'Captain America: Civil War'
After months of excitement and speculation, I was recently able to attend an advanced screening of Marvel Studios’ massive summer blockbuster event ‘Captain America: Civil War’ – one of the most hyped and nerdy cinematic experiences of the year that I can’t pretend I wasn’t giddy to drink up. Unfortunately, to say the film is disappointing would be an understatement. I walked out of that theater absolutely heartbroken and, in a moment of unexpected doubt that I’ll never forget, found myself wishing that I had watched ‘Batman v. Superman’ again instead.
Tragically, ‘Civil War’ is the first major misfire from the Marvel Studios cinematic canon. It’s a big, bloated, blundering mess produced by a studio so drunk on success and power that it genuinely thinks it can get away with anything. The movie is so heartbreaking to endure that (embargo be damned!) I have to get the word out immediately. Expectations need to be tempered and controlled. This one is an absolute failure.
As we all know from the trailers and Mark Millar’s massive Marvel comic book crossover event that loosely inspired the film, this is a tale of all of Marvel’s mightiest heroes coming together to beat the snot out of each other. It’s a movie that could only exist after the years of careful world-building groundwork that Kevin Feige has supervised, and also an act of hubris from an increasingly powerful production company. The film kicks off much like ‘Batman v. Superman’, by recontextualizing the city crunching climax of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ from the ground to feel the human tragedy amidst the superhero spectacle. It also features a mean spirited cheap shot against Marvel’s superhero competitors that is more than a little icky.
We see some children playing with superhero action figures in a schoolyard somewhere in Washington. All the Marvel cinematic heroes are represented with some cute in-jokes as the kids put childish variations of famous Iron Man and Captain America lines into their toys’ mouths. Then the kids all start bullying one boy dressed entirely in black named Zack (no coincidence). He has a pair of awkwardly-named knockoff figures called Ratman and Supersoldier that he psychotically smashes together while crying. The other kids mercilessly mock him for making heroes who should be friends fight in an admittedly clever foreshadowing joke. Then a helicarrier suddenly falls from the sky, decapitating the young Zack Snyder and sending his little head flying towards the camera in 3D before the words “Civil War” explode across the screen, the text written in the boy’s blood and brain matter. It’s a pretty harsh attack from the folks at Marvel against their DC competitors, and such a wildly violent opening that I don’t know how Disney thinks the movie could possibly get a PG or PG-13 rating. Perhaps the studio decided to deliver an R-rated picture at the last minute to capitalize on the success of ‘Deadpool’, but it certainly feels out of place and decidedly wrong, setting the tone for a movie filled with similar missteps.
From there, the audience is shoved into a boardroom in the former S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. It turns out the footage of that kiddy massacre is being shown to the Avengers by William Hurt’s general along with other scenes of carnage from the climaxes of previous Marvel blockbusters (including ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, which makes no sense given that no Avengers were involved and the American government couldn’t possibly have access to a battle footage from another galaxy). But such continuity nitpicks aren’t worth getting into given the film’s much larger problems. Hurt then explains to Captain America (Chris Evans) and company that despite their heroic intentions, the collateral damage caused by their actions has gotten catastrophic and the government can’t stand by any longer. Hurt wants the Avengers and all other heroes to join the U.S. Army, where their acts of international violence will be forgivable in the name of patriotism.
That could be read as an unexpected blast of political satire for a superhero movie were it not for the fact that ‘Civil War’ treats it as a good idea. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) then stands up and reveals that the initiative was entirely his idea as part of his desire to, quote, “Make the Avengers Great Again.” It’s a weird parallel to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that’s even more potently coincidental than when the Winter Soldier delivered a commentary on unlawful government surveillance right as the Edward Snowden scandal hit. Even weirder, despite what we’ve been told, the film then sides with Tony Stark as the hero, rather than Captain America, who is immediately cast out as the villain. It’s odd given that Cap is in the title rather than Iron Man, but I suppose that since Downey is such a star in this universe, the Marvel folks decided to make him the focal point of this ‘Captain America’ movie.
