By Sulaiman D.
What do comic book nerds want from a movie? That is the question that has plagued Hollywood suits for decades. The answer however is deceptively simple. Like with most things in life that could potentially earn billions of dollars, a balance needs to be struck.
You could have a movie that pleases the fanbase, includes inside references and jokes that longtime fans will get but no one else will, and have your movie bomb spectacularly. That’s what happened with movies like The Spirit, Scott Pilgrim, and even my personal favourite Serenity. The core audience was pleased, but they don’t make up the majority of the moviegoing crowd.
On the other hand, you could have a bland popcorn flick that plays it safe, casts well-known but unsuitable actors, and violate everything that made your intellectual property popular in the first place. Which is how we ended up with the abortions that were Batman and Robin, Jonah Hex and Constantine.
The key, then, really is about balance. You need to keep most of what made the comics great while at the same time updating and adjusting the things that no longer make sense for a 21st century audience. You need to ensure that in a big ensemble film with lots and lots of characters, everyone gets enough screentime and their time to shine. And at the end of the day, you need to remember this is still a Captain America movie, it’s a sequel to the Winter Soldier, and the themes introduced in that movie need to be explored further.
Thank God that the creative team behind the movie, producer Kevin Feige, scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and the directors Joe and Anthony Russo, knocks it out of the fucking park.
The movie opens with an entertaining action sequence, with Cap and his friends working together to take out Crossbones, a terrorist and agent of Hydra last glimpsed in Winter Soldier. You can see how much Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Black Widow respect and trust Cap during this short scene, culminating in a horrible disaster where Wanda saves Cap’s life but kills innocent bystanders.
This is the proverbial straw, after the collateral damage caused during the previous battles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The horrors of New York, Washington DC, Johannesburg and Sokovia are just too much for the world, who want to place restrictions on what the Avengers can do and when and where they are allowed to act. Captain America, having seen firsthand how Hydra infiltrated Shield and nearly took over the world in Winter Soldier, is wary about entrusting the responsibility for his actions to a faceless, bureaucratic committee.
Iron Man, on the other hand, has seen firsthand what happens when his good intentions and grand plans to keep everyone safe blow up in his face. Tony has been undergoing multiple traumatic incidents in one movie after another, and he reaches the breaking point not because of Nigeria, but because of Sokovia. A grieving mother puts a face to the tragedy that happened because of Ultron, his creation. Tony is no longer the brash, arrogant weapons developer that told the US government to go fuck itself in Iron Man 2. He’s a changed man, a haunted man, and the Russo Brothers brilliantly spin Gwyneth Paltrow’s refusal to make a cameo as another reason for Tony Stark to feel lost and alone, without Pepper Potts to ground him. The smartest man in the world is hurting, and to him the Sokovian Accords represent the best chance he has for peace.
Again, I can’t stress enough how brilliant it is that the Russo Brothers refuse to let the MCU’s legacy burden their film, but instead use it to open up a whole new world of possibilities. The themes brought up in previous Marvel films don’t drag down Civil War, they enhance it. You can see how Iron Man arrived at the conclusion he does because of what happened to him in all the previous films. You can see how Cap is fated to clash with him because of what happened to him in his own films. It is a natural progression that rewards longtime fans of the MCU, and yet isn’t incomprehensible to new viewers because Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (making his first appearance since The Incredible Hulk) helpfully replays footage from the Avengers’ previous battles. It’s the little things that count.
While the grand conflict between security and freedom plays out, another more personal narrative is bubbling beneath the surface. At first glance, the fact that Cap risks everything to save Bucky time and time again might seem ridiculous. But remember, Cap is a man out of time. It isn’t really played up, but Cap was frozen in 1945 and woke up in 2012. Remember how much has changed from 2006 to 2016, a mere ten years. Social media, iPhones, all of it. The future is just an alien a world as Mars is to Captain America. It’s no wonder that he would hold on to a reminder of that past, represented by his hometown friend and war buddy Buck Barnes as fiercely as he does. We understand why he does it, even if we don’t agree with it.
In a nutshell, that is what we nerds want out of movies, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that’s what every movie-goer wants as well. We don’t always have to agree with the message or the theme that’s being presented, but for the love of God give us a reason, something that explains to me as a viewer why this character is doing what he’s doing. It’s called internal logic, and it is vital in a movie that expects me to believe that Asgardian gods and green rage monsters and a mysterious African country called Wakanda exists. Internal logic is what makes movies tick.
Name me a character from this movie, and I can tell you why they end up on the side they chose.
