Sunday, May 15, 2016


I've got no Unboxing scheduled this month, so instead I'll take a moment to talk about the recently released CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. As I type this, I'm just back from a screening on Sunday of its opening weekend, though the post will go up one week later.

In general I've liked a lot of Marvel's output since the first IRON MAN in 2008. There have been some misses, however; I found both IRON MAN sequels somewhat lacking, for different reasons. THOR: THE DARK WORLD, while okay, didn't exactly light my world on fire either. 2012's AVENGERS is probably my favorite Marvel film, but CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is close behind, if not tied, depending upon what day of the week you ask for my opinion.

I was ready for CIVIL WAR to blow both of those last two out of the water. The movie had tremendous buzz and very positive advance reviews, and it looked terrific. I found myself really psyched up, looking forward to CIVIL WAR more than any other movie in recent memory (that includes THE FORCE AWAKENS). A few days before its release I compared my anticipation for it with my feelings toward AVENGERS in the final weeks before before it hit screens four years earlier.

Sadly, I think the hype kind of dulled CIVIL WAR's impact for me. It's entertaining and I liked it well enough, but it certainly doesn't supplant AVENGERS or WINTER SOLDIER for me. Right now I'm not sure exactly where I'd rank it in the pantheon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it's probably someplace near the middle.

Be warned -- CIVIL WAR spoilers abound, starting right now!

My main issue with the movie is that, from my perspective, it's built a false premise from the word "go". The inciting incident is some collateral damage caused by the Avengers on a mission, but we're told this was only the tip of the iceberg. The battles of New York and Sokovia are referenced, as seen in AVENGERS and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, as is the fall of SHIELD in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. All are used as examples of the Avengers wreaking havoc and causing scores of casualties wherever they go.

But New York was an alien invasion. The Avengers stopped it and saved the world, going out of their way to protect civilians in the line of fire. Had the group not been present, things would have been far, far worse. The fall of SHIELD, meanwhile, was incited by a government conspiracy which Captain America eventually stopped. Had he been unsuccessful, Hydra would have likely begun a war against the very coalition of nations which wants to rein in the Avengers in CIVIL WAR.

And then there's Sokovia. AGE OF ULTRON was very explicit about the Avengers saving civilian lives wherever they went, even moreso than was AVENGERS. Priority one was pretty much always keeping civilians out of harm's way, and the characters made note of this in dialogue and in action. When Ultron raised Sokovia's capital city into the sky, the Avengers worked tirelessly to get all the civilians they could out of the city, evacuating them on a SHIELD helicarrier. The day was saved and the movie had a happy ending.

Until CIVIL WAR, where we're told that no, scores of innocent people died in Sokovia. When the city returned to Earth, its landing killed civilians miles away. The writers of CIVIL WAR have retroactively tainted AGE OF ULTRON, turning the Avengers' hard-won victory into a bitter catastrophe. And worse, CIVIL WAR tells us that when all was said and done, the Avengers simply left Sokovia without aiding in any clean-up/rebuilding efforts. This is really a sucky move on the part of the CIVIL WAR team. AGE OF ULTRON wasn't perfect, but it was a fun superhero action movie with a clearly defined win in the end. Now that win has been downgraded to a Pyrrhic victory instead.

But beyond this fundamental flaw, I have one more major issue with CIVIL WAR: the film simply tries to be too big for its own good. Though I disagree with the initial premise, things at least roll along fine, plot-wise, for the first act and a half. There may be one or two holes, but nothing overly major and certainly nothing to detract from one's enjoyment of the proceedings. Characters are introduced and involved logically in the story. Then, suddenly, we have a massive set-piece battle between everyone we've seen so far, plus -- oh, here's Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man for no real reason.

I understand Marvel wanted the giant conflict to be CIVIL WAR's big draw, and while it's a terrific spectacle of a scene, a lot of fun to watch, and practically worth the full ticket price on its own, much of it feels shoehorned into the story. There's no real reason for Vision and Scarlet Witch to appear again following their earlier scenes. Hawkeye doesn't need to be here. Spider-Man's inclusion, especially, smacks of throwing in a character because they can, not because he's necessary. Ant-Man too, really. Storywise, logically speaking, there is no reason the big fight shouldn't have been between only Cap, Falcon, and Bucky on one side with Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, and Black Panther on the other.

