Marvel Movie Club: EW takes sides on Captain America: Civil War
As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out April 27), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions along the way like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” This week, Chancellor Agard and Shirley Li discuss Captain America: Civil War, a.k.a. Feud: MCU.
You can always count on the Captain America films to shake up the Marvel Universe. The First Avenger transported us back to World War II; Winter Soldier blew up the universal connective tissue that was S.H.I.E.L.D.; and Civil War pushed the Avengers to the brink and left us wondering whether or not they can work through the damage caused by this schism.
Because Civil War is basically an Avengers movie Captain America‘s clothing, I decided to recruit someone to help me revisit it. So this week, EW’s Marvel-Netflix expert Shirley Li and I risk starting an EW civil war as we discuss everything from Captain America and Iron Man’s feud, to Helmut Zemo, plus the introductions of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Check out our conversation below.
CHANCELLOR AGARD: Shirley, thank you for joining me for this week’s Marvel Movie Club. We’ve been talking about teaming up for one for a few weeks, and I’m glad that it ended up being Captain America: Civil War, which is a movie I love (loved?) in spite of the problems I have with it (almost everything involving unmemorable villain Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo). When we rewatched Civil War together this week (and, dear reader, let me tell you it was an experience that involved allergic reactions, yelling, and one of us almost getting locked in the bathroom), I kept thinking about how our colleague Darren Franich once described it: “The best Avengers movie is the worst Captain America movie.” Do you agree with his assessment?
SHIRLEY LI: Chance, thank YOU for having me. I agree with Darren’s assessment overall — this really is the best Avengers movie — but I’d say the criticism that it’s the worst Captain America movie is… low-hanging fruit. (Specifically, plums.) The Captain America films set such a high bar that some MCU entries have refused to clear it and just set their own entirely elsewhere. (Looking at you, Taika Waititi.) Revisiting Civil War made me realize a few things, one of which is that I think it interrogates Cap’s thinking more than his previous two films. If the first was an origin story and the second a government conspiracy-slash-spy thriller, then this, I think, is the most personal, most mature entry. It’s about Cap being torn over his devotion to Bucky (til the end of the line) and his duty as a soldier for freedom. It’s just not easy to see that clearly at times, because, yes, Civil War becomes very much an Avengers movie, chock full of Literally Everyone. Even Hawkeye!
Anyway, you’ve mentioned something I’d like to interrogate. Zemo has been called an uninteresting villain, but I can’t help myself: I liked him the first time around, and I liked him again during this rewatch. He’s soft-spoken, quiet, and easy to overlook — but cunning and smart enough to A) use the Winter Soldier and B) pit the Avengers against each other. He’s not there to be flashy and threaten the world; he’s there to shake things up. You could even say he wins in the end, when Tony realizes the Avengers lineup has been forever changed. So tell me, Chance, what’s everyone so mad about when it comes to Zemo?
CHANCELLOR: Whenever people complain about Hawkeye being (thankfully) absent from the Avengers: Infinity War promotional materials, we should just keep pointing out that he made it into Civil War, so he’s doing just fine… But I’ll stop taking easy shots at Hawkeye and answer your question:
I think my biggest problem with Helmut Zemo is that his entire presence makes Civil War a less interesting movie. If there’s one good thing I can say about Marvel’s Civil War comic book event , it’s that the titular conflict between Iron Man and Captain America isn’t the result of some bad guy’s meddling. No, these two have fundamental philosophical differences (that, admittedly, don’t make that much sense), and their volatile personalities cause the disagreement to the escalate to the point of fisticuffs. This detail helped raise Civil War slightly above your typical comic book event.
And Captain America: Civil War also does a good job of doing this, too. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron do a great job of setting up where both Steve and Tony are in this movie, and why they would choose the sides they do. Not only is Steve fighting for Bucky, but he’s also worried about the heroes falling prey to another corrupt government organization, and Tony feels guilty for almost destroying the world with Ultron. Ultron also raised the simmering tension between these men in that great farmhouse scene. I was on board for a movie that gave Steve and Tony a real issue to disagree on, took both of their opinions about the Sokovia Accords seriously, and explored how (and if) they could resolve this disagreement. But throwing Zemo and his boring revenge plot into the mix undermines all of this and pushes the movie a bit into Batman v Superman territory. I felt like the last act kind of forgets the fact that both sides were making valid points, because the movie suddenly becomes about Tony avenging the death of his parents in a weird and unnecessary retcon (which also pushes the movie into Iron Man 2 territory. I don’t know why but I’ve never found any of the story lines about Tony’s relationship with his parents terribly convincing).
