I must admit something. In trying to write this review, I have now ended up seeing Captain America: Civil War four times. Before I started my fourth viewing, I was wondering if my liking for superheroes was a phase (gulp!) I haven’t watched a superhero movie in a while and haven’t been able to post on the blog for a long time too. So upon the fourth viewing, I thought, surely all the action and the characters would be old by now. I was also getting tired of my writing on this blog. There wasn’t anything different that I was really bringing to the table. I was dreading the movie and what came next – concocting some banal observations into a post for the blog. And then I watched Civil War…
Turns out, I was wrong on both counts. Civil War is a good film, and most of it feels good even after a fourth viewing. And thankfully, I do have something to say at the end of it. After watching the movie, I went on to YouTube (as one does when one wants to procrastinate) and amid browsing I saw a video by Nerdwriter1 about comic books and their similarities to Greek mythology. As an aside, if you haven’t already seen his channel, I highly recommend checking it out. He makes really engaging videos about pop culture, art, filmmaking and more. Anyhoo. After watching that video, I watched two more videos about superheroes on his channel. One about the importance of constructing action sequences well and one about the importance of constructing full scenes rather than trying to build up to big moments in a film. Granted, these last two videos are critiques of the DCEU, but I believe his observations across all three videos when taken together can give us a pretty decent sense for why Civil War works the way it does.
The first of the aforementioned three essays asserts that comic books and Greek mythology are similar not just because of the supernatural powers possessed by the characters, but that across different stories, both of them can present fuller, richer narratives of characters and stories than any individual story can hope to accomplish. I am not an expert on Greek mythology, so I certainly won’t talk about that. And although I have mentioned character growth across films on the blog before, I think it bears mentioning here. This film is essentially a tussle between Captain America and Iron Man. Following the battle in Age of Ultron, and the death and destruction that followed, nations across the world want the Avengers to operate under the oversight of the UN. Captain America is deeply distrustful of working according to agendas set by other people, while Iron Man believes that the Avengers are overreaching and must be kept in check. This premise serves as a launch pad to analyse how these characters.
Let us consider Captain America. From being a propaganda poster in his first film to questioning authority and realising that his responsibility is to the world, not to any institution, this character has come a long way. How then can this character grow? Civil War confronts Cap – and the audience – with his limits. For a long time, Cap has been presented as a grown up in the room. The man who was always worthy to lift Mjolnir (Age of Ultron party scene) but didn’t out of respect for Thor. The soldier who never wavers in his duty. But when his best friend Bucky is framed for bombing the UN, Cap goes against the other Avengers and rushes to his rescue. He wants to protect Bucky from the authorities, and consequently the other Avengers who have agreed to work with them, not simply because he believes his friend is innocent. He knows that as the Winter Soldier, Bucky killed Stark’s parents. Cap keeps this information from Stark to protect himself and Bucky. In doing so, he tears the Avengers apart. In other words, he acts in self-interest and ends up hurting friend and the group he worked with. Captain America may be better than a lot of the people in power, but he is not immune to agendas other than altruism.
Let us look at Iron Man. For a long time, I detested Iron Man’s character. He was arrogant and condescending and all the tech in the world couldn’t make up for that. But we see that as the stories progress, Stark realises the responsibility that comes along with having the suit. In Age of Ultron, for instance, we see that one of Stark’s biggest fears is being unable to protect the other Avengers. In this film we see that when confronted with the death of an innocent boy in the battle of Sokovia, Stark realises that there need to be limits to how the Avengers operate. This is a big leap for a man whose ego is as high as Stark Tower. It would have been nearly impossible to imagine Iron Man take this step after his first two solo movies, or even after the first Avengers. The film also picks away at the “genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist” image of Iron Man and shows us a lonely man who is lamenting he loss of his parents and his break-up with Pepper Potts. Add betrayal from Cap to this, and it’s not a stretch to see him fight Cap and Bucky.
Now as you probably know, having a good antagonist is really important to me. I have ranted and raved about weak villains who manage to ruin a story. After all there is no point in showing a superhero with awesome powers if he/she doesn’t have a challenge of commensurate magnitude for him/her to overcome using those powers. Many of the films in the MCU have fallen prey to what I call the ‘villain problem’. The villain problem is where the antagonist isn’t as well-developed as the protagonist. He/she is either uncharismatic, doesn’t match up to the protagonist or doesn’t have significant motivators to justify his/her actions. A number of MCU movies have that issue. But not this one. Zemo is a villain without any superpowers or significant resources. Yet he is the only villain aside from Thanos in Infinity War who manages to achieve his goal. I love how Civil War uses the Avengers’ powers against each other in big action sequences of the movie. These are powers that we know and love. The protagonists also have strong character motivations on both sides that are believable precisely because we have seen them grow across different movies in the MCU. And all in all, by using the antagonist as a catalyst and keeping the fight between the Avengers, the movie manages to create two of the most memorable action scenes in the MCU (the almost iconic airport scene and the fight between Cap, Bucky and Iron Man at the end of the movie).
This brings us to the next two Nerdwriter videos I was talking about. First, the importance of constructing an action sequence well. According to Nerdwriter a good action sequence is constructed when the superheroes use their powers creatively, the physics makes sense on an intuitive level and use the moments between the action to further character growth. Nerdwriter has also used clips from Civil War (and other Marvel movies) to illustrate this. Second, he talks about the need to construct scenes as propelling the narrative forward, rather than have it build up to a moment that is supposed to convey some sort of awe-inspiring message. To illustrate how Civil War manages to succeed on both these counts, I will talk about the final action sequence in the movie – the fight between Cap, Bucky and Iron Man.
This scene very well illustrates the powers of each superhero – Cap’s vibranium shield, Iron Man’s cool tech and Bucky’s metal arm. Each are powerful in their own ways, but the scene lets us see them all in action. Cap’s shield can cut through the restraints that Iron Man’s suit throws at him. Bucky’s arm overpowered Iron Man in hand-to-hand combat and almost succeeds in pulling out his arc reactor. And Iron Man’s arc reactor manages to blow Bucky’s metal arm apart. His suit, even when damaged by Cap’s shield, is still capable of flight. There is still a lot of punching and hitting, but that is made memorable by the creative use of each person’s powers. And even though this scene doesn’t use pauses to make quippy remarks or little jokes like most action sequences in the MCU, it still manages carry the narrative forward. This scene is all about completing Iron Man’s character arc for the movie. The pauses between the action scenes are all used to illustrate his rage at the injustice he has suffered. Take the rage with which he says, “I don’t care, he killed my mom,” or the determination of “Let’s kick his ass.” He doesn’t care about victory in battle anymore, only about avenging his parents’ deaths.
Furthermore, while the scene gives us the awesome shot of Cap’s shield resisting Iron Man’s power, it isn’t building up to that shot. The scene is wholly committed to carrying forward the narrative and everything is in service of that goal. The music conveys the desperation of the scene but it is in no way overpowering. It is subtle and quietly enhances our viewing experience. Same with the visual effects. Sure, there are some slow-motion shots that are used to illustrate Zemo’s victory over the Avengers, but they exist in harmony with the rest of the scene, not in service to it. Even though this is the end, and fans are horrified at seeing Cap fighting Iron Man, no single element of the fight is used to convey that horror. Rather the scene harmoniously conveys horror and rage and desperation. And that’s what makes it great.
There you have it. A film with rich characters and well constructed scenes. Thanks to Nerdwriter1 you get a long, long post on why Civil War is a movie well worth your time.