Marvel's 'Captain America: Civil War' Isn't Even Fun
When Marvel Studios began its "Cinematic Universe" in 2008, Robert Downey, Jr. improvised and indulged his way through Iron Man while Chris Hemsworth's space-demigod Thor played a fish out of water in essentially a rom-com. The movies weren't great, but they were relaxed and fun, only occasionally dipping into bothersome pathos of its competitors.
Thirteen films (and four televisions series) later, and it takes 90 minutes for Captain America: Civil War to finally lighten its mood, no thanks to any of the dozen characters the film has already introduced. Instead, here comes Tom Holland's Peter Parker, an awkward teenage nerd living in Queens with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei)—who just happens to be hiding a web-slinging identity. Downey's Tony Stark comes to recruit the young lad, and the two contrasting personalities throw zinger after zinger, finally allowing the movie to breathe. But then again, whose story is this anyway?
Civil War follows in the wake of last year's Avengers: Age of Ultron, and beyond the lack of Hulk and Thor, it might as well be an Avengers film. The film opens in 1991 with a flashback to a secret mission by Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan, the "Winter Solider" of the previous Captain America film)—a friend to Chris Evans' Cap and enemy to the public due to occasional brainwashing—on a covert assassination. (In case you forget all of this, the film will repeat the flashback, shot-for-shot, an hour later.) Back in present day, The Avengers, as now the norm, have a meta-critical debate about their role in saving the people of Earth. Stark determines their actions destroy more than defend, while Captain America remains unsure about ceding his powers. In the very next scene, he luckily hears a theme-heavy speech about Doing What You Know Is Right, entrenching his ideological position against Stark. Barnes' unexpected reappearance sparks an internal battle within the team, with every hero new (Holland's Spider-Man, Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther) and old (Don Cheadle's War Machine, Jeremy Renner's Arrow-Shooting Guy, etc.) coming out of the woodwork for a rock-em sock-em match for the ages.
Despite jumping through at least a dozen locations within the first hour, Civil War drags. The characters continually bog themselves down in faux-weighty conversations about the ethics of their crime fighting. Even when it turns its most relaxingly oddball—an awkward cooking quasi-date sequence between Elizabeth Olson's Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany's red-plated robot Vision—the film quickly drops its humor for bland exposition.
After a long stint on Arrested Development and Community, the Russo Brothers have become the closest for an in-house directing team for Kevin Feige's Marvel brand. Civil War is their second film for the behemoth (with the two part Infinity War up next), and their TV chops result in the most perfunctory of images. They avoid dousing their films in shadows, though the only popping colors are the suits of the superheroes which otherwise live in a sea of generic grays and blues.
Even worse is the action, which remains utterly incomprehensible to the eye. The cast seemed to have put in a good deal of work in their choreography, but the constant handheld cameras swerve too quickly to register it. Single punches and kicks are often broken into four or five (and at one point, eight!) separate shots when a single take could inspire a jolt. Things work a little better when the Russos work in larger scales to show off individual powers (Paul Rudd's Ant-Man provides much welcomed zaniness), but these moments are few and far between. Defenders of the Marvel style might argue they have the visceral effect of a Paul Greengrass film (e.g. the Bourne series), but there's no momentum built; just sloppy, often blurry, confusion. Thirteen different special effects teams worked on the film, and it feels like none of them collaborated at any point.
Give the film one thing: after several films where heroes have fought random, generic villains, Civil War makes a final twist (over two hours later) to turn its final battle into an intimate character drama with real stakes. But even that's shortchanged, as the dramatically downbeat note is literally written over in the next scene. Could the studio not dangle any dramatic tension between now and 2018's Infinity War? These films seem determined to satisfy the barely satisfactory needs of their audience, and absolutely nothing more.
Captain America: Civil War opens in theaters everywhere tonight.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.