By now you’re either on board with what Marvel Studios has been setting up for the last eight years, or you couldn’t care less. And like the characters in Captain America: Civil War, you’d better figure out which side you’re on soon.
Critics constantly sum up franchise sequels with the idiom, “if you aren’t already a fan, this won’t change your mind”. Being the thirteenth movie in this particular franchise, it’s fair to say Civil War takes that sentiment to a new level. Everything you love about these films are here in exponentially greater abundance, with a virtually endless stream of cool characters, slick action sequences and witty banter. At the same time, the excess of moving parts means the weaknesses these movies have struggled with since 2008 land with an even more resounding thud; ineffectual villains, goofy plot devices and shoehorned exposition continue to haunt the whole system. The result is a film that doesn’t move the franchise any closer or farther from greatness. Instead, it’s a fun, expensive game of cinematic Jenga to see just how much weight a movie can pile on without falling over. The tower is intact, but it’s swaying wildly.
At the very least the movie is a value, providing two sequels for the price of one. As the first part of the title indicates, this is a follow-up to 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It is preoccupied with Captain America’s relationship with Bucky (Sebastian Stan), an old buddy who’s been brainwashed into a bad-ass assassin by the Illuminati-esque Hydra organization. Cap (Chris Evans, as good as he’s ever been) is determined to get to the bottom of his friend’s mental manipulation, but so is the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), for decidedly more sinister reasons. Along with Bucky’s return, Civil War also carries over The Winter Soldier‘s ‘political thriller’ aesthetic and tone, though expanded to a global scale because everything’s gotta be bigger, okay?
At the same time, this is undoubtedly a sequel to Age of Ultron, as it deals directly with the fall-out from that movie’s deafening finale. Having decided that The Avengers are too powerful and too reckless to be trusted on their own, the governments of the world impose a system on our heroes in which they can only fight crime when approved by a UN panel. This is how the second part of the title come into play, with two opposing groups of Avengers forming: one that complies, agreeing that they should only act when the world deems it appropriate (lead by Iron Man), and one that rebels, believing that the holder of ultimate power have the right to use that power as they see fit for the greater good (lead by Captain America). Cue superheroes punching each other gracefully.
It’s appropriate that in a movie about two sides fighting each other, these two halves of the experience – the Winter Soldier sequel and the Age of Ultron sequel – battle for screen time as well. There is a smoothness to the way directors Joe and Anthony Russo connect these two sides of the narrative, but in the end it’s the wider Avenger elements that are more effective and exciting, while the scenes focusing on Captain America are underdeveloped in concept and clumsy in execution. It starts with Bucky. Let’s talk about Bucky, why don’t we? I’ve never found Bucky a particularly interesting character and continue to be baffled by Marvel’s insistence that he is such an integral part to this franchise. He’s a generically cool but aggressively uncharismatic presence who only helps bog the plot down in unnecessary melodrama. Apart from Bucky, as great as it is to see Daniel Bruhl in anything, Zemo’s entire reason for being in this movie remains irritatingly murky until long past I had stopped caring. And the less said about Cap’s tacked-on love interest, the better.
The amount of superhero characters stuffed into this movie is damn near unbelievable. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely must have been shaking in their boots trying to figure out how they were going to give each of these characters something interesting to do, and most filmmakers in a similar situation would likely push aside or remove most of them in an attempt to focus. Not only does the movie just go for it, they largely succeed in giving each and every hero cool moments that validate their presence, from the big players such as Captain America and Iron Man, down to the perpetually peripheral Falcon, Hawkeye, Black Widow and War Machine. I was most grateful that in just a couple of scene, the Russo brothers make infinitely better use of Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man (in both the actor’s comedic genius and the character’s inventive powers) than the entirety of last year’s dull Ant-Man movie.
The introduction of new faces are perhaps the greatest achievement in the film, as these characters not only add more angles to the universe without convoluting it, they also succeed in getting audiences excited to see future solo movie without it coming off as cynical advertising (cough, Batman v Superman, cough). Though Black Panther’s emotional stakes in the story are unmistakably rushed and manipulative, Chadwick Boseman portrays the character with a dignified stoicism that is fresh for the franchise. The new Spider-Man played by Tom Holland feels like a profound revelation, if not because he’s actually portrayed by someone who is the same age (or even generation) as the character, then because his introduction alongside Downey Jr. works as a miniature, Creed-like passing of the torch moment. It’s the first time the series has subtly hinted at the inevitable retirement of the real world Avenger actors.
Even the characters that do fall flat (like poor Elizabeth Olson, who’s stuck sitting in a room doing a horrific Russian accent for most of the film) still have awesome super powers that translate well to the movie’s action sequences, which are so numerous that it almost becomes comedic. Each set piece is coherently shot and dynamically choreographed, no matter how many flying bodies or special effects are depicted on screen. I’ve already made a lot of fuss about the sheer quantity of stuff happening in this movie, but it all makes sense when summed up in these moments of colorful chaos, especially the show-stopping airport fight. While the fists (and claws, and lasers and webs) are flying and pure spectacle takes over, the significant problems with the narrative vanish into pure summer blockbuster bliss.
This was the first time watching these movies where I’ve felt challenged to keep up with the narrative, searching my memories of past movies because things don’t always add up solely from the information doled out here. That doesn’t mean Civil War is poorly written, it’s just that the traditional feature film format isn’t really built to retain this much information. Introducing yourself to Marvel movies via Civil War may be akin to starting a TV series on episode ten… of season two. For those who have been on board from the beginning, this film is brimming with the visceral and emotional rewards that come with seeing these characters onscreen year in and year out, interacting and developing in interesting ways. That connection alone is enough to get audiences past Civil War‘s clunkier narrative elements and keeps the franchise’s indestructible warpath on track.
Score: 3.5 out of 5