What’s truly left to be said about the Marvel Comic Universe? At this point it’s an expansive world of spandex and spaceships with superheroes taking turns punching with a healthy dose of saving. Every couple of years they get together to punch a really bad guy. So what’s left? What device could possibly be used to keep this thing going? What if…they punch each other! A novel idea indeed.
Coming off of 2014’s Joss Whedon dehumanizer – Avengers: Age of Ultron – Marvel needed an excuse to get the gang back together. More heroes have been added to the universe (Paul Rudd’s Ant Man, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision – to name very few) and damnit, not everyone can have their own movie. So it’s up to Captain America (Chris Evans,) who’s hot on the tail of an international terrorist with his band of new Avengers, to find some reason to do this. When his crew is ambushed in a raid and accidentally kill civilians his crew is reprimanded by the U.S. government – forced to comply with hard regulations or retire.
Cap doesn’t exactly take to this new regulatory guise – believing the only way to truly stop evil is to take matters into his own hands (it’s pretty clear Cap wants to make America great again.) His ex-Avenger compatriot Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a different agenda. His belief is the only way to truly affect global change is to play ball…and swallowing his pride isn’t exactly Iron Man’s strong suit. Lots of heroes take sides and snipe verbally.
Meanwhile, as our heroes are stuck in diplomatic hell, a menace is brewing across the pond. Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is a small time terrorist with big time aspirations. His family was killed in the Avengers assault on Sokovia (remember from the last movie?) and he’s really mad. He knows as a tiny human he doesn’t stand a chance in a fist fight so he slowly infiltrates the Avengers negotiations, poisoning them from the inside. He has to turn them against each other, destroy their world saving power from the inside. Familial genocide is a good motivation and Bruhl does his best to give the sniveling Zemo depth in his tiny bit of screen time.
I won’t say Captain America: Civil War doesn’t have its pleasures – in fact in the Marvel cannon it’s more than capable of delivering some solid entertainment. The additions of Spiderman (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) add a new level of depth to the hero arsenal – especially Spiderman who adds some welcome levity to an increasingly dour movie.
And the scene we’re all excited about absolutely delivers. The “Civil War” in question takes place in an abandoned airport and if the entire movie had followed its lead we may have had the most bonkers fun superhero movie ever. Instead the extremely capable Russo brothers (Anthony and Joe) try to craft a Bourne movie around Captain America and sprinkle in hints of what made the first Avengers such a unique joy. It works in fits and starts but can never gain enough focus to come together – which is impressive because this movie is outrageously long.
I’m not done with superhero movies, far from it, but when the expectations are simply, “I hope it’s competent” – the exercise feels tired. When the Russo brothers focus and shrink the scale the film presents hints of deeper themes that only a rare few in this genre have wrestled with. But this is a Marvel movie – one that is beholden to a larger world so it can’t actually say anything because from a pragmatic level, it doesn’t have enough time.
I quite liked the Russo’s first effort Captain America: Winter Soldier – a film that told a single, smaller scale story and held a rip-roaring pace. Here the Russo’s feel defeated by the scale. They are very good action filmmakers but they work better when the vision is smaller. I just hope they stick around for the next Marvel team up – when the only idea left will be for the characters to punch themselves in the face.