CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Movie Review)

CapAmCivilWarSmall
**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
for extended sequences of violence, action, and mayhem, and some language
Released: May 6, 2016
Runtime: 146 minutes
Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Daniel Brühl

I’ve never been able to muster much excitement for Marvel movies, which I find to be wildly overrated and, quite frankly, rather bland (despite their excessive pyrotechnics). That’s a stark (pun intended) minority opinion, admittedly, but Captain America: Civil War does little to change that. Take the rest of this review for what that’s worth (which, for you, may not be much).

Sure, the movie’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a good time. It’s even better than Avengers: Age Of Ultron. But like the rest of the MCU (that’s “Marvel Cinematic Universe”), it’s almost completely forgettable. Emphasis on almost. Or to put it another way: come for the Avengers, stay for the Spider-Man. More on him in a bit.

The premise and plot play out more like Avengers 3 than a specific Captain America entry, with nearly every Avenger being accounted for (sans Hulk and Thor) and several more added to the mix for the first time. The element that makes this more Captain-centric is the return of the Winter Solider, Bucky Barns, who served as the titular focus of the previous CA installment. Here, though, he’s not so much a character as an overblown McGuffin, existing solely to create conflict and plot twists for the Avengers, a trait best emphasized by how his arc concludes (such as it is) when his utilitarian purpose has been served.

The main thrust of this chapter’s brouhaha isn’t a super-villain but a super rift. The international community has decided that the Avengers themselves must submit to a global authority because, despite the good they do, their actions also leave a wake of collateral damage and destruction (vis-à-vis the ongoing fallout from Age of Ultron). This “accord” – which they are all being asked to sign and abide – causes a split amongst the Avengers. They disassemble according to pro-and-anti “Avenger regulation” fault lines…or Team Cap vs Team Iron Man, as the marketing department liked to sell it; who’s side are you on?!

Ever so briefly, Civil War actually engages this intriguing debate with a scene of intellectual and philosophical rigor. Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) believes in the accord, a necessary (even wise) institutional accountability that serves as a moral check-and-balance and maintains the public’s trust. Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) sees it affectively neutering the Avengers and their ability to act, handcuffed by the slow resolve (or corrupt motives) of national and global bureaucracies. To the film’s credit, it allows both sides to make substantial cases, legitimate yet irreconcilable, so much so that a superhero “Civil War” is actually credible.

While those differences drive the narrative, any intellectual engagement of them remains largely on the periphery once the division is established. That’s understandable (this is a comic book action movie, after all), but it also reduces the conflict from serious soul-searching to more of a contrivance (even if a well-established one).

Less forgivable is how the story (or, more accurately, the Marvel gurus protective of their brand) emasculates the substance of this division. Yes, sharp disagreements tear the Avengers apart, but it’s the manipulation by a phantom menace (named Zemo, played by Daniel Brühl) that brings them to blows. So, ultimately, it’s deception – not principle – that leads to the highly-anticipated throwdown.

And while that epic fight extraordinaire is everything you want it to be in terms of spectacle, it’s also toothless. You never feel as if any of their lives are in actual danger, and it’s all based on a misunderstanding that will inevitably be clarified. Had Marvel allowed the Avengers’ battle to stay rooted entirely in the courage (and tension) of their opposing convictions, the spectacle would’ve been elevated by thematic and relational weight. Instead, it’s a thrilling action centerpiece signifying nothing.

But then that’s what we should expect from the Marvel brand: a grinding mythology machine more obsessed with building its Universe than dimensional characters or risk-taking narratives. Yes, there will always be something on the line, but really, who cares? Like so many high-polish but middle-brow TV procedurals, the MCU is just overwrought, episodic silliness that has found a broad appeal in playing things loud, slick, and safe.

True to form, Captain America: Civil War chugs along according to formula. Exposition opener, followed by action set piece, capped off with more exposition, discussion of conflict, debate of themes, action again, then mix, stir, and repeat. It’s all precisely – even impressively – calculated, but rarely inspired. Too oversimplified to be called smart yet too structured to be dismissed as lazy, Captain America: Civil War is high octane mediocrity.

In the end, this – like all Marvel films – is more of a product than a movie. Yes, it displays a full mastery of modern moviemaking techniques at their most advanced, but none of them are particularly, or even remotely, cinematic. Even as Marvel advances filmmaking technology (such as the briefly seen “younger” Tony Stark that digitally de-aged Robert Downey Jr. to his 80s era heartthrob likeness), the studio’s output reduces film language to its most basic form.

