SPOILERS for Captain America: Civil War.
I made no secret about my distaste for Marvel Studios’s choice to adapt the messy Civil War storyline from the comics. Despite knowing that the movie would have to leave much of the comics’ disasters behind, I still grumbled about the decision again and again.
Do I feel differently after watching the film? Um, kinda? Is that an acceptably wishy-washy answer? I really enjoyed the feel of the film. I was never not entertained while watching, and thought it took its shaky premise and made the fucking most of it, with incredible action and some wonderful performances. You don’t need me to give a full review; if you read past the spoiler tag, you presumably already saw this high-octane thriller for yourself. Here’s just a half-hearted bullet-pointed list of some of the things that I enjoyed.
- Black Panther! I’m a massive fan of T’Challa from Christopher Priest’s superb run from the early 2000s, and I couldn’t have been happier with his introduction to the MCU. Chadwick Boseman rocked it, and the script made T’Challa perhaps the most reasonable character in the entire movie (quickly pivoting from seeking revenge to apprehending the real villain as soon as new information became available). Plus, his action scenes were an especially big delight, and his origin is basically entirely out of the way in advance of his solo film.
- Spider-Man! Another subject I ranted on that mostly paid off. Spidey’s introduction was abrupt and didn’t make much sense. (Bizarre that Tony would turn to an unknown in that situation; bizarre that Tony meets him, gets him outfitted, resolves his passport situation [and is he subject to the Accords or what?], and gets his team to Germany within 24 hours; bizarre that newly responsible Tony would risk a 15-year-old’s life; etc.) But then he started talking, and who cared! Spidey bantering up a storm during a fight is everything, and took the already great airport scene up a further notch.
- Ant-Man! Shit, I ranted about him too? Whatever! Scott already won me over in his solo film, and meshed well here. Plus, Giant Man, already!
- So much awesome action! Visually, this was Marvel’s best movie ever, with some beautifully choreographed fight scenes that really took the film to the next level. I could probably do a thousand words on just this bullet point, but yeah, you saw it, which means you already loved the action too.
- Some heart! The ability to sell the Steve/Bucky relationship really helped smooth out some of the rougher edges, and Tony’s emotional investment in his parents (well, his mom) was the only thing that made the climax possible. In fact, the latter deserves its own bullet point.
- RDJ’s finest hour! On my second viewing of the film, I decided that Robert Downey Jr. might have had his finest acting moment of the MCU in setting up that climax. Before Zemo reveals that Bucky murdered Tony’s parents (plenty more on that soon), Iron Man and Cap have made up, and things are pretty much square between them and their conflict. But then the reveal happens, and Tony throws away that peace. It’s no longer about his and Steve’s shaky ideological differences, but rather raw, irrational emotion. Unlike their previous fights, Tony doesn’t care if he’s even in the right; he just wants revenge. When Downey delivers that line — “I don’t care. He killed my mom.” — I sincerely felt it, and all the history and anguish behind it. Another actor might have overplayed the emotion there, but Downey gives it a hint of flatness, managing to convey sadness, anger, but above all, a certain exhaustion. That death broke a part of him, and all the other deaths since then that he feels guilty about have only made it worse. It felt like, in that moment, Tony couldn’t stop if he wanted to. Whatever the problems with that revelation, the film saved it for the perfect moment. You couldn’t have built the entire movie around that one emotional reaction, but an angry climax? I truly bought it, and loved it.
The above (and plenty more I’m sure I could mention) made me really like Captain America: Civil War. It was a damn good movie. It didn’t crack my top four in the MCU (in some ever-changing order: Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, Iron Man, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but there’s no shame in that; it’s a tough top four to crack. It might have a good shot at fifth, but I need some time and distance to fairly evaluate that.
But the film had quite a few problems for me, too. My previous rants revolved largely around the ability to sell the Captain America/Iron Man conflict at all, and with the exception of the final climax between them, I remained unconvinced. Neither character’s position ended up making a ton of sense. For Cap, it seems implausible that someone so dedicated to ideals of justice and freedom would be so immovable about basic accountability so that the Avengers don’t have free reign to trample others’ freedoms around the world. His concerns about political agendas is certainly well-founded, especially after Winter Soldier, but it would have been far more in-character for him to be immediately leading a charge for a better system of accountability, rather than the charge for none. He was, after all, the one angrily confronting Tony in Age of Ultron about being held accountable for Ultron. (Sidenote: neither Cap 2 nor 3 really sold his romance with Sharon Carter, even though she was an otherwise cool character in Civil War.)
Tony’s point of view is little better. The film hinges, in part, on believing he’s so scarred by his personal failures in Age of Ultron that he wants to be held in check. But keep in mind what actually happened in AoU. Tony created Ultron, saw him nearly defeat the Avengers, saw him escape into the internet and become potentially unstoppable, saw him murder people and gain the ability to murder a lot more, and how does Tony react to his failure? He still activates Vision: another, more powerful robot that Ultron created for nefarious purposes. That hardly seems like someone terribly scarred. Sure, he’s viscerally confronted with a death he helped cause, and I’ll give Civil War credit for attempting to build in actual consequences to the MCU’s obvious collateral damage. But Civil War does a poor job of actually pinning anything bad on the Avengers. New York? Alien invasion that the Avengers foiled, and the “oversight” available at the time would have nuked NYC (killing millions — which the Avengers also had to foil). Washington D.C.? Literally entirely because of evil quasi-governmental oversight. Lagos? A terrorist with a suicide bomb who would have killed many people regardless; all Wanda did was change the location of where it went off. (Naturally, none of these very obvious arguments are even mentioned.) The only thing that can be laid at the Avengers’ feet is Ultron, which was all Tony. Great, regulate Tony (he’s for it!) and leave everyone else out of it.
