Effortless, by Tyler Smith

5 May

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At this point, the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are fairly easy to make. We know the characters and the world; we just need the new conflict explained efficiently and we’re off to the races. This is not a good thing. Movies should not be by-the-numbers, regardless of how deep into a specific series or franchise they are. In fact, with each new entry, we should see more effort put into the finished product, not less. Rather than simply give us a variation on what we’ve seen before, the filmmakers should at least attempt to present us with something new. By pitting its heroes against each other, Captain America: Civil War had the opportunity to show us something we hadn’t seen before. It could have divided our loyalties and made us question the motivations and philosophies of these characters that we’ve come to know and love over the years. And while it does tease us with that for a few minutes, the film mostly abandons that in order to give us more of the same.

The story revolves around a controversial international accord that would put the Avengers under United Nations jurisdiction. Tony Stark, who feels guilty over the collateral damage he has caused, agrees wholeheartedly with this idea, while Steve Rogers – who, like America itself, isn’t eager to be accountable to the U.N. – resists. At first, it appears that this central philosophical disagreement is what will lead to the inevitable clash, but that storyline is quickly done away with, in favor of something much more concrete. A bomb explodes at a meeting of the U.N., an act seemingly committed by Bucky, Captain America’s old friend. As the world condemns and pursues Bucky, Cap stands by him, convinced that there is more going on than meets the eye.

Sure enough, there are more nefarious forces at work, but that ultimately doesn’t matter. The point is, Iron Man is on one side and Captain America is on the other, with the various members of the Avengers falling in line with each of them. As each man recruits more fighters, we trudge towards the epic battle, with Falcon fighting War Machine and Black Widow fighting Hawkeye and so on. We even see newcomers Black Panther and Spider-Man. So much of the film is built around the logistical preparations for the imminent battle that the character motivations feel like an afterthought. It takes a lot for an audience to believe that best friends will eventually be willing to physically hurt each other, and Civil War does not do much to guide us to this eventual conclusion.

Instead, we get a script that is often clunky and expositional, with previously-subtle characters now just openly declaring their feelings and motivations. Of all the films in the MCU, this has one of the more shallow screenplays, with a heavy dependence on the actors to fill in the massive gaps left by the writers. Thankfully, these actors know their characters well enough that they elevate the material and I found myself actually buying the emotional stakes of the story, vague and simplistic though they may be.

At almost every turn, the film opts to go with what is easy and obvious. This applies not only to the story – in which the idealistic differences in the characters are quickly ignored – but also to the action, which is largely bland and functional. Gone is the fluid, immersive action of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. It is replaced with a simple, logical pairing off of fighters. Vision fights Scarlet Witch, because both have mystical powers. Black Widow fights Hawkeye, because neither have super powers. Falcon fights War Machine, because both can fly. Rather than the constant, ever-shifting improvisational teamwork that we saw from Whedon’s film, everything seems mechanical and agreed-upon, like the participants looked over a list of rules before fighting. Only in the deployment of Spider-Man and Ant-Man does the action feel lively and creative. The rest of the choreography and cinematography is as unmemorable as the flat, gray location where the battle takes place.

This is not to say that every single sequence is bereft of weight. Towards the end of the film, we get a fight between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky that is intense and emotional. Tensions are high and the fight reflects that. Nobody is pulling punches here and the brutality is palpable. It actually made me a little uncomfortable to see these friends trying to rip each other apart. This is what the film should have been the whole time. The events of Civil War are indicative of what is arguably the darkest time for the Avengers, when they question their loyalties to each other and their goals, and the film should reflect that.

It seems appropriate that Captain America: Civil War should be released so soon after Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both films feature beloved American icons battling it out, but only one actually seems to understand the emotional and thematic weight of that fact. And while I feel that Batman v. Superman is a complete mess, at least director Zack Snyder seems to understand the importance of what we’re witnessing. As such, he turns his film into some sort of tragic opera, albeit one with mixed narrative results. Anthony and Joe Russo, however, fall victim to what is becoming an ever more common critique of the MCU: that they do nothing to distinguish their movie – visually or tonally – from the other films. Even when something as climactic as our main characters clashing, the visual fabric of the larger universe must be maintained at all costs.

The result is a film that has tremendous thematic weight but doesn’t seem to know it. The inherent riskiness of the specific story being told isn’t enough for the filmmakers to deviate from the standard MCU mold. And so what should be difficult and challenging – both for the artist and the audience – registers only as a minor blip on the way to the Infinity War films. What should have been a titanic story is relegated to a mere footnote in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which simply reads, “the one where they fight each other.”

3 Responses to “Effortless, by Tyler Smith”

  1. Nate Fleming May 5, 2016 at 4:53 am #

    As always, I appreciate the review, and your thoughts on the film. I didn’t come away feeling the same, although reading your thoughts about “what could have been”, I can see the potential for disappointment.

    But I would have to argue the opposite, at least in terms of the actual final battle between supers. While Snyder’s was big and operatic, it also felt really unearned (why don’t they just talk to each other?) and, as you said, messy.

    With Civil War, the final battle with Cap and Iron Man had been building since Ultron (maybe even before?), and when it happened, I totally bought it. They’d tried talking, and it never really worked when Cap and Iron Man talked. The talks never went anywhere, or changed anyone. So, the frustrations of everything building just came to a head, and suddenly they weren’t pulling punches, when they’d been pulling them pretty severely before.

    Keep it up, Tyler!

  2. Caleb McCandless May 5, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    I’m excited for this, even though your complaint about the action doesn’t surprise me. I thought Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a complete bore when it came to the action, and I’m really skeptical about the Russo brothers being handed this franchise. That said, I’m soooo excited for more Ant-man, and it’s good to know both he and Spider-man fare well in this.

    I have to disagree that Zack Snyder “seems to understand the importance of what we’re witnessing” in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I feel like he throws a bunch of “cool” things onscreen without understanding either how to make visual sense out of them or what his images mean to a global audience. He doesn’t seem to understand the themes and messages his own visuals are hold, and he doesn’t even seem to have a grasp on how to tell these stories with any sort of coherent motion.

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