After a botched rescue mission leads to the death of civilians, political pressure mounts on the Avengers to install a system of accountability. Captain America believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man disagrees, favoring oversight. As the debate escalates into an all-out feud, a super-villain by the name of Zemo works behind the scenes to drive the team apart.
This is a picture that I’ve heard nothing but good things about. Everyone I’ve ever talked to ever has told me that it’s the greatest superhero movie ever made. And hearing this instantly made me not want to go see it. See, I’m not a big fan of Marvel. Never have been. I find Captain America to be an outdated piece of racist wartime propaganda, and Iron Man to be an alcoholic, womanizing jerk. I do admire Spider-Man (thanks, in large part, to the Sam Raimi trilogy that came out when I was a kid), but, beyond that, I just don’t have any real emotional connection to the characters. And besides my own dislike of the Marvel brand, I’m also someone who likes to take the side of the underdog. I’ve been a diehard Cubs fan all my life, mostly because of their reputation as lovable losers, and fostered a deep-seated hatred for the Yankees since I was a kid, precisely because of the fact that they were always winning, and bragging about it. Marvel Studio’s repeated financial and critical success, and the fact that they haven’t exactly been humble about it, has made me resent them, and not want to watch their movies. But then again, every belief system I subscribe to–kindness, honesty, intersectional feminism, racial, religious and ethnic tolerance, and inclusion of the disabled–has been politically defeated this year, and every movie I wanted to be good–Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, Passengers–has turned out to be terrible. Maybe I should just give up on what I think, and join the winning team. That’s what I was thinking when I sat down to watch Civil War. Now that I’ve seen it, I have a few new thoughts.
In terms of the writing–meaning the dialogue, character motivation, and scene construction–I do think Civil War is more competently crafted than Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. Those latter two films had tons of exposition in them, meaning long scenes where everyone’s thoughts and backstories get spelled out to the audience. There are scenes in Civil War where characters tell us what they think and feel, but it feels more earned, more appropriate, in this picture. The reason is that the characters in this movie bring up their feelings in conversation, as opposed to just turning to the audience and saying, “let me explain who X is.” The dialogue in Civil War also feels more natural, and specific to each individual character, than BVP and SS. If you’ve read my review of Suicide Squad, you know that I feel the characters in it sound too similar to one another, and that I think that’s a problem. If everyone sounds the same, how are the actors supposed to create compelling characters? How is the audience supposed to decide who to care about? I cared about the protagonists of BVP and SS when I first watched the movies, not because the films themselves did a good job of setting up their unique personalities and voices, but, rather, because I’d read the comics and watched the TV shows they came from. Imagine if I didn’t have that background with the mythology. How would I react then? But perhaps the biggest difference in terms of writing is the fact that the characters in Civil War have much clearer reasons for acting the way they do than the individuals in Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. To this day, I’m still not quite sure why Lex Luthor hated Superman, why he made Doomsday, or why Enchantress wanted to blow up the Earth with a sky beam. That’s not good. If your characters’ reasons for acting aren’t clear, the audience won’t care about what they’re doing, and won’t want to watch your movie. Now, to be fair, Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad were only the second and third films in their cinematic universe, and therefore had to introduce lots of previously unestablished characters and plot threads. Civil war, by contrast, had over a dozen earlier films to build off of. It didn’t need to explain everything. Still, there are smooth, skillful ways of introducing new people and things in a movie, and Civil War used them to a greater degree than BVP and SS. Spider-Man and Black Panther didn’t exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe until Civil War, and yet, their introduction felt more natural, and the film spent enough time with them for me to care about them as characters. BVP and SS were never able to balance who and what got the most screen time, and this left me feeling kind of empty and wanting as a result.
I also think Civil War has much better acting than BVP and SS. Don’t get me wrong, Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Godot as Wonder Woman, Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, these actors are all superb in their respective roles. It’s just, in both BVP and SS, there are performers who stand out as being pretty terrible. Jessie Eisenberg as a twitchy, adolescent version of Lex Luthor, and Jared Leto as an over-the-top, Jim Carrey-like Joker are what come to mind when I say this. No one in Civil War stands out as “the bad one.” They’re all pretty good.
But, of course, just because something is better than another thing doesn’t mean that it’s without flaws. And Civil War certainly has flaws. For starters, the movie has these obnoxiously large title cards that pop up whenever the story changes location. These get really annoying to look at after a while. The action is also really hard to follow. True, the set pieces are creative, and the directors make good use of props and locations. But the way these scenes are shot is so incredibly ugly, with everything being super shaky, and frequent cuts making it very difficult to follow what’s happening. There are also certain characters who feel out of place and unnecessary. Hawk Eye, for instance, is only in the movie for two scenes, and doesn’t contribute to the plot at all. Honestly, for how little he matters to the overall narrative, you could have left him out entirely. The same could even be said of Baron Zemo, the film’s main villain. The heroes are already angry, and fighting each other, by the time he shows up. His overly complex plot
just hastens something that’s already happening. I also think its kind of a cheap cop out to have everything actually be the work of super villains. The comic the film was based off of didn’t do that. There, the heroes were angry at each other, and they fought one another because of that. Not because some grand puppeteer was pulling the strings from the shadows. I wish the movie had done the same thing. And that brings me to my final problem with the movie, the ending. For all the marketing hype about this being a “clash between heroes” that would “change everything,” nothing really did change. Yeah, a few more characters get added, but no one important dies, Captain America makes it clear to Iron Man that there are no hard feelings, and even the crippling of War Machine gets undone by the end with some BS technology. (As a disabled person who has a condition that there is no cure for, that last one kind of pissed me off for how it wrote off our pain and suffering as a mild inconvenience that can be fixed with some metal and wires). The film’s ending demonstrates a larger problem with Marvel; their unwillingness to take chances or go outside their established formula. You know going into a Marvel movie that no one is going to die, and that everything will be okay in the end. That’s because the franchise was created by TV writers, and in television, you need to return everything to the status quo by the end of the episode or season so that you can keep the story going. Take some chances, Marvel! Kill off Captain America. Have Iron Man die of alcohol poisoning. Do something edgy or unique.
Still, I did enjoy Civil War. If you haven’t seen it, give it a look.