So I have some fundamental issues with CIVIL WAR, both in terms of premise and execution. I also have some minor gripes, chief among them being that Tony Stark as a mentor to young Peter Parker is an awful idea. Part of the appeal of Spider-Man is that he's the only one who knows his true identity and he struggles to figure things out as he goes along. Giving him a mentor who knows his secret undermines a big part of his mythos.

Further, what's the deal with Zemo? He's not a Nazi, not even a baron. He's just... a guy. As my brother observed after seeing the movie, why was he even called Zemo? He could have been named Joe Smith and nothing would change. There isn't anything about this character which says he must be Zemo, which is really disappointing from Marvel. They don't usually appropriate names from the comics unless they're actually adapting the character(s) in question. Baron Zemo is my favorite Captain America villain and his portrayal here does the original character a great disservice. Plus, Zemo exemplifies (as pointed out by Vision in dialogue) that hackiest of oh-so-clever concepts popularized by the worst "sophisticated" writers -- that the very existence of superheroes will naturally lead to the creation supervillains, rather than the other way around.

The movie is also distressingly frustrating at some points, as nobody is willing to give Captain America the benefit of the doubt any point even though he's clearly right about everything the entire time. Other Avengers are ready to sign the Sokovia Accords immediately but Cap wants to negotiate over their content, which seems completely reasonable. Cap, the person who knows Bucky best in the world and perhaps has a line on whether he's actually gone bad again, wants to take him alive, but no one will give him so much as a chance to do so. For much of the movie I felt like I was watching an episode of 24 at its worst -- where historically everyone, even the people who knew and worked with him and had had their lives save by him, would immediately believe the worst of Jack Bauer based on the slightest shred of incriminating evidence.

All that said, there's a great deal to like in this film, too. Chris Evans as Captain America is pitch perfect as usual. His devotion to Bucky is great. The bits between Vision and Scarlet Witch are fun (I really like both actors in those roles), and Black Panther's portrayal is wonderful. Also, while I feel Spider-Man is shoehorned into the story, this has to be the best version of the character ever committed to the screen. He moves and acts perfectly. The action in general is great, particularly the tunnel chase and the airport battle.

I also really enjoyed the film's score by Henry Jackman. While it doesn't feature nearly as many callbacks to prior Marvel themes as I would've liked (though I did note a strain of the original AVENGERS them near the beginning and a bit of Ant-Man's theme during the big fight, as well as Jackman's own Winter Soldier theme from the previous Cap film), its main motif is suitably sweeping and tragic with a nifty upbeat version for the end credits, and the theme for Zemo is quite sinister and mysterious.

CIVIL WAR has some very serious flaws that I have trouble getting past -- but I can't help liking much of the film in spite of those flaws. In a way the movie may be greater than the sum of its parts, but it's unfortunate that's in spite of an awful premise and some ill-conceived character choices. With some tweaks, this movie could've been unassailably fantastic.


  1. Agreed pretty much 100%. The big fight was fun, but a lot of stuff was very extraneous. Also there were two cringe-y parts of the script: Iron Man's monologue about Pepper leaving him b/c he wouldn't stop was both out of character and insane, especially because nobody tells him how insane it is that he seems to think she'll take him back if he's able to sign these accords. The other completely cringe-worthy scene was Zemo, 2:30 in, telling Panther how his family died and so he knew what to do. It'd be one thing if the focus of the scene was on T'Challa, but the film gives way too much focus to this afterthought of a character as he gives a completely lifeless origin story of the "you created me!" variety.

    Also I know it's just a movie, but everything about the Raft as a concept didn't work for me. It works 1000% better if they're in some German holding cell and Ross is like "when we get you back to the U.S. we're trying you all with treason!" And they basically end up getting out and not coming back to the U.S. As it is, they are apparently extradited from Germany directly into some sort of off-shore holding cell where they are held for days? Have they been charged with whatever stupid U.N. violation they allegedly committed or are they just deciding the Constitution doesn't apply to super people? The whole concept was stupid.

    1. Tony's Pepper speech was odd, but I wonder if his intention was that if the Accords were signed, he would retire again and hoped to get her back that way?? Who knows...

      I kind of took the Raft here as an analogue for Guantanamo Bay -- Ross is certainly the sort to hold "enemy combatants" without proper due course, and in the position of Secretary of State, he would have the power to do it, too. But what I don't get is, was he covering it up? Did the U.N. know about the prison? Tony knew where the Avengers were, but he obviously had some kind of clearance level. Cap found out somehow by movie's end, but he could've gotten the intelligence elsewhere, perhaps through Black Panther.

