Marvel’s mightiest heroes solve a political dispute by punching one another. We are officially bored.
“Everybody’s got a gimmick”. So proclaims a character in Captain America: Civil War. I can’t remember which character. Or why they said it. It’s that sort of film.
Marvel Studios have an abundance of gimmicks. Their new favourite seems to be the terrifying de-ageing software they used on Michael Douglas in 2015’s Ant-Man, which has now been applied to make Robert Downey Jr. look 18. Try not to scream. Meanwhile, directors Joe and Anthony Russo (seemingly producer Kevin Feige’s preferred surrogates) have decided to use a brain-numbing frame-rate to shoot their fight sequences, creating more visual incoherence than Michael Bay can shake a stick at. It hardly alleviates the problem when said fights involve a man with a star-spangled shield, a man in a bird costume, a man with a diamond on his forehead and a woman who can make purple with her hands. There is an unachievable suspension of disbelief required to buy into Civil War‘s too-gritty-for-its-own-good premise, which sucks the usual fun out of its cartoony cast and replaces it with Serious Political Debate. Lesson learnt: the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Serious Political Debate should never again be bedfellows. The bearability of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and the gang has come to rely the comedy and levity of the films they feature in. Stripping this away, as the Russos do in Civil War, leaves little in the way of fun. Civil War is a shockingly angry piece of cinema, but the cliché-ridden screenplay fails to direct the rage in any particular direction.
An admirable trait of Civil War is its lack of unrealistic stakes. Previous MCU films have suffered from their all-powerful nemeses and overly-bombastic finales, but Civil War disposes with violent antagonism within the first act. Instead, Chris Evans’ Captain America and Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark are pitched on opposing sides of a partisan debate over government regulation of superheroes. Unfortunately, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely fail to contribute anything intelligent or surprising to the argument and we are left with a childish debate more suited to the RNC than a major modern film. The personal aspects of Cap and Stark’s conflict are signposted long in advance, and are an equally laughable inverse of Batman v Superman‘s “Martha” resolution. For a Captain America-led movie, the character is underserved throughout, with little of the sensitively-handled Man Out Of Time material showcased in Joss Whedon’s first Avengers or the Russos’ The Winter Soldier. The one story beat focused on his WW2 legacy is spoiled by a mildly incestuous twist. We’ll say no more. Downey Jr. is, though increasingly irritating in the Stark role, handed several heavy dramatic moments that he handles surprisingly well. This film is likely to reignite fan passion for the character far more than Iron Man 3 or Age of Ultron were able to.
As has been the case so many times, hugely talented players like Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany and arguably even Scarlett Johansson are wasted as wallpaper to the real action. Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is a brief highlight, carrying some of Ant-Man‘s unique low-stakes charm into the proceedings, and Daniel Brühl chews more scenery than Marvel’s set designers have supplied as Token Eastern European Scheming Evildoer.
When the highlight of a film is the set-up for another film (as has been the case with so many recent MCU projects), you know a brand has run out of steam. Civil War was the Avengers’ chance at redemption after the embarrassment of Age of Ultron, but chaotic battles and insufferable gurning aplenty make this adventure one too many. Freshly recast Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is delightful in a small but thrilling appearance, as is new Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). High hopes abound for their 2018 solo film, and for James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. As for the Steve/Tony band of heroes… they need a break.