Yes (If you have an investment in the MCU and remember story elements from previous movies)
13 movies in and the MCU is only getting harder for those not invested, or in some way informed about, to care about and follow.
This is the new world we live in, where franchise film making is ever present to the point that Universal is giving their stable of movie monsters a shared universe reboot, and even James Bond movies are slave to carving continuity where there should be none.
Yet where Bond, Universal, and more recently, DC have failed, Marvel have (through tight control and strict formula, with its own problems) managed to create a juggernaut that, at the best of times feels like a lived in and fully realised world. They have done to the silver screen what continuity driven television, or for that matter, what Super Hero comics have been doing.
While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily a good thing either. By virtue of being big, expensive things that take time to make and come out between instalments, having such a heavy reliance on narrative beats from close to a decade worth of movies will necessarily make following the MCU a difficult and potentially onerous task for the casual film goer.
This is where Captain America: Civil War stands. Plot elements and character beats from previous movies all come together to drive a rich character story, that just so happens to be layered upon a middling narrative. It feels like the least casual watch friendly of the MCU movies, actively demanding a knowledge of the MCU as a whole to fully appreciate all that the film has to offer. While certain of the MCU movies (Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, for example) could rightfully be criticised for serving as glorified advertisements for future instalments, the majority, and in fact, the best of the MCU could stand alone as their own entertainment. Take a look at Guardians of the Galaxy, or even at Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
That said, while other MCU movies serve the dual purpose of serving to set the pieces for succeeding films, while also developing their own characters, the two Captain America sequels have been tasked with a triple purpose of setting the board, developing Cap, and remixing and recontextualising the events of the MCU to keep things fresh. Winter Soldier pulled the rug out from under us regarding the nature of SHIELD and past events of the MCU (think back to the scene in Iron Man 2 where the government attempted to gain control of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit technology and shudder at the realisation that it was Hydra pulling the strings there).
Herein lies the problem with Civil War. Having a larger number of pieces on the board to violently shake around, the majority of the film’s forward momentum is dedicated to reaching back into the past and messing with it. The film’s actual stand alone plot, while delivering a villain that is more complex and sympathetic than the majority of MCU villains, relies on screenwriting tricks and narrative contrivance that almost sinks whatever good will I had for Civil War as a stand alone piece of entertainment. Imagine if you will The Joker’s level of omnipotence, without the implicit and sometimes explicit understanding of The Joker more as a narrative device than as a character in his own right, and you are getting close to the problem with Civil War’s villain and narrative arc. That Civil War has in any way a compelling villain compared to the larger MCU says more to damn the quality of villains of this franchise than to praise Civil War’s.
So as a stand alone film it is the weakest of the Captain America movies, and among one of the weaker all around MCU entries. That’s not to say it is completely devoid of merit. The action scenes are more competently staged than those in The Winter Soldier, though they may come across as superfluous at times and are hampered by the ugliness of the digital format, and the third act actively narrows the conflict down to what works best and ends up as a vicious, personal climax rather than the exhausting and pointless escalations to 20 minutes of CGI Armageddon that was for so long the MCU house style. Still, without a baseline investment in the MCU and its goings on, Civil War comes dangerously close to being a tedious, nothing movie.
Civil War’s plot is kicked off by a mission to tie up some loose ends introduced at the end of Winter Soldier that goes horribly wrong, resulting in civilian casualties. This sets in motion one of the grimmest, most emotionally charged films in the MCU. The Avengers are faced with an ideological struggle, that creates fractures in their unity , and leads to the titular “civil war”. The “war” in question is much smaller in scope than what I have been lead to believe its comics namesake, with the battles being mostly those of words. Positions are set up and countered, there are appeals to emotion and authority, and it is ultimately bruised egos, psychological distress, and stubbornness that lead to the fists flying and men falling from the skies. There’s rich character interaction going on here, and the emotional and ideological wrestling is much more interesting than the film’s strides to be political. It doesn’t really have much to say about the validity and morality of extrajuduicial and extragovernmental foreign interventionism beyond what the characters themselves bring to the table. The third act jettisons all pretence of Civil War being a political thriller in the vein of Winter Soldier to focus solely on small scale emotional stakes.
