Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Themes and Character Arcs in Captain America: Civil War

I usually write about DC and Warner Brothers media but I am taking this post to share an analysis of Captain America: Civil War. I have previously stated that it is possible to be fans of both DC and Marvel (no need to pick sides) and we should all be respectful of one another's opinions. In that spirit, I am going to focus solely on Civil War rather than bringing in needless comparisons to other movies -- I will just treat Civil War on its own merits. Additionally, I will attempt to include only points that I can support with evidence from the movie. And I am very open to counterarguments and differing opinions, as long as the responses are shared in a respectful manner with evidence provided whenever possible.

Because my style of movie-watching tends to focus on deeper themes and character arcs, my analysis below focuses primarily on the themes of Civil War, the major character arcs, and then I conclude with a few brief comments about a few other aspects of filmmaking. (I also enjoy tracing motifs through a movie, but I didn't see any in Civil War so I probably need to watch it a few more times.) I understand that many people do not view movies with an eye toward the themes and arcs, which is completely fine, and if you don't watch for those things, you will very likely have a different opinion of the movie than me, which is also fine.

TLDR: The themes established in Act 1 are worthwhile but are not carried through the remainder of the movie and the major character arcs are disjointed and not coherently resolved.


The beginning of Civil War includes an African incident that involves some loss of innocent life and heroes who are clearly disturbed by the turn of events. This leads nicely to a scene where the Secretary of State literally lectures the Avengers on the collateral damage and destruction that has accompanied their past efforts. These scenes, together with the personal face of loss that Tony experiences through the grieving mother, set up a clear theme that can be phrased in different ways: Exercising power has a cost, or Those who exercise power must be prepared to handle the guilt they may feel due to negative repercussions. This theme is a solid set-up for the movie because there are two distinct ways the theme can be resolved, and neither resolution is inherently better than the other--it's a matter of debate: (A) Those who exercise power can accept the responsibility of wielding that power and attempt to minimize the repercussions for which they might feel guilty, while recognizing that things won't turn out perfectly. Or (B) they can submit to the oversight and influence of a higher power which may lead to better (or worse) outcomes but, more importantly, allows for much of the blame to be shed or shifted onto that higher power. To phrase it as a question: Does submitting to oversight allow one to hide from his own guilt?

These themes of power, guilt, and accountability are philosophically rich because they have implications not only for government and religion but also for people's daily lives in terms of the ways we manage our private guilt and responsibility. So this is a strong thematic start for Civil War, even if it's perhaps a bit on-the-nose to literally have characters sit around a table and discuss these ideas (rather than, say, setting the theme in a visual manner fitting of cinema rather than the playhouse). But nonetheless, we are ready to move forward in exploration of these ideas because we have Steve aligned with option A above (accept sole responsibility and deal with the guilt) and Tony aligned with option B (share authority, which is democratic but also an avoidance behavior).
The problem, in my view, is that this theme was not carried out in Act 2 and Act 3 of the movie. Moreover, as I'll show in the next section, neither Steve's nor Tony's character arc actually followed the threads of this major theme.
Not only did this theme not play out, but the costs of exerting power and the brutal realities of violence were actually undercut by all the levity that accompanied the later action scenes. (People in the movie audience regularly laughed and chuckled during the big action scenes in Act 2 and Act 3, sometimes because of one-liners and sometimes because of humorous physical moves by the characters or Cap's shield. This fun-and-funny approach to violence seems to me to be thematically opposed to the very ideas the filmmakers established in Act 1. It also seems counterproductive -- or at least a lack of follow-through -- that the only real injury or death that resulted from the violence in Acts 2 and 3 was one inadvertent winging and crash. Wouldn't it have been more powerful if the damage and destruction that at the beginning was shown to be around the Avengers later came right into the Avengers' ranks?)
Moreover, the main plot with Zemo did not actually bring the issues of accountability and oversight to a head. An example of what it might have looked like to follow through on the major theme would be to have the main plot revolve around Zemo (or something else, it doesn't have to be Zemo) posing a threat that the international community does NOT want the Avengers to get involved with but that some of the Avengers know they have to address. This would make the Sokovia Accords centrally relevant to the rising tension and it would be representative of the larger theme of whether the Avengers should stand in line with their overseers or make their own decisions (and accept the consequences) regardless of what the political forces endorse.

