After the surprising success of Deadpool and the surprising lack of success for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016 has set a rather odd tone with its superhero tentpoles. The third of this year’s superhero films, and in many respects – the most anticipated, is Captain America: Civil War, which is loosely based on the 2006 comic storyline of the same name by writer, Mark Millar (so you know it can only be an improvement). This is also the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as the beginning for Phase Three, which is continuing with Doctor Strange later this year.
When a fairly routine mission goes haywire, Secretary of State, former General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) presents the Avengers with a new initiative called the Sokovia Accords. It states that the Avengers will be given oversight and can no longer act freely, among other details. However, after an incident at Vienna involving Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), everyone is forced to make a choice, and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) ultimately decides to not go along with the Accords and goes to help a friend in need. This sparks a series of events that lead to a conflict with one side, who are for the Accords, led by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and another side led by Cap, who are against it.
While the film divulges in many debates and conversations about the merits of the Accords, the role of superheroes, and the problem of collateral damage, the central conflict and stakes are really less political/destructive and far more intimate. Iron Man’s journey from a man who could care less to a man who cares maybe a little too much and Cap’s old-fashioned idealism being challenged by a modern world that defines itself by moral grey areas is a compelling one, and the films have smartly built up to a point where them finally butting heads is not only a natural turn for the MCU saga, but an absolutely essential one from a storytelling perspective.
However, despite the film getting us places where it seems like it needed to go, the process of actually getting there is a surprisingly sloppy one. Age of Ultron received a lot of flack for being overstuffed, and I stand by the fact that while it is dense plot-wise, it is still an emotionally/thematically cohesive introspection on loneliness, growth and legacy. Civil War, however, despite very obviously trying to be the most emotionally driven MCU film to date, lacks that certain personal touch that Joss Whedon was able to bring and all that emotion ends up getting bogged down by heavily rigid, repetitive and mechanical plotting that is full of odd gaps in logic and bizarre coincidences. By the time the film reaches the final act, where it does get heavy and for a moment, surprisingly dark, it’s hard not to question whether the film truly earns those moments.
There’s a frustrating repetitiveness to Civil War, mostly in how the characters are constantly bickering over the Accords. Interchangeable board room conversations make up a bulk of the film, and it contributes to the film’s dreadful pacing. And while it the characters to take their sweet time talking about whether the Accords are really worth it and if superheroes need some control and oversight, it never pays off these ideas. Granted, it is very much more interested in the personal character stuff than it is on the big philosophical stuff, which is fine had they not spent so much time on it. I believe the Russos were trying to get across that even characters as larger-than-life as these superhero icons can tragically fall victim to even the most primitive human foibles. However, it just isn’t executed as smoothly as one would hope. The same criticism applies to the villain, Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who has all the makings of a great villain, easily on par with Loki. However, the film makes the mistake of keeping his motivation a mystery, and it ended up hurting the effectiveness of that character’s purpose from a thematic standpoint.
The Russo Brothers have dropped names like Brian De Palma, Se7en, Fargo and The Godfather when it came to their influences toward their approach to Civil War, but not a lot of it really shows on-screen. The way they name drop heavy-hitters like that is something they’ve gotten away with when Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released, but at this point, I feel like their interest in aesthetics and their ability to deliver a competently made product only covers the fact that they ultimately don’t have much to say with these characters. Yes, they can deliver some visceral, next-level superhero action (even though they can occasionally be over-edited to death), but I’m starting to doubt their ability to bring any deeper emotional resonance to the themes they’re trying to explore beyond the aesthetics.
The film does benefit from a few things though, and they are basically the things everyone else is talking about. The airport action sequence is one of the best that we’ve ever gotten, not just from the MCU, but for superhero films in general. Though I will say, I think it’s still second only to the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, if only for the fact that the airport scene is perhaps a little too casual and playful for its own good. However, it is still a great set-piece and thankfully, the editing isn’t as frantic as it is for the rest of the action in the film. Also, the introduction to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) are natural and effective, both being instantly compelling and likable additions to the MCU. And of course, it goes without saying that the cast is great across the board, including the new additions like Daniel Brühl, Martin Freeman and Marisa Tomei.
There are enough great moments and stellar character work in Captain America: Civil War to stop me from saying it’s a bad movie. It’s a fine film, totally watchable; has plenty of funny moments and there’s a palpable sense of love and respect for its characters that shows that the film is at the very least an earnest effort. It has moments that I love, but they are ultimately just moments in a whole that simply wasn’t as invested in despite the efforts of the filmmakers. In the end, Civil War comes across as a piece that simply needed to get us to a certain point in order to serve the bigger picture of what might come ahead in the MCU, as opposed to something that is intently focused on making our characters’ journeys a singularly satisfying and cohesive experience. Man, I’m gonna miss Joss Whedon. 60/100