Another year, another later Spring/Early Summer Marvel release. The quality of the various movies of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is all over the place, but at least the studio is consistent about getting them out to us in a timely manner.
Thankfully, this latest entry, Captain America: Civil War (also known as Captain America v. Iron Man: Dawn of Civil War), is one of their better films. Mainly that’s because it successfully pushes the series in a darker direction and incorporates meaningful themes in an effective way.
In Civil War, we are informed that the Avengers weren’t always able to rescue everyone in their previous save-the-world missions. There were instances of excessive collateral damage and civilian casualties. After the latest such incident in Africa where innocent people were killed; the world tries to put restrictions on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, causing them to split into two factions: one led by Steve Rogers, who opposes such regulation, and the other by Tony Stark, who supports it. These two factions come to blows over the Winter Soldier, an old friend of Rogers, whom the rest of the world would like to see dead.
This story makes for one of the more exciting superhero movies that I’ve seen in a while. Granted, I have mixed feelings (see the Post Review Discussion at the end) about the way the concept of collateral damage is handled in the movie, but I can’t argue that the filmmakers implement it to great effect here. The tension over the ideological split in the Avengers is palpable; and what’s better is that they actually talk about these differences in perspective. There are full-on discussions where superheroes sit down and actually converse over what they believe their role in the world is and what that means for other people. More over, these discussions are never boring. There’s always that danger in these mainly-action-oriented stories–that any attempt at lengthy dialogue or conversations would come across as dull padding–but it’s well written here and feels important.
That said we do get a healthy and varied dose of action in this movie. The opening in Africa–regardless of its implications–is still fun. There is a cool street chase involving the Winter Soldier that seem more like it belongs in a Jason Bourne movie than a superhero film; but that definitely makes it seem fresher. We also get a Battle Royale about two-thirds of the way through the picture involving a dozen or so of the heroes we’ve come to know, and a couple others we’ve only just met. It was a little goofy for my taste, but it was still great entertainment.
As a side note, I was somewhat worried that this movie was going to be a little overstuffed given the number of superheroes set to make an appearance, as well as the fact that we were being introduced to two new heroes: Black Panther and the latest iteration of Spider-Man. While there is a slight problem of the likes of Ant-Man and Hawkeye more or less showing up out of nowhere (it annoyed me a little bit); this movie never felt too oversaturated in terms of characters. The fact that we’ve seen most of them before means we don’t need to see a great deal of them to appreciate them here; and the filmmakers seem to be aware of this. Every character gets the right amount of time–not too little and not too much– for the audience to appreciate them without over exposure. This is especially true for Black Panther and Spider-Man. We get proper introductions from both of them to explain who they are and why they do what they do; but the movie does not dwell on them to a damaging degree. They are one element of a much larger story; and again, the filmmakers keep that in perspective. Is there still a bit of shoehorning? Sure. But it’s handled about as well as one could hope for. And in the case of Black Panther and Spider-Man, it definitely leaves us hungry to see more of them in their coming solo flicks.
Admittedly, I was enjoying the film (as I hope I’ve made clear), but not really loving it for most of the run time. There were good elements, but nothing to really put me over the edge in terms of appreciation. Then, in the finale, we are shown a truly impressive fight between Captain America, the Winter Soldier, and Iron Man that is both very entertaining, and quite emotional. It’s physically and spiritually intense in a way that I haven’t seen in a superhero film since Zod duked it out with Superman at the end of Man of Steel. And I am grateful that the filmmakers pulled it off. It really makes the film worthwhile; important, even. Best of all is that this conflict is orchestrated by a villain who, while somewhat unimpressive earlier on in the film, really comes into his own in this climax. He is not a Hydra mastermind, nor a galactic super-villain, nor a mad-scientist with some evil technology. Rather he is an ordinary man with a very personal resentment for the Avengers; and his goal is not to take over or destroy the world; he just wants to see our heroes tear each other apart. He really is the best villain the MCU has produced so far, both in terms of his cunning and the fact that he is the first one so far to have basically won at the end.
Prior to seeing this movie, I was somewhat convinced that I was not going to like it. I hadn’t really enjoyed the last few MCU movies that I had seen, and I was sure that this was going to be more of the same*; only worse since this would be stuffed with way too many heroes and a forced conflict between them. I am happy to say that I was wrong. This is an excellent picture that I recommend very strongly to anyone with even a fleeting interest in superhero films; this won’t disappoint. This time last year, I was certain that I was done with the MCU, but now I can’t help but want to see how this story develops in the coming movies. Here’s to Infinity War, Parts 1 and 2.
