Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo
Writer: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
DP: Trent Opaloch
Editor: Jeffrey Ford
Score: Henry Jackman
Producer: Kevin Feige, Alan Fine, Louis D'Esposito, Stan Lee, Nate Moore, Patricia Whitcher, Victoria Alonso
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olson, Don Cheadle, Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, Daniel BrĂ¼hl, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner
Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 26 min.

I find it surprising that Captain America: Civil War has been so widely praised for its even-handedness. At no point was it unclear to me which characters the film judged to be right or wrong. It is, perhaps, even-handed in the sense that it lays out a rationale behind each character's actions, but it leaves little, if any, room for the viewer to make a decision about whether Steve Rogers or Tony Stark is in the right.

Why? Because, for all that this film purports to have concern for the violence that occurs wherever the Avengers go, there's no room to criticize the Avengers in the MCU. No one else is powerful enough to battle the various preternatural forces that threaten humanity, and every film shoves their backs so hard against the wall that questioning their actions becomes pointless. As a result, the people in this film who want to restrict the Avengers have to be wrong at the end of the day. I'd wager the film even knows this, because these characters are portrayed as naive, myopic, and smug. Martin Freeman plays one of these characters this way, and even William Hurt, whose character initially comes across as earnest, eventually becomes a hapless blowhard too.

So, the movie insists that Steve Rogers, Captain America, is right. This might not have been such a problem if he wasn't so wrong. His actions in this film are those of a narcissist and a megalomaniac, and while the film lays out an emotional foundation for him, I find it very hard to care when its plot bends so hard to make him unassailable.

When Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, is accused of horrific crimes, Cap takes the law into his own hands on principle, hoping to save Bucky from the government's actions against him. This has to be one of the most solipsistic stories ever to have been told in a Marvel movie; rather than justify Cap's actions by giving him reason to believe in his own righteousness, that righteousness is instead assumed. He has no reason to believe his actions are in the right - and, therefore, neither do we - but we're to accept that they simply are. They turn out to be, but this is little consolation because they could just as easily not have been, and he still would have done the same thing.

And since Captain America is the one truly representing the interests of the Avengers, while Tony Stark represents the interests of a shortsighted government and his difficulty coping with his mother's death, the assumption of righteousness extends to those who support him. That includes Scarlet Witch, who is demonstrated in the film to be dangerously under-prepared and surprisingly violent. It turns all the consideration of the Avengers' violence given in the first act of the film into lip service.

It is somewhat interesting that the conflict revolves around Bucky Barnes, who was victimized by a totalitarian government trying to control superhumans in the past; he'd be a rather extreme example, but he perhaps shows us the potential risk of the Avengers submitting to oversight. I can also appreciate that the godlike Vision, who first appeared in The Avengers: Age of Ultron to cleanly resolve the conflict, is now reduced to another figure with compromised judgment who commits one of the only two acts of violence in this film that actually have weight.

Unfortunately, like in Age of Ultron, it still feels like the film is equivocating. In that film, Tony Stark (among others) wasn't really responsible for what he did because of Scarlet Witch's telepathy; here, the Vision can't really be held responsible for what he did, and when the film reaches a climax involving Tony Stark seeking revenge against Bucky, it only makes Tony look even worse because Bucky can't really be held responsible for anything he did.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the part of the film I appreciated most was a character who was not an Avenger and not entirely aligned with either side of the conflict: Black Panther. Perhaps this is because, despite his active role in the film, he serves as something of an observer to the battle between Captain America and Stark, and ultimately comes to the conclusion that it's just sordid and not something he wants to be a part of. It's too bad his final monologue in this vein is present partially to further validate Cap, and turn the audience even more against Stark.

It might be easier to accept Captain America's actions if his relationship with Bucky was better realized, but neither this film nor the previous ones in which Bucky appeared accomplish that. The films are too distant from him, and Sebastian Stan's performance doesn't reveal much of an inner life. In fact, the failure to sell the friendship between Captain America and Bucky makes Cap seem even more unreasonable. At least Tony Stark still comes across as a sympathetic figure even though the film gives him a similarly awkward treatment: it suggests that his emotional issues regarding his dead parents have an influence on his actions, but its treatment of those issues is far too crude for them to resonate or even really make sense.

