Captain America: Civil War Review

Posted: May 12, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” SimpsonCaptain America Civil War Poster

Who would have expected the Captain America films to generally be the most consistent and interesting films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Certainly not me, in fact of all the Phase One characters he seemed the hardest to create a movie around. I can’t say Captain America: The First Avenger was a perfect attempt, but it was a fun film which made good use of its period setting and was generally better than I was expecting it to be. However the real treat would be 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film which managed to function as a pretty effective allegory for American foreign policy and surveillance state while still being an exciting action movie with an engaging storyline. For my money, The Winter Soldier is easily the best and most well-rounded film of the MCU and as such the prospect of that creative team returning for a follow-up film was always going to be enticing. As it turns out, not only is Captain America: Civil War a continuation of the Winter Soldier’s storyline, but also an adaptation of the comic storyline which famously pitted the good Captain against his old friend and former ally Iron Man.

The film opens with a group of Avengers thwarting the efforts of a terrorist group to steal a biological weapon. In defeat, the terrorist leader attempts to murder Captain America (Chris Evans) in a suicide bombing. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Wilson) is able to use her powers to save Cap, but the blast is eventually released, killing innocent civilians and wounding many more. At the same time, there has been increasing concern regarding the collateral damage caused in various battles involving the Avengers. As such, General Ross (William Hurt) has come with an ultimatum; that the Avengers sign an accord which will forego the team’s independence and favour of obeying a UN panel. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a huge advocate for this initiative, as he feels tremendous guilt for the innocent lives lost and for the destruction he caused in creating Ultron. Steve Rogers feels differently, arguing that the unknown agendas of individuals could lead to the team being unable to help those in need if the panel decrees it, or being sent on morally objectionable missions in order to further the interests of those in charge. This disagreement splits the Avengers in two sides, a problem worsened when the UN is bombed and the leading suspect is Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Rogers’ old friend who was tortured and brainwashed into becoming an assassin. This further splits the lines between the Avengers and leads to all out conflict. Behind the scenes however is the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Brühl), an individual who is manipulating events for his own ends.

That’s a pretty big plot description, one which doesn’t even factor in the roles of Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Sharon Carter (Emily VonCamp), and new characters like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). This is a pretty packed movie and I do think it buckles under its own weight in a number of places. The first act, which largely dwells on the accords and the splitting of The Avengers, raises some interesting questions regarding to what extent these heroes are responsible for the collateral damages inflicted in various battles as well as whether or not the team should act independently. The film does a good job in fact of presenting both Rogers’ and Stark’s arguments in ways where you can understand both perspectives and neither are straight-up wrong. However, once the UN bombing occurs, these questions quickly disappear and the conflict becomes almost entirely about what should be done with Bucky. It’s a much more simplistic dynamic and I also don’t think the writing holds up to scrutiny. No spoilers, but at a certain point Cap suspects Bucky was framed for the bombing and if he and Tony simply discussed this rather than rushing to punch each other I feel like things could have played out a lot more smoothly.

The film’s second act is largely spent with Captain America and Iron Man building up rosters for a fight with each other that seems very avoidable and is ultimately not that important in the grand scheme of the plot. I’m also not entirely clear on some of the character motivations. Why would Iron Man, who already has War Machine, Vision, and Black Widow on his side (as well as tremendous wealth and government resources) also seek out the help of Spider-Man, a kid who he has never met and who the film makes clear has not been active as Spider-Man very long? For that matter, why does Ant-Man agree to team with Captain America? He’s never met any of these characters (apart from a brief fight with Falcon in Ant-Man) and he really has no stake in this conflict, but he still just randomly shows up and has no problem becoming a fugitive throwing away the family life he fought so hard for in his own film. These aren’t minor plot holes, but serious lapses in character motivation that rob the conflict of poignancy by illustrating just how forced the big fight between all these superheroes is. With all that said, I don’t want to give the impression that Civil War is some incomprehensible mess on the levels of something like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Batman v Superman. While I do think a lot of interesting elements are overlooked and that the script takes quite a few narrative shortcuts, the fact is this still holds together a lot better than it should and while there are many different tones at play the transitions between them are pretty smooth. Additionally, the plot is always clear and easy to follow.

For all its flaws, I do still think Civil War functions very well as a superhero movie. The various action scenes are all really well executed from conception to editing and are generally quite a bit of fun. The high point is probably the big airport fight between all the superheroes and while I do think the build-up has some flaws there’s no denying that the fight itself is all kinds of awesome. All of the characters and their powers are utilized appropriately, there are plenty of cool moments, the humour is strong, and generally the entire sequence is a blast to watch. In fact, I was surprised by just how humorous and often funny Civil War was. Though this was advertised as the dark chapter of the Avengers saga, and while there are plenty of dramatic moments, this still maintains the relatively light and jovial tone that Marvel usually strives for. There were a few moments where I thought the film could have embraced the darker dramatic elements more, for the most part the tone works and there are a lot of funny moments. Having said that, most of the film’s more emotional moments do work strongly enough and I really liked Daniel Brühl as the film’s villain. I do wish there was a bit more to Zemo’s plan, but I like that his goal isn’t to be some all-powerful dictator and that his methods are more sophisticated than “punch the Avengers really hard”. Speaking of new characters, Black Panther and Spider-Man are also introduced very well. Black Panther’s motivations and character fit in really well and I look forward to learning more about the character in future films. Meanwhile, Tom Holland and the film’s characterization of Spider-Man feel spot on and it was really exciting to see the character handled so well, particularly after those awful Marc Webb films.

A lot of people are viewing Civil War as a total triumph for Marvel and the best of the MCU, with some even arguing it is among the best superhero movies of all-time, but I can’t go there. For all it does well, the film squanders a lot of thematic and narrative ideas while forcing a conflict which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. As such, the film feels as if it’s always falling short of its potential, even when functioning as high entertainment. In other words, it’s no Dark Knight, no Spider-Man 2, and no Days of Future Past. For that matter, it’s no Winter Soldier, which I still say stands head and shoulders above everything else the MCU has put forth. However I don’t want to give the impression that Civil War is a bad film or that I dislike it. If this review seems harsh, it’s only because of how high the Russo Brothers raised the bar with The Winter Soldier and the ambitions with which they’ve made Civil War. This is indeed well above the average superhero film and sits within the upper echelon of the MCU’s output. The action scenes are exciting, the humour is strong, the characters are on-point, and the drama is engaging. It may not transcend beyond just being a highly entertaining and fun superhero movie, but it at least offers glimmers of something more substantial.

B+

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