Captain America: Civil War.

by waxbanks

I just saw it. I enjoyed it. Today’s Marvel movies owe a lot to TV; I can’t believe they exist.

Counting generously, there are twenty funny lines in the whole of Captain America: Civil War — a comic book movie of well over two hours. Most of them go to Spider-Man.

Against that embarrassing total we have one of the better scenes of comic-book mayhem ever put to film — ‘The Airport Sequence,’ as the fanboys have been referring to it for weeks — and the closing fistfight, which seems to bring the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to a climax.

The music is terrible. The purely visual aspects of the film, overseen by the Brothers Russo, are pedestrian; I’m reminded that Joss Whedon’s camera eye is stronger than he’s generally given credit for. There’s little wit in the dialogue and even less in the visuals.

At this point, though, the Marvel ensemble is these films’ main special effect, and the Russos handle it well. Too many critics talk about modern film as if the sole job of the director was to tell the cameraman when to swoop and when to sit, but the Russos know from TV how to handle a woolly ensemble cast, and they’ve kept the actors grounded despite being badly outnumbered. The performances are almost all strong, especially Mr Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man. Downey’s improvisatory intelligence is his most distinctive feature as an actor, I think, but it can grate at times; he’s helped immensely in that regard by the presence of what appears to be a very talented 12-year-old boy as Spider-Man. When the two of them are onscreen together, Downey seems to age twenty years (beautifully). His weariness as Stark is moving and totally convincing.

Chris Evans, no one’s idea of a master actor, has turned out to be ideal for the part of Captain America, aging noticeably into his younger-elder-statesman role and standing immovable against the irrepressible Downey. Their big punchup at the end brings both characters’ stories perfectly into focus, and they play that sequence to the nines, especially Downey, who in a transformative moment of grief and rage looks like a little boy in the Iron Man suit. In a movie full of (at times surprisingly clumsy) CGI, that’s the most impressive visual on offer.

It seems impossible that a movie like this could exist. This is the thirteenth Marvel movie (counting the Ed Norton Hulk) since Downey/Favreau’s first Iron Man, and it draws on the equivalent of several TV seasons’ worth of continuity — which an up-to-date theatergoer would have paid more than $100 to see in theaters. (I’ve seen the two Avengers movies, Winter Soldier (surprising), the middling Ant-Man, and the fun but overrated Guardians of the Galaxy — plus Deadpool, much duller than the boy nerds had led me to believe.) The demands which a film like Civil War makes on the casual viewer are astounding; there’s simply no way of parsing the events of this film without having invested an unprecedented amount of energy in the minutiae of comixxx plot shenanigans. The first half of Civil War is hopelessly overstuffed, partly because the Marvel guys can’t help themselves and partly because there’s so damned much material to bring together.

Which is why Civil War feels more like the climactic episode of a TV season — a season of, ahem, Buffy? — than a movie costing a quarter of a billion dollars. It doesn’t even try to function as a standalone story, not that it could, and while we’ve all seen movies that rely on other films for context and meaning, it feels strange to walk out of a movie house after three hours feeling like you’ve just seen a middle chapter.

It’s interesting that the Russos are the guys in charge here. Their pedigree is primarily TV, not film — like Joss Whedon’s, I’d note. They work fast, don’t get fancy with the camera, and crucially they can handle the unique constraints of serial storytelling. (Their most interesting résumé line: more than a dozen episodes of Arrested Development between them.) Between Civil War and the strong but overrated-for-reasons-of-nostalgia Winter Soldier, I can see why Marvel has tapped the Russos for the upcoming Avengers diptych.

But I’m not excited about them at all. Civil War approaches Whedonesque grandeur in The Airport Sequence — the big action setpiece which pits maybe a dozen Marvel heroes against each other, thereby neatly sidestepping the interchangeable-villains problem which tends to plague these movies — but while I found that sequence thrilling, the presence of Giant-Man (Gi-Ant-Man?) mostly reminded me that no one working on the Marvel movies has matched the visual poetry of Edgar Wright. Whedon was the best writer Marvel will ever get for these flicks, but Wright’s ‘Cornetto trilogy’ effortlessly surpasses all the Marvel films for funnybook-flavoured wit.

It’s good that Marvel’s branching out to make goofier, weirder movies like Guardians, Ant-Man, and the forthcoming Doctor Strange (the Marvel announcement I’m most excited about) — their mainline films are slowly being drained of their wit, and self-serious comics (or comix movies) are a souldeadening bore, as DC’s Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder can tell you.

Anyhow, this is a surprisingly effective movie, better than it has any right to be. It made me miss the interesting storytellers who’ve left the Marvel fold. I don’t care that it has Spider-Man in it, and I don’t see why you’d care either, though I imagine you’ll dig Black Panther as I did. The dialogue is pretty good, not great, and once the Plot Business of the first half fully unfurls, the deep Story Stuff is compelling. The ending is a bit of a cop-out.

It is, in short, appointment TV.