I’m generally against evaluating films like products, the way you review a toaster or the latest iPhone, but in the case of Captain America: Civil War, it’s justified. Make no mistake; even if you like this film and the rest of the Disney-owned Marvel superhero franchise, these films are not intended as art or even entertainment. They’re products, assembly line films, made for consumption, not enjoyment or enrichment (this is also true for every other franchise and film Disney puts out, including the Star Wars series and their recent slate of live-action adaptations of their animated films. Only Pixar seems to be immune to Disney’s soul-crushing commercialism). Civil War is no exception to this rule. The film is written and directed in the same fashion as every other Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Visual blandness, a few quippy remarks and one-liners here and there, and a predictable plot make this about as formulaic as they come. Besides a few inspired action sequences, this feels like the same superhero film we’ve been watching since Robert Downey, Jr. first stepped into that metal suit back in 2008.
Apologies to anyone who really likes these films, but they are what they are. Though, as products go, Civil War isn’t bad. It’s got a better and more engaging story than most Marvel films, or at least, a better set-up. After the public outcry against them for all the collateral damage they are at least partly responsible for in their world saving exploits, The Avengers and every other superhero on the planet find themselves pressured to sign the Sokovia Accords, a piece of legislation that would put them under the oversight of the UN. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey, Jr.) is all for it, feeling guilt over all the death he’s been involved in and believing that The Avengers have too much free reign and need to be kept in check. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) sees things differently, thinking it would hinder the team’s ability to do their job of protecting people and would also make them subject to the whims of those overseeing them. The debate divides The Avengers and forces everyone to take sides. It’s a fascinating set-up and is better handled than most. The script tells us how most of the characters reach their conclusions and come to oppose one another, whether it’s by careful reasoning, cynicism, or, especially in Stark’s case, past trauma. The more intimate conflict between Stark and Rogers plays out very well and actually comes to a rather devastating conclusion that has real dramatic heft, only for it to be tainted by what is essentially a teaser of an ending, the type Marvel/Disney could trademark at this point. It ruins an dark, yet very satisfying Empire Strikes Back-esque conclusion that would have actually made me more excited for future installments, had the producers and filmmakers had enough guts to give it to us.
But this is modern blockbuster filmmaking, and creative risks don’t put butts in chairs and multi-million dollar bonuses in a studio heads bank account. They’re not looking to make anything too controversial. Their top priority is to avoid making a blatantly bad film, to not “screw it up.” The trouble is, by not taking narrative or formal risks or allowing any semblance of personality into their films, they have screwed these films up. By making films that don’t inspire particularly strong feelings one way or the other, Marvel has admittedly managed to keep from making any straight-up “bad” films, but neither have they made any particularly “good” films, except maybe Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. All these films are fine and nothing more.
The Captain America films are a bit more interesting though. A bit. Civil War and the previous installment, The Winter Soldier, both attempt to deal with topical political issues, keeping in line with the comics, from what I understand. In Winter Soldier, issues of government surveillance, drone strikes and counter terrorism came into play. But in that film, all that was just window dressing for what was essentially a paranoid spy thriller masquerading in superhero tights, or an excuse to get from one ridiculous action sequence to the next. Basically, a way to justify, excuse or moralize the films existence.
Civil War does one better by actually engaging with its idea, albeit poorly. Captain America’s libertarianism vs. Iron Man’s authoritarianism is a conflict that plays better, partly because these two characters have been at odds since they first met in The Avengers, but more so because this philosophical conflict is more primal, more basic, less heady than Winter Soldier’s, whose “issues” weren’t really issues. It’s kind of obvious that the villains ideals were evil. Here, both Tony and Steve make good points and the film presents an interesting debate between the two of them and their followers and seems smart enough not to try to resolve the issue but let the audience make up their own minds. Until the final act.
Remember how I said everyone is forced to pick sides? Well, the same goes for the film itself. I’ll give you one guess as to whose side it lands on. Hint: read the title (that’s why it’s not really a spoiler to get into where the film ends up philosophically. Don’t worry, no plot details though). Yes, the movie clumsily and unconvincingly ends up endorsing Cap’s libertarianism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Authoritarianism is, after all, how we wound up with Hitler, Mussolini, and well, Donald Trump. But, Tony makes some good points. Isn’t it kind of scary knowing that there are a bunch of super-powered people gallivanting around the world, ignoring national borders and “saving lives” with zero accountability or recourse for mistakes they make? But while the film agreeing with Cap isn’t a problem per se, it’s the way the film comes to that conclusion that gives me pause.
You see, the film lacks gravitas and nuance (in a superhero film? Shocking!), which would have helped in developing its political discourse. It presents this debate as an either/or argument. We can have it this way or that way, there is absolutely no in-between or compromise to found here. You agree with Iron Man or Captain America, so pick a side. This runs counter to the very idea of including socio-political commentary in these films. What is the discourse for if not to make the country and culture better? Well, the kind of black-and-white, uncritical, and uncompromising way of thinking presented here makes the country worse, by leading us into conflict with anyone who disagrees with us. And as Paul Bettany’s Vision states early in the film, “Conflict leads to catastrophe.”
And yet, these films thrive on such a thing, otherwise we wouldn’t get to see superhero’s fighting each other. And how cool is that, right? As Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow asks Captain America, “Do you really want to punch your way out of this one?” Of course he does! Deep down, all these emotionally underdeveloped, super powered, man-children want to do is solve their problems with fists, bullets, lasers and magic hammers that shoot lighting. And we as a culture want to watch it.
It makes the exploration of these ideas feel disingenuous. Like I said, the film starts out intelligently engaging with its ideas, but then gives up and resigns itself to be just like every other superhero film, where whoever’s name is in the title is the good guy, and the film draws some pretty troubling conclusions as a result of this ideological laziness. If Disney/Marvel want to make smart, politically relevant blockbusters, they need to fully commit and craft their ideas in a way that isn’t problematic and doesn’t counter-intuitively exacerbate the problem. If they’re not going to do that, well… Maybe they should just go back to making dumb action movies.