Civil War & Peace
It takes a special type of film to pit multiple superheroes against each other, to put good guys up against other good guys and see what happens.
Captain America: Civil War isn’t even the only such film out this quarter. (Okay, so depending on where and when your quarter starts and finishes, maybe it’s not the same quarter, but this film came out around six weeks after Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.)
I don’t want to compare and contrast the two, but when two films so alike in theme and so different in construction hit the screen within such a short period of time, there are going to be some similarities.
And some differences.
But I don’t want to talk about those similarities and the differences: I want to look at Captain America: Civil War in its own right.
If such a thing is even possible…
Because movies like this are complicated, and the world of superhero movies is becoming so thick and populated that the genre has turned into an awkward self-referential mire that will either be trying hard to comply with expectation and standards, or to challenge them.
The greatest issue with Captain America: Civil War is that this is not a self-contained film: so far from it that doing the sums may go into double figures.
This is the third film in a Captain America franchise that started in 2011 with Captain America: The First Avenger, followed by 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Each of those preceding films had vastly different styles and tones, with the first film set during World War II and the second being more of a high-tech spy-thriller that felt like it belonged in the 80s or 90s.
Civil War continues with many of the beats from The Winter Soldier and in the process of doing so, makes it seem like that earlier film was unfinished, existing only to set up this and other films. Here, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his work fighting threats of terrorism and maniacs who want to control the world, all with the help of Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) , Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and relatively new recruit (from Avengers: Age Of Ultron) Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen.)
As the team’s missions turn into very public problems, Cap and his team become scapegoats for every civilian that has died in any superhero disaster triggered by the movies’ events. Those disasters become all the more tangible when friend-of-the-team (and fellow Avenger) Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is confronted by the mother of a victim who would have died during the events of Age Of Ultron. Stark spear-heads an international campaign to make heroes legally accountable for their actions, but the signatories are attacked by an assailant that looks a hell of a lot like Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan.)
Yep, same Winter Soldier they name-checked in the title of the last Cap film.
The authorities start the hunt for Bucky, but Cap is convinced that his old war-buddy is innocent and he enlists the help of Falcon, Scarlet Witch, audience-insert-quip-with-an-arrow Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and newby-to-the-franchise-despite-having-his-own-film Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd.) On the other side of the divide, Iron Man teams up with eager-to-make-her-amends Black Widow, long-time buddy James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), deus ex machina Vision (Paul Bettany), and then gets some help from two more characters wholly new to this superhero mega-world: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) whose father was killed in maybe-Bucky-but-maybe-not’s terrorist attack. Oh, and he also has Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) on his side.
Yep, Peter Parker is back on the screen, and he’s a pubescent again and his Aunt May is played by Morisa Tomei. And William Hurt is Secretary of State Ross and he may (or may not) be the same character in the 2008 standalone (maybe) The Incredible Hulk (which would, potentially, make him the absent Hulk’s father-in-law.) Emily Van Camp returns as Sharon Carter, Cap’s flirting neighbour and fellow secret agent from The Winter Soldier who may also have been his wartime-love’s niece; John Slattery appears as Howard Stark (Tony’s father) for a couple of scenes that are more important for Tony’s character than a whole trilogy of solo movies.
And that’s just the complicated good-guys. It’s a comic-book movie, and you need Daniel Brühl’s character Zemo to play the real antagonist, a character pulling strings so subtly that they make him either meaningless or fabulously important.
I think I need a breath now, because I’ve just described seventeen different characters that fit into this film, all of whom are important to this world, all of whom are important to the viewers (and the readers of the comics that inspired them.) All of whom flit in and out of a film that treats them as nothing more than a quip or a beat and then pushes them into the background to give someone else their few minutes of fame.
Not even Fellowship Of The Ring went that crazy.
If this type of character-fest were in an Avengers movie, I’d have no problems with it, but the weight and depth of each of these characters really take away from the man whose name is on the front of the movie.
Yep, Captain America feels like a supporting character in his own movie, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. Cap has always been a somewhat boring character for me, in the comics and in the movies: he’s better served as the moral fibre of a team than in the lone hero. But even he gets lost in the middle when confronted by that many cohorts.
