REVIEW: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America: Civil War understands the significance of its title. Regardless where it takes place in this globe-hopping adventure through Uganda, Vienna, Germany, and Russia, it pulls upon two themes closely associated with the United States’ own nineteenth-century civil war: the collapses of supposed empires, and the battle of brother against brother in intra-familial conflict. Where the film struggles is that it has to rise to the occasion of not only previous Captain America films but also, with its inclusion of so many superheroes, previous Avengers films–and I don’t think it pulls it off.

The Good:

  • Centering this civil war around the characters and not only larger politics
  • Consistent themes of collapsed empires and broken families
  • A mystery surrounding Helmut Zemo
  • Excellent one-liners from Falcon, Ant-Man, and Hawkeye
  • Music that is as great as Silvestri’s score on The First Avenger and The Avengers

The Bad:

  • Missed opportunities due to the elimination of characters or the over-abundance of superheroes
  • Unclear motivations for some characters
  • Some quirks in the editing early on that thankfully fade away
  • While featuring both characters and politics, the latter gives way without a completed thought, to be left as a dangling questions–as politics often is–to have the characters fight each other rather than be rational
  • Spider-Man is here just to set up his own film and provide some lukewarm comedy relief

Ranked in the MCU:

  • Not as great as: the previous Captain America films, the first Avengers film, Daredevil, Jessica Jones
  • Better than: the first and third Iron Man films, Age of Ultron, Agent Carter
  • Way better than: The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, the Thor films, Agents of SHIELD
  • Equal to: Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy

This review is lengthy, so I’ll break down the review into general areas: characters, visuals, and stray observations, with some more specific remarks about the introduction of Spider-Man and additional characters. And I’ll have at least two subsequent posts to share, one related to an earlier project of mine, and one related to a current project of mine.

Extensive spoilers below.

 

Characters

The narrative exists to have the characters fight with each other for the sake of that tried and true comic book narrative conceit. The motivations, however tenuous or cliche they are, still are present as to why Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) act as they do. And there is sufficient motivation given to Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), perhaps also Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) but not as obviously to me for James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Unfortunately, the motivation for Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is almost completely absent or presented so unclearly that it seems less that the two have a necessary place in this story but are simply here because they are amusing and because this film can promote their own film franchises.

Overall, without better motivation, it causes the film to suffer from what Joss Whedon said he tried to avoid, and I think ultimately did avoid, in the first Avengers film: have characters fight for the sake of fighting. The reasons that have Rogers and Stark battle and finally break the Avengers lead to reactions that are realistic but hardly responsible or practical: it feels like a disagreement that would not be solved by talking it out but, in a film where the actual supervillain is a well-executed subversion, as how he is defeated, I wish there was a similar subversion that did not simply drive the split between Rogers and Stark all the more forcefully.

Visuals

In terms of the visuals, while the special effects are impressive, the earliest instances of Rogers’s fighting and leaping seems so rubbery as if they come out of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man–although, as the film continues, that distraction lessens, especially when seeing improved animation on T’Challa in battle and how this film manages to handle Spider-Man’s abilities quite well. By having Parker’s fight be in a largely open-sky battlefield, he does not offer the skyscraper battles I would have preferred, yet the film can show Parker fighting in ways less common in his previous films.

Editing also feels compromised. Whereas the Russo brothers were able to have the camera follow the action clearly in The Winter Soldier, here in Civil War the initial battle is full of quick cuts that make it hard to follow the punch from setup to impact. This editing as well does improve with time in the film, especially in the battle between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, and in the final battle of Stark against Barnes and Rogers. Yet other editing, such as T’Challa seeing the death of his father, is full of so many cuts that it saps emotional pain from the loss of a character like his father whom we in the audience barely know. As well, when the film is PG-13, and T’Chaka’s (John Kani) death is vaguely the result of the explosion without showing a much gorier instance, it seems to hit me far less strongly than it could. At a point in the MCU when Agents of SHIELD might as well be re-titled Body Horror: The Television Series, it looked more like T’Chaka died from an instant heart attack caused by the explosion rather than something far more gruesome as would occur in an explosion.

