CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR review (Spoilers!)
I went to see Captain America: Civil War on Saturday morning, then went to the grocery store, and was kind of worn out for the rest of the day, so I thought I’d let my reactions simmer for a while before I wrote my review. I went for the cheapest showing, the early-bird 2D one, and the sound in the theater was oddly quiet, so I had trouble hearing some of the dialogue.
Overall, it was definitely a very effective and well-done movie, an excellent continuation of the MCU saga and one of the most thoughtful movies in the series. I like it that so much of the conflict over the Sokovia Accords was conducted through the heroes talking to each other in meeting rooms and debating the philosophy and emotion of the issues, rather than just hitting or zapping each other. The comics version of Civil War definitely went overboard with the physical conflict and armed rebellion and superprisons and so forth, and though this movie definitely had its marquee fight sequence taking up a fair portion of the second act, it was just the one.
Still, for all the comic’s excesses in execution, I don’t think the film works quite so well in concept. The comic, in principle, was an allegory for real-world concerns about the compromise of individual freedom in the name of security. It handled the issue badly, but the issue itself was worth exploring. And there was a lot at stake, a threat of the loss of freedom for a whole class of people. Here, though, it’s basically an argument over who among an elite group gets to make the decisions that affect everyone else. The stakes don’t feel like they extend much beyond this immediate group of less than a dozen people, and the only character who ever really feels unjustly victimized by the Accords is Wanda Maximoff. It works well as a personal story, but the sense of larger social commentary isn’t really there. I wish there’d been a way to combine the allegorical weight of the original’s concept with the far superior and less excessive execution of the movie.
As far as the issues go, in the comics, I was pretty soundly on Team Cap — and it was hard not to be, given what a caricature they made of Iron Man and the dictatorial extremes he and his supporters went to. (Although I think J. Michael Straczynski wrote Tony with a lot more nuance in The Amazing Spider-Man than other writers did in the rest of the Civil War narrative.) There, it was clearly about defending the rights of the individual against oppression that used security as its excuse. In the movie, though, I tend more toward Team Iron Man. Not only because Tony is portrayed in a far more positive light this time, but because I believe strongly that every powerful entity needs checks and balances to keep it from abusing its power. Cap may have been right that the UN’s agendas couldn’t necessarily be trusted, but the Avengers should have someone to provide a balance to their power, to give them oversight and accountability. (My friend Keith DeCandido pointed out in his review that the comics’ Avengers have had a charter and rules to follow from the word go, and I do recall them having Henry Gyrich as a government liaison for a while.) The Accords may not be the right solution to that problem, any more than the USA PATRIOT Act was the right solution to terrorism — both were policies forged in haste and out of fear, and thus tending to go to more extreme lengths than were necessary or appropriate. But there should be something. I suppose the best path would be somewhere between Tony and Steve on this issue — Team Black Widow, perhaps.
I found Henry Jackman’s musical score a bit disappointing. It was okay, but it didn’t use any of the character themes established in earlier movies. Age of Ultron did a nice job incorporating existing leitmotifs into its score, and I would’ve liked this and subsequent Marvel films to continue that practice. Superheroes need their own themes and fanfares. That’s something only a few MCU movies have bothered with, and AoU had me hoping that was starting to change.
Edited to add: I feel I should comment more on the big airport fight sequence. One reason it worked well for me is that nobody involved really wanted it. For one thing, that gave it emotional stakes — it was sad seeing friends and allies on opposite sides. It also lowered the stakes in another way, because nobody was trying to kill anyone, so we can freely root for the combatants’ skill and cleverness without having to deal with the moral issues that most movie battle scenes gloss over. I’ve never been happy with the MCU movie characters’ use of lethal force, and there was some of that here in the Lagos sequence, it appeared — plus T’Challa and then Tony trying to kill Bucky. But in the airport fight, nobody was interested in causing death, so it was more like the action sequences of the comics and thus could be more unreservedly enjoyable, even with the sad personal aspect. It was downright sporting, really, with a lot of mutual respect between the opposing sides — like that nice Cap-Spidey beat about their proximate origins.
Going through it all character by character:
Captain America: Still the principled man we know and admire, but maybe with a bit of a blind spot where Bucky’s concerned. He was right to stand up for his falsely accused friend, but he was perhaps a bit too headstrong in Bucky’s defense. I don’t see why he couldn’t have taken the time to give Tony a fuller explanation about the threat from the other Winter Soldiers, rather than just going “We fight.”