As it was, no one would have actually disagreed with stopping Zemo. And the main plot was Cap protecting Bucky and trying to get to the bottom of Zemo's scheme, which (SPOILER ALERT) at first seemed to be about activating other Winter Soldiers for nefarious purposes and later was revealed to actually be about getting revenge on the Avengers by sowing seeds of hostility and distrust amongst the team. Neither of these directly connect to the issues of oversight or accountability.

So perhaps I misidentified the main theme of Civil War (even though it was pretty obviously established in Act 1). Perhaps I should have worked backward from the climax of the movie, which would make the main theme something like the following: Grief can fuel vengeance, which is destructive and self-destructive.

We can see some elements of a grief theme back at the beginning, with Scarlet Witch certainly grief-stricken in the African incident and many of the Avengers showing sadness when they see the footage of their past endeavors. Also, Tony has grief over the death of the mother's son and the death of his own parents. Unfortunately, when looking across the major character arcs, I do not think grief holds together as the major theme (see, specifically, the end of my section on Tony/Iron Man).

Character Arcs (or lack thereof)

Steve / Captain America - His name is in the title, so I'll address him first. As should be obvious to everyone, whatever Steve's character arc is, it centrally involves Bucky because saving and protecting him drove nearly all of Steve's actions. So my impression is that Cap was dealing with the tensions that arise around individual loyaltyies. He has a strong loyalty to Bucky and one can also interpret his position on the Sokovia Accords as being about him putting his faith in his loyal friends rather than in a democratic or international body.

My main critique about Steve's character arc is that it doesn't really arc, it's just a straight line. Cap starts with trust in himself and loyalty to Bucky above others (e.g., Tony), through the rising action of the movie he has the same convictions, and by the end we have Cap trusting himself over the Avengers and clinging to his loyalty to Bucky. (I also could not really see how his relationship with Sharon Carter impacted his character arc or the resolution of the main thematic threads.)

Tony / Iron Man - I mentioned above that Tony was dealing with some grief in his character arc. He has grief from creating Ultron, from being indirectly responsible for the death of the young man whose mother confronted him in the hallway, and from his parents' death. But in many instances his character arc is more about dealing with guilt rather than grief. With regard to the Sokovia Accords -- which again, I keep insisting should mean something more than the filmmakers thought they should -- Tony's position on the Accords is explicitly based on feeling guilty about past collateral. He is not grieving for the innocent dead so much as he feels responsible and wants to avoid such collateral (or at least the responsibility thereof) in the future. In other words, on the Accords, Tony is driven by guilt not grief.

But then some if his later character moments aren't consistent with his guilt tension at all. If Tony did feel guilty over inadvertently putting innocents in harms way, and specifically the death of the young man in Sokovia, why would he then go recruit a teenager into battle? And if he is in favor of oversight, why would he go unilaterally to get Spidey and not even allow the oversight or informed consent of Peter's guardian aunt?

Because he is not guilty for the death of his parents, the moment falls flat at the end when (SPOILER ALERT) he loses control because of the new information about the death of his parents. There was only one priming of Chekov's gun with regard to Tony and his emotions about his parents (the holographic memory projection) and so it does not have as much payoff as it could have if it had been setup throughout Acts 1 and 2. Said another way, the setup for Tony's character arc was about his guilt over collateral losses that he caused and so it would have been more coherent to have his lowest moment or the moment when he loses it be related to him causing additional collateral death. Or, if they wanted to use the parent grief as the crux, they should have set up Tony's earlier motivations (i.e., in relation to the Sokovia Accords) as being about his grief, not his guilt.

One might disagree with me and say that Tony's arc is about losing loved ones because he has also lost Pepper in addition to his parents. But in this case, then in response to the Sokovia Accords he should have been primarily concerned with losing his friends and so would have argued for unity rather than submitting to oversight.
Like with Cap, I do not think there was a good resolution to Tony's character dilemma--that is, his character arc didn't really arc either. He ended in the basically the same position and mindset that he was in after the first Sokovia Accords debate. He didn't learn any profound lessons that resolved or connected to a main theme of the movie.

A big event that should have connected to his character dilemma in some direct way was the fight with Cap. How did the ending of that fight, with (SPOILER ALERT) Cap incapacitating and defeating Iron Man, relate to what Tony's character was going through? Losing a fight can teach a lesson of humility, but Tony was already humbled by all the loss of life that he felt responsible for. He wanted to submit to government oversight, so he was willingly humbling himself from the beginning -- he didn't need to learn that lesson.