More frustrating is that when the plot introduces the secret threat of the other super soldiers, Steve and Tony have a brief opportunity to just talk it out, which should have been so, so easy. Instead, Tony dismisses it as Steve being warped by being too close to the situation…which makes no sense in the context of that conversation. Steve’s closeness to Bucky has zero bearing on whether there’s a secret army of super soldiers, but Tony doesn’t so much as listen to the suggestion of that threat.
The bottom line being: Civil War was sold as these characters’ natural growth leading them to an inevitable conflict, but it never really sold that inevitability, nor even that this was a natural growth for either character. Secondary characters, admittedly, were far better developed in their motivations: Vision’s mathematical logic, and Black Widow’s simple pragmatism (which lent itself equally well to her letting Cap go since he wouldn’t stop anyway) were particularly convincing to me. But the main conflict ultimately had one core thing in common with the gross comic from which it took its name: the heroes only fought because it would make money, and it didn’t really matter if that made them act out of character. The film hid it far better, but the underlying flimsiness still existed.
But I can still forgive most of that; yes, the premise was flimsy, but the movie did a GREAT job of running with it, and avoiding a lot of pitfalls along the way: e.g., setting up the emotional climax so well, and not letting anyone (well, any heroes) actually die over this avoidable conflict.
I have a harder time getting over the movie’s villain problem. The MCU has struggled with most of its villains, and sadly, Civil War was ultimately no exception. Colonel (née Baron) Zemo was often effective as a villain, thanks in large part to the great Daniel Bruhl giving such a well-acted performance. His insistence that the heroes should not walk away unscathed, as he did not, had a believable pathos to it, as did his quiet resignation to (attempted) suicide. But literally no part of his plan makes any sense. Let’s recap:
- Zemo was able to hack the HYDRA files that Black Widow released because of his military training. Ok, sure, I buy that. But…why would he hack them? We’re given no indication that he would have known about the Winter Solider prior to the hack, much less that the Winter Soldier had killed Tony Stark’s parents. There was no reason for him to think that his key to hurting the Avengers was in there. Which means that a random fishing expedition worked out AMAZING for Zemo, since what must have been a shot in the dark revealed the literal perfect bait to put the Avengers in conflict.
- This is especially amazing for Zemo, because he had nothing to do with the Accords themselves. His “plan” was already in motion before an incredibly long list of events had to happen to make conditions ripe for him to take advantage. If Tony and Steve weren’t already at conflict, would his Winter Soldier nugget have still had such effect?
- And what file did he hack that gave him enough information to know that the Winter Soldier was involved on an important mission on a specific date, but neglected to give enough information so that he still needed to find out more from Bucky himself?
- It worked out even more amazing for Zemo that HOLY CRAP THERE WAS VIDEO of Bucky’s murder of Tony’s parents, perfectly framed to show all the action including a clear shot of Bucky’s face, despite this being on a wooded road that we’re given no indication would have any importance or need for surveillance. That might be the biggest sin of insane convenience of the entire MCU.
- Sure was also lucky for him that Bucky gets captured (and not killed, which could have easily! happened) and taken to the exact place he already planning to hit with the EMP. Sure is even luckier that the U.N. task force’s first move is, surprisingly, to bring in a psychiatrist. (I sincerely appreciate that, hopefully, our international brethren are less bloodthirsty than us Americans and wouldn’t torture Bucky. But going straight to psychiatrist over an attempt at military debriefing? Ehh.) Luckier that it was the exact psychiatrist Zemo had already killed and taken the place of. And sure, I’ll buy that he had studied procedures to know that all of this would happen (though it’d still be a super complicated plan), but Zemo doesn’t even disguise himself as the psychiatrist (like he disguised himself as Bucky to frame him). Even assuming also that he stole identification, Zemo loses if even ONE PERSON there happens to know this psychiatrist (which someone should if he’s first on their speed dial!) and point out that Zemo looks nothing like him.
- Finally, Steve, Bucky, and Tony all show up to apprehend him at the same time — something he couldn’t have really planned for, though setting up the discovery that he’d been posing as the doctor was apparently intended to pull Tony in. But even then, Tony only knew where to go because Falcon got captured and was willing to tell Tony. So for Zemo to be able to spring his super convenient videotape at such a perfect moment (with Cap, Bucky, and Iron Man all together) requires for Cap and Bucky to come to the compound to stop Zemo, for someone Cap told about this plan to get captured, for Tony to hear about the doctor’s death and decide to ask that captured person, for them to tell Tony despite having cause to not trust him, for Tony to go alone (without telling Secretary Ross, despite the Accords — which Tony is FOR), and for all of that to work out so that the heroes all get there at pretty much the same time. That’s fucking ridiculous.
In an attempt to be clever, the film ends up taking Zemo on waaaay too many twists and turns until he’s less of a grieving widower and more of an all-powerful psychic, able to predict and take advantage of the future (and hell, the past). This level of villainy becomes absurd, and wastes a fine acting performance.
And that’s how we end up with the title of this post. Civil War was flawed — but it managed to overcome the flaws with a lot of fun parts, too. In the end, it managed to be good and enjoyable. Was the premise a good idea? I honestly don’t know. The number of contorsions the plot puts itself through to try to deliver its premise makes me want to say no; not when easier, more sensible options were available. But then I think about the final result, that I was incredibly entertained and had a blast despite all the things I just ranted about. And isn’t that the whole point of the movie’s existence? Well, yes.
So, ok. Marvel rants over — for now, at least — with Marvel winning. It was a flawed idea with flawed execution, but damn, it was as good as I could have asked for.