“Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all”
We’ve officially approached the apex of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wherein films cannot be about one single character anymore. The Infinity Wars being just around the corner means that time has been regulated. There’s an endgame as there always has been and the pieces must be put into position now. What made The Avengers so great was that its endgame was merely to put Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the rest into the same film opposite a common enemy. Who that enemy was didn’t matter. How they came together didn’t matter. These disparate stories created heroes and those heroes saved the world. The fallout since has been more complicated because the darkness looming is more precisely formed.
This is why Captain America: Civil War is not a Captain America film. It’s an Avengers film that just happens to revolve around a Captain America character: Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Don’t tell me, “It can’t be an Avengers movie because Thor and Hulk are missing.” That’s a lame excuse. Don’t even tell me that Steve Rogers is the lead here since he’s at best co-lead with Tony Stark. I also won’t listen to you say this was a necessary storyline or that the sacrifice had to be made because it didn’t. It’s a great storyline and adding some animosity works wonders to uncover hubris and ego while injecting some stakes. Knowing Civil War was green-lit as a result of Batman v Superman renders those stakes somewhat hollow, though.
Call me crazy but Marvel has in effect created the same film. Yes it’s better. Yes it’s more coherent. But it’s not more unique. Say what you will about Zack Snyder‘s bleak soap operas, they add a flair for surprise whether welcome or not. Marvel simply gives us what we expect. And while I applaud that because it means they are delivering on the promise to bring arcs fans of multiple generations have grown-up enjoying, it does eventually buckle under its own weight. I had a lot of fun with Civil War, but I’d be lying if I said it was the greatest installment in the Marvel saga. It’s not. It’s on par with Iron Man 2 being all set-up and character development with very little resonating plot.
The friction between Stark and Rogers began in Age of Ultron and simply continues here. The stakes appear high but Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely skirt them at every corner without fail. Cry foul about Snyder killing Jimmy Olson all you want, but Marvel needs a bit of that edge. It needs to give us something we aren’t expecting because these films are meaningless otherwise. They are redundant and disposable because we know these heroes will ultimately fight Thanos and the road to that end can be as short or long as Kevin Feige demands. I don’t think it’s ruining anything to say Civil War ends at the same place it begins because that’s the only way it could. The ride is a blast, but is it effective?
Comparing it to Batman v Superman is a disservice to both films because while they’re doing the same thing, they’re doing it within vastly different aesthetics and positions in their respective timelines. Civil War does a better job introducing its new characters—Tom Holland‘s Spider-Man is a delightful bundle of awkward teenage nerves and Chadwick Boseman‘s Black Panther steals the show with a combination of fierce fight and austere calm. It also does a better job of the “v” by ensuring Rogers and Stark beat the living crap out of each other. Blood is boiling and both battle with unwavering purpose. They are the same man on different sides and Anthony and Joe Russo never shy from that fact physically or mentally. The writing, however, does.
My main gripe with the film is that it constantly places blame on Rogers even though Stark’s guilt is what forces their current predicament. It’s Tony having to face the grieving mother of a promising young man cut down as collateral damage that shuffles him to the side of Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt) and the United Nations seeking to give oversight to the Avengers. He’s the one who cannot own his mistakes. Rogers can. Steve feels every death and he takes the blame. He knows “save as many as you can” risks losing people, but he does it anyway because the world needs him to do so. Why then is he constantly treated as the criminal? Why can’t their faults be shown on the same level?
It’s funny because the film is Captain America 3. You’d think he’d be the hero. To a certain extent he is, but really he’s the outsider. Their relationship is more complex, but when the two are alone and face-to-face it’s not. Where the complexity enters is through Black Widow, Vision (Paul Bettany), Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They are the ones playing both sides (Anthony Mackie‘s Falcon is pretty much an extension of Cap and Don Cheadle‘s Rhodes the same for Stark), wrestling internally to choose what they believe is right. Steve and Tony simply yell. They’re the smartest of the bunch and yet they let personal issues cloud their judgment. The only believable end would be removing both as leaders, not just one.
Instead we get fight upon fight of heroes versus heroes and that’s okay because it’s highly entertaining. The special effects are amazing (extra praise to Scarlett Witch and Vision on this front); the choreography exciting albeit less enthralling than the Russo Brothers’ last entry Winter Soldier); and the acting is again way beyond the level you’d assume this material requires. The world sees Cap as the enemy and we in the audience see Iron Man as the antagonist. Neither is wrong because they both are. They never find an opportunity to talk things out and as a result we get to see them deliver beat-downs. It lends itself perfectly for the comic book action and hokey fun (prepare for Paul Rudd as Giant-Man), but story-wise it’s mainly filler.
Unfortunately non-Avengers films are all filler now besides origin stories and I’m not sure there will be many more of those save Doctor Strange since Spider-Man and Black Panther only need flashbacks if anything before beginning their franchises anew. If you go into these movies with that mindset like I have—and like I did with Batman v Superman—is tough to be disappointed. Civil War delivers exactly what I assumed it would and it’s a success because of it. Does it provide the amazing, game-changing wow-factor so many are quick to hyperbolize? No. Not even close. Guardians of the Galaxy is still my personal favorite and Winter Soldier the objective best. This one has its moments, but it’s built towards a teased goal yet unseen or produced.
Thankfully Feige and company had the foresight to construct their universe on characters rather than spectacle. We’ve grown to love each one and that’s why we have such intense emotional connections when they turn on each other (courtesy of Daniel Brühl‘s not so important MacGuffin of a mastermind playing catalyst rather than villain). We know how they should act and revel with the filmmakers when they stay true to character no matter the pain caused. There’s humanity in these Gods that make them fallible, relatable, and enviable. But with humanity comes mortality and for some reason Marvel has yet to embrace that card. Until they do they’re just going through the motions. It’s still okay for now, but I don’t think it will next time.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 146 minutes | Release Date: May 6th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Writer(s): Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely / Mark Millar (comic book) /
Joe Simon & Jack Kirby (characters)