Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr. Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, William Hurt
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There's no enthusiasm or fanboy-like glee in saying that the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is now at a point where objectivism is arbitrary. This is not to say that one cannot critique these films or lay objective points based on preference, but if anything is built around a critic-proof mentality, then Captain America: Civil War, the latest overlong Marvel joint about superheroes punching each other through walls, certainly fits the bill. Unlike Captain America: The First Avenger and to a lesser degree Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this new one has too many plot strands to juggle, too many characters to keep track of and introduce, and most disappointingly, too many flat-footed attempts at emotional drama. It's as if writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely simply sat around in a room and pondered, "wouldn't it be cool if…", which in turn gave directors Anthony and Joe Russo freedom to allow their CGI computer artists carte blanche to let rip. While it's true that the Marvel films have prized character interplay over brain-dead spectacle for the most part, the idea of cramming as many elements as possible into one picture while simultaneously setting up the introductions for new characters (who will in turn have their own spin-off movies) while still following the through-line of the last two Captain America efforts, is just too much. It's too much of everything, really. Of course, comic book movie fatigue has been part of the conversation for years now, but dissenting voices need not apply here. Resistance is futile, since Captain America: Civil War will satisfy hardcore fans and obliterate the box office.
At this juncture, it's foolish to complain about Marvel movies not standing on their own as self-contained stories. These are large-scale brands; properties of the ever-expanding, multi-million dollar marketing machine that must take zero risks and please the faithful. Therefore, Captain America: Civil War really isn't about the US secretary of state (William Hurt) wanting to regulate the Avengers due to civilian casualties, greenlit by a bunch of suits at the UN, nor is it about the ego-driven Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) doing a bizarre about-face and wanting all of his superhero pals to sign a bureaucratic agreement. Additionally, the stuff involving Captain America's best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) going rogue while being controlled by a maniacal Sokovian terrorist (Daniel Bruhl) who hopes to pit the Avengers against one another in an epic brawl, is really not much more than window dressing for a convoluted plot which must push forward to set up later entries in the series. There are attempts at sociopolitical ideas here; the notion of the UN stepping in to oversee the activities of superheroes, given the vast collateral damage seen throughout the other films, is something that seems nominally plausible. And the division that springs up between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man regarding signing the treaty has at least been seeded in previous Avengers efforts, though Stark's sudden change from smug anti-authoritarian asshole to government pawn is a bit of a stretch.
Mostly, though, the film's plot is simply an excuse for a throng of superheroes to draw lines in the sand and then fight each other; leading to a 15-minute blowout at an airport tarmac. Other than the regulars, including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and War Machine (Don Cheadle), Captain America and Iron Man are flanked by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) Vision (Paul Bettany), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) along with newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spiderman (Tom Holland). Oh, and of course, Bucky is there too acting like a prick. If this all sounds like way too many characters compounded into one film, well, it is, but the airport fight sequence is at least entertainingly goofy. Each character gets to use his or her special powers, and the CG effects department deserve kudos for bringing all of the mayhem to life. Still, why certain superheroes choose the sides they do feels sketchy at best and completely unmotivated at worst. Again, motivations or coherent storytelling really doesn't matter when you have an annoyingly quippy teenager jumping around in red tights spinning webs and Paul Rudd throwing down one-liners about orange slices.
The main problem with Captain America: Civil War and honestly, all of the Marvel films to some degree, is that they exist to simply set up a larger universe. There are no stakes. No tension. No sense that characters might be killed off or worse, given moral dilemmas to overcome. The quasi-moral problems that plague the Avengers here are manufactured so that fans can see two beloved characters punch each other. The reasons why Iron Man goes after Captain America are horribly contrived and it doesn't help that Downey, who began these films as a cocky know-it-all, is reduced here to carrying emotional weight and (gulp) crying a lot. Cap, meanwhile, simply seems in love with his childhood friend Bucky and will do anything to protect him, but this thread, though briefly investigated in the previous two Captain America pictures, still feels strained for corny dramatic effect. As directors, the Russo brothers bungle not only the dramatic beats of the story (which don't even need to be there, since the emotional pathos aren't earned), as well as the action scenes, which generally suffer from awkward sped-up frame rates and nauseating shaky-cam. There are a few nice moments, mainly involving Boseman as Black Panther (who's stand-alone film could impress) and Vision (Bettany has a winsome sense of humanity that most superhero characters lack), but more importantly, Captain America himself seems lost inside his own movie. This is ultimately more of a mini-Avengers movie than a Captain America vehicle, and though it's just as disjointed and all over the place as Avengers: Age of Ultron, it lacks Joss Whedon's wit and knack for character dynamics.
Many will also throw out comparisons to Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film which covers many of the same story beats as Civil War, but which was meant with near universal derision. The prism for what is an unsuccessful comic book movie and a successful one is at this point as murky as Batman's motivations to slug it out with Superman in the Zack Snyder flick, but the same problems that plagued that film could just as easily be lobbed at Civil War. Perhaps one is more respectful of the characters fans have come to know and love over the course of numerous movies, and the other literally alters the DNA of it's beloved heroes into something that devalues these properties. But do audiences simply want to be fed the same thing over and over? Is there room for unexpected or perhaps even provocative detours within the Marvel universe? Well, no. Of course not. The aim here isn't to tell a contained, satisfying story. No, the purpose of these products is much more cynical; driven by studio executives highlighting the bottom line. They can't afford to kill off Iron Man just yet, for instance, because Downey, Jr. is already contractually obligated to appear in the next Avengers film. They can't push themes about the inherent dangers of superheroes living in our world because there's no time to engage in such ideas, lest audiences actually be challenged or provoked. This is the world we live in. This is the Marvel universe. This is juvenile American fantasy blown up writ large with major A-list stars, massive special effects, and gargantuan budgets. This is also, incidentally, no place for anyone with an opposing viewpoint.