Is Marvel’s latest outing a dud?
Warning: this review contains mild spoilers for Captain America: Civil War and makes reference to several other Marvel Films.
Walking out of Captain America: Civil War, I felt amazing. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo had delivered the uncut geek ambrosia I had craved. As I walked back to my car, I thought of two things: first was asking when I could come back to watch it again and second was to realize this was the worst film that Marvel has made so far.
Every film ever made needs to be able to stand on it’s own. You might be able to give some films a pass by virtue of being numbered in a series but even then you should be able to experience a film independently. Civil War would be better titled “Marvel Cinematic Universe XIII”.
The film itself does not have a real character arc for the titular character Captain America played by Chris Evans. Instead what we have is the tail end or even an episode of a character arc. If you’ve never seen a Marvel movie before then this is not the place to start. Instead of a review I should be writing a primer on which movies you should see and which plot points to pay attention to in order to be prepared. Imagine all the problems of coming into the third part of a trilogy blind but multiplied by four (literally).
You can even see the Russo brothers acknowledging this. Ant-man, played by Paul Rudd, is the butt of multiple jokes about how people don’t know who he is winking at the audience with an understanding that not as many people saw the Ant-man movie as other MCU films. Spider-man is here played by Tom Holland. The Russos rely not on prior history of the MCU but on the five previous Spider-man films establishing the character and in doing so provide an almost perfect microcosm of this problem for the film as a whole.
Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, gets an introduction and a complete character arc that gives an internal complete character arc for those who have never seen another Marvel film and he defines a theme of the film. Part of how he helps define it is by explicitly stating the lesson he’s learned at the end of the film and thus violating Screenwriting 101.
This brings me to the writing, specifically the dialog. Movies can sometimes be seen like a laboratory experiment of creativity. Birdemic showed us what happens if Hitchcock’s the Birds was in the hands of a less capable director with almost no budget. In this case we’ve isolated very specific variables. The Russo brothers have been handed the same budget, cast, and world as Joss Whedon’s Avengers and turned in this entry. The dialog is about as far from the characteristic Whedon quips and though there is some humor the script is buoyed by the strength of all the actors delivery.
Unfortunately the actors cannot save the script from a plot that hinges on the machinations of an individual whose plans require that he, without any superpowers and a limited budget, be able to manipulate the United Nations, the CIA, and every single Avenger like he is playing both sides of a chess board. Some films get better the more you think about them but the more I think about Civil War the more I see the coming Honest Trailer.
But if the writing is merely adequate then surely all the praise for the action sequences seen across the internet must be onto something. Sadly I must say that once again prior viewing is necessary here. The action is very good and it is something new in the sense that we’ve never seen this many people with superpowers duking it out on the big screen before. More importantly though it feels intense because if you’ve seen the prior films then our attachment to all of these characters is so high that it feels more intense. While the uses of powers are creative the action choreography fails to convey as much of the emotion as it could. For example, at one point Hawkeye and Black Widow are fighting and pulling their punches. How do they communicate they are doing so? One of the other characters says says so.
Overall, I don’t mean to say that the film is without merit. In fact I’d personally give it an 8 out of 10. The action scenes are fun, the actors themselves are great, and the plot is fine if you don’t think about it too hard. Overall I think your average movie goer may enjoy this but they’ll probably be Googling things like “Is Wakanda a real country” after the film.
Speaking of googling things, let’s talk about what it takes for Marvel films to exist as they do. Occasionally a fan or critic will wax about how these films could not exist without modern CGI. As a kid who grew up with the 1970’s live action Spider-man movies and saw the glory of Christopher Reeve’s Superman on the big screen I must call shenanigans at this. Sure, the effects are better and you can do more but that is not the key. The key is that these films are being made in the era of the internet and cheap home video. Nothing illustrates this better than a single line near the end of the movie that adds a necessary emotional twist for the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man. At the time I watched it I was confused where it came from. Was this in an episode of Agents of Shield? No, it was a single second from Captain America’s second installment Winter Soldier that you can blink and miss. As someone who still thinks of Winter Soldier as the best Marvel film and has seen the movie ten times I missed it and needed the internet to clarify.
But what happens if you are too much into continuity? General Ross is a great example of something that doesn’t fit and it almost feels like the Russos skipped that movie. General Ross should ring a bell as one of the antagonists from the Incredible Hulk. For all the catastrophes he lists though there is a suspicious absence of Harlem for which he is responsible for the destruction.
Every time Marvel gears up for a movie there seems to be a breathless anticipation of “is this going to be a bad movie” or “is this one going to be the bomb” and now I realize that is the wrong question. Marvel Studios’s formula and business practice will not allow for a movie that is low in quality. What is going to someday kill these movies is continuity. As a comic book guy for many people, I’m often asked how much backstory and individual comic needs in order to actually understand it. Mainstream Superhero Comics as a whole have become a more insular as time has gone on. While I love it, I can see how daunting it is starting to become for new people to the franchise. How many hours of your life are you willing to give so that Infinity War will make sense? What happens when there are so many films to keep up with that average movie goers are no longer willing to give Marvel a pass?
If you are like me, then you’re going to see Civil War three times in the theater you’ll be putting some new touches on your Black Widow solo movie fan fiction. If you’re not like me and haven’t seen any Marvel movies then do yourself a favor and go rent Iron Man first and prepare for about ten hours of viewing before you’re ready to see Civil War.
Final Score: 11 out of 12 twelve movies needed for comprehension (you can skip Guardians of the Galaxy for now).