Movie Review - Captain America: Civil War
Let’s rewind to the start of 2016. As the ball dropped in NYC, we had a year ahead of us that was full of potential for comic book movies: Deadpool, Batman V Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men Apocalypse, Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange. Two movies apiece from Disney/Marvel Studios, Fox and Warner Bros/DC. When looking at this slate, I told a good friend of mine that one of these was going to at the very least be underwhelming…if not outright fail…the law of averages dictates as much. With Deadpool in February, I agreed with the critics and after 3 viewings in theaters and as many (so far) on home video, it really does deserve every single accolade or bit of praise that it’s been showered with. Critics, audiences and I were much more varied in our opinions for March’s Batman V Superman. Critics hated it, audiences were split over it and I fell head over heels in love with it. I mean, come on, I saw it in the theater 6 times [And he’s considering #7. You really are just a sad, little man, aren’t you? – Ed.] and not once during any of those screenings did my enjoyment of the film lessen…at no point did I fidget or look at the time (this’ll make sense later on). [Yeah, we’ve heard that one before. – Ed.] But, I have to admit, each time I watched Batman V Superman, something started to eat away at me…I must confess that with each viewing, I found myself looking less and less forward to Captain America: Civil War. So, now it’s May and Civil War is out in theaters. Critics love it as does pretty much everyone else, but what did I think?
Meh. Turns out that feeling I had was right.
Obviously, I have to clarify. The reason that I was looking less and less forward to Civil War after seeing Batman V Superman was that I knew I’d be returning to the same old Marvel formula. I think the best way this can be explained is using ice cream as an example. I’m one of those weird folks that actually likes vanilla. If I’m given my choice between chocolate or vanilla, I’ll choose vanilla 95% of the time…and the other 5% is usually a chocolate/vanilla swirl. [Is there a point to this? Aside from making me want Dairy Queen? – Ed.] But that’s not the only ice cream I eat…sometimes I want more complicated flavors, like, say, banana split…with vanilla and strawberry with chunks of banana, pineapple, fudge swirls and chopped peanuts. So, to put this in terms of the two most recent superhero film offerings, I went from the more complicated flavors of Batman V Superman (our banana split from the analogy) back to the vanilla of Captain America: Civil War.
[Enough of the ice cream…get on with it! – Ed.]
Well, you can find my thoughts about Batman V Superman in my review and pending defense article where I attempt to shoot down the most common audience/critic grievances. This is Civil War’s review. To the film’s credit, everything it does is done very well…but you can make vanilla ice cream from the finest Madagascar vanilla beans and guess what…it’s still vanilla. And that’s what I’m trying to get at…Civil War simply adheres to the Marvel formula: plenty of verbal zingers, plenty of action beats and while there’s some depth and emotion to the proceedings it’s all very…well…right there, spelled out for you. There really isn’t that much to dig up and find in the film…aside from the usual Marvel easter eggs. There’s no engagement. The best way I can think to sum this up is an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from my youth. It shows Calvin on a Saturday morning, his Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs breakfast in hand. He turns on the TV, plants himself on the floor and tells the TV to “pander to me”. You don’t really have to pay attention…every character or the plot itself is going to flat out tell you who and what they are, what their motivation is and so on…so as not to distract you from shoving more popcorn in your face. Whether they meant to or not, the overly large font the Russo brothers chose to illustrate the changes in settings within the film is a perfect metaphor for the movie itself…huge letters flashed in your face to make it very obvious where you are. But in that obviousness, there’s nothing in the film that has to be discovered, there’s no direct engagement with the audience. And without that…I found myself fidgeting quite a bit during the movie…never a good sign. With a topics/themes like “how does the law apply to superheroes” and “how would the world’s governing bodies react to groups like The Avengers”, you would hope to be mentally engaged in the argument…not…well…kinda bored. Going back to motivations…that’s another thing. [That’s occurred to you while sitting on this review for damn near 2 weeks now…just sayin’. – Ed.] The core of this conflict is supposed to be two friends being forced to fight one another. It says so even in the trailer. Cap: “He’s my friend.” Stark: “So was I.” Um…no. Go back and watch the first Avengers film. Remember the whole “Put on the suit” argument? That doesn’t strike me as friendly. Fast forward to Age of Ultron…their debate while splitting wood, the “never-ending battle” stance of Rogers vs the “world peace and we go home” goals of Stark. The way their interactions have been portrayed on the screen, no, I don’t buy these guys as friends. At best, they’re co-workers who get along well enough but probably don’t try to (or even want to) hang out on off days. But to try and pass this off as “friend vs friend, brother vs brother”…no, I don’t buy it.
