My friend and Reel Faith co-host David DiCerto, a DC Comics fan who is somewhat bitter about the state of comic-book movies today — but I repeat myself — often says that Warner Bros.’ dark, heavy DC superhero movies, like The Dark Knight and Batman v Superman, are like comic-book opera, while Marvel’s frothy entertainments are like boy-band pop.
I say: Bracketing the Dark Knight trilogy, a good slice of tasty pizza beats filet mignon that’s half underdone and half burnt to a crisp.
Captain America: Civil War is a big ol’ slice of thick, cheesy, Chicago-style deep dish, heaped with absolutely all the toppings — and while as a New York boy I might prefer a more refined thin crust, there’s no point being a snob about these things. It’s all good. Well, mostly good.
Civil War has nearly all the strengths of the best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies so far, as well as some of the weaknesses. Among other things, it proves it’s possible for a Marvel movie to juggle an ensemble as large as Avengers: Age of Ultron — including most of the heroes from Age of Ultron, plus the Winter Soldier from Cap’s last movie, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, the triumphant MCU debut of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and introducing Chadwick Boseman’s gravely dignified Black Panther — without collapsing under its own weight, like, well, Age of Ultron. (I’m tempted to extend the pizza-crust metaphor, but enough’s enough.)
Civil War also demonstrates that the right way to do a “versus” movie pitting heroes against one another is by building relationships — and tensions — over time, then allowing characters to fall out over meaningful practical and personal issues. That way you don’t have strangers dutifully duking it out for essentially no reason beyond contrived plot requirements: just one of many, many things that went wrong with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Ever since they met in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Chris Evans’ Captain America / Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man / Tony Stark have had a complicated relationship blending mutual respect with mutual contempt. That’s not enough to justify a civil war, but it juices the conflict when Steve and Tony take opposite sides on a precipitous policy question — and, more darkly, when an unexpectedly personal revelation hits late in the game.
There have been skirmishes between heroes in past MCU films — notably The Avengers, where Captain America broke up a brawl between Iron Man and Thor, who also went a couple of rounds against the Hulk — but never a plot that turned on pitting the heroes against one another.
The bottom line is that this is a superhero movie without a supervillain or cosmic threat in the main plot — for good and for ill, and it’s some of both. On the plus side, among other things, no supervillain or cosmic threat means avoiding the sort of catastrophic urban destruction that has become both tiresome and problematic in these films — after the opening act, that is, in which an operation in Nigeria pointedly ends tragically.
That opening act — the only sequence with a traditional villain (Frank Grillo’s character from The Winter Soldier, a Hydra agent now revealed as the terrorist Crossbones) — showcases how smoothly and effectively the Avengers function as a team with Cap in command, as well as the potential consequences of battling even a third-string villain like Crossbones in a urban setting.
Like Batman v Superman, which tried to redeem Man of Steel’s massive urban-disaster trauma by turning it into a casus belli between Batman and Superman, Civil War tries to reckon with the fallout of the Avengers’ past actions.
Concern for civilian casualties has been a recurring theme in Marvel movies (and was perhaps heightened in Age of Ultron in direct response to Man of Steel). What’s new here, adapted from the eponymous comics storyline, is a United Nations initiative to bring international oversight to the Avengers, who until now have acted as a self-appointed, unaccountable global security force, often being party to immense damage and loss of life even as they go about saving the world.
The idea of being answerable to somebody sits better with Tony than it does with Steve. Tony is painfully aware of his character defects and has lived most of his life with too much power and too few checks and balances (and has lived to see the consequences, most recently the Ultron debacle). Steve, by contrast, has far less faith in bureaucrats and politicians than in individual human beings of conscience, like, you know, himself.
Two-time Captain America directors Joe and Anthony Russo stage the action sequences with great energy and often considerable imagination. The centerpiece is an epic battle royale — comic-book action on an unprecedented scale — between everyone and everyone else in Germany’s Leipzig Airport, where a lot of stuff can be destroyed without imperiling a civilian population.
