‘Captain America: Civil War’ is lot of fun. I won’t argue that. It has everything we’ve come to expect from a massive-budget summer blockbuster. However, working against it are a lazy screenplay effort that has become the Marvel norm, flimsy characters, recycled dynamics and a lack of tension.
I’m not here to argue the entertainment value of ‘Civil War’. Instead, as a big fan of the MCU’s first phase who has felt slighted by Marvel’s attempts to expand it, I’m afraid that Marvel’s exhausted Cinematic Universe has transformed into a plot-hole-riddled cash-grab mishmash that’s not worth the praise it’s getting.
Because ‘Civil War’ is still in theaters now, be warned that what lies ahead is filled with extensive plot spoilers. Before writing this post, I went back and saw the movie again just so I could document its many flaws from A to Z. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you should probably stop reading now.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The introductory scene is no good. Like the ‘Benjamin Button’ opening of ‘Ant-Man’, Marvel is showing signs of being stuck in a writing rut. Instead of planning out their greater stories in advance, the writers are making up the past as they go just so it can pave the way for the planned future. As we’ve seen with other movies and TV series, this is not a good way to go about executing a long-term franchise. It’s an amateurish soap opera technique.
As if that first scene weren’t bad enough, shortly after we see Tony Stark tell his side of the story. He just-so-happens to tell one of this most intimate life stories to a conference hall full of strangers via a science experiment-turned-psychology experiment that cost him tens of millions of dollars. It’s pretty convenient that he’d tell this applicable story just days before the harsh reality of the decades-long mystery is finally uncovered.
After the Winter Soldier introductory scene and Marvel reel, we get to the action-packed opening that should have kicked off the movie. Cap, Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Black Widow chase down… that unmemorable guy from the last Cap movie. ‘Civil War’ does such a poor job of pointing out who this single-sequence villain is that unless you watched ‘The Winter Soldier’ recently, you’ll have no clue who’s behind the mask. His name is uttered, but isn’t a strong enough one to trigger any memory. (I call him “HYDRA Generic Henchman #47.”) When we see the helmet removed, he’s so badly burned and disfigured that he’s not recognizable. If I didn’t know the actor (Frank Grillo) from other movies (such as ‘Warrior‘), I’d have no clue who he was. I wonder how many casual moviegoers draw a blank here.
The way this action sequence was written and shot had me worried for the rest of the movie. First, like a Jason Bourne picture, it’s all close-ups, shaky-cam and filled with quick cuts to appeal to the audience’s A.D.D. Pop on a pair of 3D glasses and it’s entirely disorienting. You’ll have no idea what you’re seeing unfold. Second, Scarlet Witch’s undefined powers are used to allow her to do whatever the story needs in order to progress. She can suck the poison gas out of a building when her teammates need it, and accidentally blow up a building when the writers need tragedy. Later on, she’ll inexplicably bind the most unfortunately bland (yet powerful) character, Vision, and thrust him through several floors of concrete – which makes no sense since Vision can pass through objects at will. Scarlet Witch’s powers are quite convenient. Whenever the writers need something unusual, they simply give her the ability to do it.
Speaking of abilities, that brings me to the third and final qualm with this sequence. When are we going to address the fact that Black Widow is a plain and simple human? She has no powers. She’s like a grown-up version of Natalie Portman in ‘Léon: The Profession’ – trained, but not super. Despite that, Black Widow can be inside an enclosed armor vehicle when a grenade goes off, get blasted through the back door, and still be a-okay? From the writers of ‘Pain & Gain’ and ‘Thor: The Dark World’, I guess I’m expecting too much.
After Tony Stark’s intro, we see him guilt-tripped into growing a conscious by a mother whose son was killed in the (anti-) climactic events of ‘Age of Ultron‘, which took place in the fictional nation of Sokovia. Is this really supposed to be the first time that Stark was confronted about the fallout from his actions in any of his Iron Man exploits? Unfortunately, at this point, fallout (and more specifically, revenge and jealousy) is the motivator that Marvel writers repeat time and time again. It’s the reason Whiplash wants to defeat Stark in ‘Iron Man 2‘. It’s the reason Loki does everything he does. It’s the reason the lame villain from ‘Iron Man 3‘ (no, not The Mandarin, the other lame villain) wanted to see Stark killed. It’s the reason that cheesy bald bad guy in ‘Ant-Man‘ does what he does. Now, it’s the reason why Zemo, the supposed mastermind behind ‘Civil War’, harvests the seeds of unrest within the superhero community. Are there no other motives than this? Must the majority of Marvel’s plots revolve around some personal beef?
Let’s talk about Zemo. In a single line, he describes himself as so brilliant that he has cracked the entire encrypted history of HYDRA in the year since his family died as collateral damage in Sokovia. However, this is something that Stark and his flawless supercomputers weren’t able to complete with the same wiki-leaked files that Zemo used? Even if you can accept that, everything that Zemo does relies on getting Stark, Cap and Winter Soldier at the Siberian base. His entire plan counts on the three of them being there together. Considering all of the bumps in the road that all 12 featured superheroes have to go through in the movie, that’s one hell of coincidence that the trio would arrive at that point together.
But that’s not the only coincidence in Zemo’s plan. How does he know who the U.N. would hire for Winter Soldier’s psychological evaluation? And how does he know where the U.N. would take Winter Soldier after being captured? (Zemo knows exactly where to send the EMP in advance.) While we’re talking about the EMP, how in the hell did he get it out of the hotel room and shipped to the random power plant without anyone taking note? This entire screenplay relies on coincidences. This is simply terrible writing. Shame on the Russo Brothers for putting up with it.
