Last week, the BBC concluded its broadcast of The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses, a series of teledramas based on William Shakespeare’s earliest plays. PBS will re-air the series in the... Read more
Captain America: Civil War is the 13th movie in the imposingly titled Marvel Cinematic Universe. It runs for 147 minutes, had a budget of $250 million, contains so many heroes that the main villain gets 14th billing, sets up a projected nine further sequels, and—as if in spite of all that—is accessible, moving, well thought-through, and fun. The best part is that, if you have sat through the harrowing experience of certain other unnamed comic book flicks this year, you’ll appreciate how often the crowd in the theater seems to laugh.
Superhero movies, though they take varying degrees of care with their answers, are always about profound questions—like how we can respond to trauma by becoming better versions of ourselves, or what should be the limits on human ability and authority. But some recent films, like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, have mined this premise for more philosophic value than their stories could really yield. Even Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies tended toward the ponderous side, and the pattern seems to have bottomed out with this year’s Batman v Superman: Purge of All Ye Naive Souls.
Part of this newfound sense of profundity is borne out of a loyalty to the comic-book fanatics who, to their credit, have used the internet as a means to influence the moviemaking process. Certainly gone are the days of Adam West doing the Batusi, as well as thoughts that anyone like Michael Jackson could ever play Spiderman. Comics are now Serious Works of Art in a way that they can only be for as long as they routinely pull in billion-dollar hauls. But for those of us who are not initiated to the world of Heromania, it feels like these movies mostly reach the sort of audience members who are eager to mouth along while Lex Luthor invokes Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. The rest of us are allowed to follow along like students in a class where the teacher has started to rant because he has forgotten his notes.
Civil War is the opposite of all that. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are best known for quirky sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community, a genre whose sensibilities they inject into the movie. They sustain the first two acts by transitioning from a chase scene packed with gunfire, explosions, et al. to a scene of a synthetic robot measuring out a pinch of paprika for a recipe that he cannot taste-test. It is these moments of levity that keep CW from feeling like the equivalent to binge-watching a seven-episode miniseries, which in a way it is.
The movie succeeds largely because it adopts the attitude of a modern television show. We do not see a central story or any one character’s development as much as we see brief episodes introducing us to characters in media res. Chadwick Boseman, as the Black Panther and recently crowned king of a fictional African nation, has the clearest story arc of any character. He seeks revenge against the film’s main antagonist for the murder of his father, only to swear off vengeance in his last scenes. CW provides the necessary origin story for Black Panther’s future stand-alone film, and Boseman’s acting makes the film’s prospects encouraging. But his scenes here are often stuck in like interludes after other scenes, which makes it hard to pause and appreciate him in any depth. This fate meets most of the movie’s minor heroes, but it is not clear that this is necessarily a flaw. The Russo brothers seem to take as a given that CW must have an inordinately sized cast, and their success can be measured in how consistently we feel familiar and empathetic with them for short times.
The plot is kept (mercifully) in the background. In response to damage caused by the movie’s opening action sequence, the UN prepares a treaty to mandate government oversight of superheroes. Iron Man, aliases Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr., feels guilty for the collateral damage he has caused as a hero and supports the government’s efforts. Captain America, played by Chris Evans, has lost faith in the institution for which he is named, and opposes the treaty.
And then they fight. But oh, how beautifully do they fight.
The highlight of the film is a 20-minute action sequence outside an airport at the end of the second act. Cars and heroes change size in midair. We linger on a shot of the Captain’s bicep refusing to let a helicopter escape. The heroes fight over Captain America’s shield as if they were playing Capture the Flag. Airplanes, fuselages, and cars (including the Bluth family staircase car from Arrested Development) all explode until there is a satisfying amount of wreckage. We are clearly told that the airfield where they fight has been evacuated, and we are free from worrying about any potential bystander injury. The sequence introduces us to Paul Rudd—who rewrote most of his lines while he was rehearsing them on set—as Ant Man. He is seen playfully fiddling with the gear in Iron Man’s helmet, giddily basking in the glory of larger heroes like The Captain, and quixotically taking tactical command of the battle. The fact that the Russo brothers give such memorable roles to such minor characters makes up for the lack of any one overarching story.
The one character whom the movie pauses to let us focus on is the teenage Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man. We spend ten minutes with him as Peter, while Tony Stark implores him to join the cause. Their scene is the lone bit of dialogue and character development; admittedly, Holland’s Parker is dorkier and more insecure than any other on-screen adaptation. He holds his own in his scene with Downey, where he fecklessly tries to hide his alter ego. Holland is very much the troubled son to Downey’s good father. When he joins the heroes for battle, the Webhead steals the show with most of the best one-liners (“Sorry, I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to talk so much while beating you.”) The screenwriters actually manage to develop the young Webhead’s character using his snarky post-punch comments. Over the course of 15 minutes, he goes from letting his opponents correct him after he ties them down, to narrating the strategy that he employs while taking down a giant enemy. In a film where the audience comes to accept that all the characters have some elite skill that makes them one of the most powerful individuals on earth, the semi-pubescent voice that Holland uses while wrapping up his targets makes him comparatively like someone an ordinary human could identify with.
The final act of the film speeds along through a course of action sequences. Captain America and Iron Man engage in a climactic fight. They leave with mutual respect for each other. The never-ending story marches onward. In some respects, it could have been tempting for Civil War to put together compelling topical answers to those Big Serious Questions that motivate superhero movies. Iron Man’s pro-government-regulation philosophy could have been used to represent ultra-liberalism against Captain America’s libertarianism. But they never spend enough time around a negotiating table for those perspectives to matter. You don’t need any prodding from your Philosophy 101 course to care about Civil War, just a willingness to laugh and gasp in the right places.
One minor hero remarks, in almost a throwaway line, that the number of potentially apocalyptic events has increased commensurately to the appearance of costumed vigilantes in the Marvel universe. The plot of the movie, ostensibly, is about the consequences of the Avengers’ actions on the outside community. But none of the movie’s events seem to have any risk of collateral damage. Sure, these guys hold the fate of the world on their vibranium-coated fingertips, but there’s no real concern that they’re just about to drop it yet. To watch the world bounce on the fingers of men and not to fear the consequences: it’s a real hoot. Definitely worth checking out. At least, if you still go to the movies so you can escape from life and have fun and all that.