You weren’t crazy… the Avengers have killed a lot of people!
Updated: Jul 26, 2020
Is the MCU guilty of gaslighting it’s fans? When Tony Stark decides to make an epically awful decision and bring about Ultron - which then kills loads of people in the the run up and during the now-famed battle for Sokovia - did Marvel honestly want people to shrug their shoulders as Tony did and look for the next adventure (which was Ant Man)? Captain America: Civil War (“Civil War”) takes the head-scratching fans following the aftermath of Ultron’s defeat in Avengers: Age of Ultron and reminds them they are not crazy.
Some of the above confusion in the overall story arc is likely to be down to production schedules. Principal photography for Avengers: Age of Ultron took place between February and June 2014. Principal photography for Ant Man took place between August 2014 and December 2014. Kevin Feige defended his decision to keep Ant Man between these two juggernaut films, but it is likely that it was considered an acceptable risk to release the film at the time it did given the numerous production problems that Ant Man ran into despite the fact that it largely ignored the consequences of the previous Avengers film (see my previous blog post on this).
Captain America: Civil War (“Civil War”) takes the head-scratching fans that results in the aftermath of Ultron’s defeat in Avengers: Age of Ultron and reminds them they are not crazy.
But enough about Ultron, production decisions on Civil War are a not so subtle acknowledgement of the fragmented world the Avengers have left after three major battles on Earth. We know now (following the end of Phase III films) that they are ultimately destined to fight amongst the stars and even between dimensions. However, the question in 2015 was just how many towns the Avengers were going to destroy before the world noticed? At the end of an Obama-administration world it was not understood how vigilantes like the Avengers would be permitted to operate unquestioned in the modern world.
One production decision could have been to overlook this. I remember going to see the first Transformers, being blown away by the Michael Bay theatrics and bringing to life of one of my favourite childhood toys. However, as we left the cinema one of my friends complained, “It was so unrealistic!” That is true, but it’s a movie about large robots falling from space to fight the bad robots also falling from space… what part of that needed to be more realistic?
However, I applaud Kevin Feige and co’s decision to try to keep the MCU grounded in more recognisable fantastic realism. It’s part of the reason comic books like Spiderman or Batman resonate so well as they are always grounded in what looks like real cities and environments. Here, the MCU used a great Marvel story to combat the specific questions that people would naturally be raising about the Avengers past activities. We saw elements of this in Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3, but an X-Factor style grounding of the superheroes was long overdue.
And as was shown in similar storylines in various comic series (the Mutant Registration Act, the Vigilante Registration Act) it becomes easier to bring a large assortment of superheroes to debate by using sweeping legislation seeking to label or identify those behind the mask. As the plot of Civil War unfolds (and no mega-villain emerges - just an ordinary man seeking revenge) we begin to see the sheer awesomeness of taking five superhero and pitting them against five others.
Not only does it pave the way for large action sequences that are a staple of MCU, it fills those sequences with a catalogue of the best heroes we have gotten to know over the history of the MCU and some new ones like Spiderman and Black Panther. What really makes the scenes effective though is that many of the participants are committed to the fight for idealogical reasons. It takes all the dialogue that slowed down Avengers: Age of Ultron at the wrong times and makes it part of the battle. Crucially, this is because the dialogue in Age of Ultron did not seem tethered to the actual main plot of the story in a way which would impact its outcome.
The fact that the sides effectively perform a surprise switch - Captain American for once going against his government masters and Tony Stark afraid of what he will do if no one stops him - raises the stakes and subsequently audience interest.
But what really makes Civil War a return to form is the core film elements - good direction with a good story which I will go into more detail below. The actors are an additional positive element, but with MCU regularly recruiting Hollywood A-listers for roles, this can almost be taken for granted.
