By: Angelica Bastien
With Captain America: Civil War the clockwork-like efficiency of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is on full display. Nearly a decade after it was kicked off with Iron Man (2008), Marvel has perfected its formula which mixes a blend of humor, light pathos, and bright-eyed optimism. The problem is the cracks in this methodology are beginning to show and these films desperately need to start coloring outside of the lines.
In Civil War, the strengths of the MCU brand—reliance on quips, increasingly smooth easily commodified storytelling, exceeding lightness—feel like weaknesses. As the superhero genre continues to balloon Marvel’s desire to tell the same types of stories with the same types of characters is proving to be increasingly rote.
Like several other superhero narratives this year, Civil War both reckons with the aftermath of our heroes efforts to save the world touching on the civilian lives lost and pits heroes against each other. After the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron various world leaders and regular people are beginning to question the devastation these superpowered beings leave behind. The Avengers—minus Thor and The Hulk whose absence isn’t adequately explained—are forced to decide if they will agree to the Sokovia Accords which would have them overseen and controlled by a United Nations panel.
The team is split on the effectiveness of such a deal. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) supports the Accords due to his guilt and pragmatism. While Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) trusts his own judgment rather than any sort of governmental body. But this isn’t the real conflict of the film despite all the grandstanding about civilian casualties and the ripple effects of alien hordes on cities unable to protect themselves without The Avengers help. It’s really the presence of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s close childhood friend turned brainwashed Winter Soldier that sets of the powderkeg of differences growing between Steve and Tony.
Marvel is often praised for having a lot of heart but the friendship with Steve and Bucky rings hollow. And if you don’t buy their connection the film as a whole doesn’t work. Part of it is the chemistry between the actors. As Steve betrays everyone around him in order to protect Bucky the film unravels. The real villain of the film who is not a god or super-spy but a regular man, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), a colonel turned terrorist hellbent on destroying the Avengers due to a tragedy in his past. Like pretty much every other Marvel villain, he isn’t the least bit engaging. When he shows the film drags and Marvel’s greatest issue comes into focus: the need to set up subsequent films often overpowers creating a story that can stand up on its own outside of the puzzle-piece method of filmmaking the studio champions.
Even when it comes to creating a sense of adventure or standout heroic moments, Civil War is lacking. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are so intent on vaulting from one plot development to another that we can’t really sit with the more interesting moments. The direction of the fighting scenes feels overly-edited as if the only action films the Russo brothers have seen come from the Paul Greengrass school of action cinema a la the Bourne movies, which greatly rely on a shaky-cam aesthetic.
Despite the epic title which takes its cue from the comic series which shook up Marvel in 2006, not all that much happens in the film. The needle is minutely moved in terms of character and plot development. Yes, some of our heroes are slightly worse off particularly Tony and Steve’s relationship (which never felt like a full friendship in the first place). But the changes are incremental. There aren’t any great casualties or much monumental character growth despite the globe hopping and weighty speeches. The performances are mostly enjoyable save for Elisabeth Olson’s sleepy portrayal of Scarlett Witch as well as the appearances of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) which feel interchangeable in their approach. But the portrayals that are the most fascinating aren’t well-served by the filmmakers.
One of the greatest issues in Civil War is that the friendship deemed most important greatly pales in comparison to the one between Steve and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) who is completely underserved in the film. There is more time spent in developing the newly-minted Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) than in caring about the female characters, who never seem to interact with each other at all. Spider-Man’s appearance is fun but ultimately drags the story to a halt. And did we really need another white man who shoots one-liners as fast as he does roundhouse kicks?
There are some highlights like the opening fight scene involving Natasha in Nigeria and the sharp humor between Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky. Whenever Natasha or T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) walk onto the screen they feel like they’re from a more interesting, morally complex film. T’Challa sticks out amongst the other heroes because he has a complexity that superhero films usually lack. Boseman has the right amount of charisma, depth, and good looks to make an excellent superhero. If anything, this makes the upcoming Black Panther film seem like just what Marvel needs: a break in their formula.
Ultimately, despite all the sound, fury, and bloodshed Captain America: Civil War places our heroes in a similar place to where they began. This leaves the film feeling like a big budget set-up for hopefully more interesting stories to come.