Captain America: Civil War (2016): A bit too familiar
Captain America: Civil War is the first chapter of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will be an epic-length affair consisting of ten movies in total. Doctor Strange makes his big-screen debut in November of this year, while 2017 and 2018 will give us three movies apiece, including Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther, sequels to Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Thor, and Part 1 of Avengers: Infinity War, with Captain Marvel and Infinity War Part 2 wrapping things up in 2019.
I’ve noticed a pattern with Marvel Studios movies, and my reaction to them over the years. The first time I watch them I usually enjoy them… but they’re always lacking in some particular way; they always have certain flaws that mean that while I tend to think they’re “good” or even “very good”, I rarely end up viewing them as “great”. While I gave Age of Ultron a good review way back when, and while I still think it’s a good movie, it’s not without its flaws, and the more times I watch that movie, the more glaring some of those flaws become.
Sadly, although the overall quality of these movies has undoubtedly improved since things kicked off with Iron Man, Captain America: Civil War continues this pattern. It’s a very good and sometimes excellent movie, but it too is not without its flaws, and I think the more times I end up seeing the film, the less I’ll be impressed by it.
As ever, the performances aren’t the issue here. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey Jr. are so comfortable in their roles as Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow that they could all do this in their sleep; Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, and Elizabeth Olsen are settling in nicely in their respective second, third, and second again outings as Vision, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch, and newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland more than hold their own as Black Panther and Spider-Man.
Also returning are Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, William Hurt as “Thunderbolt” Ross, and of course, Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier. Among other faces, no less. In short, this film has an absolutely incredible cast and everybody gets utilized well; this film is practically a master class in how to do an ensemble piece, and gives a giant middle finger to the notion that cramming a bunch of characters into one superhero movie can’t be done well—you just need good enough direction, vision, and storytelling to pull it off.
Unfortunately, that’s what this film feels like at times: “good enough”. It manages to get away with things another film might not because of the quality and experience of the people involved with the production, but I can’t shake the notion that while the story and the script are solid enough, the actual plot is a bit thin, and the movie at times feels like an excuse to introduce and reintroduce a bunch of old and new characters and set up the board for things to come. And while that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own story, this one is a bit too familiar.
Minor spoilers follow…
In a nutshell, the Avengers are on a mission in Nigeria to capture Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo), one of the surviving villains from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and a classic comic book bad guy. The mission goes awry when Crossbones suicide-bombs himself rather than be captured (this film continues the Age of Ultron trend of taking something set up and teased in a previous movie and wrapping it up in a quick—if action packed and well-executed—opening scene, rather than truly capitalizing on what they had). Scarlet Witch prevents him from killing a crowd of people with her powers, but accidentally blows up a building instead, killing other civilians, including representatives of the ficti-nation Wakanda.
Iron Man, meanwhile, is reminiscing about his dead parents, before being guilt-tripped by the mother of a boy killed in Age of Ultron, leading the Secretary of State and thorn-in-Hulk’s-side General Ross to inform the Avengers that the United Nations has decided to pass the Sokovia Accords, which partly involves turning the Avengers into an international task force under heavy supervision, primarily to bring them to heel. This splits the team between those in favor (like Iron Man, Vision, and Black Widow), those against (Captain America and Falcon), and Scarlet Witch, who’s on the fence.
Things go from bad to worse in Vienna, when the UN conference called to ratify the Accords is bombed by what looks like the Winter Soldier, killing dozens of people, including T’Chaka, the King of Wakanda, and the father of the now very vengeful T’Challa, the Black Panther. Captain America must save his friend and find the real culprit before the authorities kill him, and Iron Man is given the ultimatum of arresting both of them or seeing the Avengers shut down, leading to the team going to war against itself. Meanwhile, in the background, mysterious villain Heinrich Zemo (Daniel Rahl) is pursuing his own murderous agenda.
TL;DR: The Avengers are getting on each other’s nerves. In other news, the sky is blue.