For comics fans, The Avengers offered the geeky thrill of seeing Thor’s hammer come down on Captain America’s shield. The airport battle goes way beyond that, as heroes team up and square off in various combinations, with powers complementing or countering one another in unexpected ways.
Other key Marvel ingredients include lightness of tone, humor, banter and the characters’ varying chemistry or lack thereof. All of these are reflected in the Leipzig Airport battle, where many of the combatants know and care about one another, and even the newcomers know the others by reputation.
“We’re still friends, right?” a concerned Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) asks Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in mid-tussle.
“Depends on how hard you hit me,” Hawkeye counters cautiously. Clearly they’re pulling their punches — as third character notes, taking out one of them a little more roughly than the other would have liked.
My favorite mid-battle exchange may be the laconic moment of bonding/rivalry between Cap and Spider-Man. If I start geeking out about Spider-Man, this review will never end, so I’ll just say that this take on a brash, wide-eyed teenaged wall-crawler who slings quips as readily as webs could easily become my favorite portrait of my favorite superhero in next year’s Spider-Man solo film.
I’m also hopeful for Boseman’s Black Panther movie the following year. (Boseman joins Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Don Cheadle’s War Machine as the third hero of color in the Avengers circle. With only two superheroines — Black Widow and Elizabeth Olson’s Scarlet Witch — male heroes still outnumber the women by about five to one, although a third notable female supporting character also appears, and Marisa Tomei has a cameo as a very non-traditional Aunt May Parker.)
As rousing as Civil War is, there are structural and thematic problems. If you think about it (and you might be happier not doing so), it’s hard to avoid concluding that the film’s real protagonist and hero is not Cap, but Iron Man — and that Cap is effectively, if not the accidental villain, at least the misguided antagonist.
Cap’s opposition to UN oversight of the Avengers could easily have been given some warrant, for example by echoes of the paranoia thriller conventions of The Winter Soldier, but Civil War doesn’t go there. For a while it looks like Cap’s stance might be warranted by the introduction of an actual villain of a sort (Daniel Brühl), who seems to have a scheme of global proportions involving weapons of insidious power — but this doesn’t pan out as expected.
Instead, the movie succumbs to a variation on the pitfall affecting most of the Mission: Impossible movies: Namely, the Impossible Missions Force is itself (like alcohol in Homer Simpson’s famous aphorism) both the cause of, and solution to, all our problems.
In this case (vague spoiler alert), the Avengers are the only ones who can thwart an insidious scheme against … the Avengers. It’s like Paul Bettany’s Vision suggests: The Avengers incite violence as well as combating it. Tony’s case keeps getting stronger. Never has the MCU’s inability to come up with more than one compelling villain (Tom Hiddleston’s Loki) been a greater handicap.
In a way Civil War is handicapped by an inevitable but limiting decision made in the first Captain America movie: to reimagine the star-spangled Avenger for a global audience as a hero of decency and valor unmoored from specifically American commitments. Disney’s big-screen Captain America never talks about democracy, constitutional freedoms, or civil rights. Chinese moviegoers buy a lot of tickets.
The Civil War conflict in the comics turned on Cap’s commitment to individual liberty and opposition to government overreach. Here’s how these ideals are translated in this film: “If I see a situation going south, I can’t just turn away.”
I could probably overlook these issues, if only the filmmakers would stick their landing like a movie should. In the MCU, every movie is a middle movie, like an episode in a TV series, or the latest issue of a comic book. That’s one thing for a weekly one-hour series or a monthly comic book — and clearly the series’ fans don’t mind — but I remain attached to the old-fashioned idea that a two-and-a-half-hour movie should generally tell a complete story, with a start, middle, and end. Not that Disney cares what I think.
I still had a blast watching Civil War. I enjoyed it more than the popular (in my opinion overrated) The Winter Soldier. As Marvel pizza goes, bite for bite, this latest slice is among the tastier creations. At the same time, it manages to be both more than I can comfortably finish, yet not enough to satisfy.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense, sometimes deadly, action violence, including execution-style killings; brief cursing and crude language. Teens and up.