      So many weirdly unanswered questions.

  2. I saw the movie earlier today, and I've got to say you nailed all of my complaints (I'd also add "young, hot" Aunt May to that list...and why can't they live in a house instead of an apartment? Why change this?) I'm still not sure if the questionable premise, which goes out of its way to undermine the point Whedon was making in the last AVENGERS, can be saved by the more entertaining scenes.

    Two tentpole movies this summer based on the idea of the public turning on superheroes for fighting supervillains...the very thing they were created to do. Basically, the kind of overthinking of a simple concept that's done comics virtually no good.

    1. Two tentpole movies this summer based on the idea of the public turning on superheroes for fighting supervillains...

      On the thirtieth anniversary of the year when two quite well-known installments of comics had that and the following (effectual) ban on super vigilantism as an important part of the backstory.

    2. The young Aunt May thing bugged me too, but compared with so much of the bigger things, I couldn't be bothered to care too much. It'll bug me more when SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING comes out, especially if they go the direction they appeared to be pointing things here and have Tony hook up with her.

      The apartment thing, I'll let slide for one reason. It bugged me because I prefer Peter Parker living in a house in Queens, but there is precedent for an apartment, sort of -- during the Lee/Romita run (granted, after Peter had moved out to live with Harry), Aunt May did have an apartment for a while. I think she shared it with Anna Watson.

  3. Agreed, for the most part. This was definitely a movie where the parts were better than the whole. Specific characters, set pieces, moments, etc. worked, and worked really well, but as a whole, it was kind of a mess.

    The whole "the Avengers cause destruction in their wake" argument is dumb. Were they just supposed to let aliens wreak New York, and Hydra to kill millions of people? I can get Ross buying into that argument (because he just wants to control them), but not Rhodey, Vision, etc. Sokovia, at least, was caused by Ultron, who was created by Tony and Banner. So I get why the guilt of that could lead Tony into backing the Accords (even without the tarnishing of AGE OF ULTRON), but everything else is bull.

    Like you said, there's a difference between "let's talk about these accords and hammer out an agreement" and "let's accept them unilaterally as is" which seems to get lost in the shuffle, and I also don't like how Cap's unwillingness to allow Bucky to be executed on the spot, no-questions-asked, without any form of due process, makes him some kind of terrorist. Like, he's not saying the guy gets a free pass; he's saying let's bring him in and I dunno, give him a trial before we execute him? Especially since we live in a world where identities can be faked?

    Zemo was definitely a dud, which is a shame, but not a surprise, since Marvel has issues with movie villains who aren't Loki (in part because they don't have access to Dr. Doom & Magneto, and Red Skull had to be a done-in-one kind of thing). His whole fake scheme with the other Winter Soldiers reminded me a bit of the Mandarin in IRON MAN 3, the tease of a cool, badass villain showdown followed by a swerve away from it. And I still have no idea why he needed to access Bucky's memories before implementing his plan. If he knew enough from Hydra files to ask Bucky specifically about the date of the Starks' deaths, then he probably knew enough to enact his plan anyway.

    Spider-Man was shoe-horned in but I too liked the portrayal; the first movie Spider-Man to seem like both a convincing Spider-Man AND a teenager. Cap was great, Black Widow was great, Vision & Scarlet Witch were great. Black Panther was great. Hawkeye wasn't necessary but I really appreciated that they at least acknowledged him and Natasha fighting on opposite sides. I loved the Giant-Man bit (I knew nothing about it going in so was completely surprised by it) and Ant-Man in general, but I wish we'd gotten a better sense of his motivation for helping out, especially since his entire motivation in his film was "be with my daughter" and then his casually does this thing which ends up landing him in jail, and then on the run (and presumably not with his daughter anymore). Which isn't to say he couldn't have decided this was bigger than that, but I would have liked to have seen that.

    1. There are so many great Marvel villains out there, but Marvel seems unwilling to just make them villains. I don't know when we decided that all villains must have some sympathetic hook. Red Skull is about the only Marvel movie villain I can think of who was straight-up evil, and he worked fine. All the others have some backstory involving (directly or indirectly) the hero of the film, leading to the "you made me" thing which is so hackneyed at this point. Imagine if the James Bond movies decided to go that route and say that Bond created Blofeld and SPECTRE! It would be idioti-- oh.

      The point is, just have villains who are unrepentant villains, who have no backstory with the heroes. It'll work just fine.