In other words, Zemo simplifies a pretty complicated situation. Because Zemo is there, the audience really doesn’t have to pick a side in the end — which is a very Marvel move. As I’ve written before, Marvel is very cautious about interrogating its heroes too much or making them even remotely unlikable. Whereas the Civil War comic event could risk you hating Team Iron Man (because we’d all forget about it by the time the next big event came around), the same can’t be said of the MCU, which is a billion-dollar business that depends on people wanting to come back each year to spend time with these heroes.
That brings me to what I want to talk about next: the two factions. Rewatching Captain America: Civil War this week, I was struck by how time has changed whose side I’m on. In the spring of 2016, I was 100 percent Team Iron Man, because at the time, it was still relatively easy to ignore some of the darker aspects of the government and maintain some kind of hope that a government body wouldn’t misuse the Avengers abroad, which is Captain’s main fear in the film. However, these days, I’m definitely more wary of the government, and during our rewatch, I found myself going, “Hmm, Captain’s still being kind of annoying, but he might have a point.” Shirley, are you Team Cap or Team Iron Man? Do you think the film does a good job of fleshing out both sides of the conflict?
SHIRLEY: Before I answer that, just one last thing about Zemo: I don’t think his presence means we can’t feel negatively toward either Iron Man or Cap. Rather, I think it makes us see just how vulnerable they are. I think it’s easy to label him a boring villain because his plan requires some mental gymnastics (it’s so simple but requires So Much Plotting), yet when I look at the effect he has on the heroes, I don’t think his addition erases any of the complexity at all. In a way, it elevates it. If this is the type of guy that can bring the Avengers to their knees, then what is truly holding them together?
Still, is he an absolutely necessary character? Sigh, I guess not. Maybe I’m just too enamored with the fact that he didn’t want to destroy the world.
But as for Cap or Iron Man, look at that, no EW Civil War necessary — I agree! The first time I watched the film, I could see where Tony was coming from. (And the whole Rhodey falling from the sky thing got to me.) This time… not so much. It’s funny: You could say that Our Current Political Era is the reason behind the flip, but I found myself investing even more in Cap during this rewatch because of the way the film actively positions him as the underdog. I don’t think I worried for him as much the first time around — he’ll be fine, he’s Cap! — but Tony really goes after him in this. He gets his former teammates imprisoned on the Raft! He brings in a kid from Queens! (Which, by the way, is the highlight of the film for me, I think beyond the airport set piece.) And he’s doing all of this as a way to work through his Ultron guilt! It’s so much!
Speaking of Much, though, can we talk about how Civil War manages to introduce not just Spidey but also T’Challa — and quite effectively, at that?
CHANCELLOR: Fine, you do make a couple of good points there about Zemo. I definitely didn’t consider what it revealed about the strength (or lack thereof) of their bond; Coulson’s “death” could only hold them together for so long. And yes, Zemo does deserve credit for being one of the few non-megalomaniac villains of the MCU. I wonder if I’d feel slightly differently about him if the movie made a point of returning to Sokovia Accords at the end. I feel like that just kind of gets lost by the end of the movie.
But anyway, I’ve written way more about Zemo than I planned when we started this chat (maybe he isn’t so boring after all…). So let’s move on to things that make me happy: Spider-Man and Black Panther!
I completely agree with you that it’s surprising how well both Peter and T’Challa are introduced in the movie without it feeling like it’s taking away from the action. I get filled with so much joy every time I watch the scene in which Tony heads to Queens to recruit our friendly neighborhood web-slinger. Tom Holland just brings a different energy to the movies. He feels like an audience stand-in. If I was Peter, I would definitely be that giddy about teaming up with freaking Iron Man. I think screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give us just enough to make us care about this new version of Peter but not too much that the movie suddenly suffers from Too Much World-Building Syndrome.