Falcon -> Cap’s buddy, stands by his side no matter what, was present for the events of Winter Soldier and therefore distrusts the government.
The Vision -> Tony Stark created him so he feels some loyalty to him, his logical nature means he sees the need for some kind of oversight, his pacifist creed means he hates fighting but will do it if there’s no other option.
Ant-Man -> He’s used to living on the wrong side of the law, and he’s thrilled that someone as important as Captain America thinks he’s worthy to join his team.
Black Widow -> Although she’s close friends with Cap, she knows that it’s easier to ‘steer with one hand on the wheel’ due to her years of experience with espionage. It’s better to be inside with a voice than outside with a loudhailer.
And so on and so on. The beauty of this film is that every scene has a purpose, every bit of dialogue and every fight makes sense and moves the plot forward. I know why Black Panther wants to kill Bucky. I know why Black Widow ends up double crossing Iron Man’s team. I know why Hawkeye came out of retirement. And it’s not because I’m a comic book nerd, it’s all right there for any viewer, no matter their experience of the comics. That’s the gold standard you should be aiming for as a director.
The conflict builds towards the climactic fight scene at the airport, and it is GLORIOUS. It’s the best scene ever filmed in the MCU. It’s perhaps the closest that we can get to translating a huge, double-page spread from the comic books into film. Every hero gets their chance to shine. Scarlet Witch hurls a bunch of cars on top of Iron Man’s head, Black Panther and Cap try their best to kick each other’s ass, and Ant-Man is my own personal highlight, ripping up Iron Man’s suit while tiny and cackling like a maniac while huge as Giant-Man. The ten year old that’s still part of my brain, the part that loves big dumb action spectacles that are ripped straight from the pages of a comic book, was cackling right along with him as he threw War Machine over the horizon like a baseball.
Although Ant-Man is my personal favourite, I’ve got to give a shout out to Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. Awkward and endearing as the fifteen year-old Peter Parker, he quickly proves to be one of the most capable fighters in the entire MCU. After all the red-tape that Marvel had to cut through and all their arguments with Sony, it was all worth it to see Webhead come home, to where he truly belongs.
After the dust has settled from the airport fight and Tony is left picking up the pieces, it’s only then that the villain’s main plan goes into action. Colonel Helmut Zero is another triumph of story-telling for the writers/directors. He’s not a sneering, moustache twirling pantomime villain, but an ordinary man, driven by nothing more than hatred. He doesn’t want to conquer the world, he wants to tear the Avengers apart. And he does it not with a giant floating rock or an alien invasion, but with good old manipulation and betrayal. When the terrible truth is revealed and Iron Man roars forth to kill the Winter Soldier, not capture or incapacitate but murder him, you can’t help but rue the senseless loss of life that culminated in this moment. Like Devin Faraci of BirthMoviesDeath says in his review, they’re both right. Cap is right. Tony is right. And they have to fight, because ‘it always ends in a fight’.
The Russo Brothers promised that when you walked out of the cinema, everything had changed and nothing would be the same again for the MCU. And they were right, in more ways than one.
Behind the scenes, it’s important to remember that Captain America: Civil War was nearly doomed from the start. There had been some rumblings that the Creative Committee (a bunch of producers that made a mockery of the name) had been interfering with the creative process at the House of Ideas. Troubling signs could be seen when Joss Whedon said he was ‘burnt out’ after Age of Ultron, and the supremely talented Edgar Wright decided to step away from Ant-Man.
The committee’s other brilliant ideas included not setting Captain America: The First Avenger in World War 2 (which is kind of the point of the character), stopping Black Widow merchandise from being made and nixing the Black Widow and Captain Marvel solo films because they thought female-led movies wouldn’t be popular, and then wanting to fire RDJ from Civil War because he cost too much money. The man behind all this friction is Ike Perlmutter, and things got so bad that Kevin Feige (the other head honcho of the MCU) went directly to Disney to try and sort things out. Perlmutter learnt a very valuable lesson; NO ONE messes with the Mouse. And Feige, the Russo brothers and McFeely and Markus were given free reign to develop Civil War as best they could.
Why is this important to remember? Because this altercation shows the difference between Marvel and DC’s cinematic franchises. It shows that Marvel is far from perfect, but they realise when they’re drifting in the wrong direction and act to correct it. They understand that you don’t pander too much to the fanboys nor do you make a boring, mass-appeal movie that will be forgotten the moment people walk out of the theatres. They realise that in order to make a good movie, the balance needs to be achieved. And that is what happens in Captain America: Civil War.