Captain America: Civil War (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, PG-13)

A lot of stuff happens in Civil War, but not much of it is memorable.


Captain America: Civil War is more of an Avengers roundup than a Captain America vehicle, and while one of the story lines does pick up from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s Iron Man who steals the show. Not that I think that the core audience for these films cares too much about plotting—the draw is the spectacle and the sheer grandiosity of each film, and in that regard Civil War has spared no expense. Plus, at 146 minutes, it can hardly be accused of serving up nouvelle cuisine to an audience grown accustomed to pigging out at the buffet.

The “Civil War” of the title refers to the different reactions various Avengers have to the Sokovia Accords, an agreement that would require them to submit to supervision by a UN-appointed panel. It seems someone finally took notice of the civilian deaths that seem to proliferate wherever the Avengers go, the most recent example being residents of an apartment building in Lagos accidentally set on fire by Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The upshot is that many people now regard the Avengers less as admirable superheroes and more as dangerous vigilantes.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) refuses to submit to the Sokovia Accords, and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) sides with him. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), who has recently had his conscience raised by the mother (Alfre Woodward, who in a brief appearance delivers perhaps the best acting in the film) of a young man killed in the disastrous Sokovia operation, is in favor of them, as are Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Vision (Paul Bettany). Downey’s character is about 100 times more nuanced than Evans’, and he’s the real moral center of the movie, an adult who understands human fallibility as opposed to Evans’ fairly juvenile Captain who takes no account of anyone’s view but his own.

It’s worth noting that in the comics, it was the United States government that wanted all “enhanced humans” to register, recalling other post-9/11 encroachments on individual privacy in the name of national security. By shifting the registration effort to the UN, this political context is removed, and the issue then becomes one of individuals (mostly Americans) refusing to bow to the demands of a supranational organization. Or if you look at it another way, it’s about some of the superheroes refusing to acknowledge the concerns of anyone but themselves. If you have a bent in this direction, you can also see Captain America as someone who dismisses the death and destruction in Sokovia, Lagos and all the rest as just “collateral damage” justified by the greater good of his actions (or maybe just his good intentions), and then you might notice what country forms part of his name. There are plenty of interesting philosophical discussions to be had on these issues, but you won’t find them in this film, which is all about action (primarily) and personalities (secondarily).

Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a childhood friend of Steve Rogers who was brainwashed into being a cold-blooded killer in The Winter Soldier, is the key player in a second plot thread. Here’s another philosophical question—is Bucky responsible for what he did in his involuntarily altered state? Captain America doesn’t think so, and his efforts to rescue his old pal occupy at least as much screen time in Civil War as does the disagreement over the Sokovia Accords. A new villain, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), is introduced with the Bucky story, and with it a touch of subtlety that provides a welcome contrast to Captain America’s character. (Clearly, both Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross and Steve Rogers could benefit by a viewing of Yojimbo.)

A lot of stuff happens in Civil War, but not much of it is memorable. The high points are several spectacular fight sequences, the first of which seems to include every Avenger that could be rounded up, including Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Peter Parker/Spider-man (Tom Holland). There’s another big fight near the end where Iron Man squares off against Captain America and Bucky in close quarters, cage match style. These sequences include some remarkable special effects, and the first in particular shows some real creativity in terms of how the superheroes’ different abilities could be put to use in a fight. However, the lack of boundaries regarding what each character can do and how much punishment each can absorb means there’s not a lot of dramatic tension to be had, and no point in trying to figure out who is winning—instead, the characters simply fight until the script requires them to stop.

I saw Captain America: Civil War in 3D, and it was a decidedly mixed experience. Occasionally the 3D is stunning, most often in wide shots (there’s a lot of country-hopping in this film, with each location announced by a spectacular vista and a chyron on a separate plane, like a notice on a shop window). More often, however, the 3D was a distraction, making action sequences jumpy and blurry and in static sequences leaving most of the screen out of focus. The latter was quite distracting, like viewing a scene through a soda straw, particularly since directors Anthony and Joe Russo use a lot of traditional blocking. What is the point of an over-the-shoulder shot if the shoulder is hopelessly blurry, or a group shot at a conference table if only one person at the table is in focus? Even more distracting is when someone enters a scene as if emerging from Jello—first appearing as barely distinguishable blob (or the proverbial thumb on the lens), then becoming a blurry outline, and finally appearing as a distinct and recognizable character—and not because they were meant to materialize before our eyes, but apparently due to the limitations of the technology. If the 3D technology means that directors can work only with a shallow depth of field, as seems to be the case in this film, then they will have to find new techniques to accommodate this shortcoming, rather than simply following conventions that were developed for 2D cameras. | Sarah Boslaugh

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