Teaching the Russo brothers to stop pulling their punches: 2 easy fixes that would make the very good Captain America: Civil War a great film

Boy, you talk about having some fun. I walked out of the theater after Captain America: Civil War with a smile on my face. I was so satisfied with the experience that I was proud to take home my authentically plastic, massive movie theater Civil War soda cup. Being a married man, I’ve learned to only put souvenir cups in the pantry that are worthy of remembering, and that one fit the bill. Heck, my kids one day may drink Cool-aid out of that cup.

“Why are Captain America and Iron Man looking so mad at each other, daddy?” Jon Jr. will say through his bright red, sugar mustache.

I will stare at him, befuddled, and I won’t remember. Jon Jr. will become scarred from the confusion of seeing mommy and daddy get mad at each other on the cup, and he’ll exhibit irrevocable emotional damage later in his life.

You know how I know I won’t remember? Because I barely remember today, the day after I saw the movie. But then again, I think I’m being unfair to the film by even holding it to that kind of standard. While the initial trailers promised a serious, gut-wrenching experience, and critics were hailing it as a courageous confrontation of deep themes, Civil War does what it and what all other MCU movies (excluding X-Men and Fantastic Four movies, obviously) have set out to do so far and nothing more: the film presents engaging, fully rounded characters and weaves them together in an intricate plot that produces a satisfying and thrilling experience where the good guys win in the end, all set in a world where fun and lightness are paramount.

Sounds like you just described the definition of a good movie, you may be thinking.

That’s sort of true.

What’s wrong with the good guys winning in the end? you might ask.

Nothing, I prefer them to win.

So what on gods’ green Wakanda are you getting at?

I mostly genuinely enjoyed the movie.

So did everyone else… Wait, why mostly?

I don’t understand why critics and fans are making the movie out to be more than what it is: Civil War is a very good, albeit safe film. I love MCU movies, but they are not masterpieces. They are more mere compilations of serial comics than they are great graphic novels. The greatest thing MCU films do is create scenes where these fully developed “gods” actually talk to each other, where they laugh together, and where they have conflict. There is a masterful art in successfully accomplishing that, but that does not mean movies like Civil War are art, themselves.

I was expecting Civil War to be MCU’s The Dark Knight, the MCU’s dramatic turn, a movie that could be taken seriously as a great film, not as a superhero movie. Even X-Men: Days of Future Past was a far deeper and more emotional work. Those films use superheroes as tools, as scalpels to surgically dive deep into the nuances of the human experience. The overwhelmingly positive critic reception of Civil War led me to believe, very explicitly, that we had the ultimate comic book film on our hands. As it turns out, what we had was  just another really good time.

I believe that with just a little bit of tweaking, Civil War would be that great film everyone is raving about, and not just another satisfying superhero movie. 

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How to fix scenes where Captain America: Civil War flirted with becoming a masterpiece, but ultimately, just nabbed the low-hanging fruit instead

Problem 1: Set in a world where nothing bad ever happens, the title should actually be Captain America: Sibling Argument

The film does a nice job ratcheting up the severity of the “civil war” as the movie progresses. Tony Stark is in a place of deep remorse for the deathly ramifications Iron Man has caused upon the world. Throughout the Iron Man story in the MCU movies, Stark has progressively seen his actions hurt others. The people he loves have been threatened and his technology has fallen into the wrong hands to cause catastrophes. He has put his money where his mouth is by already having packed up his suits, and in Civil War, he takes the next step by effectively putting a governmental leash around his own neck. Oversight will prevent further calamities, Stark believes. This is masterful characterization and a solid foundation for his extreme point of view, all very necessary set-up if he’s going to end up coming to blows with his teammate and close friend.

Captain America’s extreme and conflicting point of view has similarly strong bones. The ending of Winter Soldier proved Captain Rogers right: Bucky is still good and worth saving. The government putting out a hit on Bucky’s life for something Rogers doesn’t believe he did is plenty reason for Rogers to go rogue.

Civil War then does what the Avengers films do best: Rogers and Stark are put in rooms together several times and they actually debate with each other. The dialogue is stellar, smartly banking on the previous films’ intimate character development. The ideals vs. morality argument is so well fleshed out, it’s hard to find fault with the film. Unfortunately, the Russo brothers had an incredible opportunity to stray from the Avengers formula and foray into new dramatic territory. Alas, they instead pull out the Avengers cookbook and throw in the core ingredient of all the rest of the films: unbreakable levity.

