“Captain America: Civil War” isn’t necessarily the best Marvel movie — directing duo Joe and Anthony Russo fail to deliver even a fraction of the scale, grace, and ineffable sense of joy that Joss Whedon brought to “The Avengers” — but it’s nevertheless the Platonic ideal of a Marvel movie.
More so than any of the previous episodes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Civil War” is a soap opera in spandex. In part, that’s because of the film’s refreshing (if not fully realized) emphasis on emotional turmoil rather than global destruction; while plenty of buildings blow up, most of the collateral damage is caused by the good guys as they argue with each other and threaten to go their separate ways. This isn’t just about killing time before the Infinity Wars, it’s about fulfilling the ultimate goal of the MCU: A film franchise so immense and self-perpetuating that a plot’s greatest possible conflict is no longer the end of the world, but rather the end of the brand.
The story begins, as most Marvel movies do, wherever the hell it wants. The profound sense of guilt that began to fester inside Tony Stark (still Robert Downey, Jr.) after the attacks on New York City has been intensified by the death toll from the fight against Ultron in Sokovia. And Stark isn’t the only one who’s afraid to look in the mirror. Early in the film, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is devastated when a brawl in Lagos claims a handful of innocent bystanders. With various world governments on edge about the continued existence of the Avengers — whose formation seems to have invited a never-ending series of calamities upon the Earth — U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) draws up the Sokovia Accords, which would essentially put the superhero task force under the command of the United Nations.
Stark, an Oppenheimer type who’s desperate to share the burden of guilt, is ready to sign. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a product of WWII who believes that the Avengers are capable of policing the planet on their own, is not. Stark thinks that they need regulations; Rogers thinks that they are the regulations. While the MCU is largely inspired by story arcs that were drawn long before the 21st Century, these movies have nevertheless used 9/11 as their north star, and “Civil War” is a natural choice of narratives for a saga that’s so preoccupied with the United States’ evolving role on the world stage.
The philosophical differences between the two Avengers are enflamed when a bomb detonates during the signing of the Accords, killing the king of Wakanda (a fictional African nation). All signs point to Bucky Barnes as the culprit, but Rogers refuses to believe that his old pal is capable of such evil.
The villain is clear from the start, and he’s far more innocuous than you might think. In fact, for the first time in a Marvel movie, the main antagonist is just some dude. Sure, he’s hatched from comic book mythos, but he doesn’t have a super-suit or electric whips or a menacing red face — his name is Helmut Zemo, and he’s pretty much just Daniel Brühl. Zemo’s most ominous characteristics are his German accent and his penchant for eating bacon — and only bacon — for breakfast. He could just as easily be the villain from a mid-’90s thriller starring Clint Eastwood. His scheme is to agitate the Avengers into fighting each other, and it works.
Stomping on the carcass of its competition can only get a film so far, but it goes without saying that the rift between these two superheroes is considerably more nuanced and better-developed than that between Batman and Superman. Iron Man and Captain America have some serious shit to work out, and their disagreements aren’t resolved out of convenience or in order to rally together against a common foe. In fact, the Russo brothers are so invested in the ideas that bond their characters together (and tear them apart) that Zemo becomes an afterthought, the most forgettable villain in a franchise whose antagonists include Dark Elves and several different bald white men.
What makes “Civil War” so emblematic of the MCU is that it cuts to the heart of what the brand is all about: humanity. “Spider-Man 2” predates the dawn of the MCU, but these movies have never forgotten that film’s bittersweet parting thought: Compassion is both our greatest strength, and our greatest liability.
On the flip-side of that coin, ideology is the MCU’s most consistent foil (hence the series’ dramatically stultifying preoccupation with mind-control, which reaches a painful nadir in “Civil War”). The tension between the potential generosity of strength and the corruptive nature of power also explains why so many of the jokes in these movies — and almost all of the unfunny ones in “Civil War” — boil down to “Superheroes: they’re just like us!” So far as Marvel is concerned, they are and always will be.
Rogers and Stark are two sticks of old dynamite wrapped around a single fuse, and all Zemo has to do is light a match. He recognizes that the Avengers’ individual guilt is pushing them towards the blind comforts of ideology, just as he recognizes that ideology never leaves much wiggle room. As Rogers puts it: “Compromise where you can. And where you can’t, don’t.”
“Civil War,” bursting with fun characters and drawing from a rich mythology, is also the most convincing proof yet that the MCU can compromise just about everywhere. For Marvel, a studio that essentially uses the same score on every movie and fired Edgar Wright from “Ant-Man” because his creative vision deviated from party lines, compromise has become an aesthetic unto itself.
That’s never been more evident than it is in “Civil War,” especially during the fight scenes. Marvel has always excelled at expressing character through action, and so it stands to reason that the characters suffer if the action becomes less expressive. The combat in “Civil War” is so clumsy that it actually undercuts the drama. The justification behind many of the film’s tiffs are hard to believe as it is, but only when the characters actually drop the gloves does it get hard to remember why they’re fighting.
Watching “Civil War,” it’s easy to understand why the MCU is so hung up on the fight in New York — it’s the franchise’s only great action sequence. Joss Whedon’s visceral understanding of cinematic geometry and his symphonic flair for choreographing movement allowed that marquee set-piece to galvanize the separate threads of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a unified whole. On the contrary, every action beat in “Civil War” is such a discrete hodgepodge of close-ups and medium shots that they might as well exist in a vacuum — at times, this feels like the first movie ever made entirely out of gifs. The problem becomes gallingly clear during a battle royale in which more than a dozen different superheroes square off on an airport tarmac.
Not only does the flabbergasting lack of wide shots completely diminish the scale of the fight — it’s like the Russo brothers forgot half of their lenses at homes — but it also limits the action to one plane at a time. It doesn’t help that the factions feel so arbitrarily determined. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) gets to have a handful of great moments, but not even he seems to know why he’s trying to make life difficult for Tony Stark.
On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that teenage Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is so endearingly overeager just to be there. But the Russo brothers can’t juggle two slivers of parallel action — 100% of their attention is focused on the foreground at all times — let alone smoothly re-introduce an iconic Marvel character in the middle of a massive brawl. Holland’s precocious zip makes him a wonderful Spidey, just as Chadwick Boseman’s stoic strength suggests that his Black Panther will have no trouble carrying his own movie, but just because these new characters feel right in this world doesn’t mean that they’re provided a proper place in this movie. When the action cuts to either one of them, Captain America and Iron Man suddenly feel a million miles away, and “Civil War” dissolves into nothing more than an advertisement for the MCU’s next round of spin-offs. There’s no room for context in these shots, just bodies.
It’s hard to believe that Tony Stark is being eaten up by something that happened in a different movie if you can’t connect two things that happen in the same scene. It’s all just empty talk, and “Civil War” becomes a civic lesson that’s punctuated by one-liners and explosions. The bigger these movies become, the smaller they feel. The more aggressively they reach for greatness, the more clearly they prove that its beyond their grasp. Marvel movies don’t get much better than this. The trouble is, they don’t want to.