The action is top-notch, but is it enough to surmount a rather predictable plot and a total dearth of character development?
By: Jimbo X
Civil War will forever be a film remembered for one thing, and one thing only - quite possibly the greatest cinematic donnybrook ever filmed.
Indeed, the 20-minute, CGI-laden, abandoned airport melee that transpires about halfway through the film is without question the most awe-inspiring superhero free-for-all to ever grace the silver screen. It’s a comic book fan’s cinematic dreams come true – a multi-million dollar extravaganza featuring a dozen of the most iconic Marvel heroes of all-time just pummeling the dog shit out of each other for no other reason than the fact that it looks cool. You’ve got Spider-Man fist-fighting Captain America. You’ve got Black Panther and Hawkeye exchanging blows. You get to see The Falcon sic Red Wing (now a robotic drone, naturally) on Black Widow and watch The Winter Soldier and War Machine duke it out. You’ve even got a sequence where Ant-Man shrinks down to atom size and runs around inside Iron Man’s helmet unplugging wires and shit. It’s arguably the greatest mark-out moment in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe canon to date – if not the single greatest mark-out moment in any superhero movie ever.
When it comes to delivering the high-octane action, Civil War earns a solid A+. In fact, there are at least two more action sequences in the film (a team battle against Crossbones in Nigeria and a two-on-one handicap match pitting Cap and Bucky Barnes against Tony Stark) that are awesome enough to qualify as the concluding set pieces in any other genre picture. The problem with this latest Avengers flick, however, is that – and this is very much the same criticism I have with all of the MCU films – is that there just isn’t any plot or character development to complement all of the five-star boom-boom.
The astounding success of the MCU films can largely be attributed to its episodic content delivery. Rather than craft true three-act-stories with a beginning, middle, and end, Civil War – much like its predecessor Age of Ultron – literally drops you into the thick of battle before the opening credits even roll. If you’ve watched the last six or eight Marvel movies, good for you, but if you haven’t, you’ll be completely lost. There is virtually no exposition on the characters for the uninitiated, and there’s hardly any background provided on the universe’s two latest cash-cow additions – a certain African prince turned feline-themed vigilante and a specific web-slinging smart aleck from Queens – either. The plot never sums up who or what Hydra is, and all of the stuff about the Infinity Gems and The Sokovia Accords are going to be over the heads of anyone who isn’t already well-versed in the Marvel mythology. Accessibility isn’t even close to being concern here – it’s pure, preaching-to-the-choir fan-service for two and a half hours, and if you aren’t already in the loop, well, Disney will just make $900 million dollars without you anyway.
The thing that really surprised me most about Civil War was just how devoid it was of a traditional narrative. You know how most movies begin by introducing the characters and setting, then introduce a conflict and work their ways towards some kind of resolution? Well, the latest Captain America movie doesn’t really follow that pattern, instead just throwing its nearly 20-character strong throng of antagonists into explosion-strewn event one-after-another. Even though the film is technically anchored around the theme of public protectors having too much power and not enough oversight, the characters still have free reign to cause as much havoc and destruction as they wish, and – once again, contradicting the entire motif of the movie – just about all of it is posited as fairly inconsequential, even when scores of innocent people wind up as collateral corpses.
Yes, the premise of Civil War is nearly identical to the premise of the much-maligned Batman v. Superman movie from earlier this year (can you imagine being a Wizard-reading, ‘90s comic nerd getting to type such statements?), and philosophically, both films attempt to address the same existential questions posed by confused, anti-authoritarian treatises like The Watchmen and The Dark Knight. Whereas BvS beat you over the head with the notion, Civil War – in true Marvel fashion – just kind of plays it off, however, giving us a few glimmers of semi-serious evaluation of the problem of power before deteriorating into your standard quip-filled punch-fest. While it would be nice to see these Marvel flicks at least try to humanize the product a little, I suppose what we see in Civil War – pure cartoon shlock, completely aware of its asininity – is a much preferred alternative to the standard DCEU template (that being, SUPER-overwrought, grimdark, wannabe intellectual bullstuff.)
