Marvel is 13 movies into their franchise and they’ve finally made a film about consequences. The problem is there aren’t consequences in this franchise and without consequences there aren’t stakes.
The story is about global destruction and it focuses on the emotional turmoil these heroes face in the midst of it. Chris Evans is dynamite as Captain America. He’s got effortless boy scout charm that brings back memories of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is still stunningly perfect casting. It’s uncanny how well he fits this role, and with this film you can see he’s carved out a subtle character shift to show growth throughout all of these films.
Stark feels guilt from the innocent deaths they’ve unintentionally caused and urges the team to be under command of the United Nations. Rogers, a man still planted in 1940s America, argues that they’re the ones who should do the regulating. The team starts picking sides and a mini “war” breaks out. Much of the film is spent globetrotting after Bucky appears to have blown up a building and killed the king of Wakanda. Side plot after side plot after side plot wraps itself around the central conflict adding sequences of action but little thematic and emotional weight. There’s a side plot with Daniel Bruhl as Zemo, an understated villain with plot significance, but it’s so flat and minor that it could’ve been entirely taken out. Any momentum picked up in the main conflict it’s immediately stomped out by its pacing and side plots. Again, without real consequences, there’s no weight.
The Russo bros. return to the directing chair again after The Winter Soldier, which was a breath of fresh air because of its political/spy genre homages and exciting bursts of violence, but once again, the aesthetic is lacking personality and here they can’t lean on homages. Visually it’s bland and without spark; devoid of any style or quirks. This allows all of these characters to fit together tonally in a single vision but it sacrifices art for commercialization. For me, this is a tipping point. The Russo’s have made the most aesthetically bland big budget superhero movie ever. It’s almost impressive that they made an entire movie set in airports and offices.
Imagine Captain America: The Winter Soldier with Black Panther and Spider Man short films causally fit inside. Throw in some Iron Man conflict, side plots, more characters, and you’ve got this film. Admittedly, they’re all fun separate pieces but the Russos don’t have the filmmaking chutzpah to do anything worthwhile with it al. Never does this reach the pure joy and excitement that Joss Whedon harnessed in The Avengers. This is a film about the potential end of the team — and in turn, the Marvel brand — but it does that while also setting up not one, but two new superhero franchises (Black Panther and Spider Man). At least it doesn’t have Wonder Woman awkwardly watching teasers for other movies…
Civil War is a pleasing-ish film. It checks off the boxes of a 4 quadrant blockbuster that’ll please 5 year olds and 80 year olds alike. It’s got funny moments, big set pieces, heroes etc. and that’s my problem. It isn’t inspired. Marvel, and its audience, is becoming content with familiarity and adequacy.
Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, and the first Iron Man had little restraints and could be their own complete stories which is why they’re the most distinct films; perhaps even their best. The Avengers worked so well because it was built up and then used that stage to do something completely new. But now, most of these films aren’t doing anything new and are as much ads for the next film as they are their own film. Where’s the surprise and showmanship!? That isn’t CINEMA! It’s television in a movie theater.
And it’s disappointing that the Russo brothers direct like this is expensive television. The Winter Soldier‘s script was fast paced and the fights were focused because they were one on one, but this film is too heavy in content for them to handle in the same way. Action scenes are shot in singles with little understanding of space and are edited too quickly. Shaky cam used this much is an abomination. There’s a lack of rhythm that made me uninterested in the punching. Office/boardroom scenes look like they are shot by second unit AKA as uninteresting as possible. Civil War might be the most expensive TV movie ever made, which, to be fair, does have benefits.
Like having loads of characters we know so they can do this
A mid sequence battle with all of these characters conjures the joy (and IQ) of a 5 year old boy smashing his superhero toys together. It’s a fun scene that slaps a smile on your face and doesn’t fall off for 15 minutes straight. The Russo’s TV experience (Community!) allows them to do comedy with ease and this film’s laughs are its redeeming quality. Ant Man and Spider Man steal the entire show. But, still, we know that there’s no consequence here so the fights don’t have any stakes. They’re just…. kinda fun….
Quick! Hum the theme of any of these superheroes. Think of a defining image! Describe the aesthetic! Okay, but I bet you CAN tell me which one of their new movies you’re excited for. The broad plan is in place but the details that make great and memorable films are missing. Marvel has their blueprint and rarely steps outside, which makes sense fiscally, but is a real shame artistically. It leaves little for growth or a chance to make something people will remember. Captain America: Civil War is everything that’s fun about these movies while being exactly why they can’t be great.
Grade: C I, uh, will see the next one