Captain America: Civil War isn’t officially an Avengers movie, but I already wish they’d kept Joss Whedon to direct it.
In many ways, Civil War is The Avengers: Age of Ultron Part 2. In the direct aftermath of that movie and the disaster in Sokovia, the New Avengers are involved in another disaster in Lagos, Nigeria. With support from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) presents the group with the Sokovia Accords, which put the group under U.N. oversight. The New Avengers fracture, with Stark saying they have no decision-making process in place and must be held accountable and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) holding that international oversight could lead to disaster.
Meanwhile in what feels like a completely separate movie, the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is seeking information on the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Zemo sets his plan in motion by framing Barnes for bombing the U.N. meeting where the Accords are to be signed, setting Rogers on a frantic scramble to find his childhood friend before authorities carry out their kill-on-sight order. Rogers’ search immediately puts him outside the bounds of the Accords.
So, this movie uses actual colors, and while there are a shocking number of parents’ deaths as plot points, nobody’s first name is brought up. In context, releasing a month after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice after having that weird standoff where they were going to release the same day and a long string of promotional material that all looked exactly the same, it’s impossible to call Civil War bad. The bar has been set too low. But out of that context, this movie should have been a lot better than it is.
This movie was eight years in the making. Over the course of the past dozen films — literally, a dozen of them — we’ve seen Stark go from a devil-may-care playboy who sells bombs and doesn’t ask where they go off to trying to end war, first by taking everybody’s guns away, then by creating Ultron and now by treating his own friends like nukes — and he’s got an argument. Rogers has gone from a hard-line government man and even a propaganda object to someone with a deep distrust of the government. Civil War is the movie where those conflicting views on authority and all the heartbreak that lead these characters to their stances was supposed to explode onto the screen, and it doesn’t. It kind of walks on, waves and off, like a gorilla in an awareness test video.
Almost all of this movie’s problems stem from its tone. Civil War is pandemonium. This is a movie that has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be or how it wants to make the audience feel. In several key junctures when the tension is really starting to mount, it cuts away to a vaguely sinister rom-com scene between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) or a tracking shot of Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) butt — a shot with which his character is introduced, by the way — leading into a scene where Stark won’t stop hitting on Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). The movie never holds on to its momentum, either because the plot is too convoluted or because it just doesn’t want to.
The tonal inconsistency is more than just scene-to-scene — in some cases, it’s shot-to-shot. The big airstrip fight scene, when all the movie’s superheroes come together and have it out, is the most prominent and most egregious culprit. Almost every fight is undermined by the combatants cracking wise. It makes sense for Spider-Man or Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), witty characters who don’t really have horses in the race, but everybody’s doing it. From moment to moment to moment, you go from characters who have stood by each other and saved the world once or twice coming to blows over the role of heroism on the world stage to a light-hearted moment between old friends. Even aside from the obnoxious shaky-cam making the action barely followable, it’s almost impossible to get into the scene emotionally.
With two very similar Captain America movies under their belts, it’s clear where Avengers 3 directors Anthony and Joe Russo want to take these movies, and it’s an about face for the franchise. Batman Begins changed superhero movies forever in 2005 by grounding Batman in realism, creating a feeling that Marvel masterfully recreated in its first phase and that DC has been falling all over itself trying to recreate ever since. Some of the best scenes in Iron Man are of Stark testing his inventions. We see the power he’s working with put into context, and the movie makes a genuine effort at building a flight suit. We see it again in Captain America: The First Avenger when Rogers chases down a car, a sequence shot to make this feat of strength feel as world-breaking as it is. Even in movies with more fantastic characters like Thor and Hulk, the movies are still clearly set in a real world and their displays of power are as truly fantastic as they should be.
Fast-forward to Civil War, and Captain America throwing his mighty shield is literally a joke. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has a stealth hoverjet and a vibranium catsuit just laying around. Even Stark’s realistic technology is undermined — James Rhodes’ (Don Cheadle) War Machine armor is fitted with a sonic cannon as a non-lethal way to take out his friends, which is real technology used by real riot police, but it’s given a crappy pulsing ring animation straight out of the early-90’s X-Men cartoon.
Despite the movie’s plot hinging on their world-breaking powers, it feels like their powers don’t matter, and in some scenes they really don’t. Barnes’ enhancements begin and end with his Anakin Skywalker arm, but in an early scene he’s shown jumping several stories and outrunning cars just like Captain America can. Superhero movies have some of the coolest and most interesting fight scenes because of how different their characters’ powers can be, but here it’s all kind of the same. Everybody uses Rogers’ hyper-athletic boxing — or Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) dramatized judo, if they’re ladies — the flyers all fly and all the energy blasts look and behave the same way. Everybody’s praising this as an action movie, but the action is pretty lazy.
Civil War has a lot of the same problems Winter Soldier did, and like its predecessor, the critical consensus on this isn’t just wrong, it’s exactly wrong. People are saying these are less comic book movies and more really good movies with comic book characters in them, but this is one of the cheesiest, tackiest, most comic book movies I’ve ever seen. The realism that made Iron Man so engaging and the character connection that made The Avengers so sharp are completely gone. Everybody praised The Winter Soldier for its deep themes and this movie obviously has those in spades as well, but it’s disingenuous to claim that depth when the movie only scratches the surface. If this is what you’re into, that’s wonderful, but don’t call it “realistic” when you mean “I enjoyed it.”
The narrative for years leading up to this showdown was that even if Civil War wasn’t great, it would look like it because it’d be better than the nearby Dawn of Justice, but there’s an argument to be made that it isn’t. Dawn of Justice also failed to explore its themes, but it was because of incompetent filmmaking. Civil War fails to explore its themes because it just doesn’t want to.
This discussion wouldn’t be complete without addressing the movie’s plot, which is just as nonsensical as the tone. Were the Sokovian Accords written by idiots who don’t realize the death toll of that battle could have read “all?” How did Stark know Parker is Spider-Man? Who the hell is Everett Ross, and why did they get Martin Freeman to play him for 40 seconds of screentime? Is it going to be explained in an entirely different movie? It’s going to be explained in an entirely different movie, isn’t it? Are Rogers and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) a thing now? And don’t tell me this was explained in Agents of Shield or whatever. Isn’t it kind of weird to be dating your ex’s niece? Are Vision and Maximoff a thing? And I know they’re all couples in the comics, but fuck off, OK? If you’re willing to pick parts of the story to just skip because viewers know how it ends, you shouldn’t be making movies at all.
Then there’s the nonsense related to Zemo, which is a whole other thing. Major spoilers below.
It turns out Zemo was a Sokovian special forces officer who lost his family in Age of Ultron. Knowing how important Barnes is to Rogers, Zemo’s frame-job is an attempt to break the team up. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the whole other plotline around Hydra’s other winter soldiers, who are never brought out of hybernation. It’s a huge, dramatic reveal in the movie, which sets itself up for a climactic battle between Rogers and five similarly enhanced soldiers, but Zemo kills them in their sleep and that plot point never goes further than a flashback. The movie would have worked just fine with Zemo cut and the action scene at the start with Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) moved to after the Accords signing to stir the pot. In a movie that was trimmed down from three hours to two and a half, this plotline should have been the first thing to go.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.