At the end of my review of Age of Ultron, I questioned the direction that the spectacle of Marvel films were going to go in and with Civil War, that question has been answered: rather than necessarily raise the stakes of the violence, Civil War makes the action more nuanced, choosing instead to focus on smaller character battles rather than epic set pieces. Part of that nuance is a slight element of self-reflexivity wherein Civil War begins to critique the very spectacle that Marvel films generally base their success on.
As the name implies, Civil War is about a battle between the two different camps of the Avengers. The film begins with the Avengers preventing a terrorist from unleashing a bio-weapon, but the battle goes wrong, and in the process of saving thousands, perhaps millions of lives, a dozen or so are killed. The political blowback causes the United Nations to put together a document which forces the Avengers to operate under their jurisdiction, and this is the cause of the actual civil war.
The first camp, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), believe in an ideal of freedom that means superheroes are not operating under the government but by their own accord. This camp believes that the destruction wrought on a few is a necessary evil in saving the lives of many more. The second group is led by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and they believe that superheroes must operate on a set of regulations in order to minimize the loss of lives and overall damage.
With Civil War, the violence of The Avengers and Age of Ultron—noteworthy for being the large crossover films in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) where the stakes and therefore spectacle is anted up—is criticized for the destruction wrought on the innocent bystanders, who ironically, the superheroes are fighting for. Civil War’s anti-spectacle stance is perhaps a result of the levels of destruction first wrought in Man of Steel (2013)—which boasted about its death count in accompaniment to its images of a ruined city—and the increasing destruction of subsequent superhero films, namely Age of Ultron.
The ideas present in Civil War then are ones directly influenced by the production of superhero films. In order to compete with not only one another but also with their own older films, Marvel and DC need to present set-pieces with bigger action, but the consequence of the increased spectacle is an increased body count and chaos; yet these movies are also beginning to go out of their way to let us know that no one is harmed; in its final set-piece, characters in Age of Ultron stress that the city has been evacuated and in Civil War, for the most part, the battles take place in empty areas, devoid of citizens.
But while Civil War points out that the catastrophic action of the previous films needs to stop, it never does more to further that dialogue, and perhaps that’s because the consequence of that dialogue would risk to threaten the very existence of superhero films. If the heroes decided not to fight such epic battles, where would that leave the audience’s thirst for enjoyment and more importantly, the money to be earned for the forces of production?
I’m not decrying superhero films in favor for the creation of an art-house superhero film, but the trend of superhero films to increase their violence and therefore spectacle with each iteration, and Civil War’s anti-destruction stance that isn’t explored, ultimately mean that there’s no risk in these movies. It’s not only true for the plot of the films themselves but also for the creative aspect in how these movies are made.
To clarify, while there may be a rift in the Avengers over their beliefs, that rift is a temporary one. By the end of the film, the argument between Captain America and Iron Man isn’t necessarily resolved, but despite the fact of knowing that the Avengers are now split, we are aware that it won’t remain that way. As I stated earlier, a development of the argument present in Civil War threatens the future of Marvel films, because it threatens to decrease the spectacle. If the Avengers were to remain separated from one another, then that would prevent Marvel from pairing them once more for the next cross-over film, a move which would mean a loss of money; ten superheroes draw in a bigger crowd than five.
What’s also missing from Civil War is the unique use of cinematic techniques found in previous MCU films such as Ant-Man (2015) and Winter Soldier (2014). Ant-Man used the premise of a superhero who can change size in order to make grand the miniscule world of insects. It’s no surprise then that with Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) being in Civil War, there’s also a return to that same cinematic technique which makes Ant-Man the best hero to watch on-screen. Winter Soldier used framing and movement in order to increase the impact of its martial arts yet even this is lacking in Civil War, which serves as a direct sequel to that film.
The action in Civil War is presented with an unimaginative flair. The film seems happy enough to satisfy the dreams of its fan-base by merely presenting an array of heroes on-screen at once. Anthony and Joe Russo return as the directors and what’s different this time around is that Civil War can at times be dizzying in a nauseating way. I voiced the same complaint in my review of Age of Ultron but once again, the camera here seems incapable of keeping up with the action. Bodies dance in flashes of spasmodic camera movement that render it difficult to tell what exactly is going on.
Winter Soldier set itself apart from its predecessors by grounding the film more in the political thriller genre than it did the superhero one. It allowed for the film to tackle more serious issues, albeit ones that are never quite developed, but it also allowed the films to be taken a bit more seriously when the villains were believable terrorists rather than costumed villains. Civil War continues this trend but for all its worth, it only manages to be better than the other superhero films, which isn’t saying much. As far as being judged by the standards of a regular film, even a political one, Civil War falls quite short. There aren’t any risks, and by the time the credits roll, we can’t help but shake off the feeling that we’ve seen this movie already.