The first 6v6 battle rightly begins as a light and humorous affair. Ant Man and Spiderman are welcome comic relief, and the action is deftly executed. Scarlet Witch reprimanding Hawkeye for “pulling his punches” is an awesome touch that scares the viewer, because from then on out, things are apparently going to get less fun-ny and more war-like. The Russo brothers missed the opportunity to raise the stakes by the end of that fight. They almost pull it off with the apparent death of War Machine, but they, themselves, pull their punches and keep him alive. The “oh, he’s alive!” moment strips the paralysis news of its gravitas. Any troublemaking teenager can tell you that starting with fake, tragically bad news always makes the real, not-as-bad news land more smoothly with authority figures. War Machine’s paralysis comes as a relief. And then at the end, Stark Industries shows up and basically promises that War Machine is probably going to be just fine, thank you very much (everyone wants bionic legs, anyway). The Russo brothers later explained said they didn’t want to do the obvious thing and kill someone. No harm, no foul. But Civil War needed harm; we needed foul.

This has big implications when it comes to the final Captain America v. Iron Man fight at the end. Viewers aren’t actually afraid because we know nothing bad ever happens. They merely experience mild discomfort, and mostly just enjoy the cool fight choreography, while getting off to the nerdy “who would win?” hypothetical.

Solution 1: War Machine, and someone else from Captain America’s team, should actually die for what they believe in

Have the 6v6 fight play out identically, up until the Vision shot accidentally hits and paralyzes War Machine. Have War Machine die from the shot. Have Iron Man check for his pulse and cry out for his best friend, just as a real soldier might cry out on the battlefield for his fallen friend laying in his arms.

I feel terrible about this, really… But War Machine is not the only one who needs to get the ax. Hawkeye’s character has the benefit of major personal development in Age of Ultron. We know his friendship with Black Widow well, and we even met his wife and children! They touch on his family again in Civil War by mentioning Hawkeye has “come out of retirement.” This is great (in a sick, storytelling way) because Hawkeye is ultimately, a minor character in the scheme of the MCU, but we care about him.

When Vision lets loose his shot that eventually hits War Machine, have Hawkeye take a shot simultaneously at Iron Man. On his way to catch War Machine as he’s falling, have Iron Man parry Hawkeye’s shot so that it redirects course back to its origin. Have Hawkeye be distractedly trying to help up an injured Black Widow on the ground and have his own shot come back to kill him. We now have two accidental deaths from both sides.

Have the UN throw a soldier’s funeral for War Machine, and have Captain America’s team bury Hawkeye on his own land at his family’s home. Have Hawkeye’s family mourn at the burial. Have Stark blame Rogers for what happened, and Rogers learn that it was Stark who killed Hawkeye. Both ignore the accidental nature of the deaths and blame the other. The casualties also fit right in line with the problem set forth in the beginning of the movie: the destruction the Avengers leave behind in the wake of their fighting.

Stakes raised. “Sibling Argument” becomes “Civil War.” The final battle between the two can play out similarly, except for one complicating burden…

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Problem 2: The otherwise honorable Bucky all of a sudden turns into an immature coward

Bucky was a great character in Winter Soldier, which was the most emotional MCU film thus far. The ending when he remembers Rogers was pretty powerful (in an MCU kind of way), and as I said earlier, using him as a device to begin the the “civil war” is strong. I don’t even mind keeping him around the entire movie, even up until the final brawl between Iron Man and Cap. We have seen that Bucky is worth saving, so Cap’s allegiance to him is not unfounded… until it becomes unfounded.

Iron Man is shown the video by the (unfortunately, insignificant) villain of the film, showing how Bucky murdered his parents. Tensions get raised, and so does Bucky’s gun! He actually points it at Iron Man! Up until this point, we thought: Brainwashed Bucky, bad. Normal Bucky, good. But now we see that Bucky in his right mind is actually still a little bitch. Sure, Cap can choose to still protect his jerk friend because he loves him, but the film didn’t need this extra complicating element. Bucky says nothing to explain himself, makes no apologies, but only tries to run like a little bitch and then actually fights back when the guy who is mad at his parents’ murderer tries to avenge them. His only words the entire scene is: “I remember all of them.” Wait, that’s out of context, Tony! This could be powerful, but it’s thrown away as a misunderstanding. That’s all we get… Bucky’s actions don’t make sense on a lot of levels and make the final fight harder to believe than it needs to be. Bucky is actually not a little bitch, so why make him act like one?

Bucky’s choice to get re-frozen is shown as a mere post-credits blip, and Cap seems strangely cool with it, even after all Bucky has put him through. It’s almost as if the Russo brothers decided to stop the Bucky plot and character development… but then kept him in the movie as a mere device. If that 30 second brush-off scene is enough to wrap up Bucky, then his story was pretty shallow, indeed.