Other staging is handled much better, including a glimpse into Stark’s past, handled in a one-shot between three (or four) characters. However, the de-aging effects to have Robert Downey Jr play Stark in his late teens/early-20s will have the similar quirks as happened with Michael Douglas being de-aged at the beginning of Ant-Man: the skin is too smooth to look real. At least a funeral scene early in the film allows the Russos to slow the pace for some well-handled close-ups and far-away shots to really bring out colors of the church and establish both how close physically Rogers is to others yet how far away he still feels.

The most effective visual is probably the one closer to the end, where three icons for Stark, Rogers, and Barnes–the Iron Man mask, Captain America’s shield, and the Winter Soldier’s arm–are discarded to the floor. It feels like a tossing away of the past towards something new.

Spider-Man

As Wilson says to Parker, he talks way too much, which would be fine if his jokes landed. His introduction drags the film to a crawl, and it had me leaping out of my seat–

Okay, okay, enough with the spider puns.

Spider-Man is entertaining but ultimately a meaningless presence who serves as set-up for his own film.

The film introduces Parker as having been Spider-Man for a while, with Stark knowing his identity supposedly by some investigative skills. Yet Stark knows little about Parker’s abilities, questioning whether it is an apparatus that allows him to climb on walls and who created the web fluid. Civil War avoids having Parker give his origin story, leaving it vague as to what transformed him into a person with arachnid abilities and with no obvious indication of his spider-sense. In fact, because he’s listening to music so loudly as he enters his apartment, while we can clearly see Stark sitting on his living room couch, Parker does not notice.

Spider-Man’s presence feels like less of a character and more of an action figure dropped into the middle of someone’s reenactment of a comic book battle with their toys–which, in that regard, makes his presence more akin to, say, Disney Infinity (where Spider-Man and the Avengers are playable characters) than a film.

Why is Parker here? The (largely speculative) press around the film was that Parker was a child in Queens around the time when the Chitauri attacked Manhattan, so he has been in awe of superheroes like Iron Man for almost all his life. And he admires Stark as a brilliant scientist. None of that is told to us in the film, and if it is shown to us, you have to look for it in their interactions. Admittedly, Parker is in awe of Stark–at times. But this Parker does have a backbone, thank goodness, and is adamant that Stark not reveal his identity as Spider-Man to Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), even webbing Stark to force a promise from him.

But Parker does not present to me a convincing reason why he is in this fight. We don’t hear Stark say, “The Accords are in place, Rogers and his team are not only breaking the law but potentially aiding a terrorist like the Winter Soldier, so slap on those spider clothes, we’re webbing them up and taking them to prison.” Parker claims Stark told him about Rogers’s fighting techniques so that he would know to web his legs and cut him down, yet the most reason Parker offers for arresting Rogers is that Stark told him to. That is not a good enough explanation for a character’s motivation, and it bothers me that the film expects me to accept it out of some assumption that Parker is a teenage fanboy, as if being a teen means he lacks the maturity to reason for himself. And I’m not a fan of dismissing teenage characters as if their age automatically means they make foolish judgments: it didn’t work for me in Young Justice, it doesn’t work for me in this film.

Overall, Parker’s presence could be written out of the film and nothing would be lost: he changes the plot in no way, and it is more that Stark now has intervened in Parker’s origin story, providing him with a new suit and the Spider Signal, to set up his solo film produced by Sony.

Additional Participants: Hawkeye and Ant-Man

Perhaps I am more annoyed with Parker’s presence than that of Barton and Lang because Parker is left with the unenviable task of being brought late in this preexisting narrative, while Barton and Lang, even if their incorporation into what is supposed to be a Captain America film.

What is the motivation? As much as I enjoy when a film shows rather than tells, and Civil War is excellent in that regard, I am stumped at some explanation why Barton and Lang get involved. The hint seems to be that Barton, as a vigilante off the grid, does not want to deal with the Accords governing him and his family. And based on what he has seen Stark do with keeping Maximoff on house arrest, he may be willing to side with Rogers in order to be a check on Stark’s ambition, especially since, as Romanoff herself says to Stark, his ego tends to blind him.

