It is safe to say that Marvel Studios are officially the team to beat, dominating the market and leaving their competitors wondering what to do with their respective ‘cinematic universes’. While there are certainly flaws within their slate of films, the Marvel way has yet to produce an out and out bad movie, each of their offerings only serves to strengthen their brand and satisfying audiences, both the diehards and newcomers alike.
After the collateral damage of their previous adventures, the governments of the world seek regulation of the Avengers, putting them directly under the watch of the governments of the world, this decision splits the team into two camps, with Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) leading the team who are pro regulation and governmental oversight, while Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) takes the other argument, refusing to sign up for what he see as a political powerplay. As the ideological conflict escalates, Captain America’s friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Soldier, resurfaces by orchestrating a terrorist attack. Iron Man and his pro regulation team are tasked to bring Barnes in but Captain America forms his own renegade band of heroes in an attempt to seek out his friend, to investigate the reason for Barnes’ actions.
As past films by the studio can attest, storytelling is the name of the Marvel game, the plot comes first and foremost. Every other element of production works for the script than with it, this benefits the film, as it gets a solid backbone for the rest of its production components to work around. Captain America: Civil War is the most refined attempt at perfecting the plot driven Marvel Method. The economy of the screenplay shares more characteristics with a well-oiled engine than a piece of art. Every character and action has a function to serve the movie’s two major narratives, the simmering conflict between Captain America and Iron Man as well as Bucky’s past operations as the Winter Soldier, the two story-lines gradually gaining momentum, funneling towards the climax.
The film wastes no time in setting up its twin narratives, each scene built upon by the next, there is nothing superfluous and every dramatic action adds to the overall story. Simple touches like a university presentation by Tony Stark adds to tapestry of the plot. Even the opening battle in Lagos isn’t a throwaway, as the Avengers battle paramilitary soldiers, the scene establishes the classic Marvel theme of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. It is the small elements that make the movie more than the sum of its parts. All the set up, in order to deliver a big pay off. The climax of the movie only cuts deep into the viewer because the first act manages to put all the pieces in place so brilliantly.
By the second act, with the foundations of the narrative set in stone, the Avengers are ready to be disassembled into their respect ideological beliefs. Resulting in an action packed second act, full of car chases through busy rush hour traffic and fight scenes on rooftops, culminating in the glorious superhero battle royale at the airport. Aside from its occasionally problematic cinematography, the second act is where the film truly takes shape. The airport sequence is one of the most inspired moments in the film, unstoppable forces and immovable objects clash in a storm of laser and steel, throwing all the caution and grimness that has been built up in the first act to the wind. As if, the movie suddenly remembers that it is a Marvel movie. We have to have fun.
The second act also highlights one of first of many problems with the characters due to its emphasis on plot. Character motivations are in constant flux, such as Captain America’s reason for going rogue. His motivations constantly flip flop between taking a stand against government oversight and saving Bucky. The tone is more or less consistent but the characters, due to their service to the plot, rarely are.
Aside from a few problems with cinematography, the airport scene is not only a well-executed one but its importance cannot be overstated, simply because as audiences, we are truly spoilt now. Bear in mind, a decade ago, with character movie rights all over Hollywood, a Marvel superhero team up at this scale is supposed to be impossible, creatively, legally and logistically. Fast forward to 2016, it may be the norm but it is still a massive undertaking. For crying out loud, we get ringside seats to a battle between two superhero teams, we have Iron Man and the Falcon trading aerial skirmishes, Captain America locked in a battle of New Yorkers with Spider-Man (Tom Holland), this is a HUGE DEAL. In many ways, it is a privilege to be alive now, to get the opportunity to be observing something like this. I had to pinch myself a few times. I am not worthy.
The first act finally pays off in the third, as Marvel proves it is not how you start but it is how you finish. Once the climax is reached, the narrative dots connect instantaneously and in a magnificent feat of storytelling, Marvel plays its final trick and produces a remarkable revelation that will leave you both slack jawed but thoroughly satisfied. For those who have not yet pick a side, this film is taking it down the wire, you may think you know who you are rooting for but really, you don’t.