Tony Stark: Even though this is Cap’s movie by title, I feel Tony made a stronger impression, perhaps because he had more character growth. He really wrestled with the issues and stayed open to both sides, though he did rather lose it in the third act with the whole revenge thing. That part didn’t make sense to me and seemed contrived to force the final fight, since Tony must surely have understood that Bucky was not in control of his actions. There was a game attempt to make it more about his betrayal at Steve not telling him, but that still didn’t quite justify it. Aside from that, though, this is the way Tony should’ve been portrayed in the original.
Black Widow: They’re still doing a good job keeping Natasha front and center, the most valuable supporting player (even though they’re dragging their heels ridiculously on giving her a solo movie). She didn’t have as much to do in this one as in the past couple, but she still made a strong impression, and her fight choreography is fantastic.
Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman was effective as T’Challa, thoughtful and quietly strong. The portrayal of Wakanda mercifully shied away from a lot of the usual African stereotypes seen in plenty of past movies and comics, although it’s a little odd to hear them speaking the southern African Xhosa language while worshipping the Egyptian deities Bast and Sekhmet, from the opposite end of a very large continent. I particularly like it that T’Challa turned his back on vengeance — especially that he actually saved the life of the man he would’ve wanted to kill before. That’s a nice change from all the “I don’t have to save you” or “Take my hand — oops, never mind” endings that too many superhero movies have had. I was actually expecting T’Challa to break up the Steve-Tony fight at the climax and talk some sense into them, and I’m more than a little disappointed that he didn’t.
Vision: Interesting to see more of his evolution as a person, and Paul Bettany does a great job making him thoughtful and naive, gentle and imposing at the same time. Odd that Wanda calls him “Viz” instead of his usual “Vizh” nickname.
Scarlet Witch: Despite her key role in the emotional core of the film, I found Wanda didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me. Elizabeth Olsen just doesn’t have the same presence or charisma as most of the MCU cast.
Hawkeye: He has such a minor role that I’m not sure why they even bothered to include him, unless it was so they could do the thing with Ant-Man riding his arrow. His relationship with Black Widow was touched on in maybe one two-line exchange. I’ll grant, though, that he was probably the best choice for convincing Wanda to leave, given their history in Age of Ultron.
Bucky: Sorry, Sebastian Stan is just kind of boring. He doesn’t do much except fight and brood. He doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond his role as a plot catalyst.
Falcon: On the other hand, Falcon totally rocks. Anthony Mackie is one of the most charismatic players in the cast, and Sam’s a terrific partner for Steve. I love his fight choreography too, and the Redwing drone is a great addition. I would be totally happy to see Sam Wilson take over as Captain America once Chris Evans’s contract is up, although that’s not looking likely with Sam part of Cap’s Kooky Fugitives and the shield still in the few remaining Avengers’ hands.
War Machine: Rhodey’s still a stalwart background presence, though not as much of a standout as he’d be in a smaller cast.
Ant-Man: A decent supporting role, a nice followup on his debut film. Paul Rudd brought some effective humor to the proceedings, the callback to his history with Falcon was good, and Ant-Man — I should call him Giant-Man as well — contributed, err, massively to the big fight.
Sharon Carter: Not a bad supporting role, helping out quietly and passing along some valuable words from Peggy Carter. I love how consistent the portrayal of Peggy through her words was with her characterization in the TV series, given that continuity between TV and movies in the MCU tends to be unidirectional. It helps that this movie’s writers are the creators and executive producers of Agent Carter. And I cried at Peggy’s funeral, even though there’s still a chance (though a slim one at this point) that she could return to TV for a third season. Sharon wasn’t nearly as impressive as her aunt, though, and the attempt to sneak in a romance between her and Steve felt cursory and forgettable.
Helmut Zemo: Now, this was weird. The MCU has reinterpreted a lot of comics characters, but while this version of Zemo worked well as the antagonist of this particular story, he’s so completely unlike his namesake that I wonder why they even called him Helmut Zemo. He did some awful things, but he’s not exactly a Master of Evil. As a character in his own right, though, he was nicely handled. The MCU has rarely given any of its movie antagonists any real personality or depth. Zemo is the most nuanced and sympathetic MCU movie villain since Loki, probably even more so.