It also helps that Barton and Lang’s lines, thanks to delivery by Jeremy Renner and especially Paul Rudd, hit the mark more easily than Holland, who, in playing Spider-Man as an uncertain teenage newbie at superheroism, does not get to sound as confident in his delivery. Barton approaches the situation, as he did in Age of Ultron (and as I discussed before) as a father disciplining children.

But I can’t figure out why Lang was convinced to join–assuming he was persuaded and not forced by Barton. Lang, despite being a father like Barton, at no point mentions his daughter for why he joins this battle. In fact, Lang treats this battle as if it is a distraction from his everyday life. Actually, the film leaves such gaps since Ant-Man, likely to be filled in retroactively in the sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp, that it is surprising not to hear Lang mention his daughter Cassidy at any point, or how Rogers’s drafting of him into this vigilantism means he likely will be arrested again.

After his flustered introduction to Rogers concludes, Lang does not sound as giddy to be in the fight:

Rogers: “If you come with us, you’re a wanted man.”

Lang: “I’m used to that.”

Lang sounds deflated, saying he’s used to being a criminal on the run and, later, claiming he has been testing his Giant Man abilities in a lab. What has happened to Lang since the last film? Has Pym been keeping him locked in the lab to practice his abilities non-stop? How did Barton bring him in? Based on Barton and Lang’s dialogue, I wouldn’t be surprised that Barton drugged him (and don’t think that does not invite bad comparisons to the roofies in the relationship between Jax and Stein in Legends of Tomorrow).

