Relieving the film of the obvious comparison at the start, Captain America: Civil War is an unambiguous improvement over Zack Snyder’s lugubrious exercise in self-satisfaction Batman v Superman. But Civil War’s success on that front is almost exclusively a question of relatives rather than absolutes. It is not that Civil War meaningfully adopts a different track to success than Dawn of Justice (the amusingly wishful subtitle of Snyder’s film), so much as it is that Civil War simply repeats the failures of Dawn of Justice to a lesser extent. Both films valiantly extend the Nolanesque concern for ethical turmoil and vigilante justice, and they both ashamedly retreat into Nolan’s wheelhouse of erecting statuesque themes to double-down on their own importance only to explode those very questions in a hail of blockbuster-baiting bullets for the masses. Rather than barreling into the ethical crevices of their genres – ultimately expanding their potential – these two films ultimately reaffirm the essential limits of the genre they pine to knock down. A decade after Batman Begins, the superhero genre’s growing pains continue to do nothing but elide its essential immaturity. Rather than aging gracefully, the genre feels like a bunch of kids playing in their parents clothing.
Civil War’s flaccidly non-committal interpretation of “ethical grayness” is, like The Winter Soldier before it, a sprinkle of “serious themes” fairy dust, a microwaved version of a tale that requires a deeper, fuller bake. Potentially tremulous questions about the neoliberal individualism inherent to the modern superhero mythos are carted out and ceremoniously dismissed with a wave of an even more individualist claim that a secretive big bad (Helmut Zemo, played with a vaguely uncomfortable Eastern European seriousness by Daniel Brühl). Even worse, none of the heroes in the film legitimately question the implications of the side they take in the conflict, mostly submitting to their friends’ wills or simply showing up to bolster the ranks indiscriminately.
Although tenuously advertised as an adaptation of the “should we register?” infighting of Marvel’s landmark Civil War comic series a decade ago, the “Team Cap”/ “Team Iron Man” shenanigans emerge as little more than an advertising niche. The plot acclimatizes us to the consequences of superherodom by implicating the Avengers in the death of civilians they nominally thrive to save, but the film shows no compunction about waving its theoretically heady, quarrelsome social implications into the background when safer, less thorny questions of personal affiliation and friendship arise. Ultimately, Civil War is, like any good American populist film, a story about watering down social concerns for Enlightenment-revitalizing individualist tales of revenge and personal guilt.
Thus, Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) desire to restrict rogue heroes by subsuming their actions under government authorization is rooted not in philosophical questions but in his own trauma at having let his ego grow unchecked in the previous Avengers film. Captain America’s (Chris Evans) reticence to support the initiative is tentatively tethered to his rah-rah American individualism, but more openly a salve for his troubled friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who has a vendetta to settle that government action might restrict. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the best addition to the cast, joins Iron Man’s side not because of his native Africa’s percolating role in the broader power plays of the world, but because he believes one of Cap’s friends murdered his father. Spider-Man (Tom Holland) wants to impress fellow-boy-in-red Iron Man. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, still offhandedly charming) just about wanders into the frame.
Rather than judiciously exploring how political decisions are subsumed underneath pliable personal quarrels and party lines are ultimately popularity contests between the biggest hitters, it all feels like a grand exercise in avoiding the issue. Everything about the film’s embedded concerns feels deadlined, like a first-act tease of a better, more self-immolating film until everyone involved realizes their movie is masterminded by one of the largest corporations in the world. Although the film’s half-hearted self-critique isn’t as calorically impacted or deleterious as Dawn of Justice, Civil War’s flaws operate in the same ballpark.
Case in point: everything Civil War does well is intimately tied into adamantly forgetting its stated intentions and simply sliding into a more comfortable realm of filmic fast-food. Thankfully, when the film is willing to eschew the issues for long enough to emerge as simple escapism, it’s a fairly dexterous, nimble work despite the cringe-inducing run time. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo continue to have learned a striking amount about how to frame action from their earlier days working through the batting cages of televised comedy (one suspects some sort of deal with the devil was involved, but who knows). If everything in the film is ultimately nothing more than a glorified excuse to stage a modern reworking of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or King Kong vs. Godzilla, the directors perform an impressively animated take on the battle royale.
Unlike, say, Dawn of Justice, which failed to even consider the cinematographic potential of diametrically opposed main characters, Civil War’s helmers are at least passingly intrigued by the camera’s ability to architecturally showcase the physical and mental differences of their assemblage of characters. Thus, the camera backs off into hair-rising wide tracking shots to visualize Iron Man and friend War Machine (Don Cheadle) as relatively stable, time-tested institutional types while shifting to a more arrhythmic, vertiginous, anarchic style to formally showcase Spider-Man’s inchoate youth. Black Panther’s fangs dig deepest, not because the screenplay is remotely invested in unpacking his theoretically fascinating role in this largely first-world conflict, but because he is doused in rough-and-tumble, knuckle-dusting camerawork that mimics his no-nonsense animalistic fighting style (one hopes a grittier director like Ryan Coogler will do wonders with the character when his solo outing comes around in 18 months). Civil War is an impressive battleground, even when it adamantly neglects to explore the fallout of its conflict.
Still, entertaining though the film is, its success is categorically an inverse of its exploration of its central conflict; that it is a better film than Dawn of Justice is simply to state that it gives up trying sooner. However valuable a success story that is, it does little to reaffirm the false belief that the superhero genre is primed to truly investigate the tatters of its own morality. The Searchers this is not, to say nothing of a truly venomous work of self-exploration like McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I’m not going to be joining Team Deadpool anytime soon, but there’s something refreshingly uncontainable, impulsive, and even honest about that film’s tacit awareness of its own essential amorality. Although it lacks the stultifying sobriety and self-indulgent impotence of Batman V. Superman, Civil War never overcomes the pretentious, take-me-seriously halitosis of its insistence on the very questions it so keenly and adamantly drops. There’s nothing less satisfying than watching a film dare to stare at the uncomfortable, swampy abyss of its own morality only to turn around rather than boldly, bodily waltz into the thickets of its own existence. Whatever team you support, Civil War is pulling its punches.