For Your Consideration: Captain America: Civil War
The Academy Awards are drawing near which means speculation on the nominees for the Best Picture Category are the talk of the town. Certain films are a lock (La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight), some have gained more attention (Arrival, Lion, Hackshaw Ridge) others have lost their momentum completely (The Founder, Live By Night, Birth of a Nation). Yet one film has come out as a wild card contender. A superhero film no less, which is taboo when talking about the Academy Awards. So much so that even The Dark Knight, regarded by many as the best superhero film of all time, didn’t even score a Best Picture nomination. So what film could possibly break the mold…
Yes Deadpool, a film that was stuck in development hell for years that everybody at Fox didn’t want to make went on to become the “little” movie that could (hard to say little movie when you had a $58 million budget, distributed by Fox and tied to the X-Men franchise). Deadpool defied the odds and went on to become the highest-grossing film in the X-Men franchise with a worldwide total of over $783.1 million. It was loved by critics and audiences alike and so far, scored two Golden Globe nominations for Best Comedy or Musical and Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical (lost both to La La Land), scored a nomination for Writers Guild of America for Best Adapted Screenplay, the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Picture, and the Director’s Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement for First-Time Feature Film. This is an impressive collection of nominations for any film let alone a superhero film so now the question is, can Deadpool score a Best Picture nomination? There is always a possibility, stranger films have been nominated for Best Picture (The Blindside, District 9, Extremely Loud and Incredible Close). Even with all these nominations, it is no clear lock for Best Picture. Sicario, Nightcrawler, and Gone Girl all got the PGA and the WGA nominations yet got snubbed in the Best Picture category their respective years. Plus if anything Ryan Reynolds has a chance of getting a Best Actor nomination the same way Johnny Depp did for Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (and just like Depp did with Sparrow you have to wonder how long Reynolds plays Deadpool till audiences and fans turn on him?)
I am here to tell you there is another film that is more deserving of the shot at the title for Best Picture in 2016, and it is a superhero film. That film is Captain America: Civil War.
Yes Captain America: Civil War. While Deadpool may seem like it is doing something “different” with the superhero film it falls more in line with the Birdman mentality (which the Academy Award did reward) which is poke fun at the idea of superhero movies. The sheer fact that 3 of the Best Picture winners since 2010 have been based on movies (The Artist, Argo, Birdman) show that the Academy loves movies about themselves. They also have some real self-hate as is prevalent with the rewarding of movies like Birdman and now the push for Deadpool as they take jabs at superhero films, which are currently the most popular type of mainstream film. Now not to compare the two, Deadpool’s parody comes from a place of love for the genre while Birdman is a scathing remark on it. Yet Deadpool by being snarky, R-rated, and edgy ironically allows it to be the safer bet.
Whereas Captain America: Civil War embraces what it is without a shred of irony. It walks a tightrope by acknowledging this is a superhero movie and having fun with itself while also approaching some dark and serious subject matter. Allowing the actions of superheroes to be used as a lens on a discussion for government oversight, personal accountability, doing what is right for the needs of many over the needs of the one.
