Captain America and Iron Man stand-off in overblown Captain America: Civil War
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Emily VanCamp (Sharon Carter), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Frank Grillo (Crossbones), William Hurt (Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross), Daniel Brühl (Helmet Zemo), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), John Kani (T’Chaka), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Hope Davis (Maria Stark), Alfre Woodward (Mariah Dillard)
Captain America: Civil War is another explosive entry in the MCU, and is even more stuffed than usual, with nearly all our Avengers thrown into the mix – with the added twist that they fight each other! Yup it’s time for another playground argument: “If X fought Y, which one would win?!” That’s the main thrust of Captain America: Civil War, but it’s actually a distraction from the real plot. The much hyped fight at the airport (and the build-up to it) is a rather dull hour in the middle that distracts from a richer, more interesting film.
There is dissent in the ranks of the Avengers. The UN wants them to sign the “Zukovian Accords” – an agreement that they will work only under the direction of the UN. For Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) this legal framework for their actions is essential – but Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) argues that the Avengers need to have the freedom to go where they are needed, not only where they are told. In this tense situation, a bombing in Vienna is swiftly blamed on Roger’s old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has become the brain-washed killer The Winter Soldier. In disagreement with Stark about the Accords and determined to protect Bucky, Steve quickly finds himself on a collision course with Tony.
The central idea here is actually fairly interesting: are superheroes people with a higher duty or just a group of vigilantes? Should they follow the direction of politicians – or be free to go where they are needed, when they are needed? How much accountability should they hold? If, in saving the world, dozens of civilians should die in the aftermath, is that acceptable or not? These are the ideas that lie under the arguments that the characters – principally Captain America and Iron Man – have.
The first 40 minutes set this up nicely: an operation goes wrong, people are killed and the Avengers are confronted with footage of the collateral destruction they have caused while saving the world. But these ideas get left behind as the film gets caught up with pushing our characters into an artificial-feeling battle so destructive that an entire airport gets trashed by the “let’s cool our actions” team while trying to stop the “we should be independent” faction.
It would have been really nice to have these ideas explored in more depth, rather than a few moments here and there. Essentially, the film hires Alfre Woodard to deliver a top-notch performance as a mother whose son was Avengers collateral damage, to convince Tony things need to change, and leaves it at that. Steve’s counter-argument gets laid out swiftly – though he strangely makes no reference to the fact that the previous film saw a very similar “government organisation” revealed as the source of all evil in the Marvel world. It’s quick beats like this that set up this collision – but only Tony and Steve get any chance to express any form of developed views (in a few very well acted scenes). The motivations of the rest of the Avengers seem under-developed.
But that’s the problem with Captain America: Civil War: it’s seriously overstuffed. With some of these plots and characters removed, we could have actually had a very rich, thematic story.
The whole “Zukovia Accords” plot also has to constantly juggle for space with leftover “Winter Soldier” plotline from the previous two films. Truth be told, the latter is the more interesting, dealing with actual emotions, friendships and loyalties – chiefly the bond between Bucky and Steve (very well illustrated in a few brief, well played scenes). It’s this dilemma of whether Bucky can be held responsible for things he did under mind control that becomes the film’s key question. This plot line works far more effectively as it basically involves only three of the characters and feels like it has genuine things at stake, in a way I just can’t feel about the forced “civil war” angle.
But it’s that civil war angle that the film is being sold on – and it’s what the middle section of the film is given over to. The big, airport-wrecking battle between the two sides is well shot, has good special effects and throws in plenty of neat one-liners. But what it completely lacks is any sort of dramatic tension or any stakes. As our heroes indestructibly bounce around while swapping light banter you never feel that this battle really amounts to anything. The sides don’t seem that far apart, or really that different – in fact the whole thing feels like playground horseplay.
The big battle is even undermined by the fact that we’ve already seen our heroes fight each other at least twice already in small combinations – and in all these cases, bodies are thrown about mercilessly but no one suffers more than a few scratches. Even after a character falls hundreds of feet to the ground, he’s later shown as basically being absolutely fine. The big battle is supposed to be the exciting showpiece, but it’s basically just big filler. A load of noise, where nothing really happens and no-one really feels at any risk, with no real consequences (all the emotional consequences emerge from the smaller scale final confrontation which would be unchanged if this airport fight was removed).
The film only really recovers again once that fight is benched, and we wind up with three of our heroes squaring off over very personal issues. This also brings to the fore the Daniel Brühl’s fascinating character, a very different type of villain: someone whom the film plays a neat game of misdirection with. The film reveals one of its themes as revenge, and how much it can dominate or twist our lives. This is given voice through a wonderfully written and played scene between Brühl and Boseman (very dynamic as the future Black Panther, dealing with grief over the murder of his father).
That scene gives an insight into the film’s real strengths: the small moments. The bits where the overblown fighting can be put to one side and we can see these characters (and the very good actors who inhabit them) talk. Moments like this carry more humanity, interest and tension than a thousand sequences of a giant Ant-man. In these moments, Downey Jnr and Evans are both terrific. Evans was born to play this part, making Rogers adamantine in his decency and nobility without being wearing, and also demonstrating an increasing streak of an old-soul who is tired of listening to other people and wants to make his own choices. Downey Jnr increasingly makes Stark a man hiding resentments, fears and doubts under a veneer of cool. Several other excellent performances also burst around the margins of the film (I’d single out Mackie who is excellent as the loyal Sam).
It’s just a shame Captain America: Civil War wastes some strong material in the prolonged set-up – and then enactment – of its superhero feud. Enjoyable as it can be to see this sort of stuff from time to time, after a while it’s tedious to watch invulnerable people taking pot shots at each other with no discernible impact. A single conversation with stakes – with a doubt about whether a friendship will hold or not – has more tension and excitement than a hundred sequences of heroes hitting each other. There is a more interesting story here – but between the action and the obligatory set-ups for future Black Panther and Spiderman movies (excellent as Boseman and Holland are in these roles) it doesn’t quite reach its potential.