Captain America: Civil War: Little Note Nor Long Remember, by Scott Nye

vlcsnap-2016-05-04-12h12m17s543As with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directors Anthony & Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely spend so much time ensuring Captain America: Civil War isn’t bad that they forget to make it actually good. Their plotting is as carefully-managed as their shot choices are incoherent and their character-building outright timid. This is fine for the CinemaSins crowd, for whom a film’s greatest virtue is to lack inconsistencies and contradictions (you know, human traits), but not for anyone interested in art or the human spirit. You’d think a career in such masterful, narratively economic sitcoms as Arrested Development and Happy Endings would make the Russos better judges of how to effectively sketch characters in a group dynamic, but all their resume really makes clear is the extent to which the conflict in this, like a half-hour comedy, just comes down to a crazy misunderstanding.Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is feeling guilty. His career as Iron Man has left him estranged from his girlfriend, Pepper, and put him too close to death too often. He is, he hopes, on his way towards retirement. When yet another Avengers mission leaves dozens of innocents dead, a public outcry leads the United Nations to demand an agreement that would put the superhero team under international supervision. Tony’s in favor, partially hoping some added oversight will minimize “collateral damage,” and partially hoping the agreement will be the sort of compromise Pepper might approve. Tony, as always, remains the only major character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with more than one layer, and Downey the only star who’s developed his character through the series.Which brings us to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a.k.a. Captain America, who opposes the U.N. plan. He feels the Avengers only works because they know what’s right, and can’t count on ever-changing leadership to retain a moral compass. Adding to his concern, the international community is presently hunting one Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s best friend from way back and, more recently, an expert assassin brainwashed by the villainous Hydra organization (see The Winter Soldier for this whole deal). Steve insists Bucky either never did anything wrong or was under mind control when he did, and isn’t wild about the shoot-on-sight order various government agencies have out for him. So he goes after Bucky himself, hoping to figure out what’s really going on.Imagine who ends up being right.The rest of the Avengers – sans the inconveniently-powerful Thor and Hulk, but adding the less-destructive Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) – are more or less split along party lines, conveniently aligning so that the balance of (super)power is not tilted in such a way that would decide the inevitable battle before it even starts. It’s unclear whether Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a shadowy figure manipulating certain events from afar, considered such balances as his evil plan slowly develops, but then he’s a pretty useless character anyway so let’s not bother with him any further. The film sure doesn’t.The general idea of Captain America and Iron Man divided over government oversight and leading forces of fellow superheroes to battle one another is inspired by a massive 2006 event story from the comics, but where that took forty years to build to and six months of innumerable tie-in issues to tell, the film compacts everything into a comparatively tight 140 minutes. The predictable effect has many supporting characters (Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man especially) fighting their friends for no discernible reason, and the teams form so quickly that those of us who didn’t watch the trailer fifty times mostly forget who’s on whose side when the battle comes. This would be tolerable if the much-hyped showdown was at all interesting. It’s horribly managed, pairing off various characters to fight one another in an endless series of fan-service sparring sessions that rarely relate to or build upon one another, and flatter than the pages it’s adapting.For as blandly-lit and unimaginatively-staged as their dialogue scenes are (it’s a shame the camera and lighting department wasn’t accounted for in Marvel’s massive budget), the Russos have an uncommonly bad eye for action. The opening espionage sequence is a mess of handheld camerawork that neither conveys what’s actually happening nor reaches the expressionist mayhem of our finer (vulgar) auteurs. A tunnel car chase is astounding in its conception and choreography, but only once you look past a shooting and editing scheme that lacks grace, grit, rhythm, or perspective. They cut incessantly, never motivated by a new action or development but simply to account for every set-up they produced. The Russos seem to have a camera everywhere without once putting it in the right place. They see everything and express nothing.It is remarkable, then, that the climactic showdown between Tony, Steve, and Bucky is so resonant. The stakes – once utterly arbitrary – are finally rendered in personal terms. Even Steve is allowed to act as irrationally as Tony, their selfishness and pride overtaking their plot-servicing motivation. For five or ten minutes, Captain America: Civil War becomes the film it has been insisting upon. But it’s the very definition of too little, too late, setting up a level of engagement it cannot resolve, because wouldn’t you know it, they’ve run out the clock and it’s time to wrap things up, too tidily and too suddenly. The film’s ideological sympathies were evident from the start, but by the end, they’re carried to too emotional a place to simply shrug them off. Usually such unconventional structure is admirable, but when it cut to the end credits at (by my estimation) the start of its third act, I felt shortchanged. For all their faults, Marvel has done a pretty good job of telling contained stories that contribute to a larger whole. Not here. This two-and-a-half hour film with two protagonists, nine key supporting players, and four other notable stars couldn’t even tell one story. Never mind narrative economy – where’s the story at all?

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6 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    Jesus, man. I’m not a fan of the MCU by any stretch, but this is downright scathing. It makes me want to see it more than a positive review would.

    I’m still not going to, though.

  2. FictionIsntReal says:

    A whole lot of the “contradictions” in Cinemasins videos aren’t even contradictions but ignorance or misunderstanding on the part of the folks making those videos. This is a pretty good dissection of one of theirs:

  3. Dan Roy says:

    “…the Russos have an uncommonly bad eye for action. The opening espionage sequence is a mess of handheld camerawork that neither conveys what’s actually happening nor reaches the expressionist mayhem of our finer (vulgar) auteurs.”

    They relied so heavily on handheld vérité in Winter Solder, and made almost no effort to make it a piece with the parts that can only be real in a comic book. Here’s a neat scene of Cap fighting guys in an elevator, now here’s Cap jumping out of the elevator and falling 20 stories (ugly, needless Avatar-style handheld zoom) and surviving, and here is some helicopter shots of Cap leaping from a motorcycle onto a harrier jet and defusing it single-handedly. They use the style so they can avoid stylistic decisions, ones that would make sense, because their audience is undemanding children who need a minimal amount of semaphore to conclude that this is a “70’s-style conspiracy thriller”.

    • Scott Nye says:

      Calum Marsh really nailed it when he said something along the lines of, “oh, so when you guys said Winter Soldier was a 70s-style conspiracy thriller, you meant a 90s-era James Bond movie.” This isn’t to knock the latter, as such, and I’m not even a gigantic fan of Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, but there’s a pretty wide gulf there. That serious people are still repeating this bit of ad copy two years later is…unfortunate.

      And I’m not against using vérité style amidst ridiculous stunts (I think the Bourne movies bridge this gap pretty effectively), but the Russos just don’t have a sense of how to utilize it. Everything “adds up” in that you can more or less tell what’s happening (really just the bargain-basement level of expectations on a movie that costs as much as these do). As you said, though, you still need to make decisions along the way – where to put the camera, how long to hold there, why you’re cutting when you do. Everything about their visual scheme suggests they just set up as many cameras as they could, anywhere they could, to ensure it would all “add up.”

      • Battleship Pretension says:

        While I don’t necessarily respond super well to how the Russos approach action, I will say that their chaotic sensibilities seem to make more sense for a hand-to-hand combat type of film, which is what we had in WINTER SOLDIER (which is why the elevator sequence worked so well for me). Captain America as a character operates on a much smaller level than other superheroes, so it makes sense that the action would be cut from that Bourne cloth.
        It’s only when the action requires a more epic scale (as in the big superhero battle in CIVIL WAR) that their instincts fail them. So I’m now officially worried about the action in INFINITY WAR, which will have a galactic scale that I don’t think they’ll be up to handling.

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