Captain America: Civil War (Movie Review)

Marvel Studio’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is the second movie in the Captain America series, is very much the best movie in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man and The Avengers come very close, but The Winter Soldier is a well-balanced mix of action and intrigue that superhero movies in general would do well to emulate. And it gets even better in comparison with its predecessor, Captain America: The First Avenger, which was a very lackluster and subdued affair with a boring villain and a boring plot. As such, the studio’s latest, Captain America: Civil War had a lot to live up too, and while it didn’t disappoint, it also left much to be desired.

Captain America: Civil War builds forward from the end of The Avengers: Age of Ultron from last year, and takes the overall story of the MCU forward in a plot that sees conflicts develop between the team members, conflicts that were hinted at in The Avengers and which are now magnified from several angles. As a pure action movie, Civil War does not fail to entertain and is right on point. But as an adaptation of the infamous Civil War storyline from the comics, it is unsuccessful and unsatisfactory.

Note: This review contains some major spoilers for the movie and even some for the original comics the movie is adapted from, so read at your own peril.

captain america civil war poster 0001The central conflict of the comics storyline was borne out of a reality show filming gone wrong in the worst way possible: a superhero malfunction, the deaths of hundreds of people (many of them children), and the introduction of the Superhero Registration Act. When it comes to superheroes and other vigilantes, there has always been a certain tension between them and the law authorities, even with the government having to step in. This is a cornerstone of many superhero stories, certainly so for DC and Marvel who are among the oldest of the breed to explore this topic. The SRA mandated that all superheroes had to register with the government and make their secret identities public so that they could be monitored and “trusted”. Iron Man supported this, and convinced many others for the same, while Captain America was in opposition. Thus was the superhero Civil War between Marvel’s best and brightest started, and it tore apart the entire community. Some died, some were imprisoned, friends became enemies, hate and mistrust was everywhere. It was a dark time for Marvel’s heroes, and it was an event that spawned much of the Marvel comics universe. And at its heart, the Civil War was an ideological conflict between two men who believed in their own respective principles and stood by those principles, no matter how much this conflict harmed them and their friends.

For me, while the writing of Civil War was often mediocre and not as good as it could have been, I still enjoyed it from the perspective of the ideological conflict it presented. There was no deception to it, no bait-and-switch. Iron Man and friends believed in one thing. Captain America and friends believed in something else. The debate about whether the SRA was fair and just was a completely separate thing because both sides of the argument have their own merit. But that’s not what Captain America: Civil War is about. It is about deception and a bait-and-switch which left me disappointed and even depressed to a degree because the movie just called me back to my experience with Iron Man 3, which I consider to be the MCU’s worst movie. The bait-and-switch regarding the villain, Mandarin, was nonsensical and with Captain America: Civil War, the writers of the MCU have proven that they cannot write good villains unless it is Loki. Plain and simple.

Anyway, on to the main beats of the movie.

To mimic the Stamford incident from the comics, the writers put forward a reformed Wanda Maximoff as the scapegoat for an explosion in Lagos in which many local civilians and aid workers from Wakanda are killed and injured. The fact that Wanda was able to prevent a greater tragedy is irrelevant to the media and the outraged Wakandans, and the Avengers are taken to task by the United Nations. Enter, the Sokovian Accords, which themselves mimic the Superhero Registration Act in many ways but are in fact a global program than a local American one. This actually fits in nicely with the larger theme of the MCU since the Avengers travel all over the globe hunting down villains, whether it be Loki in Germany, Ultron in Sokovia or Crossbones in Lagos. And so the stage is set for what could have been one of the best movies in the franchise.

The writers treat the Sokovian Accords and the split between the Avengers as something less than urgent in that in the grand plot of the movie, none of them really matter. The inciting incident that ultimately splits the team is that Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier is implicated in a bombing at the location of the signing of the Sokovian Accords, and the simmering conflict between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America is magnified since their approaches are completely different. Essentially, the Sokovian Accords take a backseat in the hunt for Bucky Barnes, and while this subplot does a good job of roping in Prince T’Challa aka Black Panther for the larger story, it was presented as something convenient to do, rather than something that was necessary.

