At this point, Marvel’s most epic movies have become like the longest run-on sentences ever. Except they’re run-on sentences that are somehow grammatically correct. There’s a constant push for activity that should be exhausting, but is too slick to be anything less than breathlessly breezy. Time flies in a blaze of harmless motion meant to appease and appeal. So... is this good? Bad? It’s neither, really; it’s just Marvel.
The juggernaut studio has become an ironclad brand under Disney’s wing and king Kevin Fiege’s coolly careful management. All these Marvel pics flow with a calm confidence and an almost arrogant assurance, but it’s efforts like Captain America: Civil War where they can really show their might.
This is a massive movie that combines multiple characters from their Avengers franchise, introduces a major new character making his big screen debut, forms a conflict around two of the most famous superheroes in the Marvel catalog while still finding time to toss in a more traditional villain with an evil plan, and even coyly slips in the latest Spider-Man reboot in the wake of Sony’s pitiful admittance that they don’t know what to do with their flagship character. That’s a lot of stuff to cram into one movie (and one sentence), but the Marvel formula makes it all go down very smoothly.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly know how to dot their i’s and cross their t’s since they’re diligent enough to litter even the most seemingly extraneous scene in this narrative behemoth with a morsel of purpose that justifies each scene’s existence. Blockbusters this big with this many strands of story generally feel bloated, but Civil War is practically lean by comparison. This is a tough concept to wrap one’s head around when you consider the sheer amount of happenings here.
Just thinking about the plot could make you feel full. Oh boy, the plot. This one’s for every movie-watcher who has criticized an action pic with the phrase “This movie has no plot!” This movie has plot. It might be the plottiest plot ever plotted. If you were to explain the whole plot out loud, it would probably take longer than the already beefy running time of the movie to get through it all. There is just so much going on here and it’s all technically quite sound, the pieces linked together in a flurry of foreshadowing and cluster of callbacks to previous Marvel adventures.
In that sense, all the trees that died to be the paper this colossus was printed on were not wasted because this thing plays out like a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with nary a hole to gawk at. For a brand that is built on expansive world-building and generating new threads for narrative exploration some handful of movies in the future, this epic juggling of plot politics is absolutely imperative. And the ease with which the writers and directors Joe and Anthony Russo tackle this task is why Marvel rules the blockbuster world right now. Their work fits a mould that’s easily digestible and lightly entertaining, packed with the ever promise of similar adventures ahead.
Captain America: Civil War is so slick that it manages to turn into an Avengers movie for a large chunk of its middle and yet still convinces us it’s a Captain America movie because of how Cap-centric the narrative bookends are and how clearly we’re supposed to be on Cap’s side in the mini-war that briefly wages between Chris Evan’s titular boy scout hero and Robert Downey Jr.’s (now sentimentally) smarmy Iron Man over the U.S. government’s plan to fold the Avengers into a cozy corner of the U.N. to avoid any further collateral damage fiascos. Geez, talk about a run-on sentence. Marvel must bring it out in me.
All the multi-tasking on display here is very impressive, except the conflict itself is something of a bust. The heroes pick sides and each amass a little sidebar team to help them win the war, leading to cameo appearances by the likes of Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and Jeremy Renner’s perennially unwelcome Hawkeye in a fun action-packed melee that’s certainly neat in the moment. With this line drawn loudly in the sand, there’s room for thematic musings that argue the pros and cons of superhero independence, but as executed by the Russo brothers, there’s no moral ambiguity to mull over at all.
It’s fairly obvious that Captain America is in the right, a feeling that’s bolstered by the efforts of Daniel Bruhl’s vengeful Zemo, who presents a dangerous threat that only Cap can see. And even when a twist threatens to further deepen the conflict thanks to our hero’s support of his brother-in-arms Bucky (Sebastian Stan), the emotion-driven clash fizzles because the whole movie goes out of its way to remind us that Bucky, the infamous Winter Soldier assassin established in the previous Cap pic, is basically a brainwashed puppy.
Despite this, there’s still so much good to be said about Civil War that it feels a little strange to walk away from the movie feeling like the whole thing is fluff and filler. The script does such a fine job of deflecting such criticisms that stepping back and viewing the whole for what it is feels almost disingenuous. But there it is. When the smoke clears, the war between heroes looks like a rather toothless affair, another fun but empty diversion on the way to whatever hullabaloo Marvel is cooking up for the impending Avengers vs. Thanos movies they’ve been teasing for many years.
What matters is that Marvel cares about its fans and delivers to them precisely what they want on a scale that’s truly mammoth. Anyone with a significant emotional investment in Marvel’s universe should find themselves thrilled by Civil War and treated to a blockbuster that respects its audience and plays proudly to their sensibilities.
The cast here is as sharp as ever, with Evans leading the pack and delivering a performance that solidifies him as one of the most convincing and huggable superheroes on the big screen right now. Chadwick Boseman makes a strong first impression as Black Panther, whose upcoming solo pic should prove to be enjoyable, and Tom Holland looks to be a particularly young and likable new Spidey. The future is bright for Marvel, of course, there’s no denying that. They’ve got the run-on sentence thing down pat.
The trick, apparently, is that the sentence doesn’t end. There’s not a period in sight. Each movie concludes with an ellipsis, waiting for the next movie to pick up the plot. It’s smart business, it’s good grammar, and yet it’s all very mechanical, too. For a movie that’s mainly about fighting against great odds for the right to free will, Captain America: Civil War sure is dutifully devoid of creative freedom. Being grammatically correct is great and better than most blockbusters, but does that really best the bitter taste of irony?