*Admittedly there’s still too much silly humor and ridiculous one-liners in this movie (as with most MCU films) for my taste (to paraphrase the Outlaw Vern, it would be nice for these movies not to try to undercut their melodrama with self-deprecating jokes), but I will give this particular film a pass on that since it didn’t bug me too much; let’s just hope the next Thor film is prudent enough to avoid any more slapstick.
Post Review Discussion:
This is to expand on my thoughts towards the way collateral damage is handled in this picture. Granted, I like the way that collateral damage caused by the actions of the Avengers is used as a thematic element to provide conflict for this story. It’s very well done in that regard.
On the other hand, I can’t help but feel a little worried about what amounts to ret-conning of certain events in prior to MCU films, particularly Avengers: Age of Ultron. Age of Ultron was a film that came out during rather rampant Internet backlash over the way Man of Steel depicted destruction, and what many people felt was the implication that Superman had not done enough to ensure the safety of those around him. Now, I argued in my review of Man of Steel, that this interpretation of the film was invalid, but clearly Disney took those criticisms very seriously and so inserted many moments into Age of Ultron to show how concerned the Avengers were about collateral damage, and how they were making sure to evacuate areas, and checking to see that buildings were empty before they smashed through them.
The implication was that the Avengers did literally everything they could to ensure safety, and by, the cinematic shorthand of film, we were led to believe in that film that they did keep everyone safe.
It’s interesting then, that in Civil War, so much fuss is made over the events in Age of Ultron and how the Avengers weren’t saving enough people and did not care who died in the process. It really is like this movie is a sequel to some alternate, R-rated version of Age of Ultron that only the filmmakers behind Civil War saw. And again, it’s used well here; but I am concerned about the consequences over what this means in terms of how we critique superhero movies, or any films with big action sequences that involve explosions or buildings falling down.
Speaking in broad strokes, movies are, to some extent, closed systems. It’s not that actions within motion pictures can’t have off screen consequences, but they don’t contain every theoretical consequence that could result from an action. Neither filmmakers nor films themselves can possibly be expected to account for every contingency that the audience can think of. We rely on shorthand, framing, and general benefit-of-the-doubt, particularly in regards to what the good guys do. In Age of Ultron, when we are shown the Avengers evacuating the city where the big finale takes place and displaying great concern for civilians, we assume that, once they’ve stopped Ultron, they really have saved the day. We aren’t trying to imagine that people were dying in any kind of meaningful sense in that finale, or that the Avengers failed for some people, because the movie framed those events to not portray that as a possibility.
We also generally give some slack for films to have really cool action scenes that might, if taken literally, have had bad after-effects. As an example, in Batman Begins, despite its more realistic take on the source material, we don’t assume that cops died when Batman flipped their cars in the tumbler chase, or that any civilians were crushed or burned when Batman caused the train to crash and explode at the end. Realistically, people would have perished during those scenes, but we aren’t presuming that that happens. They were entertaining action set pieces in an action-centric movie and they were all part of Batman saving the day; and no, of course no cops or innocent bystanders died because of them.
I realize I am casting pretty large generalizations (and I apologize for coming across as sanctimonious), but the online community that is constantly complaining about collateral damage in superhero films is, by and large, not reading these films the way they should be read. They nitpick, they don’t view moments in context, they don’t keep perspective, and they are overall far more negative than they should be. Their’s is a backwards step in the interpretation of cinematic storytelling. My concern with Civil War is that it rewards the kind of people who take this point of view, ignoring shorthand or commonsense and instead saying that, no matter what a film was implying through framing or tone, you are correct to assume the worst possible consequences from cinematic action.
This is especially troubling because, as we have seen through Age of Ultron, Batman v Superman, and Civil War, this online community can have a fairly significant impact on the way movies are made. In particular, the Russo Brothers, the directors of Civil War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, admit that they factor in the potential reactions of the online community when making their movies. It worked out alright for Civil War, but I really do worry about the future of action films if we continue down this path. In particular, will action pictures still allow themselves to have fun anymore? Or will every exciting set piece come with a belated apology in the sequel? Will every hero have to answer for unseen deaths that we are just now finding out about? Will the general public, government, or some other organization in every future film have to debate whether or not heroes are allowed to exist?
Let’s hope not.