What about the possible theme of vengeance being self-destructive, that I raised above? Although Iron Man losing the fight to Cap did stop Iron Man from carrying out his vengeance on Bucky, and so Iron Man was not ultimately self-destructive, the resolution of the fight did not allow Tony to actually learn his lessons about the danger of vengeance. The only reason Tony failed to carry out his vengeance was because Cap physically stopped him. This circumvented the actual lesson being learned. To learn the lesson, Tony would have had to come to a realization and then reined himself in.

And while we're on the ending of the Cap-Iron Man fight, what did that resolution teach Cap? He was able to successfully carry out his protection of Bucky, which was what he was doing from the very beginning and what he had been successful at all along. An actual character arc would involve Cap not being able to protect Bucky and then having to deal with that, or Bucky having to protect himself, or Cap realizing that he has to balance his loyalty with Bucky to his loyalty to other individuals or other principles.

T'Challa / Black Panther - I've argued that the theme of guilt and oversight was not carried through, and I've also argued that Tony's character arc does not work particularly well in exploring an alternative theme of vengeance as self-destructive. Perhaps, however, the secondary character of Black Panther can salvage the theme of vengeance being self-destructive. It is very, very obvious that vengeance is driving T'Challa. In fact, he's a borderline one-dimensional character because in basically every scene he is just pursuing his vengeance and that's about it. But if his character arc shows lessons learned about vengeance, then maybe it's worth it.

At the end, Black Panther does show some forgiveness rather than vengeance. (But he also prevents Zemo from killing himself, which is an exertion of will over Zemo, so in a sense he is still punishing Zemo rather than forgiving him and allowing him to die on Zemo’s own terms.) This is a possible thematic contrast with Tony, but it still doesn’t seem that vengeance holds up as a major theme throughout the movie. Instead, it seems to be carried forward by the one-dimensional Black Panther through most of the movie and then Tony joins in on this theme only right at the end.

Peter / Spider-Man - Peter says that he is just trying to do the right thing -- a simplified, black-and-white version of morality that could have been put into conflict with the gray areas of the Avengers' schism. But that juxtaposition was not explored, and instead they opted for the idea that Peter wanted to impress Tony. I'm not sure how the desire to impress fits with any of the other themes that the movie is exploring or the dilemmas that the other characters are dealing with.

And I'm also not sure that what was missing from the roster was a talkative hero who supplies one-liners.

Zemo - I've already mentioned above how Zemo's thrust did not align with the themes established in Act 1. Above I explored what it could have looked like to make Zemo's villain arc match one of the main themes. Here, I'll just briefly mention that another way to make Civil War more thematically coherent would be to keep Zemo's motivation about breaking up institutions and relationships from the inside but then make the origin of his character arc connected not to grief over loss but to some personal experience with being corrupted or splintered from the inside. In this way, it could be that Zemo lived through some sort of internally-generated schism and so wanted to inflict the internal schism on the Avengers, and then the big dilemma for the Avengers could be whether they allow themselves to be splintered or whether they overcome and unify.

Instead, Zemo suffered a great loss and then, rather than inflicting loss on the Avengers, just sought to sow internal conflict amongst their group. And the Avengers were first separated by a philosophical question of oversight, then they were kept separated by a lack of information (Cap knew the full situation but the others didn't, and he didn't tell them because they "would never believe it"... although they totally did believe as soon as they found out), and finally they were separated by Tony's rage over his parents' death.

Overall, the characters were each dealing with completely separate tensions that do not shed insight on one another or tie into a broader theme, and even some of the characters themselves (especially Tony) shifted inexplicably at different points in the movie.

Some Minor Disappointments

As I mentioned at the onset, I really enjoy analyzing the literary themes and characters arcs of movies, and from my point of view, Civil War was basically a mess in this department. It had several threads that could have worked out, but the cohesive whole just was not there.

There were also some more minor aspects of the movie that I thought were flawed. With regard to the action sequences, I thought the first few were held back by the shaky camera style and the frenetic editing that gave a sense of energy but did not allow for an appreciation of the fight choreography or flow. Later, the style changed (I'm not sure why) to allow for more fluid action and a sense of spacing but the reasons for the hero-on-hero fights seemed contrived. Even the heroes seemed to know they didn't have an especially good reason to fight, because they held back and no one even caused any serious harm to anyone else. (As I said, the only injury was the result of a teammate's accident.) And all the humor strewn throughout the fight showed that it was not really an intense, civil-war-like affair.

