarily better. I suppose there’s still Netflix to turn to for compelling writing.
On a scale of -5 to +5 Captain America: Civil War is a +2.5, though a +4 on a scale of frustrating.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↵||And now that I think about it, that’s also the last time she gets any sort of development, voice, or choice for the film.|
|2.||↵||Oddly enough, this is exactly the same motivation that the main villain has, though the similarities are never remarked upon.|
|3.||↵||It absolutely doesn’t. Why would Stark enlist a teen whom he hasn’t vetted and shouldn’t fully trust, to enter into combat of this level on his first day?|