Stephanie and I went to see Captain America: Civil War this weekend. I sort of knew that I wanted to write some kind of review of it before I went. I’ve been wanting to do more of that sort of thing. I’d also sort of made the decision a while back that I wanted to try to avoid spoilers in these reviews as much as I could. That’s actually the easy part. For this movie in particular, being the next big superhero movie after Batman v. Superman, I decided I wanted to go out of my way to watch it without connecting it unfairly to that film. That one, it turns out is more or less impossible.
I had a lot of problems with Batman v. Superman. A whole lot of problems. I don’t want to rehash them too much, but one of the biggest ones — one that encapsulated a lot of other problems — boiled down to “this isn’t a movie, it’s a really long ass episode in the middle of a longer television show.” And I hate that. I love TV. I love TV a lot. I love TV too much. I also love comic books. Basically, I like long form story telling. I like episodic stories. I want to be able to be invested in something over a long period of time. But I hated everything that tried to be episodic in Batman v. Superman. It annoyed me… constantly!
But I liked this movie a lot! It certainly wasn’t as good as Winter Soldier (some early reviews had said it was better). I don’t think I liked it as much as I liked Guardians of the Galaxy. I think I liked Ant-Man better (I know a lot of people disliked Ant-Man, but I loved it). It is certainly better than Avengers 2, and I’d argue as a pure film (and not just an exercise in Oh My God, we can make an actual superhero crossover movie) it is better than the first Avengers. It won’t make that kind of money, but it’s a better story and a better constructed film. The were great, the introductions of both Spider-man and Black Panther were handled very well. The story was fun and I was thoroughly entertained. There were lots of deviations from the source material that I think will probably bother some people. I won’t get into those because of spoilers, but they didn’t bother me at all. in fact, I very much enjoyed several of them, and wouldn’t mind talking about them in the comments, but they’re not what I wanted to get into here. Most importantly, my single favorite moment of the film, I won’t spoil, but I want people to know it when they see it. So I will say that the best moment of the movie involves Bucky, Falcon and a Volkswagen Beetle. That alone is worth the price of admission.
I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the internet reaction to Captain American: Civil War yet. I am listening to a couple of critic reviews right now, and I did get to talk to people about it a little bit both after the film and this morning at Free Comic Book Day. As far as I can tell, the reaction is generally positive. What I haven’t seen yet, and what I am expecting are the fan boy arguments. What I’m expecting is people saying “how could you have loved this and not liked Batman v. Superman! All the stuff you said is true in both. You’re just a Marvel Zombie!” I was thinking about that as I left the theater last night and I’ve been thinking about it today, and in some respect, maybe they have a point.
So I decided to break down exactly what it was I liked about the way Captain America: Civil War unfolds and why I was accepting of it in a way that I wasn’t with Batman v. Superman. As I started thinking about it, I decided that what it really comes down to is storytelling and character development.
My problem with episodic movies is that unlike when I sit down and read a comic book or I watch an episode of a TV show, when I watch a movie I am looking for a complete cohesive story. With TV and comics, I don’t think of that way. There I am looking at each installment as a chapter in a longer book. I can have questions and I can wait til next week’s show to see them developed further. I can wait til next month’s comic. Worse case scenario the show is going into summer hiatus and a cliff hanger will be addressed next fall. Movies don’t do this. Action movie franchises build to a story that I will see the next section of, BEST CASE SCENARIO in a year and generally it’s more like two to three. This means that they lack the immediacy from installment to installment to keep me invested in the story or the characters. I’ve had this problem with Marvel movies as well as DC. I liked Avengers. Even with a shit ton of characters being thrown at the screen, I more or less had a reason to care about every single one of them. Then, with Avengers: Age of Ultron, I found myself going “what the fuck is going on?” My least favorite things in AOU were the many sections that seemed to be in the story for no other reason than to set up the sequel. Tony Stark’s dream sequence to set up Infinity War had very little to do with the story. Thor and the magic hot tub had NOTHING AT ALL to do with the story. It was an executive decision made by committee to show me a commercial for the next film. And it felt like it! I love Idris Elba. If you tell me there’s a new movie coming out where Idris Elba is going to read the phone book for two and a half hours, I’m there. And I am a huge fan of Norse mythology. But sticking Hemidall in the middle of AOU made me go “what the fuck was that and why am I supposed to care?” And apparently I wasn’t, because it never really came up again. AOU managed to make me not care about Idris Elba.
Even with something like Star Wars… something that I have loved since I was four years old, when something like the Force Awakens comes out, you can’t just assume that I am on board. I need to be reintroduced to the characters. I want to love Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, etc. I want to care about them. But you have to meet me half way. I haven’t seen these people adventuring in over thirty years. If you want me to be invested in them, you have to build to it. I need to know their motivations. I need to have moments that make me want to like them beyond “you loved these people when you were a kid. Now give us money.” The Force Awakens managed that. Batman v. Superman didn’t. With the exception of the character of Batman himself, Batman v. Superman (and Man of Steel) relied on me having connections to the characters from reading comics books or seeing other versions of the characters. This is why everyone is responding so well tohe Batman portion of the movie. Affleck had a lot to do. He had real emotions that were tangible and that the viewer could connect to. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was intriguing because she was an unknown quantity. We wanted to see more simply because she was cool… but there’s no real story to her. If she were removed from the story altogether, it could have progressed just as well. The rest of the Justice League were even worse. There is no reason for any of them to be in that film other than for comic fans to say “Holy Shit! It’s Aquaman! OMG!!!”