I do not think there was a justification for so many locations around the world. In fact, I predict that, for most general audience members, if you stopped them on the street today and asked them to recall which events happened in London versus Bucharest versus Leipzig, they wouldn't be able to tell you. And if they were able to identify the correct locations, I don't think they'd be able to tell you why it was important that the specific events happened in those specific places. Again, as with the themes from Act 1, I think there was great potential here -- the movie, having started with the idea of international oversight, could have tracked different reactions in different parts of the world or showed how different nations had different interests and so maybe international oversight is destined for gridlock. But the events just happened in different locations, with no specific connection to the implications of those particular locations. (Also, for having so many locations, the settings seemed interchangeable and the film did not have a unique or striking "look" in the sense of production design and cinematography... with the exception of Siberia.)

I also thought many of the characters were underutilized and underdeveloped (see especially Sharon Carter and Everett Ross) and some got dropped by Act 3 and didn't get to have a resolution to their sub-plot (see Vision and Scarlet Witch, Falcon). This would have been forgivable if the main plot and themes had been tightly constructed, but alas.

Finally, I thought the music was largely generic and forgettable, but I admit that is just a personal opinion.

Good Stuff in the Movie

Because people these days often view things in terms of pick-a-side, us-versus-them, it might be tempting to just write me off as a "Marvel hater" but I hope that you can instead think about the rationales that I provided above to support my conclusions. And I feel the need to reiterate that I actually like the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general. I have thoroughly enjoyed more than half of the movies thus far. So to be fair, I will close by mentioning a few things that I liked about Civil War. I liked the performance and the action involving Vision. I thought the drowning scene with Zemo was original and effective. I also thought Ant-Man was funny (when I consider him completely separately from the rest of the movie, because in the context of the movie overall he was counterproductive, and I'm also not sure if his non-chalant return to criminality fits with the themes of Ant-Man, but again, just taking it for what it was, I liked it). And I liked the car chase scene that involved Black Panther.

This is my perspective on the movie. It does not need to be yours. And as I said, I am very open to counterarguments and explanations of alternative interpretations or things that I missed. Please share your thoughts, but be respectful and provide evidence when possible.


  1. @SeyArea on Twitter had a good point that LOSS is a central subject for Civil War -- Steve, Tony, Zemo, Black Panther, and Bucky are all dealing with some sort of loss. I would give the movie more credit, however, if the characters came to some new point or realization about how they can deal with their loss (whether it be productive or unproductive, doesn't matter... just end somewhere different than you began). If the movie had done that with most or all of the characters, then we could formulate a theme about LOSS. But the way I see it, it's a subject without a theme.

  2. If we go by what you have presented in this review, we would have to conclude that this movie is messy and incoherent, that it lacks character development, and that its themes are half-baked. Moreover, that it feels like three different movies crammed into one: Captain America 3: The Quest For Bucky, The Avengers 3: Collateral Nuisance and Iron Man 4: The Contrived, The Convenient and The Confusing...And that would be ironic; by critical opinion, inaccurate. So, get your logical analysis somewhere else, please, and let us be.

    1. You have a flair for titles. But could you clarify your last two sentences? With regard to critical opinion, are you saying that my analysis must be wrong because Civil War is "fresh"? That logic certainly doesn't hold up, especially because most film critics are no longer about analysis but about generating traffic or predicting audience enjoyment (which is fine, but it's different than what I'm doing here).

      With your last sentence, I can't tell who you are referring to. There's no one else in the comments thus far, so maybe you're referring to me, but that doesn't make any sense because this is my own logical analysis so how can I get it somewhere else? And this is my blog, so you came to me, not the other way around. I'm honestly confused and would appreciate clarification. Thanks.

    2. Your review was excellent, and that's all I meant, as far as my comment is concerned. If I did confuse you, I apologize.

      The thing is, I'm noticing now that Civil War suffers from the same problems Batman v Superman was accused of having (incoherent, messy, multiple movies crammed into one, etc). However, it all comes down to the fact that Batman v Superman has none of those issues (and yet it is continuously criticized), while Civil War, as you wonderfully pointed out, is *plagued* by them, and yet it is a critically acclaimed film. This is why I found it ironic!

      I meant to say, while their sense of logic might suggest that Civil War is indeed incoherent, it lacks proper characterization/character development or a central theme, the majority of movie-goers will still convince themselves that it's a quintessential comic-book film, based on its RT "freshness".

      The point is that this review completely contrasts the general trend of mindlessly adoring or despising a film based on its "critical consensus", and therefore it stands out as a solid and honest analysis, which I haven't seen very often these last few weeks. So, in a way, among the short-sighted and "popcorn film"-oriented reviews, this one almost feels out of place. XD

      All in all, you did a great job! I hope I clarified everything.

