“Captain America: Civil War” Scuttles Its Thematic Weight in Favor of Spectacle

As the thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and first of Phase Three, Captain America: Civil War is full of crowd-pleasing moments, but it fails to deliver on these on a thematic level.  Its neutered narrative pulls more punches than its heroes, the villain is more unnecessary and forgettable than the average Marvel fare, and a potentially powerful story line is treated with all the nuance of a Political Science 101 class.  As a comic book action film, it certainly manages to entertain, but it falls far short of any aspirations to be something more than the latest summer popcorn flick.

The plot of Captain America:  Civil War picks up at the intersection of The Age of Ultron and The Winter Soldier, and is a true continuation of both.  Angry reactions to the collateral damage from The Avengers has reached a fever peak, and the last straw involves an incident with Scarlett Witch which opens this film.  The solution dreamed up is for superheroes to register with the U.N. and only act in an official capacity – when the governing body decides that it is necessary.  Some heroes, like Iron Man, believe that they must have a system of checks and balances to offset their powers, while others like Captain America balk at the idea that registration will be anything but bureaucratic interference.

This is the first thematic issue:  the “sides” to this war are poorly drawn and articulated.  The main argument from Team Iron Man stems from guilt; they realize that people have died as a result of their powers and they must be held accountable for this.  But this knee-jerk “solution” is anything but:  how exactly would changing who decides where The Avengers can act lead to fewer casualties once they actually act?  On the other hand, while Team Captain America ostensibly stands for the individual hero’s right to decide how their power is to be used, in practice Steve Rogers just really wants to help his buddy, Bucky.  They even put his iconic speech from the comics in the mouth of Sharon Carter during a cringe-worthy eulogy!  This is a poor Cliffs Notes of Civil War; you get the essential ideas – usually muddled – and little else.

There are a couple of shoe-horned ideological discussion between the two sides, but very little comes of them.  The whole thing is also conflated with Bucky’s storyline, where he is framed for bombing a U.N. meeting.  This propels the plot forward, and it is frustrating that it frames the discourse between Captain and Iron Man for so long when there are true ideological differences that could be expounded upon.  Where there should have been true dramatic weight to this clash of ideas, there’s misunderstanding and hidden conspiracies with surprisingly little being risked by either party.

Fortunately, the film does do some things quite well.  Two great characters are introduced in this iteration of Captain America:  Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spiderman (Tom Holland).  The first Black Panther sequence is amazing, and his character goes from an unknown to a fully fleshed-out fan favorite in a short time span.    Peter Parker / Spiderman is only in a handful of scenes, but he is already the best iteration of the character on the big screen, complete with pseudo-fourth-wall breaking quips and iconic powers.  The action sequences with these characters dazzle, and the characters themselves are developed and interesting.  They are both home-runs, and portend great things for their respective stand-alone stories.

The failures and successes of Civil War come to a head in the “The Airport Fight” – a cinematic caesura interrupting the natural flow of the story for a barn-burning battle where nothing is at stake.  For what is supposed to be the central battle of the film, it feels much more like a scrimmage where characters bounce off of one another.  It is wonderful eye-candy, but as a plot point it is both a wheel-spinning waste and tonally inconsistent.  Again, I love various moments here:  Ant-Man going big, basically everything that Spiderman does, and even the repartee between Bucky and Falcon are all great.  But the issue is that even the best of these moments do not really serve the overall theme of the film by signifying the underlying tenets of the combatants.  The two most interesting characters in the fight don’t even know what the fight is about!  Ant-Man is literally introduced by jolting him awake from a nap in the van, and depending on or interpretation, Spiderman is either in awe of Tony Stark or is being blackmailed into fighting.  What should have been an impassioned, principled stand-off between champions of distinct ideas is really just a routine demonstration of super powers.

Overall, Captain America:  Civil War really is Avengers 2.5 – it lacks the tonal consistency and ascendancy of the best Marvel films to date and instead is just 100% comic book flick with very little innovation from a story, plot, character, or theme perspective.  That being said – it is the very best version of a mindless kind of comic flick, with a number of eye-catching action sequences, the introduction of some interesting characters, and further development of some of our other characters.   But, fair or not, we should hold Marvel and the Russo brothers to a higher standard than that.  Sadly, those looking for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to evolve will not find it here.  Instead, by neglecting the potentially powerful themes in favor of flashy action, this tired spectacle is less than the sum of its parts (however entertaining those may be).


 

Okay, sportsfans, I know I have probably pissed off 90% of you by bitching about this consensus-amazing comic book flick, but I’d still love to hear your thoughts.  I like the movie overall, and maybe I am just disappointed by it falling far short of Captain America:  The Winter Soldier.  It definitely wasn’t as much of a trainwreck as BvS, and is comfortably better than the average Marvel film.  Anyway, feel free to comment and explain how I am wrong, and feel free to share with friends so you can point and laugh at my expense.

4 thoughts on ““Captain America: Civil War” Scuttles Its Thematic Weight in Favor of Spectacle

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  1. I was satisfied because I wasn’t expecting more than the movie delivered. I was actually expecting less, so I was pleasantly surprised. I simply enjoy this movies for what they are, enjoyable entertainment with action and humor. For the genre, their character development is good, and this adds depth to the plots. When I want something more serious, I watch something on the order of To Kill a Mockingbird, In Cold Blood, The Best Years of Our Lives, Trip to Bountiful, etc. I liked this review because it approached the topic from a different perspective and made me think. Take care.

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    1. This is a very good point, and I must say that if I approached the film from your viewpoint, I also would have left happy (in fact, directly after the film I was reasonably pleased). It was only under further analysis that I started having problems with the uneven tone, lazy plotting, and poor thematic development.

      Further, I don’t really “expect” these Superhero-type films to ascend beyond the Popcorn Flick – but some have managed to do so. Since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was one of these, and it was also directed by the Russo brothers, I thought there was a fair chance that their immediate follow-up would be similarly awesome.

      Ultimately, you’re right – you’re much more likely to be rewarded artistically by a more serious film, which is where I find my most rewarding experiences with cinema (in fact, I posted my review of “The Lobster” around the same time as this review).

      Great comment, and I look forward to seeing you around!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree that their are different degrees of quality within the genre and within this particular franchise. This particular movie wasn’t my favorite of the bunch, but I was relieved to see it was within a certain range of consistency. My fear is that “the suits” are eventually going to run this into the ground, which has me holding my breath…

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