Secretary Thaddeus Ross: Nice bit of continuity to bring back William Hurt and tie the largely overlooked The Incredible Hulk a bit more closely into the saga, even though Ross here is in a rather different role than before, a role that could’ve been filled by a lot of other characters. It would’ve been nice to see him show a bit more intensity in his comments about the missing Dr. Banner, given that Ross’s obsession with the Hulk is his defining trait in the comics.
Everett Ross: Did they notice they had two characters on the government side who were both named Ross? Anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen Martin Freeman in a role where he didn’t totally steal the show. Partly because he used an American accent, and that always makes British actors less interesting. But he really had very little purpose in this story, although I gather they were setting him up for a bigger role later, presumably in Black Panther, since that’s where the character originally comes from.
Spider-Man: I’ve saved this for last because I have a lot to say. Peter was handled pretty well, and Tom Holland is pretty good, but I can’t gush as much about him as most people are. I actually liked the Andrew Garfield version, and I think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 captured Spidey/Peter almost perfectly even though it screwed up so much else. This was a good portrait of a Spidey who’s just starting out, and I like the way they rejiggered the Tony-as-mentor bit from the comics to explain how Spidey got his fancy threads (and the size-changing eyes are a nice way to bring a cartooning conceit into live action). But I don’t feel this movie captured Spidey’s banter as well as ASM2 did. I mean, sure, Spidey’s a chatterbox, and that’s partly a manifestation of his anxiety and insecurity, but he’s also funny. He’s a nonstop wisecracker, a comic hero in the Bugs Bunny mold. He should be hurling jokes and bad puns and insults as readily as Downey’s Tony does, and then some. And that didn’t come through here, since this Spidey was mainly just geeking out and talking science and chattering nervously. I hope he’s funnier in his solo movie. (And having Tony be his mentor could work nicely if he becomes more of a confident wisecracker by following Tony’s example.)
Also, I felt the Spidey portion of the movie was a bit tacked on. The movie just kind of dragged to a halt in the middle to swerve into a side story introducing this new character, then used him in the fight, then forgot about him until the post-credits scene. Structurally, it could’ve been better. I would’ve preferred it if Peter had been seeded earlier — if Tony’s initial talk had been at Midtown High instead of a university, say, or if we’d seen a bit of Spidey or Peter having a “kid on the street” reaction to the news from Lagos or Vienna or Washington.
I’m also not sure that Peter was worked into the story as logically as he could’ve been. The speech he gave in his bedroom about how something is your fault if you have the power to stop it and you don’t (a reference to his famous origin story, natch) sounded like it aligned more with Steve’s side of the argument than Tony’s. After all, Steve was the one saying they had to act when it was needed rather than letting a higher power tell them they couldn’t. Then there’s the fact that it was kind of a contradiction for Tony to support government oversight of superheroes, yet be totally fine with Peter keeping his identity secret. It works because this Tony has always been kind of a rebel and has only recently come around to the idea that he needs to be kept in check, so that inconsistency is in character. But it does seem that Peter was more naturally suited to Team Cap, and it would’ve been good to see him switch sides as he did in the comics.
So I guess my praise for the film is a little lukewarm. But that’s only because it’s been so heavily hyped as the best superhero movie ever. It is quite good for the most part, no doubt. I just have a few issues with it, ways it could’ve been even better.
Anyway, where does the MCU stand now? The Sokovia Accords are still in effect (and we’ll see some of the impact of that on Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night). The only still-active Avengers seem to be Iron Man, Vision, and War Machine, who’s on the disabled list. Spidey’s an ally, but not quite ready for the big time — but will he have to register? T’Challa’s still an independent party, though sympathetic to Steve. Bucky’s back on ice. Cap, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and probably Black Widow are wanted fugitives. Things don’t look good for the superhero community. I wonder if so many of them were removed from the board to clear the way for the spate of new characters coming up in Phase 3. Over the next couple of years, we have Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok (co-starring the Hulk), and Black Panther before we presumably see the rest of the Avengers again in Infinity War in 2018. (Hey, Netflix, this would be a great window for a Black Widow miniseries, ScarJo willing.) So the current state of affairs is likely to be a dangling thread for some time. Honestly, that’s part of why my reaction to the film is a bit lukewarm. It ended at kind of an uneasy and unresolved place, and I’m a little dissatisfied with the situation, if not with the execution of the story.
But then, this is Civil War, and wars very rarely leave things better at the end.