Stray Observations

  • Yeah, Zemo is in the film, but seeing as he’s not really part of Hydra and doesn’t act like Zemo, it’s more like they gave an original character the name of a canonical character. At least the character is worthy of having a lot written about him–even if I haven’t done it yet in this review.
  • Rogers to Barnes: “You’re going to kill someone.” After all the criticism rightly directed at Man of Steel for indiscriminate deaths and collateral damage, while I’m satisfied with this film addressing the causalities in previous Marvel films, including Hulk’s leaping in Avengers causing at least one injury or death in Manhattan, it does raise awareness that there is no way that Barnes and Rogers’s escape early in the film did not result in, if not death, then massive paralysis: Barnes puts a person’s (helmeted) head through a wall!
  • The large letters for the dates and locations give the film style, yet they seem more like something out of a Wes Anderson or a David O’Russell film. They are legible, which is good so that viewers do not have difficulty reading the screen; it’s just an odd choice.
  • The extent of any Agents of SHIELD crossover: Vision analyzes statistics to find correlation between the rise in the number of “enhanced” persons and the number of major catastrophes. The line can be taken to refer to the rise in superheroes like the Avengers or, if you read into it, the Inhumans popping up in SHIELD. Otherwise, the film never says “Inhumans,” SHIELD characters never pop up–and Agents of SHIELD continues to languish in whatever quarantine Marvel has imposed upon it.
  • In his battle, Rumlow was mentioning he had changed since Winter Soldier, saying, “I don’t work like that no more.” Given the machinery attached to his forearms, I couldn’t tell whether that was external equipment or cybernetics. Actually, I could not tell whether he was still with Hydra, either, seeing as Agents of SHIELD destroyed them (again, and in yet another lackluster way that makes that show almost unwatchable).
  • Young Tony Stark in a Mr. Softee shirt? And no The Adventures of Pete and Pete reference?
  • MSNBC gets a promotional plug in this film. I guess they had some free time in their schedule when not obsessing about Trump to cover other supervillains.
  • Sharon Carter: “Aunt Peggy bought me my first thigh holster.” Rogers: “Very practical.” Carter: “And stylish.”
  • “No one blames you, Wanda. It’s an automatic response in the amygdala.” Teach us more about making small talk, Vision.
  • Wilson to T’Challa: “So…you like cats.”
  • I can’t believe they re-cast Phil Coulson with Martin Freeman! Okay, kidding aside, Freeman’s Everett Ross felt like a Coulson expy, which is appreciated, given how dour, humorless, and dull Coulson now is on Agents of SHIELD, Ross’s humor was appreciated. (“We’ll write you a receipt.”)
  • Carter: “The receipt for your gear.” Wilson: (read it) “ ‘Bird costume’?!”
  • Zemo’s trigger word for Barnes, “Homecoming”: a Spider-Man reference?
  • Rogers’s rescue of Barnes out of the water, as they fall from a helicopter, is a reversal of Barnes’s rescue of Rogers out of the Potomac after they fall from the Hellicarrier in The Winter Soldier.
  • Barnes on the other Winter Soldiers: “You never see them coming.” Allusion to the Mandarin in Iron Man 3?
  • Aunt May, why are you leaving an old man alone with your teenage nephew in his bedroom?
  • Barton: “I retire for five minutes and it all goes to shit.” “You want to make amends, you get off your ass.”
  • “I know I should have stretched.” Barton getting the crap kicked out of him makes the Marvel films entertaining, in terms of having someone with less obvious superpowers still battling superpowered individuals like Vision.
  • Vision to Wanda: “If you do this, they will never stop being afraid of you.” And that day, Vision revealed he indeed does know deception.
  • When T’Challa’s female assistant threatens to move Romanoff by force, he says, “As entertaining as that would be…” Was that supposed to be a “cat fight” joke from Black Panther?
  • I’m already happy when a film shows Rogers in Germany without having him become Mark Millar’s jingoistic madman from The Ultimates: it goes a long way to show reconciliation. And if you have Rogers also having to ride in a tiny Volkswagen Beetle, I’m sold.
  • Barnes: (crammed in the VW Beetle’s back seat) “Can you move up?” Wilson: “No.”
  • Lang feeling up Rogers’s chest a la Peggy Carter was the first time I laughed watching the film.
  • Wilson to Lang: “What’s up, Tic-Tac?”
  • Romanoff defeats a shrunken Ant-Man with her electrical discharge: she used her stingers as a bug zapper, complete with the sound effect.
  • Wilson: “Everyone’s got a gimmick now.”
  • Barnes: “You couldn’t have done that earlier?” Wilson: “I hate you.”
  • Maximoff to Barton, after knocking back Romanoff: “You were pulling your punches.”
  • Lang: “I’m good, Arrow Guy!”
  • “It’s your conscience. We haven’t talked a lot these days.” Lang references Finding Nemo.
  • Lang on Giant Man: “I can’t hold it very long.” See also, an ad for Viagra.
  • Parker: “Holy shit!”
  • Wilson: “Tic Tac is big now!”
  • Parker actually refers to Lang, as Giant Man, as like that “thingy” in Star Wars, AKA the Imperial Walker. Not that I knew the name off the top of my head, but I cannot get past this point: Parker should have an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars–he should totally have named it without missing a beat! This Parker is not just young but also lacking confidence, so I hope he is far more quippy in future instances and way more of a smart-ass than he was here and in the Maguire and Garfield films. (Also, I would’ve preferred a Gulliver’s Travels allusion instead.)
  • Vision’s inadvertent injury of Rhodes: “I became distracted.” Stark: “Didn’t think that was possible.”
  • Barton: “The Futuristic is here!” When Stark then rambles about “the law” like Judge Dredd, Barton then starts chanting the word like he’s singing the Banana Splits theme song.
  • Lang (locked in the Raft): “Pym always said you can’t trust a Stark!” Stark: “Who are you?” Lang: “Hey, come on, man…”
  • FRIDAY sounded far more emotional in performance than JARVIS.
  • “I have a delivery here for…’Tony Stank’?”
  • Rogers’s last line: “My faith is in people.”
  • Aunt May: “Who did this to you?” Parker: “A guy from Brooklyn. Steve.”
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