I read the reviews for Captain America: Civil War before going, even though I knew I was going to go; my expectations were somewhere between “it’s going to be a fun action flick” and “OMG, it’s one of the greatest superhero movies ever made!”
It ended up being . . . okay.
The truth is, the movie is challenging. One of the major themes of the movie is the political intrigue, very much a “plot” movie (without getting bogged down in details like The Phantom Menace), but also very much a big-time action movie with gratuitous chases, fights, and explosions. It is a very personal movie, centered around the relationship between Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man; yet in terms of the number of characters who play a significant role in the movie, it feels more like an Avengers title than a Captain America story. Overall, I think the film tries to do too much; with a run-time of 2:26, it’s the rare film in which a Director’s Cut could probably trim 20 minutes from the theatrical release to produce a better movie.
The Political Questions
Politics are at the center of the film, and if our entertainment reflects our values, Civil War has some interesting insights about how muddled our societal values are right now. In the immediate wake of an Avengers mission which resulted in civilian deaths, the United Nations proposes to bring the group under the umbrella of a special committee which will decide if and when the Avengers should be utilized; U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross supports the proposal, and essentially gives the Avengers the choice to sign or retire. Tony Stark, having been approached by the mother who blamed Stark and the Avengers for the death of her son as boulders were falling from the rising capital of Sokovia, essentially wants to absolve himself of the responsibility and quickly signs on, along with War Machine/James Rhodes, and Black Widow. Captain America feels that the Avengers do as much good as possible without being an extension of the United Nations, and chooses not to sign.
First, from a comic standpoint without getting into the politics, this is ridiculous. The Avengers respond to immediate threats, generally of the world-ending variety; requiring them to stand by while the oversight committee debates whether action should be taken really would push the Avengers into Phantom Menace territory. But the issue really gets into Big Brother politics in general. No one would want to be labeled a “vigilante” (except, perhaps, The Punisher, who is currently just appearing on Netflix), but the divide is interesting, if not creative: Tony Stark, the team’s liberal, celebrity billionaire philanthropist, plagued by guilt, is in favor; while Captain America, tried and true with eyes of blue – and surely wary having previously battled S.H.I.E.L.D. when it was merely a shell for HYDRA – trusts his own judgment more than that of the UN, which could choose not to act when necessary, or order action in unworthy causes.
Of course, the Sokovia Accords are ratified, and simultaneously, Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers’ childhood friend, appears to sabotage the convention. Government agencies and the Avengers under UN control begin the manhunt; Cap, convinced of his old friend’s innocence, wants to reach Bucky first. Cap, Bucky and company are treated as criminals – and Ross will not let up, even when later it looks like Cap was right.
It is more comfortable for Marvel/Disney to present the situation in an international setting, with the United Nations instead of the United States – but it’s beautifully reflective of the conflicting views in our country when our protagonist, Captain America, is willing to fight the rule of law, when the law goes against what is morally (and later revealed to be factually) correct. Captain America gets to play the original Patriot; far from being a vigilante, he becomes the outlaw by standing up to government oppression to ensure that his friend gets a fair hearing. It would seem a subversive message, but it feels like a very mainstream view in this year when the best way to succeed in politics is to portray yourself as a political outsider. Ross is our nightmare of well-intentioned politics gone awry, and while we can’t really fault Tony Stark for siding with the Establishment (Tony’s unofficial house arrest of Wanda Maximoff is a particular low), we also can’t forget that this is Captain America’s movie. Dissidence sells.
It’s All Too Much
Outside of the politics, the movie just keeps astounding. We’re missing Thor and Hulk, but this is really more Avengers-lite than Captain America; all of the other players are there. Falcon is much more enjoyable in the movies than I ever remember him being in the comics; it is nice to see Cap finally make a move toward Sharon Carter; my initial reaction when Paul Rudd made his appearance was, “Ant-Man, that guy is awesome!” The Black Panther tie-in was good, it set up a more fringe Marvel character for a more central role in future movies (including his own, next spring) and comics; Spider-Man was one of the highlights of the film for me (more on that later).
