Relative to the realm of superhero movies, Captain America: Civil War is an objectively good film. What I mean by this is, if you think it was bad, you are wrong.
This fact (yes, fact) is confirmed by the high ratings the movie has received. On Rotten Tomatoes it is rated 90% by critics and 92% by audiences. While there have certainly been movies rated higher (Zootopia undeservedly sits at 98% right now), its score is nothing to scoff at. And yet… I hear scoffing.
The scoffing seems to be coming from two camps: those that are not evaluating Civil War as a movie made from a comic book and those who are evaluating Civil War not as a movie but as a comic book. Let me explain.
“Superhero movie” is a general term that is more specific than it initially appears. The protagonist must have two characteristics. First, they must be “super.” They cannot be some Average Joe. They don’t need to be physically enhanced or extraordinary (i.e. Captain America or X-Men) but, if they’re not, they need to have leverage over the rest of us in some way: super rich, super smart, or super skilled. Secondly, they must be a “hero.” They can’t just try to live a normal life and fit in (i.e. That’s So Raven). They must actively seek out crime and try to stop it.
This seems easy enough to create out of thin air. All you need is some sort of cool “power” and some mechanism through which your character came by it. I’ll do it right now. My character’s cool power is controlling animals and he was born with it. (You mean he’s a “mutant” with the powers of Aquaman?) Okay, she’s a scientist who was exposed to a toxic chemical and now she can heal all of her own wounds instantly. (Exposed the way Bruce Banner was and now she has Wolverine’s powers?) Fine, let’s say he was tested on by evil scientists and now he can hear what people are thinking. (Tested on like Deadpool with telepathy like Professor X?)
You surely see my point. Virtually all useful superpowers and accompanying backstories have already been monopolized by decades of comic book writers. Therefore, if superhero movies are to be made, it is best that they are adapted from existing source material lest cries of “rip off” and “derivative” be raised by those who have waited years to see their favorite characters on the big screen.
This brings me to my first point: superhero movies are working off existing source material.
Why does this matter? This matters greatly because it puts constraints on the writers. When a movie is written from scratch, the story can go in any direction it wants. Pacific Rim comes to mind. That movie seems like something based on existing comic books but wasn’t. Writers Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro had free reign to do what they would. Their actors were diverse, their characters were wacky, and their monsters were astounding. Nevertheless, the movie was criticized for being too derivative—the robots looked like Transformers and the monsters looked like Godzilla.
Now imagine the pressure of writing a movie plot based on a storyline that many people already know involving characters that everyone already knows. Maybe the screenwriters and movie producers didn’t exactly love the storyline presented in the comics. Perhaps they, as well as the critics who negatively reviewed the movie, also thought there were too many action sequences, too many tangential characters, too little character development, and a less than compelling villain. They clearly tweaked what they could but was it enough? What these critics are forgetting is one crucial fact: *Boromir voice* One cannot simply ignore comic book nerds.
Comic book nerds (hereby referred to as “fans”) wanted to see an all out brawl. You cut action sequences, you lose fans. Fans wanted to see their favorite superheroes. You cut Spider-Man, you lose fans. You cut Ant-Man, you lose fans. My sister’s favorite character is Thor and she probably won’t even see the movie because he’s not in it. You want character development? Well that requires screen time, which cuts down on the action sequences and… you guessed it… you lose fans. You throw in a great villain but only give him 10 minutes of screen time because the movie is already too long? YOU LOSE FANS.
This is not to make the argument that “it’s really hard to make these movies so lower your expectations.” Instead, I am asking anyone who is going to watch a superhero movie: what exactly are your expectations?
I will speak for myself. I want a good movie. I want emotional drama, a bit of humor, thrilling action, and a plot I can both follow but not always predict. That’s what I want from all of my movies. Civil War delivers this.
What I do not expect, what no reasonable person should expect, is my second point: a movie never needs to be completely faithful to its source material.
Books are meant to be read at your own pace and require full visualization. Anything the author wants the reader to be aware of, he or she must fully describe. To create an immersive world, novelists are expected to take their time, adding in as many characters, settings, plots, and subplots as they see fit. While comic books do not need to be visualized, they still require imagination: one must hear the characters speak their lines and must animate the frozen action scenes. For this reason, comics are much shorter than novels. Following this line of thought, since visual and auditory inputs are provided for you, movies are meant to be viewed in one sitting. Plotting and pace are crucial, as the whole story needs to both unfurl and wrap up in an allotted time frame.
For that reason, not every little quirk in the comic book can possibly be included in the movie. Yes, Iron Man had a clone of Thor in the comic. But let’s say the writers decide to include that. That clone can’t just be there. The audience will need to be introduced to the clone, be made to understand what exactly it is, why it is there, who made him, and how he was made (Iron Man can make people now?). This background alone would add at least 15 minutes to a movie that is already two hours and 25 minutes long. The clone would also need to be included in all future Avengers movies or destroyed at some point. This would increase the cost of the movie (it cost $250 million to make as is) and require the presence of actor Liam Hemsworth, who I am sure is busy making his third Thor movie. It is completely unreasonable to fault the movie for not including something so unnecessary.
Civil War fixed nearly all the issues I had with the other Avengers-related movies. It had no distracting subplots that were hard to follow. It was far less quippy. The fighting was fun (instead of monotonous) because it was superhero on superhero, mano y mano. It answered questions such as: who would win in a fight between ____ vs. ____? Iron Man was arrogant, as usual, but not completely obnoxious (i.e. Iron Man 2). There was better diversity with Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Falcon, War Machine, and Black Panther (whose character was almost named Coal Tiger… shudder). The movie was a huge success, by any measure.
Speaking of Black Widow, I need to talk about her character for a second. I am so pleased with how far she has come. I was afraid the writers were going to keep her flat and uninteresting. Making a woman’s entire personality “tough and snappy” seems to be good enough for plenty of Hollywood writers. But the second Avengers showed us how she regards herself (monstrous) and left her extremely vulnerable after falling in love with Bruce Banner and having him straight up ghost on her. They continued with her complexity in Civil War. She sides with Iron Man but is extremely fond of Captain America. Like most people in real life, she is morally conflicted, which makes her unpredictable. I loved her quietly ominous smile when told to “move or be moved.” And last but not least, her hair no longer looks like a ridiculous wig. Huzzah!