Film review – Captain America: Civil War

Yesterday, on a whim, I decided to see Captain America: Civil War. I enjoyed it, with reservations.

Let’s start with the thing people are interested in. Yes, Spider-Man is in it, and not just in a post-credits scene. And he’s great. Doug Walker makes a point that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield each managed to get half of Spider-Man right; where Tobey aces the shy, awkward nerd that is Peter Parker, where Andrew is spot-on as the cocky smart-alec superhero, but neither manages to properly portray the other side of his personality. Well, Tom Holland actually pulls off both. Sure, he clearly draws more from Tobey, but when he gets into the fighting, he acts confident and self-assured, even making jokes, like Andrew did. In fact, he goes beyond either, as he actually manages to portray his smart mouth as being a cover for his own insecurities, like in the comics.

And what a fight scene it is. The centrepiece of this movie is a huge throwdown at an aeroport in Berlin, where Captain America’s team, which also comprises Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Ant-Man, face off aginst Iron Man’s team, which also includes War Machine, Vision, Black Widow, Black Panther, and Spider-Man. It’s absolutely epic, with planes being smashed, buildings collapsing, Ant-Man becoming giant, and in fact every superhero at some point taking on each member of the other team. Spider-Man completely steals the scene, which may have been deliberate, since due to issues about contracts and filming, he only appears in the big central fight scene, a preceding scene where Iron Man recruits him (and hangs several lampshades on the fact that Aunt May is much younger than in other incarnations), and the after-credits scene; thus, since this is Spidey’s big MCU debut, he needs to make an impact. The only problem I have is that Spider-Man and Ant-Man make numerous quips throughout the fight, Ant-Man getting the absolute best line of the movie, there’s never a line about spiders eating ants.

Spider-Man does overshadow everyone in that scene, including Black Panther, who is also making not only his MCU debut, but his film debut period. However, Black Panther still makes a major impact, appearing in several important action scenes before and after, as well as being a driving force behind the main plot, and even going through a character arc. Chadwish Boseman delivers a strong performance of a man simultaneously trying to satisfy his rage and live up to his father’s humanitarian ideals, as he attempts to reconcile these opposing views of justice.

So, with all these superheroes, it’s clearly actually an Avengers movie, right? Eh, not so much. Bob Chipman and Chris Sims both opine that it’s really a continuation of the plot threads started in Captain America: Winter Soldier, and this is really the story of Captain America and Winter Soldier, with the other heroes along for the ride. Since almost all the other heroes are removed from action following the epic central fight, this mostly makes sense. Mostly. See, Iron Man gets as much screen time and character building as Captain America; indeed, this is as much an Iron Man movie as it is a Captain America one, with Iron Man’s character progressing along the same arc it has been following in his own movies. So no, it’s not really an Avengers movie, but it shold probably be viewed as a Captain America/Iron Man crossover.

This, however, gets into a problem that is building through the Marvel movies – in short, they are becoming less and less self-contained, and more and more like the comics. While Spider-Man and Black Panther are given proper introductions, the viewer is expected to already be familiar with all the other superheroes. Even if, as I advocate, you view the Avengers and Captain America movies as a single sequence of films, Ant-Man appears more or less out of nowhere with the expectation that we already know his story from his own movie. Sure, his schtick is pretty basic – size-changing guy with bad experiences with the law – but the references to his backstory are so vague that he really makes no sense if you haven’t seen Ant-Man already.

Likewise, while the filmmakers wisely open with a botched operation in Lagos to establish why people are iffy about the Avengers before showing scenes from the Avengers movies and Winter Soldier, which is done as the kind of infodumping one would see in a self-contained movie, the buildup to the Sokovian Accords does have much more impact if you’ve already seen those previous movies. This, then, is used to explain why the Avengers, heretofore a private group funded by Iron Man, are facing the prospect of UN oversight. Iron Man, having gone through several movies in which his actions leads to widespread destruction and death of innocent people, thinks that putting superpowered individuals under the control of the people of the world is a reasonable idea. Captain America objects on the grounds that bureaucracy could prevent them doing what needs to be done, or force them to perform unethical acts.

Now, here’s the thing. In the comics, the writers went ahead and made Iron Man an outright fascist who employed teams of supervillains to arrest and imprison superheroes who failed to register, and the act in question gave the US government the power to forcefully conscript superpowered individuals. Here? Iron Man is completely, 100% right. The heroes have a choice between obeying the will of the UN and retiring. Captain America thinks this is such an intolerable burder that he defies police forces, performs jailbreaks, causes multiple serious injuries and millions of euros in property damage to save Winter Soldier, who is wanted for terrorism. And I kind of get the impression we’re supposed to side with him. The movie looks to be making a comment about the War on Terror… and asking us to agree with the American Republican Party. Captain America spends the entire movie acting unilaterally, wrecking everybody’s shit as he goes, all in the name of his own personal morals. Iron Man just wants to have some accountability – as Spider-Man is famous for saying, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Indeed, Spider-Man explains his own motivations in a way that acts as a microcosm of both Iron Man and Captain America’s views on superpowers.

One thing I like is that the Accords aren’t the result of the villain manipulating everything. While the villain and the Accords both grow out of the events of Age of Ultron, they are entirely separate events, the Accords only influencing how the heroes react to the villain’s actions. This is fantastic, as it avoids the issue articulated by Lindsay Ellis about Winter Soldier, wherein you have a decent moral dilemma until wait, no, one side is the work of secret Nazis. Here, the issue comes from the will of the people, and the conflict at the heart of the movie is genuinely driven by different ideas as to the moral course of action.

Unfortunately, the villain’s scheme is one of those that is seriously overthought and rickety once you actually ponder it. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say he could not reasonable have anticipated events happening the precise way they did, and after he finds what he’s looking for, he could just as easily have sent an email or posted something on the Internet.

But, those flaws aside, Captain America: Civil War is still an enjoyable movie. The action setpieces are epic and brillaintly chroeographed, and it is honestly worth seeing for the middle fight scene alone.

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