(For general information on my movie rating system, especially regarding adaptations, click here.)
THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE
Last night my wife and I were granted the reprieve of a “date night,” thanks to the grandparents taking on the kiddos for an extra stretch, and we went to see Captain America: Civil War. My brother-in-law teased us for spending our “kids-free night” by “seeing a kids’ movie,” but as I pointed out in my Batman V Superman review, comic book movies are increasingly unfriendly towards kids. (This one has a PG-13 rating as well.) These days, my wife and I find that we have to pre-screen even Disney movies! So that’s one reason we went to see it without the kids… but of course, the real reason is simply that we’re kids at heart ourselves. Overall, this was a great movie, and definitely one of the best in the Marvel movie canon. Here are my talking points:
THINGS THAT DISTRACTED ME
- Camera Work. There’s something about the camera work during the fight scenes that’s really bothersome. Part of it is that the camera is shaking all over the place. I know they’re trying to create that feel of “chaos,” but at best, it makes it hard to see exactly what the action is. At worst, it comes off like those old Star Trek scenes when the ship would take a hit and all the actors would most dramatically hurl themselves about the set. But the annoyance here is more than just “shaky-cam.” This may not be the right term for what I’m seeing, but I think of it as “shutter speed” or “frame rate.” You see things explode, for example, and the debris and shrapnel fly through the air, but the motion and after-image is the tiniest bit fragmented. It’s very subtle. I suspect many people don’t even notice it, but it catches my eye, and it bothers me. It looks like an old film reel from the 1940s. Spielberg employed this same technique during the combat scenes in Saving Private Ryan, but in that case, it added to the audience immersion in the time period, and it wasn’t compounded by unnecessary shaky-cam. In Civil War, it just diminishes the fight scenes.
- Unsatisfying Ending. I’m not going to spoil the ending; I’m just going to say that it wasn’t much of an “ending.” The film ended, but the conflict was not resolved. Not entirely out of place for a film that is obviously a single piece in a larger tableau, but typically the most immediate conflicts are resolved, while maybe loose threads remain. In this case, it really felt like nothing was resolved at all. There was only the loose ends.
THINGS THAT TOTALLY ABSORBED ME
- Special Effects. The F/X were outstanding. When characters jumped or fell thirty feet, and whether they landed on their feet or got battered about like pinballs, the transitions between CG and stunt were seamless. I was particularly impressed by the speed at which they’d fall. Most of the time there’s a lot of drama and a subtle slowing of a character falling in a movie, in order that the audience can experience the fall to a certain sense. Not so here. Characters fall at 9.8 meters per second squared. It’s shockingly fast and painful to watch. It’s excellent. Aside from this, we have a scene of Robert Downey Jr. made young again, and looking far less like Tony Stark of Iron Man fame than Ian of Weird Science. And when a four-story Ant-Man goes stampeding around an air-terminal, the illusion is very convincing and not in the least bit transparent as the kaiju classics it evokes.
- Well-Timed Comedy Relief. In my Age of Ultron review, one of my gripes was the overabundance of banter and tongue-in-cheek. I half expected it with Civil War as well, given that so many Marvel characters are notoriously sarcastic, and this film promised to feature not only more of them than Age of Ultron, but also the biggest heckler of them all (save maybe Deadpool): Spider-Man. Thankfully, Civil War preserves the characters’ wits and attitudes without devaluing the tone of the individual scenes or the film as a whole. Maybe it’s because directors Anthony and Joe Russo are more thorough than Joss Whedon in sifting out the comedy relief. Maybe it’s because this is framed as a “Captain America” movie and not as an “Avengers” movie, but honestly distinctions like that are rapidly vanishing in the Marvel canon, if they remain at all. Whatever the case, the humorous scenes and lines are clever, free from slapstick or toilet humor, and do not contaminate the rest of the film.
- Best Mass-Ensemble Film to Date. When the travesty that was Batman and Robin came out in 1997, I concluded that it was impossible to do a comic-book movie that had more than two or three mainstream characters in it. I was validated in this by later horrors, including Daredevil (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), and Spider-Man 3 (2007). Some might even add Batman V Superman to this list. What we’ve seen is that there’s just too much story for even one character to be able to do justice to so many in a 2-hour span. And this remains true: it has taken no fewer than SIX full-length movies to simply establish the main characters in this film, and that’s not counting a number of sequels to further build the plot, or the characters who are mentioned but who do not appear in this film. It’s been a massive and extremely long-term undertaking. But the point is, unlike Batman and Robin or any of those other hurried travesties, Marvel has actually committed to investing the necessary time. What results is the biggest comic-book cast ever simultaneously assembled on screen, with not one of them feeling cheapened or artificially injected into the project. This includes Spider-Man, who has only recently been restored to his rightful place in the Marvel cinematic empire, and who has the smallest part in the film, and yet remains a satisfying addition to the ensemble. Once upon a time, Avengers was hailed as the ensemble event we’d all been eagerly anticipating, but it pales in comparison to Civil War.
I almost gave this film my five-star rating. I really did deliberate on it for awhile. The one thing that kept it from crossing that threshold for me was that it does not delve into metaphysical or religious questions. This is not a fault, mind you, and in fact the movie—as is—would have been made stupid by any sophomoric attempt at transcendentalism. It’s just that deep spiritual explorations are what I personally require for me to sit slack-jawed for two hours. Nevertheless, Civil War provoked a rich political debate between my wife and me—and not just some tired partisan argument, but some serious, heavy-duty, European Enlightenment stuff, stretching the entire car ride back to the grandparents’ house to pick up the kids. (I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she and I took opposing sides in the Cap v. Iron Man debate!) And I have to say: I’m really enjoying the recurring theme of accountability that has come to pervade modern comic book movies. It’s very reminiscent of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which is arguably one of the best comic-book stories ever told. If the big movie houses keep refining and redoubling their efforts, and continue to emulate guys like Moore and Frank Miller, then we may be enjoying a veritable comic-movie Renaissance, which is only just now emerging.
You are invited to subscribe to this blog feed and/or to leave comments using the forms below. If you enjoy what we produce here at Past Go, please consider becoming a patron of ours on Patreon. Even the smallest donation is gratefully received. May you be happy.