The plotline for Civil War, you may ask? Well, despite sharing its namesake with a controversial comic book crossover arc that saw half of the Marvel Universe revolt over a superhero registration law, the film instead takes a more low-key approach to the thematic. During a knock-down drag-out battle with Hydra, Scarlet Witch accidentally blows a couple of hundred or so U.N, workers sky high, which – in tandem with the trillions upon trillions of dollars of damage accrued in the first two Avengers flicks – has goaded the United Nations into drafting a binding resolution intended to create greater regulation of super-powered beings. This is something that sits perfectly well with Iron Man, who blames himself for a lot of needless mayhem over the last eight years at the multiplexes, but the idea rankles Captain America pretty hard (a rather strange situation – the ultra-patriotic emblem of the old guard taking a stand against the feds while the billionaire industrialist rallies for greater government oversight.) Of course, this divides the Avengers down the middle, with half the squad siding with Captain’s “honor is like the hawk, sometimes it must go hooded” approach and the others in agreement with Old Shellhead that the powers that be need to keep the super powers that are in line. Things come to a boil when a guerrilla terrorist who looks a lot like the Winter Soldier decides to blow up the parliament of Wakanda, thus claiming the life of its president (which provides just enough exposition to allow for series newcomer Chadwick Boseman to don the Vibranium catsuit). Interestingly, two franchise stalwarts – Thor and the Hulk, whose actors are presumably tied up in other contractual obligations – are nowhere to be found this time around.
From there, we get some back and forth jawing between Cap and Stark about the need/not need for superhero control legislation and a million-billion subplots, including a lengthy sequence in which The Vision tries food for the first time and a scene where Stark meets with this weird0 kid in New York who likes to retro compute and has the AILF-iest aunt of all-time. Oh, and he can shoot webs out of his hands and stick to walls or some other obscure mess – it’s hardly worth bringing up, really. (But seriously, though, this Tom Holland kid is great as Peter Parker, and his show-stealing performance her gives me a lot of hope for the next Spidey-reboot.)
Of course, the big plot twist can be seen coming from a mile away (you mean supernatural neo-Nazi criminal cartels would IMPERSONATE somebody else’s identity to commit their misdeeds?), and really, there isn’t a whole lot happening in the last 20 minutes of the film at all. Seriously, as soon as Cap and Bucky stop beating the tar out of Iron Man, it’s nothing but set-up for the forthcoming Black Panther and Spider-Man movies. And they aren’t even apologizing for the shameless off-ramping anymore – just like the last five minutes of a 1980s sitcom, it is all post-denouement cooldown, slowly simmering down to nothing more than a preview for next week’s episode.
Alas, despite the movie’s faults – and they are pretty big ones – I still consider this one of the more entertaining MCU movies to date. It may not have the refreshing change of atmosphere that Deadpool had, but I still think it outdoes the first two Avengers movies, and it’s WAY ahead of Dawn of Justice in pretty much every way you can think of. Watching the film, I was reminded of the philosophy of former ECW promoter Paul Heyman, who always said his number one booking rule of thumb was to “accentuate the strengths and hide the weaknesses” of his performers. Well, give the Russo Brothers credit (and maybe even a hearty “E-C-Dub” chant while you are at it), because their latest perfectly encapsulates that Heyman Tao. Yes, the story and character development is very lacking, but you really don’t notice it as much as you would think because what the movie excels at – action, action and oh yeah, more action – is just so dadgum exciting and well-done.
Civil War, at the end of the day, ain’t great cinema. Heck, even compared to the upper tier of comic book movies - Spider-Man 2, Burton's Batman, the first two Superman flicks - it doesn’t even fare that well. But as far as giving you instantly gratifying, cornball, pop-cultural, slam-bang sensory overload satisfaction, you more than get your money’s worth here.
If you want though-provoking, life-affirming, intellect stimulating commentary on the human condition, keep looking. You want to “ooo” and “awe” at make-believe man-gods making stuff explode real good for almost three hours – and let’s don’t pretend that we don’t have that particular itch every now and then – instead? Odds are, there won’t be another movie this year that gives you as big – albeit super-ficial – a wallop.
Two and Half Tofu Dogs out of Four