Like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War is an overstuffed, overlong superhero reunification bout, a simultaneous sequel to multiple films and a teaser for even more. It turns the franchise’s most popular characters into frenemies, adds new ones more than halfway through the movie, and ends without anyone dying or much being resolved. Both have lengthy subplots apologizing for the carnage of their predecessors, and villains who are decidedly un-super. If anything, all of these things apply to Civil War even more so than they do to BvS. It’s longer, has more characters, resolves less, apologizes more…
It’s also about as close to “objectively better” as it gets. You never feel like you have to go online to find an explanation for a scene you just watched, the tie-ins actually feel tied in, and best of all, the characters don’t wax philosophic about the levels of meaning of their respective symbolisms before they stage a big punch-fight. It’s the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world! God versus man! Day versus night! Son of Krypton versus– SHUT UP, LEX, I’M TRYING TO WATCH THE MAN PUNCHING!
Civil War‘s characters aren’t philosophers who mope around about “What does Superman even mean anymore” or “We were always criminals, Alfred,” they mostly just sort of act like children. When you strip away all the fluff, Civil War‘s conflict mostly comes down to this: Iron Man is mad at Cap’s friend, because Cap’s friend hurt Iron Man’s friends, and now the super-friends are torn apart based on who is whose better friend. Compared to a double daydream inspired by the one-percent doctrine, this actually counts as refreshing. It makes sense, at least. It’s not all puffed-up with existential buffoonisms while a manic Zuckerberg bounces around shouting the play-by-play.
Best of all, the centerpiece action sequence actually lives up to the hype. That’s rare in the superhero genre, and even for Marvel, where these scenes often exist solely to fill out the trailer. Remember Tony Stark’s collapsing house in Iron Man 3? I can understand people hating the movie when I think of that, even if The Mandarin reveal and his fleeing henchmen are some of the best scenes Marvel has ever done. Point is, to shoot an action setpiece that rises above the din in a genre sold largely on the basis of action setpieces is to achieve the nearly impossible. Civil War does it, with tension, humor, and most amazing of all, wonder. Can you believe these are the guys who directed You, Me, and Dupree? Can you believe Marvel hired the guys who directed You, Me, and Dupree? Can you believe Marvel hired the guys who directed You, Me, and Dupree, and it worked out for them? That’s amazing.
That said, the Batman V Superman comparison raises an obvious question: Do we really want to live in a Batman V Superman producer’s wet dream? It’s easy to be impressed by Civil War, it’s a lot harder to be happy about it. I mean good hustle, Marvel, but are we reviewing movies or a studio’s franchise plans?
I used to think the answer to that was obvious, but it’s not anymore. Lots of people are, undeniably, into reviewing studio franchise plans. Hey, guys, great job making money! Much better than those other jerks, are we best friends now?
Civil War has exactly one memorable scene (the previously-noted battle sequence team up). Civil War‘s main feat seems to be having created 147 minutes of reasonably entertaining #content while resolving nothing at all. Leave the resolution of all those storylines for future movies and television shows, I guess. Unlike Batman V Superman, Civil War also deserves a little credit for not ending with everyone having to team up to defeat some super bad guy or giant laser pointed at Earth. It ends instead, without spoiling too much, a lot like Ben Affleck’s The Town.
It remains to be seen, however, whether this ending truly is a break with formula or if they’re simply saving the space laser for another movie. Even Guardians of the Galaxy, one of Marvel’s best, still ends with a space laser. (Hold for commenter explaining why, actually, that plot device wasn’t really a space laser. This kind of commenter seems to be the target audience for this movie, by the way, those who live to explain the extremely subtle gradations in the standard formula.)
The entirety of Civil War is essentially a lover’s quarrel between The Avengers, the “they love each other but they just can’t get it together!” complication that goes at the beginning of the third act in every rom-com. Civil War manages to make that work pretty well, but as the philosopher Chris Rock once said, just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s to be done. You can drive a car with your feet if you want to, that don’t make it a good f*ckin’ idea.
Captain America: Civil War is a masterful feat of juggling, but does it have to be? Do we even like jugglers? The main draw seems to be the high-wire act of keeping all these characters, from Hanglider Man and Jake Archery to Cat Dude and the Farrah Haired Assassin (Scarlett Johansson actually spends the entire first scene in a wrap-style leather business suit) involved in the story, despite the inherent ridiculousness of that. But there are some downsides to this approach. Do we really need to keep Hawkeye and Black Widow around when the Scarlet Witch can explode people’s hearts with her mind, and Vision, the computer entity made real, is floating through walls? Maybe develop what you’ve got instead of just teasing it. Jeremy Renner’s charm can only stretch so far.
Also, I’ll say it: I miss villains. The charismatic supervillain was usually my favorite part of comic book movies, and they’ve been replaced by the machinations of shadowy cabals and Bourne-style procedural. Where’s the fun in that? And it’s not compelling in a cerebral way either, comic book plots ran out of real-world applications four movies ago. If you think I’m exaggerating about just how dry it’s gotten, the main source of conflict in Civil War is that the Avengers having to sign an agreement to be overseen by the UN. The UN! The UN couldn’t supervise the digging of a ditch, let alone a team of indestructible demigods led by a billionaire arms dealer who fly around on super-sonic jets that park in fortresses under the sea. You guys are seriously fighting over an agreement with the UN?
There are ways Civil War could have sold this plotline. Like, maybe a slippery fella like Tony Stark was more okay signing an unenforceable agreement he knew he’d never stick to than Cap, the Greatest Generation Boy Scout who does what he says and says what he means. Or maybe this UN is a comic book version of the UN that actually has power and accomplishes things. But Civil War didn’t sell it that way. It gave us Vengeance! Sad! Laws! Friend! Punch time! (Along with a black SUV flipping over and someone landing in a tripod stance, the Wilhelm Scream of the MCU)..
The consensus seems to be that Civil War is the best we can ask for of a comic book movie in the era of the expanded universe, and there’s certainly plenty of evidence of that. Namely the much crappier version that came out less than two months ago. But, I dunno, I’d like to think there’s still some room for improvement here.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.