In my head, I have this idea that superheroes look better when seen through someone else’s eyes. It worked (for me) for Batman V Superman and sticking with the Marvel universe, it worked for Thor too, with Natalie Portman doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Similarly, Iron Man was made by its supporting cast who could comment on Robert Downey Jr’s high-octane energy. But because (most of) the supporting characters in Civil War are also superheroes, it feels like this film is lacking that access point through which we, the regular viewers, can make sense of these characters.
This is all on me, and I’m taking responsibility for this. And I know that people are going to hate every word that I have to say. I LIKE SUPERHEROES PUNCHING EACH OTHER AS MUCH AS THE NEXT MAN. But I want to understand them a bit more, I want to empathise with them and their reasons. And in this film where twelve of them go to town on beating each other up over a couple of misunderstandings, all while still capable of providing the occasional comedy quip or light-hearted laugh, the film doesn’t really resonate with me in the way I want it to.
There are a bunch of people out there who want to see these superheroes beat each other up though; they want to buy the toys and T-shirts and the fantasy. This is a film made for those people , and maybe I just need to realise that I’m not one of them any longer. And maybe I never was.
I actually enjoyed this film far more than I expected: the action scenes were well-paced and visually exciting,and directing team Joe and Anthony Russo have proven themselves capable of incorporating superhero theatrics into an action thriller. But the problem with thrillers (political or otherwise) is that they embrace a sense of threat, and this film, like so many others, shies away from that threat in favour of humour, marketing opportunities and providing the audience a quick moment of shock or surprise that won’t last past the film.
We already had this with The Winter Soldier with the not-death of Nick Fury; we already had it with Avengers and the death of Agent Coulson (even though the movies still haven’t officially brought him back to life.) Civil War continues in this mode, brushing everything off and making a mockery of the superhero death, all while calling attention to how very serious the death of regular humans is.
The risks in this film are so high that it gets twelve whole superheroes on screen at one time.
The risks in this film are so low that not one of them breaks a nail.
Not one of our superheroes, anyway. We get two deaths in this film: the death of T’Challa’s father is more of a trigger for anger and revenge than for emotional clarity, and even this gets over-shadowed by the funeral of the long-lived and well-aged Peggy Carter. In comparison, several of our heroes are on the receiving end of death-blows, and they shake them off with a quip.
There are two problems I have with this: the first is that those killing blows come from fellow superheroes (and are delivered with the anger and bravura expected of such a blow.) The same guys who aren’t meant to kill. The second is that even with the most severe of injuries (War Machine may be paralysed after his part in the battle), the superheroes are still capable of making light and humour out of the situation (because of course, a costly apparatus means that Rhodes is walking around again by the film’s close. With great effort, but not really addressing the long-lasting and dramatic physical or emotional consequences.)
All these things are usually just “comics,” just “superheroes” or even just “life in the movies” and I can usually let that slide. Moments of magic and non-sequitur can be explained and forgiven when they are part of a bigger whole, or even a unified message. The message I got from Civil War was to be really forgiving of one thing, get really angry about another and then be hypocritical and confused when confronted by someone else doing the same thing.
In another time and place, I could have loved this film, and maybe I still can. Promise me an extended edition that deals with all the things I badly want more of; promise me repercussions to every actions (despite the fact that the film’s coda makes it so this film isn’t as important as you want it to be); promise me you’re not going to sell me a solo-film and then give me a loud, messy ensemble instead.
It’s this ensemble element that really doesn’t work for me in this film, and I think this is one of the things that has turned me off other Marvel films as well. Every (important) character gets their allotted screen-time and every secondary character gets reduced to a smirk or a smart comment.
It’s not even a surprise any more.
It takes a specific type of actor who can deliver at this level, and while I may have huge issues with the characters in this film, I can’t really lay the blame at any actors; if anything, each cast-member brings the right mix of light and gravitas, with each scene pitched perfectly for its place in the over-arching movie. Each joke is times perfectly to break the tension of any moment; each dramatic shock is brief enough not to make the kids in the audience uncomfortable with the threat of impending death.
In that sense, Civil War is a surprisingly effective film, one that manages to embrace the world of high-concept marketing, branding and cross-promotion while still telling a story that packs a significant punch (even if that punch is softened and diluted.) I sparkles with the power and hubris of the 80s and 90s corporate/political thriller, all with the shiny addition of superheroes. By trying to reach for the stars, the film comes out being far better than it has any right to be.
But it’s still a film about a really big bunch of superheroes punching each other.