WASHINGTON, June 3, 2016 – One of the consistent criticisms leveled against the Marvel movies is they tend to feel the same. Opponents of this line of thought will point to specifics of the films and how those specifics actually do change.
The more appropriate response to this might be that both sides are right to a certain extent. The Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) hosts a vast array of different characters with varying motivations, many of whom are now populating their films. As they’re released, the Marvel films also have tendency to follow a similar plot structure and put characters into familiar positions and predicaments, although “Civil War” largely ignores this problem.
The bigger component to this picture, however, is that every Marvel movie has a very similar aesthetic that connects these movies together, an element that feels at once comforting but also routine. On a certain level, the audience knows exactly what it’s getting, visually, in a Marvel movie, ranging in the beginning with Jon Favreau’s competent direction of “Iron Man,” and continuing to the present.
Nothing about that element changes with “Civil War.” The Russo brothers’ directing history before their Marvel tenure existed primarily in the realm of TV, with shows like “Arrested Development” and “Community.” For better or worse, some of this TV-style background shows up in the present film.
The best scenes in “Civil War” are its quieter moments—breaks in the fast-paced action when the directors can build audience compassion for their conflicted superheroes while building tension for the next outburst of action.
T’Challa, for example, is such a strong character in the film because his introductory moments conversing with Natasha and his father King T’Chaka (John Kani) clearly demonstrate his heroic resolve and strong focus on his father, on his country, Wakanda, and his universal sense of justice. This personal snapshot of character later shines through in his climatic moment when he’s pitted against the villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), coloring his key decision, made after enduring all that Zemo has put him through.
Likewise, the directors are also able to increase tension between the very different characters of Tony and Steve, a difference highlighted when Tony makes one last ditch effort to sign the Accords, fracturing his relationship with Steve for the rest of the film.
While the Russo brothers are adept at capturing those intimate moments that give us a rationale for the characters’ biggest decisions, they falter when they attempt to get the action scenes to rise to the same level.
This isn’t to say the action sequences in this film are bad. Taken individually, they are finely choreographed and easy to follow. The focus of the action remains clear even when mass quantities of characters are involved, as the fight at the airport pitting Tony and Steve’s opposing sides of superheroes against each other. Individually, these action scenes are functional but somehow impersonal. They seem to lack the more subtle, personal touch clearly evident in the way the Russo brothers handle the narrative beats.
There’s no real rhythm to the fight scenes, as the directors pile more pieces of action on top of each other. The action builds and the characters express narrative and commentary in dialogue. But these sequences never quite match what the audience is being told by the film. Eventually these scenes tend to feel monotonous. The actual purpose of each action set piece is obscured for the sake of allowing even more complexity to happen.
In a certain ways this may be a necessity because the film wants to give each character – even a minor one like Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) – his or her chance to shine. But at points, there’s just too much going on and not enough focus in this grab bag approach. There are a few characters this clearly hurts, but none more than Bucky who really needed more room but didn’t get it.
“Civil War” has five extended action sequences, and Bucky is the primary focus in two of them. Since Bucky is a man of few words, he is an inherently physical character, and his action sequences have to do the heavy lifting to explain his character. Unfortunately, this unusual mode of expression is not handled adeptly, leaving these scenes feeling flat and unfulfilled.
Maybe these are minor quibbles. There are some problems with this film, but they hardly detract from the overall enjoyment of the film in the end. Make no mistake: “Civil War” is narratively the strongest of the Marvel movies so far. The Russos’ attempt to balance three distinct character arcs at the center of the film generally works well, as does the coda involving Zemo. Even if his ultimate plan relies heavily on things going exactly right, there is a lot of moral weight to this narrative that can make it easy to overlook the complicated mechanics involved.
The Russos eschew a lot the formulaic nature of previous films, instead choosing to go for a smaller final resolution, at least in the terms we expect in a superhero film. But still, given the vital narrative heart of the film and the care the Russos put into developing it, the battle choreography and the details they neglected, “Civil War” misses achieving greatness and significance, even as it settles into its position as one of the best films of its genre.