As tight as the script is, there are consequences for placing the story at a pedestal. It very nearly renders every character a function for the script. They do not act out of character but neither do they act in it, just plot devices wrapped in brightly coloured spandex. This is the unfortunate case for the title character. Captain America is criminally underwritten, he does something not because he is compelled to as a character but because the script demands it. It might be his movie, but it is in name only, you can substitute Captain America with any other character and the plot will still turn out the same way. The struggle against regulation and assisting his alleged terrorist friend could have opened up interesting questions on the morality and ethical code of the Star Spangled Avenger, but they remain untested.
Evans puts in a serviceable performance, there is not much for him to do dramatically, he is still the same Captain America we are familiar with. But perhaps that is the problem, Steve Rogers quite literally, behaves like the man out of time, there is no character evolution since his first appearance on film in 2011’s First Avenger, what we have on screen remains a shell of the character. This is a superhero who wears the American Flag as his costume but there is no attempt to factor it into the plot of his own movie, his iconography and myth left unexplored. A wasted opportunity.
Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes is more plot device than character. He is the reason and driving force for the plot but he never gets a dramatic, character developing moment on screen. Bucky is usually on screen punching something or running away. Regardless of his importance to the story, he gradually fades into the background, as the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man comes to the fore. Sebastian Stan isn’t bad as Bucky, you just expect him to have more to do than just scowl and lunge at people.
Iron Man’s much more serious demeanour is an interesting, if not an always successful experiment. This new focused and humourless Tony Stark does add a new dimension to the character and really intensifies the seriousness of the film’s tone. That said, Robert Downey Jr’s charisma is heavily reliant on reacting to the performances of his co-stars, so if said co-star is written uninterestingly, Tony Stark’s monologues fall flat. This is the case with every interaction Downey has with Chris Evans, both of them are trying to make you care about their arguments and opinions but it resembles petty squabbling. You just want them to hurry up and start punching each other.
Tony Stark fairs better in scenes with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Spider-Man, the former manages to hold her own as a character and the latter’s small appearance brings back the fun factor of the first Avengers movie. But once again, similar to the comic book mythology of Captain America and Bucky Barnes, Tony Stark’s pragmatic and futurist leanings are left untouched, the Iron Man as technological saviour is reduced to a mere man in an iron mask, obeying his superior’s orders and shooting laser beams.
I understand that Marvel Studios has a tendency to portray their superheroes as regular joes and janes, they are not gods and goddesses. Despite their costumes and appearances symbolizing a higher, elemental purpose, the heroes are neither iconic figures of pop mythology nor cultural touchstones. But everything that makes them unique besides their costume is stripped away in this film. This is a fun, entertaining summer movie but with an overemphasis on plot, the majority of the superheroes featured in Captain America: Civil War aren’t really that interesting. They are written like a formulaic boyband, their roles divided into a single mode of emotion, the serious one, the bad boy, the clown and the leader. A reminder that the script, while a remarkable feat of narrative construction, serves both as the film’s strongest point and biggest limitation in terms of creative exploration.
If anything, along with the theme of power and responsibility, the superheroes’ characterization really displays, clear as day, Marvel’s cinematic intentions, they are more than willing to ask hard questions but if it detracts from the overall cinematic product, they are not afraid to play it safe and leave you without a definite answer.
The supporting cast fare much better in their limited screentime, perhaps because of it, we don’t spend too much time with them to get tired of their single mode character work. The highly anticipated appearance of Spider-Man is well worth the wait. The crown jewel of Marvel has finally returned home, clearly inspired by Steve Ditko’s beautifully traditional character design from his masterful 1960s run on the comic, Spider-Man reinvigorates the film at its halfway mark, his arrival immediately lightens the mood and giving Tony Stark a much needed verbal sparring partner with his motor mouth delivery. Credit to Tom Holland for the amazing portrayal, not many actors can cross verbal swords with Downey’s Stark and walk away the last man standing, but Holland manages to out-quip Marvel’s residential quip master.