While I sound negative about the film, I’m not…well, not too much anyway. To go back to our ice cream metaphor [Do we have to? – Ed.], this really is some very nice Madagascar vanilla we’re talking about here. Tom Holland’s turn as Spider-Man/Peter Parker looks to be the best interpretation of the character we’ve had so far and has me very much looking forward to his solo films. The same can almost be said of Chadwick Boseman’s turn as Black Panther…except there haven’t been any previous live-action takes on the character. The action is fantastic, especially the much lauded airport fight. In the core conflict, pro vs anti registration, everyone has reasons for siding where they do and it’s very clear why Tony and Steve are the champions for each cause, as they have the most stake in each one. The secondary conflict, which makes this a Captain America movie (even though it would make a much better sequel to the first Avengers than Age of Ultron did), is rooted in the Winter Soldier and if I were to say too much about it would be awfully spoilery, is also handled well. That’s a credit to the writers, as there is a fair amount going on here and they do a great job of fitting everything to the ‘Marvel Formula’. [Trademark Brain? Yes, Pinky, Trademark. – Ed.]
But that’s the core problem right there…that it’s starting to feel like a formula is in place. Jokes + Action + Underdeveloped Antagonist + Generally Happy Ending + After-Credits Sequence = Marvel Movie. If this persists, yeah, I can see why some people are getting superhero fatigue…and I can’t blame ‘em! While this gives fertile ground for films like Deadpool, it places me in the very small minority that’s grateful for films like Josh Trank’s Fantastic 4 and Zack Synder’s DC films. On the one hand, they’re worth it just for being something different and on the other, they’re very solid approaches to the same type of material, even if critics and internet trolls would tell you otherwise. I’ll hit on the two factors in this equation that I haven’t talked about thus far…the villain and the generally happy ending. The guy behind this whole dust up is Helmut Zemo. Long-time Cap and Avengers readers were intrigued at his inclusion but…well…ultimately, he’s kinda wasted. Now, sure, no one was expecting him to put together the Masters of Evil. Holy shit…tell me THAT wouldn’t make an awesome movie? Do an Avengers film for the bad guys. [DC’s doing it, it’s called Suicide Squad. Kinda. – Ed.] And sure, I think we could all safely assume that at no point would he be putting on the costume…even though for whatever reason I’ve always found it to be awesome…ever since the old Mattel Secret Wars figures. We’re only given his motivation at the very end of the film…that his wife and child were killed in the Sokovia event in Age of Ultron. It’s a legitimate motivation, very much so, but we only catch a glimpse of it in the film as he’s listening to what would turn out to be the last voicemail he’d ever get from them. If he’s the guy that put the very plot of this story into motion…shouldn’t we get to know him a bit??? Instead, Zemo’s treatment is more of an “oh, so that’s why. Okay, off to jail with you!” sort of thing and, as usual, it’s unsatisfying. Next up, the generally happy ending…one would argue that by the end of this film, the Avengers are broken. The band has split up…except that it hasn’t. Sure, Cap and his group of anti-registration heroes go underground, but what else does he do? He gives Tony a means to contact him should he ever need help. That’s not breaking up the band…that’s part of the group going off on a solo project for a few months, cutting their own album and staying in touch in case the whole gang wants to jam again. It makes sense that Cap has to go underground given the way his actions were portrayed in the media within the world of the film but if the Avengers had REALLY broken up…Tony has the means to bring them in: the cell phone Cap gave him. Instead, the film ends as it has to…as it was constructed to do…much like the two preceding Avengers films; everyone goes their separate ways, but don’t worry, should the need arise, they’ll all be back. Exactly as Sam Jackson said it at the end of the first Avengers film…and again, displaying that formula once more.
I’ve got to admit, the combination of this with Avengers: Age of Ultron [Weren’t you going to review that? Given how much you’ve bitched about it ‘round the office, I figured I’d have had it on my desk by now. – Ed.] is starting to display, at least to me, that Marvel’s seams are starting to show. That being said, I’ll still say that it’s like a well-worn pair of jeans, sure, the occasional hole emerges here and there, but let’s face it, you never toss those suckers out until the holes or rips start occurring in embarrassing places. So, yeah, while I didn’t find Age of Ultron or Civil War particularly satisfying, Ant-Man was fantastic and I’m still looking forward to Doctor Strange and seeing Thanos make his big push in the next two Avengers films…because those three films have the potential to freshen up or even change what appears to be the ‘Marvel Formula’. And that’s seriously what needs to happen before, as I’ve said in my BvS review, slavish adherence to this formula across all studios takes us to the grave of superhero films.