Before we get into it, I want to credit my friend Gamal with the title of this review, so if you think it’s dumb, direct all complaints to him.
So you mean to tell me that Marvel, one of the most profitable entertainment brands, which is owned by Disney, which is not only even more profitable, but super protective when it comes to making money, made a movie in which its two biggest heroes face off in what is essentially an ideological battle? In an election year? Shit’s about to get real.
Hold your thinkpieces! Before we go off on why Iron Man is clearly Hillary Clinton, and debate whether Captain America’s politics lie closer to Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, consider the following: This is a story in which the heroes disagree so hard on a issue they decide the best way to settle the thing is to punch each other silly. And these are the good guys! Meanwhile, real politics have grown so intolerant an unapologetic racist is the Republican nominee, while movements like #BernieOrBust show people on the other side unwilling to compromise within their own political party. Dialogue is dying in American politics, and it’s giving way to dogmatic ideology. Civil War, a movie about superheroes unable to talk through their problems, had to be the most fascinating and daring blockbuster in a long, long time… right?
Sadly -very sadly- Civil War is not that movie. The movie does, indeed, begin with the introduction of the Sokovia Accord, which demands The Avengers sign off to be a United Nations-controlled group, and stop acting out with impunity, you know, so that government can get a say on when and where cities get destroyed by these world-saving heroes. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks this is a good idea, especially after being confronted by a grieving mother (played by the great Alfre Woodard, whom I hope got a big fat check for her one scene) who lost her son during the last Avengers movie’s climax. Captain America (Chris Evans), doesn’t trust the agendas of shady politicians, so he refuses to sign the deal.
This conflict essentially puts one form of fascism against another. Either you let super-powered people do whatever they want, or you let the state decide when and how those people get to use their powers. It’s tricky ground, and so the movie decides to abandon it pretty quickly and give over to a melodramatic plot about mistaken identities. You see, on the day these Sokovia Accords are to be signed, a bomb goes off killing a bunch of high-ranking officials -including the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The government think Captain America’s old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) a.k.a. The Winter Soldier is the guy behind the bombing. The Captain thinks he knows better. Bucky couldn’t have done such a thing.
Unlike the political ramifications of guaranteeing both liberty and safety in a world full of super-powered creatures, the question of whether some guy bombed a place seems incredibly simple. Either he did or he didn’t. And because Captain America is on his side and the movie bares his name, we know the guy’s innocent. Complexity and ambition give way to lame effectiveness. It’s hard to blame the filmmakers for this shift. After all, it’s far easier (and safer) to write a movie about two sides trying to find a guy before the other than it is to somehow integrate explosions in a story about complicated legislation, but wouldn’t it have been awesome if it this HAD been a movie about that?
A lot of critics have compared Civil War favorably to Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, pointing out that it’s a far tighter and coherent movie. I can’t argue with that. But those movies, imperfect as they were, not only set their sight considerably higher than Civil War, but offer pleasures this movie seems incapable of grasping.
Age of Ultron is an overstuffed philosophical treatise on the nature of super-heroes and the consequences of their actions, and explores this subject more thoroughly in one conversation between evil robot Ultron and the benevolent Vision, than Civil War does in its two-hour-plus running time. Meanwhile, Batman v. Superman is a horrible mess, yes, that nonetheless indulges in all kinds of iconic imagery, turning popular culture into religious myth. It doesn’t quite succeed, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t shoot for the stars.
What pleasures does Civil War offer? A bunch of cool action beats that are drowned out by the incompetent, chaotic direction of Anthony and Joe Russo, and a couple of amusing scenes, particularly those involving Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who are adorably excited to be part of this movie, and who are very tellingly not a big part of the main narrative. Beyond that, the movie’s big plot about whether or not Bucky is innocent is a big dud, and the action -beyond the annoying shaking camera- is hurt by a supreme lack of stakes.
The movie’s biggest set piece -the much publicized face-of between the two superheroic factions at the Leipzig airport- comes without any stakes whatsoever. When we all know that Marvel is not going to have Captain America bash in Iron Man’s face. Money-making superheroes are not actually going to kill each other, so why pretend? It’s all one big joke, with lots of wisecracking and admittedly funny, but profoundly inconsequential fights. When someone finally gets hurt, the moment lands with a thud, since it’s soon revealed that, don’t worry, the guy will be fine.
So, if this is clearly not a movie about political ideologies in conflict, then what is it actually about? The villain is one Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), and he is basically just a guy with a grudge. There is something along the lines of a mere “dude” being able to get the heroes to destroy themselves from within, which is fine, if all you want is an acceptably plotted movie and a bunch of jokes about Superheroes having to ride a VW Beetle (the guy riding in the back needs more legroom!). I know one is supposed to review the movie one has seen, and not the movie one wishes one had seen. All I’m saying is, I think my idea was cooler.
Grade: 5 out of 10