Maybe things could have been different. But it wouldn't change that the Avengers, for all their imperfections, are ultimately necessary and, to an extent, above criticism. The latter is what bothers me, and while I don't think it's the intention of these films to make such a point, I can't help but feel like they do. There are plenty of contrived symbolic or thematic arguments you could make as to why they don't, but at the end of the day we still experience them as witty spectacles with triumphant-feeling endings, and for all their talk about violence, it's still folded into the spectacle.

I don't really have a problem with that, taken by itself. There are plenty of movies I like that involve violence, even ones with unquestioningly heroic portrayals of people who commit violence. But for some reason, this film sees fit to discuss violence in a way that forces me to question its presentation thereof. It feels cynical, and I'm not sure what to think of a movie that asks to be taken as a thoughtful statement when it seems so invested in Captain America's nebulous virtue and his incredibly misguided behavior. Frankly, it's kind of a shame that I have so much trouble taking this purely as an action movie, because the action is quite good when it isn't cut to pieces. The film deteriorates in this regard as it goes on, but never to the point where it's impossible to appreciate the choreography.

When I saw this film, I expected to like it; the last two MCU films had exceeded my expectations. Many others have found it one of the best in the franchise, and I can respect the reasons given for that. But I'd thank you not to show me this pabulum again.


  1. Heyo,
    Just wanted to let you know that your MCU reviews helped me get a better sense of why I enjoyed the movies that I did, and why Age of Ultron and this one fell so comparatively flat to me. I think another way to put it would be to say [and spoilers for Watchmen incoming, for anyone reading] that the fake alien-threat which Ozymandias used in Watchmen to unite humanity against something bigger than humanity is basically played straight in the MCU as early as the first Avengers movie, and ever since then, the forced serialization/connection between these movies has become a burden. If Civil War world is the same world as Avengers World, then all these discussions of UN oversight seem somewhat trivial, and if we are asked to ignore the story of the first Avengers movie, other incoherences come into the light. Basically, I think, all of the current comic movies haven't really come to terms with the fact that Watchmen has made stories of this kind impossible, all the way back in the eighties (And the fact that Zack Snyder failed to heed the lessons of Watchmen despite trying to make a film out of it seems doubly ironic). I cant help but think, for example, that all of these movies would be more interesting if the superheroes didn't find supervillains (Zemo being a mild example, but still). Spider-man coming to grips with the fact that the best he can do is prevent a bunch of robberies? Superman comin to grips with the fact that he can literally do anything, yet has no fucking idea in what direction he actually ougth to nudge humanity, if at all? As soon as there is a supervillain, no matter how powerful he is, I already know who will win regardless..

    (As for the fight choreography - while I think that too much has been made of the golden age of television, it does seem telling that even something as non-artsy as Game of Thrones, in last weeks Battle of the Bastards, manages to choreograph combat both much more exhilaterating and unnvering at the same time compared to the latest outings in any of the comic movie franchies.)


    1. You're right, the end of Watchmen is an apt comparison. I actually have seen people suggest that the MCU is going for something similar, trying to show that the Avengers only have unity against a common enemy, and that this film shows them fragmenting because they don't have any superhumans to fight besides each other. It would be interesting to see if they take that direction, but at the moment I find that argument unpersuasive; I don't think it accounts for a lot of what happens in this film, and unlike Watchmen, the villains in the MCU will probably always be external existential threats. And now that you mention it, it's interesting that one of the Marvel movies I actually like is The Avengers, which seems to me like it doesn't reach for what Watchmen did at all and just plays the genre straight, and does it fairly well. Of course, you're also right that it would be interesting to see more superhero movies that don't really fall into either vein.

      Thanks for the comment!