June 11, 2016

There's lots to see in "Captain America: Civil War," but not much stands out.

In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are forced to sign a treaty with the United Nations that will prevent them from interfering with bad guys unless specifically conscripted by individual nations. This causes a rift between the Avengers, some of whom (including Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson) consider it a necessary evil, while others (among them Captain America, played by Chris Evans) see the treaty as a form of surrender that will tear the Avengers apart. The latter eventually happens, and we see multiple Avengers fighting each other in a mostly light-hearted sequence. It’s lighthearted because so little is at stake: we know that none of the Avengers is actually going to be killed. Usually in any narrative, low stakes are a reason not to care about what’s happening, but in this case, the low stakes are a relief.

I found myself enjoying this scene all the more because it wasn’t an excuse for rampant destruction of whole city blocks. Instead, the writers and directors punctuate this scene, which takes place at an airplane hangar, with a flurry of mini-conversations between all these characters (Captain America, Iron Man, Falcon, Hawkeye, Black Widow, etc) as they spar with each other. Ant-Man (played by Paul Rudd) cuts every moment down to size with a dumb joke. (He may be the least respected and most undervalued of all superheroes.) And the sequence showcases the amusing, cocksure arrogance of a young Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

Of course, the great heretofore unacknowledged joke of most superhero movies is that the heroes end up destroying the city in an attempt to save it. We see some all-powerful evil agent smashing cars and toppling buildings, and the heroes are forced to add to the destruction, though we assume it’s out of necessity. These movies gleefully stage enormous battle sequences that should kill thousands of human beings, but because the films are targeted at kids, we’re supposed to be okay with it. And, conveniently, nothing too horrible ever happens to a discernable human being. (Don Cheadle does get hurt pretty bad in this one, but he’s one of the heroes, not some innocent bystander.) It’s nice that Captain America: Civil War incorporates this joke/problem into its story.

The rest of the film vacillates between mindless, sped-up action sequences and little dramatic exchanges reminiscent of The Young and the Restless. The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is traumatized when she uses her powers and accidentally destroys a whole building. (This is the impetus for the disputed U.N. treaty.) Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is still haunted by the deaths of his parents. Captain America has a little romance brewing with CIA agent Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp, who has a real screen presence). There are others, but I’ve already forgotten them. These dramatic moments don’t ever really pop, perhaps because they’re cloaked in sameness. The film certainly has a rhythm, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo are smart enough to give the audience little breaks between all the fighting. But they seem to have only two approaches to a scene: make it fast or make it slow. Perhaps we wouldn’t need so many breaks from the action if it were meaningful and not mindless, if it were artful and clever and exciting and not merely overwhelming and predictable.

I tried hard to discern what was going on during those moments of fighting between multiple characters. The action is sped up so much that it’s impossible to sort out what amounts to a jumble of images. Is this supposed to be entertaining? Don’t people find it chaotic and therefore impossible to connect with or enjoy? I realize that these films appeal to viewers as mindless entertainment, but how is it entertaining when you can’t even tell what’s happening? Whenever filmmakers overly rely on shaky cameras and rapid editing, my assumption is that they’re covering up their ineptitude, hoping we’ll give them credit for putting something up there, whether it possesses visual logic or not, whether it’s well-choreographed or not.

Action—whether derived from a comic book or not—doesn’t have to be this way. See John Wick, and you’ll see how to make a mindless action movie with real visual elegance. Of course, John Wick is also R-rated, and it’s likely that the need to make a PG-13 rating prevents movies like Captain America from reaching the glorious heights of violence that John Wick enjoys. But sanitizing the violence in order to make it kid-appropriate is actually worse: it diminishes the shock factor. A movie like John Wick never ceases to shock me, to convey the reality that violence can wreak havoc in people and places and cause real physical pain. What we need are more real, sharp comic book movies and less of this vague, “cleaned-up” drek.

But at least there are lots of familiar faces that unexpectedly pop up. Jeremy Renner appears (as Hawkeye) in the last third of the movie. As irritating as it is to see a character (played by such a great actor as Jeremy Renner) introduced so late in the film, his presence filled me with gratitude. And Tom Holland makes a good impression as Peter Parker. (Even though Andrew Garfield was terrific in the role.) The scene where Tony Stark enlists Spider-Man’s help is the best one in the movie: it’s funny and revealing and has some shape to it. We see Peter Parker coming to grips with the nature and the implications of his power; we see Tony Stark at his most desperate, making a trip to Queens to ask for a high school kid’s help. (But aren’t we all tired of Robert Downey, Jr.’s shtick by now? He’s been playing the smart-ass smart guy for over a decade.)

Somehow, Scarlett Johansson gets lost in all this. She’s a terrific actress, and certainly skillful in her many fight scenes, but she—like so many others—gets relegated to the sidelines as the film introduces more and more characters. The end result: it’s forgettable but intermittently amusing. Anthony Mackie, who plays Falcon, is a pleasure to watch. Mackie has charm to spare, and he always seems to be having a good time whenever he’s on screen. With Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Chadwick Boseman (as the Black Panther), Sebastian Stan, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Marissa Tomei, and Daniel Brühl.