In fact, I would say that the writers took a step back from the innate ideological conflict between the Avengers and their respective supporters in order to highlight the egotistical natures of the two central characters of the entire movie, Tony and Steve. I’m a #TeamCap guy all the way, but even I had issues with how he approached the matter of Bucky’s arrest. The friendship between Steve and Bucky is pretty much legendary, whether you look at the comics over the last several decades or the movies. As such, it isn’t hard to imagine that if the notice is out on Bucky, who in the movies is a recovering villain, that Steve would want to be personally involved and would want to do things his own way. But the opposite of that is what is asked of him, because the signees of the Sokovian Accords want to limit what the Avengers and other enhanced individuals can do and they believe that special forces are a better answer to the threat that Bucky supposedly represents. Which is pretty hilarious actually.

captain america civil war stills 0003What we get, essentially, is set-piece after set-piece. The script hits a lot of important beats, but given the magnitude of events and the large cast that we are dealing with, it feels very unsatisfactory. The script has to walk the audience through the conflict between Tony and Steve, it has to introduce Spider-Man and Black Panther, there is the romantic subplot for Wanda and Vision, it has to create two opposing teams of superheroes, it has to show how the villain Zemo manipulates everyone, it has the big action scenes. All of that leaves very little time for introspection and thought. Of coming at the story from what I see as the rational angle.

In fact, I’d say that some of the best moments in the movie are the scenes between Wanda and Vision. One is a former villain who is reforming herself so that she can fit into the larger society as represented by her new friends and the other is an artificial intelligence with great powers who is struggling to understand what he is and who wants to be a part of that same clique. Both Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany do a stand-up job of portraying the inner conflicts of their characters and they also have a nice developing chemistry with each other. I wouldn’t even mind a spin-off movie that is all about these two because they are characters ripe for further development and the writers of Captain America: Civil War do them justice, at the moment.

Going back to the complexity angle, I personally loved the introductions for Black Panther and Spider-Man. They were neat, relevant and impactful. But I don’t think that the writers did enough with either, because they were too caught up in the bait-and-switch that they head introduced to the story regarding the climax. We see a little of where each character comes in with regards to the larger story, but neither leave their mark. Where in the comics storyline, Spider-Man sided with Iron Man and was one of the first masked superheroes to reveal his identity, though he later went back after he saw some of the extreme things that Iron Man was doing, in the movie he is just a punk New York kid who has little, if any, experience fighting against powered people. Tony Stark essentially puts a teenage kid in a war-zone, and all of this after the scenes earlier in the movie where he is rebuked and cursed by a mother who lost her son in the Sokovian incident during the events of Age of Ultron. Is he making up for that loss, by trying to mentor another kid? Maybe, but that is something that really should have been explored in a standalone movie rather than a stage as big as Civil War.

And as for T’Challa. He gets to do more than Peter does and is far more relevant as well. But for the purposes of the climax he just falls short. Because the writers are too focused on Cap and Bucky vs Iron Man. T’Challa’s catharsis feels like it was given to him, rather than taken and it feels too bittersweet. Such is the curse of the ensemble movie, and the silver-lining is that thanks to Civil War, both T’Challa and Peter are getting their stand-alone movies, which is pretty rad, especially for the Black Panther since his cinematic world is so fresh and new. Plus, all the news coming out about the casting of the movie is just incredible. Wakanda and its fierce ruler are prime for some exploration, and I’m really glad that this part of the Marvel universe is getting some spotlight.

Now, as for the big climax, I won’t dwell much on what it is, or even give it away. It is something that you should absolutely see for yourself, if you haven’t already. But, to keep it straight, what we have here isn’t a villain who is out for global domination or one who wants to tear apart the heroes so that he can rule. We have a villain who is a really, really pale shadow of his comic self, one who depends far too much on coincidences and the pieces lining up just right so that he can have vengeance on the Avengers. Zemo’s schemes in Civil War are too convoluted and nonsensical, because he takes himself way too seriously. On a level, I can certainly understand what the writers are going for: the ideological schism of the comics is replaced by the deceptions and lies of the movie, but it is not what the story needed. You could say that Civil War is as much of an adaptation of its source material as Age of Ultron was, and therein lies the problem with some parts of the MCU, especially these big tent-pole stories: they are riffing off the original and not doing a good job of it. I mean, there are a number of better ways for the story to present a physical fight between Cap and Bucky on one side and Iron Man on the other but the writers added in too much nuance and (apparent) subtlety than was needed. The movie could have been called Captain America vs Iron Man, and that would have been far more accurate. But suffice to say, the climax was rushed and it didn’t make much sense compared to the rest of the storyline, because at every major beat there was a big tonal and directional shift that made you wonder just what the core story actually was.