It’s not that this plot can’t work well, or that they didn’t pull it off here; it’s just that we’ve seen this before too many times. It’s already been a subplot of both the first Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The bad guys manipulate the heroes into fighting each other; the heroes have ideological or personal differences that cause them to fight each other; the heroes sulk and get mad and spend as much time arguing and squabbling and disagreeing with one another as they do saving the world, which is only in peril at least in part because of the screw-ups of one Avenger or another anyway. On top of all that, Captain America is on the run from the authorities again, just like he was in The Winter Soldier.
In previous films, both Loki and Ultron went out of their way to make the Avengers fight each other, and at the end of this movie, when you find out what Zemo has been up to and what his anti-climatic ultimate master plan has been all along, you realize that the B plot of at least two other movies is now the A plot of this whole film.
My second-ever article for the Agony Booth was about the sorry state of the villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe versus their comic book counterparts, and this movie demonstrates the ultimate problem with that. If your conflict is not coming from interesting, competent, and dangerous antagonists, then it has to come from the heroes themselves, which in the long run makes them seem less heroic.
Zemo (who has only a bare-bones resemblance to his comic book namesake; we don’t even learn it’s him until late in the third act, even though all the marketing was open about it) barely had to do a damn thing in this movie, and honestly seemed unaware just how much the Avengers were already tearing themselves apart behind his back. He also depends heavily on the Batman Gambit (i.e., his plan relies excessively on manipulation and on people acting in particular ways), so if certain characters lost certain fights or if others made different decisions or came to different conclusions, then his whole scheme would have fallen apart like a house of cards.
In short, the plot requires a lot of “people acting stupid”. Case in point: the number of characters who want to see Bucky Barnes dead or locked away despite Every. Single. Character. knowing that he’s a brainwashed soldier, and that even if he were behind the UN bombing, someone else is likely pulling the strings. Also, heroes not listening to other heroes, or not talking to other heroes because they don’t think they’ll listen.
And then we get heroes on both sides causing tons of property damage despite arguing about how much collateral damage their actions cause: Just watch T’Challa and Cap rampage through the streets of Bucharest, or witness the Iron Man side wreck up an airport to stop the Captain America side from… leaving on a plane to follow a lead. Yes, they had cleared the airport out in advance, but come on. They aren’t even trying to resolve things peacefully.
Again, it feels like an excuse plot, and while the film has enough emotion, action, drama, and fun that I can more or less let that slide in the final analysis of quality, I still feel this could have delivered more than it promised. I’ve seen this before, you know? Not to mention, I keep comparing it to the Avengers movies rather than to the Captain America movies, because that’s what this is: an Avengers story focused on Cap and Iron Man, rather than a third Captain America film. This doesn’t make the movie bad, necessarily, but it does feel like there are certain things left hanging, and it reinforces my perception of this movie as more of a setup chapter than either a film in its own right, or as an appropriate closing chapter to a Captain America trilogy, especially since some things didn’t feel fully resolved by the end of it.
Oh, and don’t bother worrying about those “Whose side are you on?” marketing pitches, since a) they don’t really go into the debate all that much, and b) most of the fighting isn’t over the Accords at all, but rather over Tony’s behavior and the fate of Bucky. The Accords influence things, but they’re more of a backdrop than the main story, however much it appears otherwise. This is a film playing it safe, in more ways than one.
Nitpicking? Probably, but those are my impressions of this movie. It’s enjoyable, it’s fun, it has a lot of good moments, and it has a sense of warmth to it, but in the larger context of Marvel movies, it really exists just to introduce new characters and set up Phase 3. It’s too familiar and too much like what we’ve seen before, and I must admit I walked out of the theater with a sense of mild disappointment. It’s a bit depressing to look at this film and all previous entries and realize that our heroes have spent just as much time fighting each other as they have saving the world, often from threats that somehow connected back to them anyway.
But that’s just me, and my overly critical brain. If you enjoyed the other Marvel movies, you’ll enjoy this one. The action is cool, the special effects are awesome, and the acting and dialogue are as good as they’ve ever been. I just felt like it could and should have been more.