Captain America: Civil War wins the storytelling battle

It’s easy to see why Warner Bros. wanted to release Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice before Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. The marketing hook is exactly the same: Watch two beloved superheroes fight it out! Promotions for the new movie have even asked fans whether they are #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan.

All of this has little to do with the films’ themes or actual content, but the Marvel cinematic universe has one big advantage over DC’s screen stable: It’s been building characters we care about since Iron Man, in 2008. So when Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) decide to throw down in Civil War, it’s an honest germination of the seeds of conflict sewn through two other Avengers movies, not the facile product of a movie studio demanding that two icons battle each other in order to jump-start a franchise.

One such seed: Stark’s hubris, which led to the construction of a sentient artificial intelligence that wanted to eradicate humankind (see Avengers: Age of Ultron). Stark has been racked with guilt, and, as in Batman v. Superman, our heroes here have gotten blowback for killing innocents while trying to save millions. Enter the Sokovia Accords, drafted to put the Avengers under United Nations oversight. Another seed: Rogers, a hero with 1940s ideals, wants to help his old war pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), an assassin ruled by mind control. (It’s complicated.) Cap simply cannot sign the accords.

This is not so far from the real world these days. Super-powered people taking the law into their own hands, without regard to borders and sovereignty, echoes the thorny politics of U.S. drone warfare. And when it comes to oversight, distrust of government is surging on both sides of the 2016 presidential election. In Civil War, and in modern-day America, where you stand depends on whom you trust.

There are enough “enhanced individuals” and tangled plot threads in Civil War, however, to further increase your multiplex superhero fatigue. I admit it: About halfway through the film, I started to check out. But whereas Batman v. Superman barely musters believable motivation for two superheroes as it unfolds endlessly in a fog of bluster and tough-guy antics, Civil War eventually tightens its belt and connects the dots among its 10 superheroes — even as it introduces two more.

And you know what? It works.

It works because, for one thing, somewhere in the vast complex of Disney employees who manage the Marvel universe, I believe there’s a desk charged with a duty that every comics nerd dreams of performing: the superpower wrangler. I’m talking about a specialist who can look at the big-picture outline of each Marvel movie and zero in on creating fight scenarios that utilize each superhero’s (and super-villain’s) unique talents for maximum cinematic impact. Based on Civil War’s centerpiece fight alone, this employee deserves a fat raise.

But as this 12-hero mêlée plays out in spectacular CGI fashion, something more critical is happening under the surface: Character is revealed through action, and relationships are being defined and redefined with the slightest amount of dialogue. This is the 13th movie in the Marvel cinematic universe, and superhero fatigue should be all but overpowering by now. Yet the team at Marvel continues to improve its storytelling. So while you may feel like you’ve seen this before — and if you watch blockbusters, you definitely have — you have not seen it done this effectively.

Two side notes: As high-quality TV shows continue to multiply and our viewing habits bend toward more and more multi-episode story arcs, the Marvel movies are starting to resemble a long-form TV show. Thankfully, Marvel has avoided the troubling trend of dividing movie adaptations of one entity into two half-films and a cliffhanger (a la The Hunger Games) by introducing and, crucially, dispatching plots and themes within one movie. Sure, Captain America: Civil War is a sequel — one that will be continued — but because many of its themes are fully engaged with, and plot developments wrapped up, it also operates fine as a stand-alone picture.

Also: If you’ve seen any kind of preview, you know that Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is introduced into the Marvel cinematic universe in this movie. Relax: It’s expertly handled. Rather than retelling his complete backstory (which we essentially understand from at least five other movies by now), Civil War assumes we remember, slyly references key elements of it, and moves on. And rather than forcing upon us a modern, “darker” version of the character, the movie reinforces the insecure, smart-assed high-schooler Spider-Man is supposed to be.

Marvel’s response to superhero fatigue, then, is clear: Double-down on character and up the storytelling’s short game as well as its long game. It’s an old-fashioned strategy, and it absolutely works.

Categories: Movies