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