Captain America: Civil War has a lot in common with traditional Oscar films. It has elements of political movies (Munich, Babel, Argo, and Bridge of Spies), the big massive grand scale epic quality (Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and Mad Max: Fury Road) and it features a star-studded cast (the Grand Budapest Hotel, Good Night and Good Luck, Les Miserables, and Lincoln). Yet the films past nominated films Captain America: Civil War has the most in common with our In the Bedroom, the Kids Are Alright, the Descendants in the sense that those are character pieces about families
Despite the massive action set pieces, Captain America: Civil War isn’t really an action movie. When you boil the plot down to its basic element it is the story of a family breaking up. The Avengers function as a family unit and the breaking of that unit is the true death of the story. The movie starts with Captain America losing his last link to the world he knew when Peggy Carter dies. The only people he has left are the Avengers, which is challenged when Bucky returns to his life. He now must choose between his old family and his new family. Iron Man’s relationship to his parents kicks off his introduction as he lost both his mother and father and now is dealing with having to lose the love of his life Pepper due to his “need” to be Iron Man (in a traditional family narrative this could be seen as addiction to a substance or ones work). The Avengers are all he has left. Bucky is not only the reason Tony’s parents are dead but the cause for breaking up his new family unit. It adds much more weight to his attack on Bucky. This notion is so apparent that most of the main players in the story have a familiar connection at stake. Vision is an android so the Avengers are the only family unit he knows. Scarlet Witch lost her only remaining family member, Quicksilver, during the battle of Sokovia yet has found a new home with people who care for her. Love even is in the air between Vision and Scarlet Witch which is cut short as these two have what chalks up to a literal lover’s quarrel with the future of their relationship in jeopardy. Ant-Man and Hawkeye are both fathers whose involvement in the fight is selfish, or selfless since they are fighting for a future they want their children to live in. Black Panther’s father is killed, and him seeking vengeance but ultimately finding forgiveness leads to a mirror of the main villain’s conflict Zemo. Zemo is an ordinary man in a world of gods that failed to save the life of his family. They are responsible for his families death. Unlike Panther, though Zemo does not learn a lesson in forgiveness, he allows his vengeance to consume him. He dedicates every moment of his life to take away from the Avengers what they took from him, family.
Nowhere is this family drama more apparent than in the 2nd act airport fight. Aside from being the greatest superhero action scene ever put to film, it is a natural point to reach in the film. The scene was a physical manifestation of these characters’ struggle with each other. In a traditional drama, this would be a family fight. Since you have a family of super-powered heroes that are disagreeing it only makes sense to have that disagreement become a literal fight.
The family drama continues as you lead into the climax which turns it into a psychological thriller. The mystery of who is behind the attacks may be solved, but the conflict between Cap and Iron Man isn’t over because sometimes the problems don’t just go away. Straight out of Se7en with “what’s in the box” replaced with “what is this video” Zemo unveils the ultimate surprise, that the Winter Soldier, Cap’s friend who he has been fighting to save this whole time is responsible for the death of Tony’s parents. Bucky may be innocent of the crime of blowing up the Accords Summit but he still killed Tony’s folks (regardless of if he was in control of his actions). The blank stare on Tony’s face as he watches in horror as his parents are brutally murdered in front of him with their killer right next to him. Cap’s realization to knowing that two friends are about to fight. Finally when Iron Man ask Steve “did you know?” and Steve replies yes…this scene alone carries so much emotional weight with very few words. Steve has done his first selfish act in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Tony is betrayed, and trust is a difficult thing to repair once it is broken. The Russo Brothers, the writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Marvel Studios have given an audience what they thought they wanted to see (two superheroes fighting) …and making them realize how awful that idea is. Like seeing two people you love tear each other apart. The audience has come to grow and care for these characters because of 8 years of movies to help know this world and get to know them.
Being part of a shared cinematic universe allows the characters to come with emotional growth they have developed over previous films that define how they will act in this film. The script wisely knows these character’s progressions and organically lets them react based on the events in the past films to help craft a richer more complex story and emotional experience. Captain America, a child of the system, going against the system seems natural as he has seen how the system has failed in the events of Captain America: the Winter Soldier. Iron Man, whose Iron Man 2 pretty much stood in as an adaptation of Ayn Rand “screw the government and love the individual” work The Fountainhead to seeing the need for regulation and accountability after the events in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Spider-Man, a character known the world over, can be introduced without an origin story because the audience knows him after five films (even if not connected to the MCU) and he fits a narrative purpose of further developing Tony Stark’s character development. Vision and Scarlet Witch, who were introduced in Age of Ultron get some much-needed character development, as well as the hints of a blossoming relationship between the two. Black Widow is complex in a less shallow way than before with her walking the line between friends rather than hero and villain. Ant-Man not only allows you to have a player for the big airport action sequence you also do some additional world building by having a character geek out at a chance to work with the heroes. Black Panther gets a fully realized character arc and origin story in the background of this film (makes you wonder what the Black Panther solo film is about) going from vengeful man to the hero and king he needs to be that mirrors the villain Zemo. Zemo is similar to the Joker in the Dark Knight, his ability for his plan to adapt to every situation is impossible and seems that the villain has the powers of the writers to just make things fall into place. Like Joker though Zemo is a villain whose purpose to drive the internal conflict of the heroes and make it external. It isn’t a battle with Zemo, he just pushes them to the logical step they will eventually lead down. He is playing the situation to fit his needs, nudging the hero’s down to the only place they can go. He instigates and the events are just there to see how the characters interact when put into these positions.