The same can be said of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa. Obviously, the main reason to introduce Black Panther in this movie was to drum up interest for his future solo film, and Civil War more succeeds in that respect. I mean, that tunnel chase might be one of my favorite action scenes in the Marvel universe just because Black Panther (like Spidey, too) doesn’t move like anyone else in the film. Also, shout out to Marvel casting because Chadwick Boseman is great from the moment he appears. Like Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. before him, he is Black Panther from minute one.
Obviously, we can’t discuss this movie without talking about the big Leipzig airport brawl. By this point in the MCU, Marvel action sequences were really just fine. Most of them failed to match the sheer awesomeness of the Battle of New York in Avengers. But I think the Leipzig sequence definitely comes the closest. Do you agree? What makes that airport battle so amazing? (Also can we talk about how vehicles are the main enemy in this movie? I lost track of how many of them get kicked or punched by the heroes).
SHIRLEY: Ha, yes, the falling cars, the tossed tractor-trailer, the motorcycle flip — this might as well be Fate of the Furious! (Cue Vin Diesel saying “family.”) I think the airport sequence was as big as I wanted it to be without coming off messy — something that didn’t work out for, say, Ultron’s climax. I love the little moments everyone gets, from Black Widow and Hawkeye making sure they’re still friends, to T’Challa declaring that he isn’t here to make friends, to Spidey’s extremely relatable excitement over the entire thing. If there’s one thing I wish this sequence did better, it’s that it shouldn’t have been at an empty airport — or at the very least, wound up somewhere populated by regular people. It just feels slightly flatter without those stakes, especially when you think back to the opening sequence against Crossbones.
But that’s just a minor quibble I have with this film’s biggest selling point. With roughly 100 million names above the title, it’s a miracle anyone got any screen time — which is why I think this must have been the Russo brothers’ proof-of-concept for Infinity War. They’re clearly adept at juggling giant ensembles and delivering the comic-book-y, playing-with-action-figures-y aspect of building teams and pitting them against each other.
That said, Civil War is nowhere near perfect — it’s solidly in the middle of the pack for me when I rank the MCU films — and I’m hoping the Russos take away two things from their efforts here: The first is that that the film remains quite bloated, especially once you cool off from the sheer awesomeness of seeing all the heroes duke it out. A version of Civil War that’s just 20 minutes shorter would have done wonders to it. (I’d say break up the team faster — sorry, all of Vision’s scenes — and skip The Raft, as cool as it is.) The second is that this really could have used more humor. I know, I know — I just said this film’s too bloated — but poor Tom Holland’s saddled with both introducing Spidey and delivering much of the comedy alongside a barely featured Paul Rudd. Sure, the film’s themes are Grim and Serious, but there’s room for levity, especially for a pair of directors who used to handle Community and Arrested Development.
Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. Chance, where does Civil War fall in your MCU ranking?
CHANCELLOR: Okay, I’m definitely with you on it needing to be about 20 minutes shorter. I don’t think either of us realized what we were committing to when we took over our colleague Devan Coggan’s apartment to watch this movie at 9 p.m. on a school night. But Civil War is kind of a weird movie. There are moments when you definitely do feel it sagging, but even those moments have things I enjoy, like seeing Vision in a sweater.
I don’t have as much of a problem with the balance between humor and Serious Themes as you did. I think it’s far better than, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron, which feels very sad throughout most of its runtime. Moreover, even though Holland and Rudd are very much the movie’s Comedic Relief characters, I think we can’t ignore that most of the movie’s best laughs were courtesy of Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, from basically every interaction he has with Sebastian Stan to his reaction to meeting Black Panther for the first time: “So, you like cats? Dude shows up dressed like a cat and you don’t want to know more?”
After rewatching Civil War, I think it still ranks somewhere in my top 10. All in all, it was better than I expected before it came out, and the two acts of the movie have some of the MCU’s best material. But I think I’ll definitely have to reassess how I feel about it once Avengers: Infinity War comes out and we get a better sense of just how much it affected the universe.
Next Week: Dr. House Becomes a Magician
Avengers: Infinity War