Solution 2: We’re not leaving until you say you’re sorry, Bucky

My earlier fixes actually only change the set-up of the final fight slightly. Rogers and Stark are so freaking mad at each other that Iron Man showing up to help due to the their common enemy will just take some dialogue tweaking, and take some convincing. Have Cap begrudgingly agree to accept Iron Man’s help, but have him say, “we’re not finished yet.”

When Iron Man sees the video and points his palm-gun at Bucky, have Bucky get on his knees. For the same reason that Bucky wants to freeze himself at the end, he should feel so terrible about all the destruction and death he has unwittingly caused in that critical moment in front of Tony. Have Bucky fall on his knees in front of Iron Man and place Stark’s hand on his own forehead, like someone would a pistol. Have him offer his life as penance. Have Cap chime in and yell at Bucky that it wasn’t his fault. Have Cap turn to Iron Man and essentially say, “he didn’t do it, Tony! It wasn’t him!” This is when Iron Man gets to say, “I don’t care; he killed my mom.” Have Iron Man fire his arm up to kill Bucky, but have Cap intervene and knock Iron Man back.

This is when Iron Man and Cap’s rage against each other gets out of hand and they start actually fighting. Have Bucky stand back, telling Iron Man to stop hurting Cap, that it’s him Iron Man wants. When Iron Man doesn’t listen, have Bucky be forced to intervene for Cap at a time in the fight where it looks like Iron Man is winning and beating Cap to a bit of a pulp. Have Iron Man’s rage turn Bucky and Captain America’s first attempts to save each other into a team-up against Iron Man. Yes, this is complicated, but it sure as hell should be! We have all these dynamics coming together in a final fight that feels scary, like something bad could really happen. The filmmakers have killed before; they might do it again!

Have the fight end in the same way it does in the current film. Captain America leaving his shield is a worthy ending to it. Later, have Bucky demand to be re-frozen in the actual movie (not as a credits cut-scene), and have Cap try to stop him, but eventually see the wisdom in it. Have Cap cry as it happens. Even though it’s not a death sentence, saying goodbye to your best friend you just expended a Hulk-ton of emotional effort, and continually risked your life for should be difficult. Not to mention, Cap just really loves him some Bucky.

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Conclusion: The Russo brothers tried to have an omelette without breaking any eggs, while Zack Snyder just adorably covered himself in raw eggs

Hollywood always produces these concept movies in two’s, making it impossible to ignore Civil War’s DC counterpart. I’ve written extensively about the problems in Batman v Superman, but you have to give Zack Snyder some credit for attempting to plum deep. While Batman v Superman may have swung for the fences and whiffed (or at least fouled), Captain America: Civil War accomplishes what it set out to do: just get on base. Civil War absolutely got on base, but it was so close to swinging for the fences and nailing it. Both films are frustrating in that right. Two films about our beloved heroes feuding came out within months, and neither were the great films they were billed to be. Civil War won the battle, but neither won the war.

Alas, we faithful fans are once again relegated to the light of our bedside lamps. Snyder’s effort made us run back to, and appreciate once again, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, while the Russo brothers only highlighted what made (the other Millar) Millar’s Civil War so courageous in the first place: broken eggs.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching the Russo brothers to stop pulling their punches: 2 easy fixes that would make the very good Captain America: Civil War a great film

  1. They shouldn’t have done Civil War at all. They should have made it a taut, compelling film that closed out the Cap trilogy and focused on Steve and Bucky’s relationship (and given Bucky far more of a redemption arc; instead, he’s used as a MacGuffin to catalyze Stark and Rogers’ conflict in Civil War). The opposing sides in the film are not given equal attention or care; we understand Stark’s motivations and reasoning and how they’re driven by emotion, but Rogers is not given the same consideration. Every time he is about to clarify his position, or articulate the depth of Bucky’s severe abuse and trauma, we’re either interrupted by a funeral (and good god, Peggy Carter deserved a better send-off than that. Don’t even get me started on how neglected Sharon Carter was as a character; and yet, she’s right there when Steve needs her to be. Both to serve the plot and assert his masculinity.) So many of the emotional beats that The Winter Soldier achieved with elegance and grace are completely absent in this bombastic, overloaded film.

    • I completely agree that Buckey’s development stops, and he’s just used as a pawn for the Iron Man and Cap feud. Buckey’s friendship with Cap deserved a way fuller conclusion.

      Good point re: Rogers side of things not given the same consideration; however, I do think the ideological foundation for their debate is solid. As the movie goes on, though, Cap does basically turn into a one-dimensional Buckey defender. He’s almost more brainwashed by Buckey than Buckey is by Hydra. Which would be OKAY if Buckey and his friendship stayed developing!

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