If you’re expecting my nit-picks to include Black Panther, his character roll-out is actually one of the best aspects of ‘Civil War’.
Marvel’s biggest problem right now comes from recycling structures and dynamics. For example, when you think about it, ‘Ant-Man’ is exactly the same story as the first ‘Iron Man’. It’s like the screenplay was mad-libbed for the tiny character. Now, the structure of ‘Civil War’ is borrowed from ‘The Winter Soldier’. Cap and at least one friend are on the run and in hiding while trying to crack a bigger case while those on whom he used to rely are out to get him. This is almost as bad as Ethan Hunt always being presumed as a rogue agent in every ‘Mission: Impossible’ movie. The format is becoming a Marvel trope.
Do you remember when ’24’ was running and people would complain about how quickly Jack Bauer and company could get from one place to another in supposedly real time? That problem is even more abundant here. While Iron Man is waiting for everyone to coincidentally meet at the airport – as if that’s the only hub for travel in Europe – within a brief 24-hour period, he travels to Queens, recruits Spider-Man, is fitted for a new suit, designs the new suit and the tech that powers it, has it produced, and returns to central Europe for the second act’s climax. In the MCU, you must be able to buy anything, including time.
Following the airport battle, time gets even more hazy. While Cap and Winter Soldier head to Siberia, Stark and wounded Rhodes travel back to the Avenger compound in the U.S. for medical treatment, then Stark takes a chopper to an oceanic super-prison, then takes his Iron Man suit to Siberia and arrives just moments after Cap and Winter Soldier. How stupid do the writers think we moviegoers are? It’s offensive.
Yes, the airport scene is the highlight of the movie. However, it’s little more than pure fun. Did anyone actually think that any harm would come out of it? No way. And, no, Rhodes’ injury doesn’t count as harm. His injury is just as meaningless as Quicksilver’s death in ‘Age of Ultron’. Nobody cares if a third-tier hero gets hurt. Marvel plays it too safe, which makes the characters never seem like they’re ever truly in harm’s way. The day the franchise actually kills off a character whose superhero name has been featured in the title of a movie, then I’ll really start investing in the MCU. For now, it’s all too safe. We all knew that none of the 12 superheroes in the airport fight would actually be impacted by the scene. Instead, it’s meaningless – albeit pure fun – spectacle. When moviegoers think back on ‘Civil War’, they’ll immediately recall this insignificant scene for its huge entertainment value. They’re not going to think of Zemo, let alone the Sokovia Accords. They’re going to think of that funny sequence that answers countless “Who would win in a fight between (superhero) and (superhero)?” questions. The third act climax that lies ahead never comes close to being as engaging as the airport scene.
I only have two genuine complaints with airport scene. The first revolves around how Spider-Man is shoehorned into it. Black Panther is perfectly introduced to the world, but Spidey is brought in so abruptly that it feels like the decision to include him happened in reshoots just minutes after Sony and Disney decided to play ball together. The end result is entertaining, but it’s also rushed, clunky and unfitting.
My second complaint comes from Cap’s decision to not explain the full situation to Stark. Instead, Cap decides to fight. Why? I have no idea. But when Stark ultimately learns the truth, he switches sides and joins Cap and Winter Soldier to fight against the greater evil. Stark even says, “I was wrong.” Had Cap just explained the whole story – which is more in line with his character – a lot of time could have been saved. But because the writers needed that six-on-six battle, they couldn’t go with the rational and obvious solution.
Let’s take one moment to discuss Robert Downey, Jr. here. Is he the new Bruce Willis, or what? Does he even care about his roles anymore? He glides right through this movie in the laziest fashion. His character falls just as flat as the quip about a bed and breakfast for biker gangs. It’s not just painful to watch, it’s sad. He only seems to give a damn about his performance in one scene – the “He killed my mom” scene – which isn’t enough considering the weight that his character plays in ‘Civil War’.
How can anyone side with Iron Man after watching this movie? His initial arguments are good, the stuff that debates are founded on – but it doesn’t stay that way. Before long, he turns the Avengers compound into an internment camp and, ultimately, he turns into a cold-blooded attempted murderer. For anyone who realizes these points, good luck trying to get us to care about his character ever again.
The final two-on-one fight scene is near-perfect. Watching Cap and Winter Soldier battle Iron Man with smooth motion from a fixed camera at a distance is wonderful. But, once again, it’s too safe. Like Rhodes, Winter Soldier is wounded during the fight, but it’s nothing additional technology can’t fix. Aside from bruises, fat lips and a couple cuts, Iron Man and Cap walk away unscathed. Dammit, Marvel, kill someone! Make the tension real. All this horsing around is fun, but harmless repetition is getting old.
So, what do you think? Are you on-board with Marvel’s mindless fun? Or, like me, do you think it’s fair to demand some quality with your entertainment?
Since the MCU movies feature stingers during and after their closing credits, I’ll leave you with a couple bonus thoughts:
- The Iron Man suit can detect anything from nearby weapons/technology to life forms. If that’s the case, how was it unable to detect Black Panther and his jet flying right behind him all the way to Siberia?
- Do you remember how Stark blew up his Iron Man suits and quit the game at the end of ‘Iron Man 3’, yet shows up with a new fleet of them in ‘Age of Ultron’ without an explanation? Well, it was nice of Marvel to finally give us a one-line answer to that debacle. It’s just a shame that we’re getting it one movie too late.