Nevertheless, the Avengers “face off” does indeed pay off. It gives fans everything they’ve been waiting for, boosted by the additions of Black Panther (super cool) and Ant-Man (comically inventive). And then, of course, there’s Spider-Man. For a character that had become so tired in the public consciousness after a limp – at times weirdly bizarre – two-film reboot, his re-imagining here is unexpectedly fresh, alive, and exciting, with a take by newcomer (and high-school aged) Tom Holland that somehow melds the strengths of previous Spidey-bearers Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield while avoiding (respectively) that pair’s silly and angsty weaknesses. I know the ending to Civil War is a set up for Infinity War, but the next movie most diehards will be geeked about is Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Captain America: Civil War isn’t a waste of time, or money. If anything, it’s a great time waster that gives you your money’s worth (but no need for added 3D fees). It’s just not as smart or compelling as it thinks it is, undercut by cautious plotting and too much brooding and posing (Cap, Bucky, and the de-masked Black Panther especially). The Marvel films are, without question, the movies of our times. But I’m hard-pressed to believe they’ll ever be for the ages.

11 thoughts on “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Movie Review)

  1. Great review Jeff…left unstated is just the general “coolness” of seeing our boyhood heroes on the big screen. I think regardless of the lack of content and depth that one aspect will have the fans attending in good numbers…it’s just…cool:-)

    1. Thanks John! And yes, can’t underestimate the immense satisfaction of seeing characters you’ve loved for your entire life be thrown into something that’s as big a scale as possible. And even I, in my mixed response, acknowledge that this movie delivers on its “title” fight.

      But to the broader MCU, I think the bar that Christopher Nolan set with his Dark Knight trilogy, well, it hasn’t ruined me, but I can’t help but judge the genre by that standard. 🙂

  2. Hi, Jeff. Great review. I was wondering what you think of Filmspotting’s take of CIVIL WAR. I know you enjoy the show, and their view is a bit different from yours. I totally agree eith what you’re saying about MCU, by the way.

    1. Thanks! Always great to come across someone who’s as “meh” as me on the MCU. We’re so few!

      Obviously I didn’t agree entirely with their take on CIVIL WAR, although I’m in closer agreement with them on this than I was on WINTER SOLDIER, which they praised (along with nearly everyone else) and I thought it was a complete dud, and occasionally an eye-roller. I don’t get why Adam and Josh (and so many others) viewed WS favorably with 70s conspiracy thrillers. Sure, it was going for that, but it was so contrived and flat.

      CIVIL WAR isn’t nearly as bad as that, even as it’s still largely a generic plot machine from the MCU. I do give CW a little more credit for the scenes early on where they’re actually debating the merits of submitting to a higher authority or not. And the key action scenes really deliver. But as with so many Marvel movies, I just feel like critics – Adam and Josh included – are giving CW way more credit than it deserves. It’s not awful, but it’s not great either. It’s softball mediocrity, with no real stakes on the line (which is usually a huge deal for the Filmspotting duo). We know these guys aren’t going to hurt each other, and only reason they fight is because of Zemo’s manipulations (if only they would’ve battled because their actual philosophical conflicts couldn’t be resolved!). It’s a superhero movie that pulls its orchestrated punches (again, like most Marvel movies). And because of that, I can’t get emotionally involved either (not to mention the conflicts all feel so conventional and formulaic too).

      Even if this series had the guts to kill somebody off, I still wouldn’t feel anything. At the end of it all, I just don’t care. (And Zack Snyder, even with all of his issues as a storyteller, is still a better cinematic artist than anyone currently in the MCU.)

      1. Yep. When a film uses almost all the characters purely as macguffins it makes for terrible story. Example of the opposite: LOST (it’s 6 years today since it ended by the way). Used a GINORMOUS cast of characters and developed almost all of them incredibly deeply. Cuse & Lindelof could keep track of all of them; why not MCU?

        By the way, there’s one comic movie I’m looking forward to: Noelle Stevenson’s NIMONA adaption. It uses few characters and develops them deeply, all with an intriguing plot. Ever heard of it? It’s coming out in 2017.

  3. Yeah, it seems that most of the MCU characters are at least half-macguffin. 🙂

    I think one of the reasons LOST did the same sort of thing much better is because it was actually telling a story, not “building a universe”. The universe was already built, in a sense, and it was slowly being revealed to the characters. Those characters then reacted, grew and expanded as the “universe” was revealed to them. They were people in a reality (several of which died within that reality, so legitimate stakes), not pawns in a plot machine.

    Not familiar with NIMONA, but a brief google search has me intrigued. Thanks for the heads-up!

    1. LOST was definitely pure character-driven story. You’re right. Man, but LOST changed my life. ☺

      Glad you’re intrigued about NIMONA. I read the book three times last summer, so like I said; looking foward to the film. Its characters raise some really deep moral questions.

      This has been a great dialogue. Thanks.

      Blessings, Jeff!
      Rachel

  4. Personally, I found “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” rather disappointing. But if I must be brutally honest, I can say the same about your review. You never really pointed out the different aspects of the movie that you didn’t like. You merely expressed your view with vague comments and observations. Very disappointing.

    1. Part of that may have been due to that fact that this review was published day-of release, so there’s always a concerted effort to steer clear of spoilers.

      Still, I felt I started unpacking things with the paragraph “While those differences drive the narrative…” on through to the end, but I’ll grant that a writer’s intention won’t always translate for everyone. Curious, as someone who didn’t like the film either, what would you peg and zero in on that I missed?

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