Last night I went out and saw the excellent Captain America: Civil War.
That word – excellent – is all I’m going to say in the sense of an overall qualitative review. Drilling down on more overall praise would be redundant at this point. Go see it, you won’t be disappointed.
What I did want to get down is some thoughts about why it works. I’ve deliberately tried to keep it spoiler light. You can read this. These are only bullet points, but I think they’re all worth noting:
The Russos: People have been wondering how the Russos established themselves with such surety as action directors, but it’s worth noting that the main skill they draw upon here is not actioneering (though more on that in a moment), it’s character balance. The brothers cut their teeth on Arrested Development and Community – both character focused comedies that needed to keep everyone’s story line clear whilst allowing them to ineract. Servicing separate arcs but shifting emphasis from one character to another and finding time to make the people that they’re depicting compelling. Do we recognise a pattern here? Civil War juggles an AMAZING number of characters, and whilst some of them get a shorter shrift than others, every character gets at least one significant beat in their overall arc. That’s amazing, given how easy it would be (and has been in other films) for characters to get lost in the shuffle. As action directors, they still know to serve character with their action sequences, and keep those sequences in service to the story. Quick case in point – at the beginning of the film, the action sequences are shot with “shaky cam” – blurred, kinetic, rapid cuts. Even in these sequences you can still divine what’s going on, but the fights feel fractious and chaotic because that’s how the characters are feeling. It reflects chaos that is critical to the story, without betraying the overall capabilities or visions of the characters in service to that chaos. Later in the film, when battle lines are more clearly drawn, the direction of the action sequences becomes clear – steadicam. Wide angle shots. Long pans from character to character. In one notable multipartite slugfest it comes as close to anything I’ve ever seen in recreating a splash page from a comic book without feeling too still or slavish. Everything moves, and continues to move, but the action sequences derive more and more focus – following the arc of the film as chaos becomes clear. This is how you direct a superhero film.
Character First: The comment I made above about how the Russos come from a character focused background? Well, they’re equally well served by the script and the performances, all of which focus on key motivations for the characters. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that both RDJ and Chris Evans have spoken more openly about staying on with Marvel after this one, as they’re obviously given the lion’s share of the work to do as actors and that must feel satisfying when there’s this much meat to it – but they’re not the only ones. Ideology and motivation are made clear in ways that feel intrinsic to the characters, but are also subject to change which arises naturally out of the course of events in this film. Much of the film (not that it stints on action) is taken up with dialogue – people considering, reconsidering, debating, finding and losing common ground. This works because we have a clear and defined sense of who they are and what they want. That’s true for the new characters too, T’Challa and Spider-Man who each get enough time to explain their motivations for this film and set them up for future endeavours. There’s never a moment where the conflict here is driven by anything other than character – no flashy deus ex machinae, no papering over the cracks. This is about people who behave in understandable ways. Leading on to my next point…
They’ve Earned It: It sounds kind of facile to say this, but it absolutely needs to be said: even moreso than The Avengers (which I’m not trying to discredit, I’m just saying it operated by different rules), this is the proof of concept movie for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie works without it, but it works so much more effectively because of it – references to old beats and conflicts (a sequence where Captain America raises his fists, a beat where Steve and Bucky stand next to each other, when Tony notably at one point says “I changed“), self-contained arcs within the movies which nevertheless reflect the overall themes of the universe. We know who these characters are and what they want, and they feel so wholly inhabited by their actors that where some people have less screen time, it’s still remarkably effective because we know who they are. Marvel has smartly saved itself spadework in introductions for the most part – there are reintroductions that allow us to get straight into the good stuff. The movie centres around events of a lot of the previous films, but in the aggregate, not the specific. It’s less about the precise recollection of any particular events (though as I say, the Easter eggs are there for people who are looking for them), and more about a general recognition that this is the next stage in an overall extant and internally consistent world. In full credit to its writing, it smooths out previously spiky edges, without ever diminishing the content of what comes before.
The Civil War: Is so, so much better conceived than Civil War as depicted in the comics. Avoiding spoilers here is difficult, but suffice to say that a compelling argument is drawn for all participants, in a way that in no way diminishes that they are men and women of good will and integrity who are driven in different directions. No-one needs to carry an idiot ball. No-one needs an out of character heel turn. The film is about the inherent conflict in doing the right thing. How that is interpreted, the price one needs to pay for it, both its burdens and its benefits. Unlike certain other hero vs. hero movies, there’s no sense that any of these characters are less than heroes and perhaps more critically, it never EVER suggests that there’s anything facile in the heroic ideal. This is a Captain America movie, and even moreso, I think, than Winter Soldier, it functions by taking Cap as a person of integrity and making him the fulcrum of how people interpret integrity and, well, righteousness in a complicated world. Those complications aren’t cynical, but they are real, and it’s to the film’s credit that it never tries to provide simple, facile answers or jingoistic ooh-rah-rahs.
The Joy: This is probably the last, most critical piece, but it also really matters. This movie is fun. Not just funny (though it is that, jokes and quips abound without ever diminishing the serious moments), but generally wondrous about the things it’s allowed to do, without ever being self-indulgent. There are superheroes galore on screen, and they do superhero things – perform incredible feats, awesome stunts, clever tricks, amazing chases, a mix of unstoppable power and incredible grace. That character distinction comes to the fore too, you get a sense of what every character can do and why they’re valuable to the MCU as a whole, but part of why they can do that is how they do that: seeming to really revel in these characters being superheroes and these being awe-inspiring things to do and see and be. I have a rule about Doctor Who, which I’m also starting to apply to superhero properties – the more you can see daylight the more of an indication that the storytellers are confident in the wonder of what they’re creating. They’re unafraid to put those creations to the test under the light of day.
When it’s this good, they shouldn’t be.