Tony Stark is once again pro-registration and Steve Rogers is anti-registration. Stark’s stance is informed by the guilt and previously implied PTSD he suffered at the hands of his hubris and the harm and destruction it precipitated. It has cost him his relationship with Pepper Potts, has led to the events of all three Iron Man movies, and to the destruction and loss of life that Ultron caused. He cannot seem to keep himself in check, and believes UN oversight will be able to keep the collateral damage low.
Rogers, on the other hand, has witnessed first hand what unquestioned adherence to authority can result in. SHIELD was a front for Hydra, that almost led to their victory and millions and millions of deaths. The possibility of allowing Hydra or another such organisation prevent the Avengers from acting in the best interests of Earth is something he cannot abide. Thinking back even further to Captain America: The First Avenger, Rogers knows what it’s like to have an overwhelming desire to help and be unable to act due to the chain of command deciding they have a better, more politically friendly use for him.
Civil War in general is at its best when it is pairing up and squaring off its characters. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barns are effectively two of Captain America’s best friends, trying to see who is the secret actual best friend. Black Panther and the film’s villain are men driven by vengeance. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are two leaders on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. The Vision and Scarlet Witch are two beings struggling to deal with a world that fears their awesome power and potential for destruction in different ways.
The film sings along without having to dedicate too much time to developing character or introducing their positions because the remainder of the MCU has done most of the heavy lifting for it. And this is the crux of the problem. Civil War is at its best when it is an experiment in franchise film making, allowing it to be a conversation as much with its audience as it is with its franchise history. But its reliance on its franchise history makes it one of the most alienating mainstream movies I have seen in recent history. These are not Easter eggs to be enjoyed by the franchise faithful, these are the basic building blocks of the film’s worth as a piece of entertainment.
And if you come into Civil War without the pre-requisite context? Why should you care about Tony Stark showing Steve Rogers his father’s antique fountain pens (aside from the fact fountain pens are amazing)? Would you even notice the dramatic reversal when it’s Steve who pulls an unconscious Bucky out of the water? Do you even know who General Ross is, and why he is particularly pleased to mention that the Avengers have no idea where Bruce Banner is? Why would Black Widow ask Clint if they are still friends?
And with a middling narrative holding together the remixing, referencing, recontextualising, and character moments, why would you want to sit through a film this long? It is a film of contradictions, trying to please too many masters. It attempts to be a political thriller when it is actually a character drama. It is a tense mystery film that pauses the mystery to deliver bombastic and mostly inconsequential set pieces. It is a film with a politically engaged message that doesn’t bother to think its politics through beyond what feels right to position its characters for a third act confrontation. It is a focused character study with an expanded cast of characters that mostly get overlooked.
Ultimately I enjoyed Civil War, but only because I took the effort to follow the MCU enough to understand its place in the modern cinematic landscape. Without my (admittedly flimsy) understanding of the MCU, I would have been entirely uninvolved, as my friend who saw it with me was. It is worth noting that he has seen almost every MCU film , and has enjoyed the majority of them. However, he engaged each one as a stand alone film.
The question then becomes, is it okay to critique a film for working within the conventions of contemporary mainstream franchise story telling, when it does so better than its competition? Is it okay to say that the 13th film in a long running franchise is not good as a stand alone product? What happens when keeping informed enough to enjoy the franchise becomes more of a chore, an obligation to a machine designed to synergise and push corporate product?
The aforementioned continuity driven television is becoming more and more a thing in this age of Netflix and DVR. Yet the way Netflix has changed the media landscape does not mean that all forms of media should follow this route. The reason Netflix works is because it facilitates binge watching. The medium facilitates the form. Netflix shows have their seasons produced to completion before being made available to the binge watching audience. There is no down time between episodes, only between seasons. A film franchise cannot indulge in this luxury.
But the fact it took 13 movies to get to this stage when the DCEU took 2…
Is it fair to blame Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Young Adult movie adaptations and the MCU for this trend?