Now all this talk about previous films does bring up a criticism leveled against the movie, that it doesn’t “stand on its own”. That you must see the other movies to appreciate it Captain America: Civil War. That is true, you have to have seen a few Marvel films before to fully get it. Yet is that a negative thing? Both Godfather Part II and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won Best Picture and require prior knowledge of the previous film to fully understand the story they are trying to tell. They are better movies because of the help of the films that proceed them.
This movie could not have existed 10 years ago, or 5 years ago, It is a testament to just how much Marvel has changed the cinematic landscape. All the work of the previous Marvel films works to help enhance this one and give it a more satisfying experience. It allows you to have multiple characters and juggle 6 different arcs and all make it feel satisfying because of all the work that lead up to this. Civil War is a film of its time.
The argument that a work to be considered worthy must stand on its own also is troubling because it only seems to apply for films. Television series in particularly have gotten stronger as they embraced the serial nature as opposed to one-off episodes. The Emmy and Golden Globe Winners for Best Drama the past five years have all been serialized shows. If television is being praised for becoming more cinematic in technique, scope and ambition why are movies that dare to take the structure and approach of television considered lesser works?
Any self-respecting critic wouldn’t say that Breaking Bad is a lesser show to Law & Order because Breaking Bad require you to have watched previous episodes to understand the larger picture at play while Law & Order is broad enough for an audience member to come in at any time and enjoy. The argument would then be said that “Breaking Bad has better character development” but that character development is afforded to it because of the nature of the serialization and allowing each episode to build off the actions of the previous one. Captain America: Civil War acts very much like an episode or a giant television show, or chapter the larger story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Nothing against singular cinematic stories. La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea are stories that fit into the traditional structure and they are great for that. Just that the argument that ALL stories worth any weight must be told in one off’s is rooted in a pre-streaming age and that is not the world we live in anymore. Civil War reflects the modern age we consume and appreciate media which makes it unique to its time.
A film does not need an Academy Award nomination, or win for that matter, to make a difference in the grand scheme of things. The Oscars are very political with massive campaigns, certain films being groomed to be just Oscar films and that is all. The Academy doesn’t make judgments based solely on the craft, how well done the story was, or if a film dealt with difficult issues or pushed the boundaries of cinema (yet many of the films have). An award doesn’t make a movie’s worth. Star Wars, Jaws, and Pulp Fiction lost the best picture win and films like Ghostbusters, The Big Lebowski, and The Dark Knight didn’t even get nominated yet they have done just fine. While it would have been nice for those films to be acknowledged at the time, over time as more generations discovered them their regard grew. Based on the massive reception to Captain America: Civil War shows that audiences loved it and will most likely live on as a staple of Blu-Ray rotation for not just Marvel comics fans but everyone with kids who want to distract them with the greatest superhero action scene ever. When the Marvel Studios releases Infinity War which is the accumulation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and does reflective think pieces on all the films Civil War will certainly stand up as one of the best in the series. It will live on and be rewarded in its own way. The hope with this was to get you to reconsider how you look at Captain America: Civil War in the same respect one would give The Dark Knight.