May 13 2016 12:18 PM

"Captain America: Civil War" squanders promising premise with problematic plot


I’m generally against evaluating films like products, the way one might review a toaster or the latest iPhone. But in the case of “Captain America: Civil War,” it’s justified. This film — and the rest of the Disney-owned Marvel superhero films, for that matter — are not intended as art, or even entertainment. They’re products, assembly line films made for consumption, not enjoyment or enrichment. (This holds true for virtually every franchise and film Disney puts out, including the “Star Wars” series and the recent slate of live-action adaptations of animated films. Only Pixar seems to be immune to Disney’s soul-crushing commercialism).

“Civil War” is written and directed like every other Disney/Marvel film. Visual blandness and a predictable plot make this about as formulaic as they come. Aside from a few inspired action sequences, this feels like the same superhero film we’ve been watching since Robert Downey Jr. first stepped into that metal suit back in 2008.

But as far as products go, “Civil War” isn’t bad. It has a better and more engaging story than most Marvel films — or at least a better set-up. After the public outcry against them for the collateral damage of their world saving exploits, the Avengers — and every other superhero on the planet — find themselves pressured to sign the Sokovia Accords, a piece of legislation that would put them under the oversight of the U.N. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey) is all for it, believing that the Avengers have too much free reign and need to be kept in check. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) sees things differently, thinking it would hinder the team’s ability to protect people.

The debate divides the Avengers and forces everyone to take sides. It’s a fascinating set-up. The characters reach their conclusions through careful reasoning, cynicism or, especially in Stark’s case, past trauma. The intimate conflict between Stark and Rogers plays out very well, and the devastating conclusion has real dramatic heft. But it is tainted, unfortunately, by what is essentially a teaser of an ending. It ruins a dark yet satisfying “Empire Strikes Back”-like conclusion that would have made me more excited for future installments, if only the producers and filmmakers had enough guts to give it to us.

But this is modern blockbuster filmmaking, and creative risks don’t put butts in chairs or multi-million dollar bonuses in studio execs’ bank accounts. They’re not looking to make anything too controversial. The top priority is to avoid making a blatantly bad film, to not screw it up. Ironically, by not taking narrative or formal risks or allowing any semblance of personality into the films, they have screwed these films up. By making films that don’t inspire particularly strong feelings one way or the other, Disney/Marvel has managed to avoid making bad films. But neither have they made any particularly good films, save for Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers.” These films are fine and nothing more.

The Captain America films have been bit more interesting, though. But just a bit. “Civil War” and “The Winter Soldier” both attempt to deal with topical political issues. In “The Winter Soldier,” issues of government surveillance, drone strikes and counter terrorism came into play. But in that film, all of that was just window dressing for what was essentially a paranoid spy thriller masquerading in superhero tights.

“Civil War” does one better by actually engaging with its core idea, albeit poorly. Captain America’s libertarianism vs. Iron Man’s authoritarianism is a conflict that plays better, partly because these two characters have been at odds since they first met in “The Avengers,” but more because this philosophical conflict is more primal and less heady than that of “The Winter Soldier.” Both Tony and Steve make good arguments, and the film presents an interesting debate. The film doesn’t try to resolve the issue, but lets the audience make up their own minds — until the final act.

Remember how I said everyone is forced to pick sides? Well, the same goes for the film itself. I’ll give you one guess as to whose side it lands on. (Hint: Read the title.)

The movie clumsily and unconvincingly ends up endorsing Cap’s libertarianism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Authoritarianism is, after all, how we wound up with Hitler, Mussolini — and maybe Donald Trump. (Yes, I went there). But Tony makes some good points. Isn’t it kind of scary, knowing that there are a bunch of super-powered people gallivanting around the world, ignoring national borders and “saving lives” with zero accountability or recourse for mistakes they make? While the film endorsing Captain America isn’t a problem, per se, it’s the way the film comes to that conclusion that gives me pause.

The film lacks gravitas and nuance, which would have helped in developing its political discourse. It presents this debate as an either/or argument. We can have it this way or that way, there is absolutely no in-between or compromise to found here. You agree with Iron Man or Captain America, so pick a side.

This runs counter to the very idea of including socio-political commentary in these films. What is the discourse for, if not to make the country and culture better? The kind of black-and-white, uncritical and uncompromising way of thinking presented here makes the country worse, by leading us into conflict with anyone who disagrees with us. And as Paul Bettany’s Vision states early in the film, “Conflict leads to catastrophe.”

And yet, these films thrive on it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get to see superheros fighting each other. And that’s cool, right? As Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow asks Captain America, “Do you really want to punch your way out of this one?” Of course he does! And we want to watch him do it. Deep down, all these emotionally underdeveloped, super-powered man-children want to do is solve their problems with fists, bullets, lasers and magic hammers. And we, as a culture, pay to watch it.

It makes the exploration of these ideas feel disingenuous. The film starts out intelligently, engaging with its ideas, but then gives up and resigns itself to being just like every other superhero film. If Disney/Marvel wants to make smart, politically relevant blockbusters, they need to fully commit and craft their ideas in a way that isn’t problematic and doesn’t counter-intuitively exacerbate the problem. If they’re not going to do that, well, maybe they should just go back to making dumb action movies.