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June 18, 2016


@VitoGulla takes down Captain America: Civil War.


Clearly, something is broken in the way we watch movies—or maybe it’s me—because, after the nearly two-and-half hour disappointment that is Captain America: Civil War, I’m beginning to wonder.

The film has received universal acclaim from critics. With a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m obviously in the minority. Max Weiss of Baltimore Magazine writes that “Civil War manages to achieve something BvS never accomplished: It has fun. Marvel films have always found a way to serve the de rigueur self-seriousness of comic book films with a side-order of snappy wise-cracks and snark. Better still, in this case, our dueling superheroes—Captain America and Iron Man—are actually likeable guys.” As far as arguments for quality go, I’m not sure what “fun” is. What exactly does Weiss mean to say? Is she trying to say that the film is successful because she agrees with its tone? This, I find, is not very compelling as far as I’m concerned. In fact, this, if anything, is severely limiting, since this is somehow a criteria for aesthetic evaluation, on what either film—or maybe, at least, comic book film—can be. Furthermore, her suggestion, that, because the characters are “likeable guys,” the movie is therefore good, is even more absurd. For some reason, this seems to be a popular myth in the discourse on the arts, one which presents a foolhardy answer to why we enjoy narratives. The assumption behind this argument is that we cannot empathize with people who we do not like. The problem of such a theory seems to undermine one of narrative’s most important purposes. We are not compelled to empathize only with those whom we would have a beer: We should be compelled to understand the most pitiable and despicable of our species, not just those who have attractive qualities to us. 

Alternatively, others have commented on the film in a language which is as meaningless as it is irritating. Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, who apparently has recently discovered the joy of onomatopoeia, states: “Once the sermons die down, the action intensifies without letup. Pow! Pow! Pow! You only have to pick sides. Are you Team Iron Man or Team Cap?” What exactly Travers is getting at is beyond me. 

And briefly, I’d like to mention that some have said that Holland’s Spider-Man “is the highlight of the movie.” And while I agree I did find him rather charming as well, on a pure emotional level, it doesn’t make up for the film’s overall schizophrenic attempts at unity. But this, I think, gets at the mistake many have made. Audiences, increasingly commodifying art and making demands on artists themselves, look at films as products, as a fan-service extravaganza, rather than meaningful attempts to document the human condition which are contained within a form. 

At its heart, Captain America: Civil War is about loss and revenge. Bucky has lost his identity. Stark lost his parents—and then later Rhodes. Wanda lost her brother in Age of Ultron. Black Panther lost his father. Zemo lost his family. Most characters are motivated by a quest for revenge. It’s a fine theme for exploration, but unfortunately, the construction of the film holds it back from transforming those ideas into something revelatory. 
First, the film’s structure is a mess. The prologue, which documents Bucky’s mind control and his eventual murder of Stark’s parents, presents a myriad of problems. For one, this scene lacks any sense of context. It is a strategy we find in the piss-poor novels that tend to dominate the New York Times’s Bestsellers List, rather than anything worth a second look. In order to generate “excitement,” the artist gives us a moment in the story which is not fully explained, a scene which will be later reexamined. However, this only serves to create a sense of “mystery.” It tells us nothing about the characters, their goals, or the direction of the plot—not to mention provides zero conflict—which unfortunately falters in comparison to Winter Solider’s far more successful opening. Furthermore, all sense of mystery disappears through multiple viewings. We are supposed to be interested because the picture is incomplete, but when we are already aware of the solution, what would compel us to watch that scene again? The answer, quite unsurprisingly, is nothing. Bucky struggles in his chair as his handler rattles off the activation code, maybe to suggest that he is truly conflicted, but that isn’t very well communicated. Does Bucky, at this point in the film, really not want to do it or does the process just hurt? I have no idea. The emotional effect of the scene is far too ambiguous as is the goal of the character. Of course, even if the Russos couldn’t find a novel visual to express the character’s conflict, a few lines of dialogue would have gone a long way in making the scene express something rather than serve solely to further the plot and force a third act showdown between Cap and Stark, where nothing is really resolved.

Even the subsequent scene, which serves as the catalyst for the rest of the story, is just as context-free, where the Avengers stop Crossbones’s theft of a biological agent but fail to prevent enormous collateral damage. (And frankly, I’m not sure two cold opens in a row makes for compelling viewing.) But, sure, the Avengers want to prevent some kind of plague or whatever and the catastrophe at the end propels the plot, but I’m not entirely how this set-up is in service of the film’s thematic aims. Sadly, in another instance of fan-service, the appearance of Crossbones only exists to connect it to the previous Captain America film. There are some attempts to fold the scene into the overall rhetoric of the text—with the revelation of his scarred face and self-destruction—but again, this largely exists as an excuse to stage a fight, rather than develop our protagonist.