We’ve become accustomed to subliminal advertising and product placement in our entertainment; in this case, however, Marvel has become the brand, and Civil War feels like the tipping point at which all movies become essential to understanding the whole story. While Marvel/Disney denies any plan to bring back this character, if they made a Howard the Duck movie (hey, we all saw the Easter egg at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy), you would probably need to see it to understand some key element of the second Scarlet Witch movie. After Ant-Man, I had so much faith in Marvel’s storytelling that I would have been interested in Black Panther (spring 2017) just because of the Marvel brand; in Civil War, however, his presence almost becomes groan-worthy – “yeah, I get it, you’ll stop at nothing to avenge the death of your father.” The character had a point in Civil War, but it was a point that could have been made without Black Panther – unless the point of the character was to set up the next movie. Hawkeye was my favorite character in Age of Ultron (though if you really want to get into the character, you need to read Matt Fraction’s Marvel Now! run), but his main point in Civil War was to get you to pause and say, “Hey, it’s Hawkeye – I thought he was retired?” (Yeah, yeah – the next point is, “This issue is sooooo important that Hawkeye would come out of retirement!”) The no-holds-barred airport fight scene dragged on, because it was crucial that every superhero appearing in the movie have an opportunity to show off some sweet moves.
The story itself was a good one, but the movie suffers from Marvel’s need to cross-market as much of the Marvel Universe as it can (which, with X-Men: Apocalypse coming out in two weeks, should only grow). The marketing strategy actually would be too cliché to make a good plot for a superhero movie – innocent seeds are planted, public trust is gained, then, once they have you hooked, they completely take over your (entertainment) world – and they expect you to bow thankfully before your new masters. Marvel always had good characters and solid storytelling, but DC had Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman; a comics Mount Rushmore would probably consist of those three, with a toss-up of Captain America or Spiderman. But with the rise of Marvel since the first Iron Man movie, DC is relegated to playing Pepsi to Marvel’s Coke.
Style Points: Spider-Man
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the movie; but with some reviewers suggesting it might have been among the best superhero movies ever, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even the best Captain America movie. And it was a massive product placement, with the product being the entire Marvel Universe.
But one thing I did enjoy: the best portrayal of Spider-Man I think I’ve ever seen.
More than some of the other characters, including Spider-Man was more of a subtraction by addition. That’s they studio’s fault, and shouldn’t reflect on Tom Holland’s outstanding performance.
What so many Spider-Man films have tried to do is find an actor who can play a superhero, who you can nerd-up a bit so he can be Peter Parker. I actually really liked Tobey Maguire in the role, but that’s because I like Tobey Maguire. But Maguire’s Spidey was the typical angst-ridden character who takes three films to fully realize that with great power comes great responsibility.
Even before we see Tom Holland, we realize that this Spidey will be a much needed update. Marisa Tomei as Aunt May was perfect – because we don’t need to keep giving Peter Parker an aunt who looks more like a grandmother, and Tomei fits much better with our view of what an aunt raising a teen would look like. Sure, she’s a hot aunt, but in this instance, Hollywood’s trend toward younger actresses finally makes Aunt May age appropriate.
What Holland did exactly right was act like a teenager. Sure, once he gets the Stark suit, he looks more like the sleek superhero we would expect – and will surely see in his next few films. His hero-worship of Stark/Iron Man is exactly what you would expect; instead of selling photographs to a newspaper (because what person his age would read a newspaper), Spider-Man is presented to the world on YouTube – because that is exactly how it would happen today. He’s more idealistic than angsty, and as we get to know him more, he’ll have a chance to be an intellectual challenge to Stark and Banner, but without the funding – more the MacGuyver of the Marvel Universe, since he’ll be able to fashion his solutions from the trash, rather than high tech labs.
But he’ll also make mistakes, because there’s more to being smart than just being smart. When Captain America tells Spider-Man that he doesn’t understand the whole issue during the airport showdown, Spider-Man simply replies that Tony said he’d say that. It’s exactly the response you would expect from someone Parker’s age, strongly influenced by one of his idols – Stark is an authority, Stark has made a statement regarding the truth of the matter, no further independent thought need be applied. In this way, the character’s weakness ends up being a strength in the portrayal, as if gives him a humanity, and room to grow.
Since Spider-Man has had a difficult association with the Avengers in the Marvel pantheon (and the films so far have all been solely Spider-Man films), it will be interesting to see how he is used in the future films – but his first scene came off flawlessly.
So, go see Captain America: Civil War, if you haven’t already. Keep your expectations in check; maybe you’ll like it more than I did and be pleasantly surprised, maybe you’ll just appreciate the fast, constant action barely hindered by a plot. It is must see, if for no other reason than you’ll probably need to see it to make sense of the related releases slated over the next four years.