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Marvel’s ‘Captain America: Civil War’ redeems the superhero genre
Team Cap takes off in Marvel's "Captain America: Civil War" (Courtesy of Disney).

Marvel’s ‘Captain America: Civil War’ redeems the superhero genre

“Captain America: Civil War” might be the best Marvel movie that has ever been made. Now, I don’t mean “Civil War” is the best movie Marvel has ever made – that honor still goes to its predecessor, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” What I mean is that “Civil War” represents the best argument for the ...

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80

“Captain America: Civil War” might be the best Marvel movie that has ever been made. Now, I don’t mean “Civil War” is the best movie Marvel has ever made – that honor still goes to its predecessor, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” What I mean is that “Civil War” represents the best argument for the shared cinematic universe philosophy, which Marvel so boldly pioneered. This is a very strong film – but everything from the jokes to the emotional stakes is contingent on the viewer having at least some familiarity with previous Marvel films. If a man were to wake up from a decade-long coma and walk into a screening of this movie (Hell, what else would he do? See his family?), he’d have no way of investing in the story. But for someone that has followed Marvel everywhere from the highs of “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the lows of “Iron Man 2,” “Civil War” is a remarkably satisfying payoff for nearly a decade’s worth of investment.

When the film opens, things are not going well for the superheroes. After years of the world almost ending every summer, people are starting to get pissed. While no previous Marvel film has ever fully acknowledged it, all the really cool third act scenes of citywide destruction have led to high civilian casualties. And thus the governments of the world have decided to put an end to this superheroic nonsense by passing the “Sokovia Accords.” With this document, superpowered individuals must now either retire or surrender control of their operations to a UN-operated oversight panel.

Lots of critics have commented on the political timeliness of “Civil War,” especially since its release coincides with a particularly divisive election season. But that is nonsense. The politics of “Civil War” are completely divorced from the real world: After all, it depicts the UN as a body with actual power. This film has no political aspirations. The positions each character adopts with regard to the “Sokovia Accords” aren’t grounded in weighty, philosophical reasoning.

Instead, the positions, like the film, are grounded in emotional logic. When we begin, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a.k.a. Iron Man, still grapples with the guilt of having created Ultron and his own sense of inadequacy when confronted with the existential threat of human extinction. Of course, he would believe that the Avengers’ power needs to be checked. Meanwhile, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a.k.a. Captain America, is still weary after being betrayed by Shield and reanimated into a world of which he does not feel a part. As such, he initially refuses to sign the “Accords.” Tensions between these two only escalate further when Steve’s former childhood friend Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier, (Sebastian Stan) is implicated in a massive terrorist attack, becoming one of the world’s most wanted criminals.

The script interestingly twists and turns here and there – including the introduction of a rare Marvel villain whose motivation isn’t generic evilness. And it leads to some very cool hero vs. hero action – the most stunning of which is a much-touted fight scene at the Leipzig airport. When Joss Whedon introduced Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in “Ultron” he said it was because he didn’t want another hero who had “punchy” powers. He didn’t really make use of this during his film, but the Russo brothers (“Arrested Development”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) certainly do. A massive hero vs. hero brawl would mean nothing if the Russos weren’t wise enough to play up each character’s unique strengths and personalities. Ant-Man shrinks. Spider-Man slings webs. Vision phases in and out of solid matter. It’s the closest any scene has ever reached towards achieving the giddy, anything-goes helter-skelterdom of an actual comic book.

That being said, this surplus of characters is both “Civil War”’s gift and its curse. Though the film juggles the characters remarkably well — with over ten superheroes being given enough time to be amusing, badass or both — the surplus of heroes leaves little room for things like atmosphere and tone.

Some of the best modern superhero films take the genre’s trapping and fill them with the plot structures of other genres. Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” for instance, masterfully used crime noir to bring an unprecedented level of depth and tragedy to the superhero flick. “Winter Soldier” used the structure of a political thriller to create a paranoiac, jittery and altogether engrossing experience. “Civil War”, on the other hand, just fills its plot up with more superheroes. It’s difficult to really develop a mood, when the movie has to keep introducing another major character every few scenes. Scenes that I really liked – scenes which could have made the film really romantic, or tragic, or frightening – were constantly being cut short because the movie needed to get to the next plot point.

Don’t get me wrong: “Civil War” is not an utter travesty of a film like the last time a filmmaker (who shall remain nameless) tried to pit beloved superheroes against each other. The movie is a highly engaging, entertaining experience by two filmmakers who seem to have an intuitive grasp of the superhero genre. But it isn’t perfect. I enjoyed watching “Civil War” in a theater. But if caught on TV, I don’t really know if it would have the draw to keep me watching until the end. It’s very good, but nothing really reaches out and grabs you. The best and worst thing I can say about this film is that I wish this two and a half hour movie were much longer.

Contact Raymond Maspons at raymondm@stanford.edu.

About Raymond Maspons

Raymond Maspons is a class of 2017 Film & Media Studies major. He was raised in Miami, but born in Los Angeles. One of his particular interests is the unique and subversive thematic or formal qualities that often appear in genre films. Since elementary school he has spent a significantly large amount of his life watching movies and television, and not doing trivial things like homework.