Chadwick Boseman is phenomenal as T’Challa, giving a layered, relatable and at times tortured performance as the Wakandan king. I dare say it, Black Panther is probably the most well developed character in the entire film and the only one who has a defined story arc that runs the character through several stages of emotional conflict. You come in for Captain America and Iron Man but Black Panther will be the one on your minds after the dust is settled. One does wonder though, with his origin story out of the way, what does Marvel plan for the character. T’Challa brings a more serious tone to the Marvel universe, one that clashes with the overall foundational aesthetic. Is the Marvel universe growing up? Highly unlikely, but worth a thought.
In spite of Marvel turning their heroes into everymen and women, the greatest example of such a treatment does not come in the form of any of the heroes but in the villain. Colonel Zemo is a refreshing counterpoint to the Avengers, he stands out as a villain, due to his ordinariness. Daniel Bruhl plays it straight and understated with a damaged serial killer’s edge. In several scenes, Bruhl looks so mundane, he actually merges with the crowd of extras. A colourless John Doe in the midst of a colourful world.
The creative timidness that has plagued other aspects of the film also extends to the technical aspects of Civil War. Cinematography is, for an epic superhero beatdown, shockingly generic, it looks too clean for a film about collateral damage. Visually, there isn’t anything that is different from the other Marvel Studio movies. It may be a shared universe, and consistency is key but there are no stylistic flourishes or excellent use of imagery. The cinematography rather tell you the story than show it. The fight scene and chase sequences in the second act when Captain America searches for Bucky is mired in incoherence, while not shaky cam, the cinematography still generates a similar effect by zooming in too close into the punch. The action is neither crisp nor comprehensible, they tell audiences of the aftermath of a punch but never show you the impact.
Glaring misuse of wide shots also dampen the otherwise stellar airport action setpiece, while it is an improvement over the other fight and chase sequences in the second act, there are several indications that visual style is not something that is prized in the MCU. Wide shots of the heroes in a tense standoff can be photographed as monumental events. Instead, we are left with tiny, almost insignificant figures running into each other. With the abuse of wide shots, one gets the effect of standing in the airport looking out and watching the heroes in combat. It is realistic sure, but do we really want it to be realistic? Don’t we want such an experience to be Amazing? Spectacular? Sensational? I would.
The music while not atrocious, is also nothing to shout about, it is good enough but lacks any character or soul. None of the characters have any iconic motifs, nothing that truly signal the arrival of a hero or a victory after a hard fought battle, nothing that you can hum on your ride home.
Considering the sheer scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this should not be happening, these are iconic characters with rich, illustrious histories. The notion that none of the characters have any aural significance diminishes their mystique. It is an extremely damning and tragic fact, that after 3 movie phases, 8 years and 13 movies since the first Iron Man, the only instantly recognizable sound, the only thing that is truly aurally iconic, is Iron Man’s repulsor blast sound effect.
This is cinema now. This is what it looks and sound like. With the current trend of movie franchising and branding, we just might be witnessing the evolution of the director in blockbuster filmmaking. The artist has taken the back seat to commerce, formula has overruled artistic (but not commercial) ambition, the Russo Brothers has done an amazing job as directors at the helm and yet we do not see any stylistic elements that would qualify as their own directorial trademarks, their artistry and craftsmanship are all but invisible.
For better, Captain America: Civil War is a thoroughly entertaining and terrifically crafted film with a intriguing story. For worse, you don’t have to scratch too far past the surface to notice that, Marvel’s latest offering is aesthetically and stylistically identical to the rest of their previous output. What happened to all the artists and creative visionaries? Who cares! The movie is fun! Too far gone, are the days of ‘Jolly’ Jack Kirby and ‘Smilin’’ Stan Lee.
The Marvel house style is now the only style, the House of M reigns. If you enjoy it, fair play to you but if you don’t, you better get used to it, this winning team looks like it will be winning for a long, long time.
Offers nothing stylistically original to the table and is hampered by weak protagonists. But the razor sharp focus on plot carries the movie through its weaker moments, allowing it to succeed as a piece of popcorn entertainment. To put it in context with the rest of its rivals in the genre, Marvel is so far ahead on points, it is their game to lose now.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/