The Russo brothers proved to be an excellent choice for this film, after their strong visual and story achievements in Captain Amerrica: the Winter Soldier. Interestingly enough though, they did not have a long track record in big action films before directing MCU films. However, anyone who has seen these fellow Ohio natives' ability to drive chaos out of nothing - Community I am talking about your epically awesome paintball episodes - would have been interested to see what these two could do on the big stage.
…anyone who has seen these fellow Ohio natives ability to drive chaos out of nothing - “Community” I am talking about your epically awesome paintball episodes - would have been interested to see what these two could do on the big stage…
Captain America: Winter Soldier was an excellent take on the classic spy thriller, but Civil War cements them as masters of blending story and action in a way that keeps an audience engaged. It’s no wonder that they were later locked in for the final Avenger Phase 3 films - Infinity War and Endgame. Their next effort is a $200m Netflix Chris Evans / Ryan Gosling spy thriller which hopefully continues the trend of great story mixed with great action paced in such a way that the audience is on the edge of the seat for most of the film. They are also rumoured to be considering a Secret Wars MCU film. How did they achieve so much success in Civil War? The connection between the action and the characters starts with subtle changes like the upward angled cameras in the Agent Carter Funeral scenes with the Steve and Natasha. We see the bond between them in a soft, welcoming set of frames that solidifies the relationship between the two even as they stand on opposing sides of an argument. This technique is again with other character dialogues to emphasise the close connection between two speakers and setting up the fundamental tragedy of Civil War - close friends forced to fight each other.
Obviously these small details combine with the biggest achievement - getting up to ten superheroes in a shot. The battle scene at the airport is probably the easiest example as it brings together the old and the new, showcasing the new joiners - Black Panther (officially on his own quest), Spiderman (at Tony’s behest) and Ant Man (who is super stoked to finally be included). It shows how the MCU can work with it's many different spinning plates and why it is an entertaining spectacle.
…the connection between the action and the characters starts with subtle changes like the upward angled cameras in the Agent Carter Funeral scenes with the Steve and Natasha…
The final battle between Steve, Bucky and Tony is a further example of the Russo brother's ability to pace an intense action sequence while furthering character progression at the same time. This is often a difficult task - think of action films like Face Off that are visually stunning but leave so much to be desired in terms of character development. Here, there is a catharsis to the relationship between Steve and Tony that (as is pointed out many times in the audio commentary) and real weight to the idea it may never go back to the way it was before. You might not notice, but the Russo brothers choreographed Cap's moves such that every thing he does is an act of protection. This becomes apparent in the final action shot where it looks like Cap may just cut off Tony's head with his shield, but then merely destroys the suit and then casts off the shield.
It’s the character resonance even in the action that gives the MCU films their backbone (when they’re good). I would argue that it is the lack of action and the abundance of character that have made the recent Netflix releases (Jessica Jones Season 1 and Daredevil Season 2) a slog to get through in comparison to the films. It’s not the characters I do not like in those shows. Quite the contrary. I love the deep sense of justice and legal tone of Daredevil and the rare feminine perspective given in Jessica Jones.
However, in the Netflix shows we never get big action sequences resonating with core values of the character. Big stakes for lots of people all coming down to inner demons dealt with by the characters - that’s MCU film formula. Instead, in the Netflix shows we get more microcosmic stories that exist in the same universe as the Avengers but seem to have little to no connection. In all honesty I would have saved the Netflix shows until after the MCU films had run, but hindsight is a lovely thing that producers do not often get the benefit.
…big stakes for lots of people all coming down to inner demons dealt with by the characters - that’s the MCU film formula…
As we move into Phase 3 films the MCU character resonance gets perfected with old and new additions in a way that is meant to leave us breathless when the final encounter with Thanos is upon them. FYI - I am an Endgame virgin so very much looking forward to balling my eyes out when I finally get the Russo brothers final entry in the series. Here’s to looking forward to that journey although there is a lot of Marvel TV to watch before I get there (more on that next blog post).
Jason “Mouth” Cherot - 18 July 2020