Next, we get an awkwardly truncated sequence of Cap finding the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) in a bus station. They immediately hug and make up, and Bucky agrees to help Cap and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) fight Tony. The whole scene takes about three minutes, which is far too condensed for a reconciliation that had two movies of setup. However, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have so much ground to cover and so many characters to cram in, I can understand why they rushed through the scene, even if I don’t agree with the choice. Tony then gets Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) on his side by flying to Wakanda and having an exchange along the lines of, “You want join the team, Black Panther?” To which the new hero responds, “Sure, bro.” It’s the only line the character speaks in the entire movie. He doesn’t even take off his mask in a shockingly underwritten introduction for an iconic character. I get that the filmmakers want to save material for the upcoming solo ‘Black Panther’ feature, but not even giving a talented actor like Chadwick Boseman a third word to say or a chance to show his face feels like a horrible mistake (not to mention an act of awkward Hollywood racism).
The next hour or so of the film feels equally awkwardly structured and truncated as Cap and Tony essentially just visit different heroes and ask them to join their squads. It’s merely a series of extended cameos masquerading as a plot with no real purpose or flow – almost like sketch comedy, only not even remotely funny. The scenes themselves are really odd and inappropriate as well. Given how little convincing Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) require to join the fight, the filmmakers instead spend 15 minutes lavishing attention to a woefully gratuitous sex scene between the heroes. Sure, it’s nice to see their love story from the comics brought over to the cinematic universe, but 15 minutes of them grinding against each other surrounded by candles and flowing white curtains is completely unnecessary (especially when it climaxes with a laser bolt shooting out of Vision’s forehead which causes a neighboring building to explode in the most expensive “money shot” joke ever staged).
Oh, and anyone hoping for a decent new Spider-Man will be disappointed by that as well. Despite all those rumors of a teenage Peter Parker, Spidey in this universe is a robot designed by Tony Stark to help win in the big fight. He even designs a bunch of Spidey action figures and merchandise to fund his side of the battle and cracks a variety of jokes about the “morons who buy this crap” that is deeply inappropriate. I have no idea what Sony will possibly do with its Spidey spin-off, but it certainly won’t be loyal to the source material.
Those ramshackle team-building subplots somehow take a full hour that’s damn near impossible to sit through. Once the teams are assembled, the Russos literally stage the final battle for a full 90 minutes of screen time. Now, that might in theory sound like an amazing superhero blockbuster treat, but it’s really exhausting to watch. It’s also ludicrously violent and illogical. At one point, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) dies and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) inexplicably cuts his head off and drinks his blood to “absorb” his powers and become a master archer. I don’t know if that ever happened in the comics, but it’s certainly out of place here. In between the endless punch-’em-ups (all admittedly captured in beautiful IMAX scale) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) constantly remarking that he’s “just happy to be here,” the movie finally comes to an end with Captain America viciously decapitating Iron Man with his shield, which then causes a self-destruct function in his robo-suit that blows up Cap. The rest of the heroes all gather around the two charred corpses before War Machine (Don Cheadle) announces, “You know what? Violence is wrong. Let’s not fight each other. Let’s be friends.” To which Spider-Man replies, “Don’t you mean Super Friends?” After which everyone laughs and they have a group hug and the movie abruptly cuts to credits without warning.
As much as I hate to spoil any movie’s ending in a review, I have to do so here because I was so gobsmacked and disgusted when it happened. The audience I was with shared my profound disappointment and there was actually a small riot in the IMAX theater, with seats being torn out of the floor and flung at the screen. We didn’t even get to see the end credits stinger because by then the riot police had shown up to wrestle angry comic book fans in costumes to the ground in one of the most horrendous sights I’ve ever seen (well, after this movie, of course). I have a feeling that reaction will be fairly common come May 6th. Theaters should start hiring security guards now. It’ll be a bloodbath.
‘Captain America: Civil War’ is a massive, unconscionable disaster on every level. Considering Marvel Studios’ track record so far, I honestly can’t believe the filmmakers treated these iconic characters and their loyal audience with such profound disrespect. Big, expensive, explosive and star-packed though the movie might be, it’s a shitshow of storytelling and world-building. It’s hard to imagine how Marvel could possibly recover from this one. The studio has somehow managed to destroy all the good will it built up with audiences over the last few years with a single misguided turkey.
This might actually mark the end of the superhero blockbuster era. While I’m certain many of my fellow film critics will be thrilled to hear that news and watch this genre go up in flames thanks to a single movie, I’ll personally miss the golden age of superhero cinema. It’s amazing how quickly that tide can turn when greedy and arrogant filmmakers stop caring about their material. Mark my words, the colossal clusterfuck failure of ‘Captain America: Civil War’ will go down in history alongside notorious flops like ‘Heaven’s Gate’ as movies that permanently altered Hollywood history and not for the better. Sigh…