Imagine being so full you want to vomit. Gross, right? That moment when you tip over from satiety into feeling overly full is surprisingly distressing; after a while it becomes overwhelming, not just distracting but all-encompassing.
Captain America: Civil War is the longest of Marvel’s thirteen movies, but rather than using its 147 minute running-time to give a handful of roots space to grow, its directors have seized on the opportunity to just fill it with more stuff – more characters, more action sequences, more meditations on what it means to be a superhero in a post-9/11 world.
Its directors have seized on the opportunity to just fill it with more stuff
You can probably put paragraph one and paragraph two together and make paragraph three. Captain America: Civil War is a movie so force-fed with cool ideas and necessary retrofitted and future-proofed plot contrivances that its forehead is beaded, its gut distended. Its discomfort rubs off on you clammily, as scenes jostle up against each other anxiously trying to move both the plot and the lurching Marvel Cinematic Universe stacked on top of it, higher and more vulnerable than Stark Tower.
This is a shame, sort of, because several moments in the movie are really pretty great. Tom Holland is a genuine and constant joy as the latest incarnation of Spider-Man, equal parts wide-eyed hero-worshipper and child prodigy holding his own in the big leagues (he’s actually funny, too). The final showdown between the movie’s primary Avengers-turned-antagonists is at times shockingly brutal, given the 12A rating in the UK; before that (in the “other” climactic battle) there is undeniable fun to be had in seeing the increasingly colourful Rubik’s cube of characters rearranged into new permutations and flexing their respective muscles.
But the problem with laying out your path to 2019 to fanboys and shareholders alike is that stopping to savour the details en route isn’t really part of the programme. When he announced Marvel’s slate, Kevin Feige set in irrevocable motion a huge – genuinely, mind-bogglingly vast – machinery of overlapping pieces of IP, and business on this scale is blind to – cannot afford to be receptive to – something as insignificant as a moment. And, sure, I get it: world-building – more rightly, Universe-building – is not easy. You have the hardcore comic book fans to please, who want something that doesn’t take them so far out of their comfort zones that it no longer feels like their Marvel. You have the casual viewing public to please, who want the characters they remember from earlier in the series still to act like those characters. If you’re even going to think about introducing someone new into the mix, you have to do it with enough sensitivity that someone unfamiliar with the books can mentally separate their Ants-Men from their Spiders-Men. Forget two steps ahead: you have to be whole years, whole movies ahead, teeing-up and keeping-on-the-backburner. And you have to do all of this to a deadline as rigid as vibranium (LOL, I think?).
The analogy to toys might not be a bad one. These are not characters so much as pieces of marketing collateral
It is this question of expediency, more than anything else, which bubbles to the surface in Civil War. This is the first movie in which the cumulative consequences of Marvel’s decisions to date are beginning to make their presence felt; the first time that chaos theory becomes an appropriate lens through which to evaluate that which Feige has wrought. It is clearest in the sheer unbelievability of the film’s central conflict: as played by Chris Evans, Captain America is so ploddingly good you couldn’t buy him as an anti-authoritarian rebel for a second (to be fair to Evans, arguably the only version of the character you could buy is Mark Millar’s Tea Party Libertarian psycho in his Ultimates run). By the same token, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is played so cocksure you couldn’t ever conceive of him submitting to a yoke. However much you can write motivation onto these characters – yes, it makes sense on paper for Cap to stay loyal to his oldest friend, for a guilt-ridden Stark to abdicate responsibility for future actions – you can’t change the fact that it is medically impossible to make the man you have cast as Iron Man anything other than a cocksure brat, or to make the man you have cast as Captain America anything other than the wholesome embodiment of the Establishment.
Once this shifting unease at the film’s core catches your eye, it’s hard not to pick up on other inconsistencies and flaws. Like, was Hawkeye always such a gaping arsehole? Here he’s simply terrible – all pissy snark and small-cocked swagger, Renner phoning it in for a downpayment on another slice of prime real estate. Or, why does it feel like it was shot on the cheap on the same lot where they make 10 pornos a day? The same San Fernando sunshine bathes almost every scene into the same state of glossy blahness – as in the similarly botoxed Age of Ultron, the scruffy, lived-in worlds of The Winter Soldier and Ant-Man are, well, worlds away. Or, the final showdown aside, why are the fight scenes so bad? They’re either hyper-kinetic redshirt pile-ons, Greengrass with a defective dolly, or bloodless, jeopardy-free hero-on-hero mash-ups with all the drama of two children slamming 90s WWE action figurines into each other.
The analogy to toys might not be a bad one. These are not characters so much as pieces of marketing collateral, each given a focus-grouped beat according to seniority in Marvel’s subordinated debt hierarchy. The character worst-served by this is Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, whose origin story and hero’s mission are yada-yada’d away in a flash. Sure, you don’t want to go too far the other way – does anyone not know the traumatic childhood event that set Bruce Wayne on his way? – but to fast-forward through this stuff is not just irritating: it shows the machine at its most cold and impersonal.
Vulture recently ran an article on Civil War’s directors, the Russo brothers. Titled ‘Who Needs an Auteur?’, it heralded their position at the new paradigm of film-making: as high-quality executors with limited artistic vision, but buckets of sheer, steel-eyed competence. Clearly, this is no bad thing: as the public meltdown of another Marvel property shows, competence is nothing to be sniffed at and buckets of it really are required when there is so much to sustain, in such a short timeframe. But giving this as explanation overlooks the fact that it’s a fundamentally different product that studios are producing now: a big-budget film, more and more, resembles a collage, not a painting; a Kardashian, not a Johansson. Studios need people who can make the good bits tick the right boxes in the right ways and keep the messy scar tissue and seams between the good bits out of sight, or at least not too noticeably ugly.
For we are at a new paradigm of film-watching, too. The fact that this can be held up as the best Marvel movie to date is proof of how etiolated our critical faculty has become: the question is not “is it good” so much as “considering how much baggage it’s carrying, does it manage to not be bad”? When you consider the delicate balancing-act that films are now performing, looting the corpses of the past to provide nostalgia for one generation and new trinkets for another, it’s actually a minor miracle that a Jurassic World or a Force Awakens makes it to our screens and isn’t absolutely disastrous, Man of Steel horrible.
I’m not being a pessimist here. It’s not a question of glass half full or half empty. Watching this sort of film in 2016 is a question of how much of your curate’s egg you can stomach being revolting before you throw up. For multiple films now studios have been careering along like a train hundreds of people over capacity, hoping against hope that sheer kinetic force will get them to the station before they derail. But the laws of physics apply even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Eventually entropy will win out. There are still three more years and nine more films until Infinity Wars Part 2 hits screens and I literally cannot imagine how it will work – how a single film (or even twinset of films) can fit all this stuff without its guts escaping their confinement and spilling messily out. Maybe Marvel don’t (need to) care – they’ll have our money by then anyway. But what a legacy to leave behind: not a self-contained universe, not a series of films with a clear narrative to follow, not even a satisfying, tonally consistent set of aesthetic statements. Just a clusterfuck of rapacious moneygrabs, 30 billion pieces of silver, an infinite mess.