Furthermore, the scene which introduces Spider-Man, arriving near the middle of act two, is just as out of place. He’s just as purposeless as Wonder Woman in Dawn of Justice, but maybe even more ancillary to the plot than the famous Amazon. Stark recruits him for what—I’m not entirely sure. And after the airport scene, Spider-Man, apparently is never to be heard from again, further demonstrating how the movie emphasizes fan-service over thematic resonance and unity.  

Black Panther’s shoehorning into the film is just as pointless. In less than five minutes, we meet the character and his father, and then are supposed to be affected by the father’s death. Unfortunately, Black Panther is presented as nothing more than a kiss to his father’s hand. At least, when Luke lost his aunt and uncle in A New Hope, we knew Luke’s motivations and what he wanted before tragedy struck. In Black Panther’s case, he is nothing more than a two-dimensional revenge-seeker, suffering from the same kind of lazy writing seen so often in video games: backstory-explains-character rather than actions-explain-character. 

In fact, the presentation of characters’s motivations seem to be a major problem in this film. The villain, Zemo, is a question mark throughout the film, an enigma who is ruthless but without clear cause—that is until the end of the film when it is revealed that his family had been killed in Sokovia. This, again, privileges mystery over clarity. Who is this character? He wants something to do with Bucky, but for most of his time onscreen, we are completely in the dark as to why. All such a tactic demonstrates is dishonesty and contempt for the audience. In other words, mysteries like these only make the film disposable: There is no demand placed on the viewer, no reward for repeated viewings or careful consideration. We only need to watch the film once, until the revelations have been exposed. 

From a technical point of view, there has been a lot of discussion of the fight scenes in the film. Russ Fischer of Indiewire claims, “The Russos and their various fight choreographers and visual effects leads design fight sequences with a fluidity that would please Bruce Lee.” Such a statement makes me wonder if Fischer has ever seen a Bruce Lee film or anything out of Hong Kong cinema or even any movie from Asia at large. Shaky cameras, lots of coverage, and a depressing amount of cuts are not hallmarks of the action cinema of Hong Kong. If there’s one thing successful action scenes have in common, whether its the end of Game of Death or the hallway fight in Old Boy or the subway fight in The Matrix or even the rapid cutting of the ladder fight in Once a Upon a Time in China, its clarity. I find it somewhat amazing that mega-budget, tent-pole films can’t spend some of that time and money on fight choreography, practice, and storyboards. The only time the camera can focus on the action without cutting away to hide flaws or shaking uncontrollably is when the shot is composed by a computer instead of a camera and human beings. This is painfully obvious during the much hyped airport fight, contrasting the unclear fight choreography of Black Widow and Hawkeye, for example, and the all-animated brawl between giant Ant-Man and War Machine. It would make sense, if, when the action was underway, the edits became more rapid and the camera more uncontrollable, as seen in a film like The French Connection, to represent the heightened emotion of the scene and frantic pace, but when CGI is the only thing that keeps the camera focused and things clear, the faults of the staging and composition are painfully obvious.   

Lastly, returning to the film’s central themes of loss and revenge, these too are buried in mystery. Sure, these things are there, such as when Black Panther explains what is already obvious to Zemo—and to us—“Vengeance has consumed you.” (How Black Panther has come to such an epiphany so quickly is, of course, never explained or realized, considering that last we saw he too was consumed by revenge.) But there’s a certain amount of dissonance when viewed through the story’s main conflict, the signing of the Sokovia Accords and the ideological fight which follows. How does oversight fit into this equation? It does not apparently. It’s either one or the other: Either the movie puts its emphasis on revenge or the ideological tensions of oversight. There might be some overlap with collateral damage, but it doesn’t tie that information together as well as it could. Stark is motivated by the revelation that his actions resulted in the death of a woman’s son, but suddenly by the showdown, he is cool with Cap’s philosophical disagreement only to be then motivated by revenge. In other words, these two themes serve separate interests rather than a unified whole.

Needless to say, Captain America: Civil War is as overrated as it is overstuffed, full of red herrings, such as the other Winter Soldiers, and “mystery” and “revelation,” like Agent 13 is Sharon Carter. (Oh boy! Shame she’s just as useless as everyone else.) I don’t think it would be out of line to call this movie artless either. The Russos aren’t visionary. They aren’t visual storytellers. They’re completely interchangeable with Joss Whedon or any other director without a sense of visual flair. They come from the world of television, which doesn’t worry itself over the frame, the image. As Bret Easton Ellis has bemoaned practically weekly, and quite correctly I might add, this thoughtless approach to cinema has reduced it to little more than content, indistinguishable from a multi-camera sit-com or a YouTube vlog. Critics, and audiences, seem eager to celebrate performance and story but hardly appreciate the artistry of framing and composition anymore. After all, film is a visual medium, and while I think the narrative should always be strong and focused and the characters rich and complex, a film that succeeds at neither isn’t worth my time. Or maybe it’s just me.          

              

Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast. He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing and teaches English at Delaware County Community College and Lincoln University. You can find his fiction on the web in Pithead Chapel, Mulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click and follow him on Twitter @vitogulla

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