When it was released in 2007, Spiderman 3 instantly became one of the most reviled films in the current superhero canon, with many criticising an incoherent narrative that focused on too many uninteresting villains, all jostling for airtime. The Marvel Cinematic Universe on the other hand is beloved by audiences worldwide, for reasons that make no clear sense; after all, it equally offers too many characters, incoherent narratives and villains who pose such a little threat to the heroes that they are widely regarded as the studio’s biggest problem.
Captain America: Civil War isn’t the third in Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) franchise so much as it is a sequel to Age of Ultron, sharing it with it the overlong nature and the tendency to fall down too many irrelevant subplots, ushering in characters who add nothing to the story merely for the sake of it. It frequently feels less like a Captain America film than it does a tedious trailer for the upcoming films in Marvel’s roster. After all, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) add nothing to the story here – but with their films set to debut in the next couple of years, why not just include them anyway? Marvel now seem to operate on a post-narrative level, with their films now operating as mere commercials for their upcoming attractions.
Each film plays it safe in its storytelling, in order to not alienate mainstream audiences who they hope will continue to buy the products they are advertising – if a film is bad (ie: takes risks), then they have failed in their mission as advertisers to make their products look attractive to a wide audience of potential buyers. Marvel don’t resemble soulless filmmaking so much as they do a well-orchestrated advertising campaign, charging people extortionate amounts in order to sit through a prolonged advertisement for their other products that will soon be on the market.
Taken at face value, Civil War is one of the most acclaimed films the studio has put out to date. Like my experience with The Winter Soldier, the previous Captain America effort, I was briefly inclined to agree. The narrative draws parallels with real-world socio-political and foreign policy troubles, causing an internal conflict within The Avengers that ensures the film is at its best when divorced from the bland action and focused squarely on superheroes out of costume arguing. Like Spectre and Batman Vs. Superman, the film retroactively makes a weaker prior franchise instalment stronger; here, the seemingly deathless Age of Ultron climax in the fictional country of Sokovia is reimagined as a bloodbath of innocent civilians, as The Avengers wreaked havoc in a peaceful country. The UN wants the super-team to sign a treaty ensuring that they will require international governance before rushing out, in order to save innocent lives.
A PTSD-addled Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) nobly agrees to sign, whilst in a note of irony the film never touches upon, Captain America has a Trump-esque approach to foreign policy – he should have the right to attack whenever the hell he feels like it. If there is a flaw in the storytelling, it is that these roles should be reversed; Captain America as Frank Capra-style American idealism, wanting to save lives, with Tony Stark as the billionaire who received a small loan of a million dollars from his father and now wants to control the world. It makes more sense for their character arcs to develop this way, and yet, Civil War does the opposite, making Captain America the asshole in his own film.
Sadly, Marvel’s tendency to overstuff their films continues here, with a continuation of the still-dull Winter Soldier plot line taking up the majority of the running time. The unfocused storytelling eventually messes with character motivations. After all, Stark wants UN-assisted approval for battles, Rogers wants to fly straight to trouble. Yet when trouble breaks out, the pair enlist all their friends to immediately play-fight pointlessly in an abandoned airport during a centrepiece sequence that fully diminishes the political intrigue, replacing it with utter nonsense. Throughout, the narrative is increasingly foreboding, injecting unnecessary seriousness into a franchise that was set up to be a fun counterpoint to the grim DC movies of Christopher Nolan.
What is stranger is that directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who previously helmed Winter Soldier) are best known for directing offbeat sitcoms Community and Arrested Development – how are they responsible for something so humourless, that feels compromised whenever it tries to crack a joke? Their sitcom direction is also responsible for the generic nature of the action scenes, where they barely try to hide the stunt doubles; the opening sequence is defined by showing black widow in a fight scene strictly from angles that don’t require Scarlett Johansson’s face.
Civil War will be held aloft by audiences as a better film than Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But even as the end result was weak, Dawn of Justice is far more interesting from my perspective, due to how little it cares for the standard superhero narrative template and for at least being bold enough to try something new with a tired formula. You can call that film many things, but “generic” and “safe” aren’t two of them. I’m longing for Marvel to take a gamble like that, even if it results in a film as equally poor. Civil War is just more of the same. With world domination planned and films mapped out for over a decade, they need an injection of originality before the masses start to realise their schtick is wearing thin.