captain america civil war stills 0001

In the end though, the schism seems permanent. The bonds of friendship between the Avengers are broken because the movies have seen fit to portray them as global vigilantes who can’t be trusted and who must either bow to the authorities or be rogue agents. Zemo pulls off the greatest deception ever and that’s really it. There was no catharsis in the movie for any character other than T’Challa. The conflict between the superheroes is unresolved, and since we know what the next few movies are going to be about, I think it is safe to say that this whole thing isn’t going to go anywhere, because there just isn’t any room in the schedule.

The Civil War does not work as a single movie. The better approach in my opinion would have been to split it up into two movies which would have then given the writers plenty of room to explore everything. Characters like Black Panther and Spider-Man could have had better introductions as far as the MCU is concerned. Characters like Wanda, Vision, Ant-Man and Sharon Carter could have had better returns that didn’t bog them down as much. They were all shoe-ins when you consider the story in its entirety. We could have seen more of Secretary of State Ross, formerly General Ross, and what his goal was with the Sokovian Accords. We could have had a better grounding of Zemo as a villain rather than the rush job we got. We could have seen more of the camaraderie between a reunited Cap and Bucky. Tony could have dealt with his PTSD much better too, and had more time.

But, this is what we got.

Like I said earlier, the visuals and the action scenes in the movie are incredible. Top marks to the chase scenes involving Cap, Bucky and Black Panther which showed off these characters incredibly well. Top marks to the big airport battle between #TeamCap and #TeamIronMan because as the biggest set-piece of the entire film, it was incredibly well-done. Each character got to do their own thing, and matched up well against his or her adversaries. Spider-Man’s intro was amazing and the portrayal was spot-on. Ant-Man displayed some new super-powers and also had some of the coolest scenes in the entire movie. Loved that. In general, Wanda’s manipulation of magic to aid her team-mates and herself was also fun, especially when she matches up against Vision, in a very woman vs machine scenario and was thrilling.

And the performances, well, those are good. In these movies, the chemistry between the characters is something that can make or break, and thankfully, most of it in Civil War is on point. Steve and Bucky’s age-old friendship being rekindled; Steve and Tony’s friendship falling apart; Wanda and Vision exploring together who they are and their place in the grand scheme of things, and so on. It would be easy to say that these are all portrayed by some fantastic actors and thus it is to be expected when they give good performances, but with superhero movies, I think the bar has been set high in recent years, and it certainly shows. Chris Evans, RDJ, Scarlett Johansson, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, etc, they all did good. I wasn’t disappointed by either of them.

There’s a lot that the movie could have gotten right, had it been give some more room to breathe and develop. And there’s a fair number of things that it does get right, so it is like it is a loss or anything. These are the limitations of the medium itself, and I recognized that. Comics have far greater freedom in terms of the dramatis personae, among other things, while for movies it isn’t easy, by any stretch.

So, in the end, I applaud the team behind the movie for doing what they did. From the moment it was announced, I knew well that it couldn’t live up to the promise of its namesake storyline. And I was fine with that. This is an adaptation after all and not a straight retelling. Because then that would be boring. Now all that remains to be seen is what happens after this. We have Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther coming up that are essentially direct sequels, and the next phase of development of the MCU is going to be dependent upon them.

Marvel's Captain America: Civil War Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

Just to be clear, I think that Civil War is a pretty decent movie. A better superhero movie by far than some of the others that we’ve seen recently, across the board, but also one that could have been better. But, I recommend it either way. There is a lot going on in the movie and if you skip it out, you will be lost for the next few installments in the MCU. Trust me, that’s not a good thing!


Posted on June 3, 2016, in Movie Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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