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Review: Captain America: Civil War Is Good (but Too Stuffed to be Great)

Review: Civil War Is Good (but Too Stuffed to be Great)

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4 out of 5 stars.

I’m one of the few people who, upon hearing about Iron Man/Tony Stark being made a co-lead in Captain America: Civil War, felt more apprehension than elation. It isn’t that I hate Tony Stark or Robert Downey Jr. in the role—although I have grown a little tired of his bad-boy, anti-hero dominance thing—but the Captain America films were my favorite of the Marvel standalone films, and Winter Soldier’s one of my favorite action movies. I think Steve Rogers is a strong enough character to carry a movie, and I like the characters that have surrounded him in the previous films, especially the core connection he has with Bucky Barnes. Adding Tony felt like a threat to a sequel I really looked forward to, and while my worst fears weren’t met—far from it in fact—I have to admit this is a step down (small perhaps) from its predecessor. As an Avengers film, this is one of the best, but as a Captain America film, it falls a little short.

It would be unfair to give much away about the new films, except to say Civil War essentially carries on what was set up in both Captain America: Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron. Tony made a massive mistake creating Ultron, and his guilt has caused him to take a diplomatic seat among the Avengers, now led by Steve. Winter Soldier ended with a brainwashed Bucky finally appearing to break away from his mental capture, and Bucky started to find himself again. After , they must submit to a UN-approved set of rules Avengers must follow in order to keep fighting for good. Tony agrees with the UN (and William Hurt’s Secretary of State) that they need oversight, but Steve feels they need to operate outside government control.

Like Batman v Superman, the tension is largely over the cost of collateral damage. Can society stand the taking of even one innocent life in the unending fight for peace? And the most interesting split over the ideas are those Avengers with a military background (Steve, Sam, and Rhodey). Rhodey’s belief that they need to answer to someone is met with the response that they don’t want to pass their blame to a larger body—they have to own the cost of those lives they take (even if by accident), but Steve and Sam still seem to feel those lost lives are worth the cost to protect the world as a whole. It’s the surprisingly pragmatic side of an earnest soldier from WWII thrown into the 21st Century that makes Steve Rogers an interesting character in these films. The moral-ethical ideas in those conversations, along with the larger ideas of Vision, logical Natasha, and emotionally raw Wanda that makes the idea of an ideological split so interesting.

Tony being in this conversation feels somewhat out of place … as do most of his standalone (showboating) scenes. For example, when Wanda is devastated (and Elizabeth Olson proves how beneficial she is as a part of this ensemble), they immediately cut to Tony (and a really weird use of flashback), and undercut Wanda and Steve’s emotional moment. Again, during that interesting ideological debate, rather than let the debate play out, Tony grandstands and somehow wins the minds of soldiers and agents who apparently never thought about these innocents. The fact is, as good as Downey is as Tony (and this is one of his better outings as Tony), his forced importance as leader (and costar) seems out of place almost immediately. He tends to dominate scenes, and all the scenes when the audience is simply asked to follow him feel like they’re from another Iron Man movie.

Part of me feels like Stark should have taken the place of the absent Nick Fury in this film, more elder statesman than rival leader. The movie ultimately feels rushed into the Civil War storyline. Rather than finishing the Winter Solder storyline and allowing the film to lead into Civil War, they are mixed in and get muddled. Why do we need Civil War right now is the big question? Why not let Steve and Tony’s tension build in this film into such an ideological and personal rift it feels like their relationship will be impossible to repair? As it is in this movie, the split and where people fall feels somewhat arbitrary, and based on where people end up in the film, that seems to be the case.

One of the most interesting side themes the movie has are the shadows parents create. Sharon and Peggy, T’Challa (Black Panther played brilliantly by Chadwick Boseman) and his father (played by John Kani), and of course, Howard and Tony. More than in any other Marvel movie, Howard’s shadow looms large—which I love, and it feels appropriate. However, and his might seem petty (in fact, I’m sure it is VERY petty), but I really feel the double casting of Howard Stark is one of Marvel’s biggest mistakes within their Cinematic Universe. I like John Slattery a lot and wish he worked more, and I didn’t have a problem with him playing Howard when they first introduced him in the Iron Man films, but Dominic Cooper’s performance as Howard has been outstanding, and his importance within the Peggy Carter storyline and the rivalry between Tony and Steve comes from Cooper’s Howard, not Slattery’s. I think it’s just a mistake not to have Dominic Cooper simply take on that role and Marvel brass write it off along with most of The Incredible Hulk. After all, Howard’s the only character given this treatment of having two actors play him. Interpretations of the character are so dramatically different that I never feel that Tony’s dad is the same friend of Steve and Peggy. And in this film especially, that deep connection is vital to Tony and Steve’s tension. Also—and here I’m about to get REALLY petty—John Slattery’s playing a character 20 years older than he actually is (just two years older than Robert Downey Jr.), so justifying the need for an older actor to play the character seems a little strange