Civil War didn’t do these things. Yes it was episodic. The film picks up in medias res (that’s a fancy term for “in the middle of the story”). We are dropped right into the middle of an Avengers mission. However, the directors do a wonderful job of using just enough dialogue and storyline to help me care about the characters. In fact, I cared more about Scarlet Witch and War Machine in the first ten to fifteen minutes of this movie than I did in all of Age of Ultron. Falcon had a reason to be there (in AOU I wanted either more Falcon or less because his presence in the film had little purpose other than to remind viewers than he existed). Spider-man, Black Panther, Vision, Ant-man — every single character was given enough screen time to let the audience get just invested enough in them to let them play their role. Alfre Woodard is in this movie for a fucking coffee break. She has maybe five minutes of screen time (which I won’t spoil) but she fucking rocks it. I was thoroughly invested in her and why she was there. There was nothing confusing about any of it.
The movie also kind of ends in medias res. This is one of the things I hate about episodic movies. Truth be told, it’s one of my least favorite things about this movie. Since the Marvel films as a whole are now designed to be installments of a never ending franchise, the real “story” of Civil War concludes with about five to ten minutes of screen time remaining. Everything after that is an attempt to set the new status quo for the next set of movies. There are a literal ten minutes that felt like the film makers were sitting me down and saying “ok, I want you to pay attention because this is what I want you to remember going forward.” It was handled as well as it could be but I was still pulled out of the film for it. Sure it did its job of piquing my interests for the followup movies, but it was still essentially world building for a world that I won’t be seeing again for a while. However, at least it was at the end of the film. It did not interrupt the flow of the story (as magic hot tubs and JLA internet movie trailers did). Furthermore, it was organically earned by the prior events of the story. Everything we learned in those last ten minutes was a consequence of things that had happened in earlier scenes. The story was complete. Not necessarily wrapped up, but complete.
With the move towards action franchises, movie studios seem to not so much be creating something new, but returning to an older time of film making. The movie serial. I’m actually okay with this, so long as it is done well. I want to be excited about what is to come, but more importantly I want to feel as though I have seen a cohesive story in the last couple of hours rather than a commercial begging me to spend more money in a year or two. Indiana Jones did this perfectly. Indiana Jones movies always begin in medias res. They are part of a franchise. But they don’t rely on previous installments of the franchise (well, other than the most recent one). They give you a reason to care about the story that is progressing and a feeling of completion by the end of the film. Really, it’s mostly the superhero movies that seem to have this problem. Even something as innocuous as the Fast and the Furious franchise builds a cohesive story within itself. Sure, it’s a dumb story, but it’s thoroughly amusing. Every single entry in it feels “finished.” The films link together and relate to each other, but I never felt like F&F7 was a commercial for F&F8. The Die Hard movies have become a cruel joke. However, each one represents a complete John McLane adventure.
This is not to say that films can’t have cliffhangers. Empire Strikes Back is to date, the single best Star Wars movie ever made. It is also probably the one chapter that is least able to stand alone without the rest of the films as context (and yes, I am including the prequels here). Outside of the greater Star Wars storyline, the plot of Empire makes very little sense. However, as a story it is complete and finished. It begins in the middle of a story unrelated to the previous film and with very little explanation. How the fuck did we get to Hoth? Why the fuck are we here? If Han wants to leave so bad, why didn’t he do so at literally any point in the last three years? He totally followed them across the galaxy so that he can complain about leaving? What!?! It ends on a downer and many questions. Is Vader really Luke’s father? Will Luke turn tot he dark side? What will happen to Han, is he dead? He can’t be dead! He and Leia finally admitted their feelings for each other and I really need for them to get together because I totally want them to fuck and the Internet won’t really be a thing for 20 years and I can’t wait that long for random people to start writing shipping fanfic about them!!!!
But, Empire does manage to reintroduce each of the characters (and some new ones) and give them comprehensive motivations in regards to its own story. The story that it presents is an extended rescue mission. This story actually occurs in both of the other two original films as well, and in both of those cases it is simply one small part of the greater film, but in Empire it comprises the bulk of the movie. And even with all the questions that it introduces, it unfolds organically and feels complete when it is over.
Civil War managed to do that. Generally after a superhero movie, we walk out of the theater and my wife has to ask me to fill in gaps from the comic book: Ok, so what does _____ do exactly? What are his powers? Where did he come from? Why does he want to kill _____? What was up with _____? And why was that hot tub scene even there? This time she had none. Everything she could have been wondering about in the context of the film was included in the film. She enjoyed what she was watching and will likely be excited to see more.
The Star Wars prequels could have never happened. George Lucas wanted to do them but said several times that he might never get around to them. After the prequels he made it clear that he would probably never get around to doing a sequel series. The reason both of these things happened is because there was demand from the fans. Not expectations because of a promise, but demands. We got more Star Wars because we begged for more Star Wars.
This is what you are looking for when building a franchise. Your film shouldn’t be trying to sell me the next film. Your film should be so good that I want to buy the next film.
★★★¾☆(3.75 out of 5 stars)