The wife and I were talking the other night about Captain America: Civil War and its merits when compared with Captain America: Winter Soldier.
WARNING: the rest of this thread is uber geektastic. Serious people who want Very Serious Discussions are encouraged to go find the blog for one of the PBS news shows, I hear they are Very Serious.
I think both of us felt that Civil War, while an enjoyable film, didn’t rise to the best of what Marvel has been producing. I won’t speak for her, but for me at least Winter Soldier is the best of the Marvel movies. We talked for quite a while about why, what made it so special, and I think it boils down to some of the choices made by the writers and the story tellers. Namely the following:
A) Opening sequence is critical to the entire movie.
In Winter Soldier, we start with Steve Rogers meeting Sam Wilson in the unforgettable and well done “on your left” running sequence around the mall in DC. They do a great job of tying these two together immediately with respectful banter shared (“I got a late start,” Steve says; “Oh, you’re slacking? ” replies Sam. “Well take another lap…. did you take it? You probably did.”). They have a shared background as soldiers and understand the difficulties in reconnecting to civilian life, both are good guys who just want to be good people, and they understand each other. There is nothing forced here, it works as a set piece and establishes why they become fast friends and trust each other so quickly.
From here, Steve is called off for a battle to recapture a SHIELD ship that has been pirated. The battle is fun to watch and the mission, as we later learn, is an integral portion of the plot. Black Widow steals data from the ship which is an important to the overall story arc, and the ship itself was pirated by folks hired by Nick Fury who had become aware of a rogue element within SHIELD (HYDRA, which was hiding in plain sight) and needed to learn what was going on. The battle isn’t a “no reason, but let’s have a fight here” scene, it moves the story along.
In Civil War we go straight to a battle. We get a bit more action, and it’s a really fun sequence with a somewhat interesting villain in Crossbones. But the object of Crossbones raid – a biological weapon – plays zero part in the overall plot, and Crossbones himself is killed at the end of the battle sequence, thus removing him as any part of the overall story. The only part of this piece that plays to the plot was Wanda redirecting the explosion set off by Crossbones suicide attempt up and away from the crowd, which kills people in a nearby building. This, supposedly, provides the world with the impetus to create the Sokovia accords, registering and monitoring active Superheroes via the UN.
But is that necessary? Throughout several films now we’ve already had plenty of tragic events that undoubtedly killed many civilians, including the attack of Ultron against Sokovia. Was it necessary to have another battle with no stakes related to the film to pound that in and provide the force that drives the accords? To me, it would have made more sense to start with the nations meeting to discuss the accords and have Natasha getting to know the Prince of Wakanda (who later takes on the mantle of the hero, Black Panther) as the “set piece” to start with. Then Crossbones attacks nearby, drawing off the Avengers who are there to protect the discussions, but its a ruse by Zemo who, disguised as the Winter Soldier, now easily moves his van full of explosives into place. The Avengers defeat Crossbones, they return, Wanda and Cap realize the van is rigged, she lifts the explosion, but it still kills the king of Wakanda and a few others high above the ground. Now the stakes for the first battle are tied directly to the story line, not separated from it.
B) Too many cooks spoil the broth.
The old saying is true. In Winter Soldier we have three main heroes (Cap, Black Widow, and the Falcon). In Captain America, both sides have six members (Iron Man, Warmachine, the Vision, Black Panther, Spider-man and Black Widow for team Tony; Captain America, Hawkeye, the Falcon, Winter Soldier, the Scarlet Witch and Ant-man for team Steve) for a total of twelve heroes. The focus on so many characters and so much action takes away from the tighter focus of the earlier movie. Granted, the action scene at the airport when all twelve heroes are fighting is truly spectacular, but we suffer to some degree from film schizophrenia, with our attention being pulled left and right by various parts of the ebbing and flowing fight. Three is a great number, there are three perspectives in Winter Soldier’s final “big battle” to deal with, three parts of the fight. Twelve felt like overkill, and made Civil War feel like “The Avengers 2.5.” It lacked some of the intimacy of the previous movie.
And let’s pause for a moment and talk about the gorilla in the room: Spider-man and Ant-man. Truly they both contribute mightily to this film, they have funny parts, they play well to the audience and they were great editions to the big fight scene. But… they weren’t necessary. At all. Of the two, Ant-man was probably the bigger contributor to the overall fight and grabbing him to join team Steve made sense, though Spidey got in his licks for sure. But Tony going to pick up Peter felt like a totally forced scene on Marvel’s part (“Hey, we got Spidey back, let’s add him to Civil War immediately”), which was clear from the earlier trailers of the airport scene where there was no Spider-man. It made little sense for Tony to take this action after all his grousing about keeping heroes in check. And at that point, neither side knew the other was adding another member, so they were equal at five. Trying to get the advantage? Maybe… but it still felt forced and wrong for all the joy it provided on the screen for the few brief minutes they were there. This was an unnecessary addition to an already bloated film. And I say that as a person who loved both of their roles in this movie and appreciated their contributions and the humor they provided for what was a relatively – up to that point – serious film (I’ll give a nod to the car scene with Steve, Sam and Bucky as well, that was very funny… the bro nod after the kiss was perfect).
C) You killed my father… prepare to die.
Zemo draws the critical members to a secret facility in Siberia for the final show down. By now Tony knows Winter Soldier wasn’t the cause of the explosion. And he also knows that Winter Soldier was brain washed. Yet when he learns Winter Soldier killed his parents… he snaps? It was… OK… I guess… maybe. It made some sort of sense I suppose, and refers back to an early sequence in the movie where Tony talks about self-therapy around the death of his parents. But it wasn’t neat and clean like the earlier Captain America film where Steve fights Bucky only long enough to stop the helicarriers, and then tells him he won’t fight him any longer and is “with you ’til the end.” Which, itself, connected back to a flashback scene where Bucky says the same thing to Steve when Steve’s parents had died. And the Civil War scene only really works if Tony comes alone, which isn’t a guarantee, but I suppose that’s a pretty minor quibble in the scheme of other problems with the movie.
It would have made much more sense if Tony had never learned the truth about Winter Soldier’s involvement. If he had arrived somehow before Cap and Bucky and seen the video Zemo had queued up for him. Now he’s ready to fight, he still believes Winter Soldier is evil and not reforming and their fight makes more sense. Bucky has killed and continues to kill… so now Tony must kill him and Cap if Cap gets in the way. And I would have dropped the corny “He killed my mother” line and substituted something like “He’s been a killer since you left him to die, Rogers, and will always be a killer, and I’m going to put him down before you two get anyone else killed.” That plays right into Steve’s own previously mentioned sense of failure in protecting Bucky and saving him from the fate that has gripped him for seventy plus years and his more viscerally unfair and painful to all.
Again, none of this is intended to imply this was a bad movie. It was great, I’ve seen it twice now. But it falls short of the true greatness of CA: WS, which is by far the best of the Marvel movies to date. I’m only trying to understand why it falls short and how the writing contributes to it not reaching that height. A random fight, too many main characters, and poor connectivity between history and motivation seems to be the problems. Just things for me to ponder and try to avoid in my own writing.