I know you might wondering why a two-minute scene bothered me so much. It’s because Tony’s “flashback” is unnecessary and therefore calls attention to itself. If anything, these are films that can shortcut some elements, but preferably by adding more character moments. We get very, very few hangout moments with Steve and Sam (and Bucky), but they are some of the best scenes in the movie. Natasha, after being so great in Winter Soldier, is underused but still rocks (and thank goodness we don’t have a love story from Age of Ultron hanging over our heads). Wanda and Vision flirting is a little awkward, but they have nice chemistry, as do Sharon and Steve (one of the few Marvel love stories I’d be interested in seeing more of).

But often times, the film fills time with a lot of action—fortunately a lot of great action. I don’t know who made the demand that most of Marvel’s action sequences be filmed during the day, but I like the decision for no other reason than the fact that I can enjoy the spectacle of the whole thing, and the Russos have turned into some of the best action directors of the decade. I would argue there are at least four action sequences in this film that rival what they did in Winter Soldier: a chase, a hand-to-hand fight, the opening mission, and the closing brawl. As for the big fight in all the trailers? It’s good—really good—it just goes on too long and doesn’t have the visceral or emotional impact of those other fights. The stakes of those fights are felt throughout the film. As fun as the big Civil War fight might be, I never knew if the mission was to kill or incapacitate their rival Avengers. Maybe it’s all the quipping from Spider-Man. Tom Holland is great, and his Spider-Man is a character I can’t wait to see in his own movie, but if this is the fight to end all fights, having EVERYONE throwing around quips undercuts the impact of that scene, which ends up just feeling like something done as fun eye-candy that delights in destruction. It kind of defeats the central collateral damage debate.

But the Russos are excellent at staging hand-to-hand fights, using stunt people brilliantly and showcasing their cast’s abilities. I feel like Steve Rogers (and Chris Evans) couldn’t have been paired with a better directing team. The Russos’ signature from Winter Soldier was the fact that they made clean, fun, and thoughtful action movies closer to the best action films of the ’80s and ’90s—before computer technology dominated. Yes, their films don’t shy away from CGI, but the practical effects set their previous film apart. That isn’t as strong here, because they’re naturally required to have so much CGI. The visuals of the more CG heavy characters are a bit off, although unlike many action films, Marvel does manage to create more impact with buildings—they seem to fall with the deep impact of realism the way too few films ever do—but one of the reasons this movie works as well as it does is the conflicts remain insular and personal, rather than suggesting the world is at risk of total destruction (yet again). When the biggest (and most emotional) final fights are just between a few characters we’ve come to know and like over several films, the emotional investment is high.

As I said, Chris Evans really benefits from having the Russos as his directing team. Like the ultimate pairing of Iron Man 3’s Downey and Shane Black, the chemistry between director and star show in these films. I sense less of a simpatico relationship between Downey and the Russos, which might be why his scenes feel a little out of place in this movie (I’ll be interested in how they handle Infinity War). Evans is great as Steve, quietly adding more and more layers to the character and feeling like someone with a multitude of deep, intimate relationships while remaining the stoic soldier. Downey is good, and the bubbling up of his emotions creates a good character moment. As for the newcomers (there are so many characters in this movie), Daniel Bruhl is a great actor and gives a great performance. He just has very little opportunity to suggest real menace and sell his plan (taken apart, I think his plan has some flaws), and while introduced to set up for their own movies, Boseman and Holland are both excellent additions as both actors and characters

The movie is most definitely fun, and that’s a big reason the problems I have with it don’t stand out as strong as some of the darker, moodier action films we get. A light touch and high energy can keep a film afloat even when it struggles, and I’d like to re-watch this film and see some of what I missed and how the story actually builds and unfolds with the knowledge of the ending. But I’d be lying to say I didn’t find myself a little disappointed by the storytelling here, especially as Marvel begins stage three of its cinematic universe. The rushed and crowded feeling of the film, inability to show patience and really build up the conflict between the Avengers, and at the end hurts what could have been a suburb sequel to Winter Soldier, even if it is still one of the best Marvel films to date.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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