    3. @snyder.junkie
      Okay, that makes sense. Thanks for the extra info.

  3. I walked away from the movie feeling that it was pointless. There was no character growth and no conflict resolution. In a way it was three different and incoherent movies crammed into one. And in the way of plot, it came together by happenstance. It was certainly a fun movie to watch, the action and visuals were stunning, but as a story it was garbage.

    1. @Alex I wouldn't phrase it so harshly, but yeah, I actually agree with you. The story (not to be confused with the plot) was a mess, frankly. Some movies, when you look more closely at themes, you realize it's even better than you initially thought. Other movies, like Civil War, seem okay if you skate through it or ignore the things that don't make sense for character arcs, but when you look at it in detail it doesn't hold up.

      With regard to action and visuals, I actually didn't think it was as good as some of the previous MCU offerings.

  4. Very interesting. It has given me a lot to think about, our very different perspectives on these two movies this summer. It's nice for me that the different perspective comes from someone whose opinion and process I respect. So I do not begrudge you your ideas.

    Which are so obviously wrong!

    I think your main point here is that the characters don't follow the main conflict of personal responsibility vs oversight. I think that's on purpose. That is the apparent cause of the conflict, but the characters choose sides for personal reasons and are fighting about those. That is part of what makes this a character driven movie instead of a plot driven movie. They choose sides, but the reason for the sides is different for everyone.

    Tony is a hot mess, as my kids say. He has unresolved childhood issues, substance issues, legitmate guilt, and obsessive compulsive problems. At a crucial moment here, he knows what the right choice is, to back down and just cannot. His decisions feel very consistent to me. He expects others to follow him because he is the smartest guy in the room.

    Steve Rodgers is about personal responsibility and loyalty throughout. No matter the cost.

    One different thing here is that in the big hero-on-hero fight, no one is fighting to the death. The only casualty here is from friendly fire. (In itself quite the caution, eh?)

    As I ponder the two movies and out different reactions, I've only reached one possible explanation. Most people (including me, despite me not being most people most of the time) have expectations for these characters. You were willing to start from scratch in the cinematic universe. So a Batman who kills or a grim Superman, not a big issue for you. For me, it's a big disappointment. Why use Batman and Superman then, except as a brand for marketing?

    In the Marvel movies these are not straight out of the comics, which have a long convoluted history. But the idea of the characters is compatible. This was Captain America and Iron Man, as brought to life by Chris and Robert. So the story satisfied on a basic level. This was people pursuing their internal motivations which led to conflict and tragedy. Batman vs Superman was a plot, which drew the characters along playing their necessary parts, turning on a dime. Bruce wants to kill Superman and then is deeply connected to him. Diana wants to be separate from society and then is all in with these new people. Clark is against Batman but recognizes him as a hero when he stops a hair's breadth from killing him. Lex wants humans first or only and creates an unstoppable alien killing machine.

    Always willing to talk more! This has been fascinating.

    1. Wow, we'll probably just have to arrive at an agree-to-disagree situation. I actually thought Civil War was the plot-based movie because its plot (sequence of events, one leading to the other) made sense and was clear to follow. I just thought it was thematically a mess (Act 1 didn't align with or inform the later Acts, as you admit; the themes of the story did not align with or shed light on the arcs of the characters), whereas BvS I thought was predominantly focused on themes and character arcs, not plot. The events in BvS I think were designed to force decision points for the characters and push them to the next steps in their arcs.

      To be honest, the way you described BvS in your post does not seem to be about the same movie at all that I saw. The only "turning on a dime" that I saw was Tony... twice. I thought Bruce's character arc was a masterpiece from the opening monologue to the closing monologue and everything in between. I thought Tony's arc was a mess (and I guess if you just call him a "hot mess" then there's no way I can counterargue his character's incoherence).

      You say the CW heroes all chose sides for personal reasons. Would you say they all had compelling reasons? I felt most of them were somewhat arbitrarily divided up on one side or the other.

      I guess I did bring more expectations to Civil War, like I expected the Act 1 premises to play in to the villain or the plot or the main characters... at least one of those!

      But I think it's great that you found enjoyment in it. I don't want to take that away. The only thing that I find better for society in BvS than in Civil War is the way that violence was treated as a negative, counterproductive thing in BvS but (after Act 1) was treated as fun and games in Civil War. (See http://www.nationalreview.com/article/435036/captain-america-superheroes-dumbed-down for more on this) But other than that, no harm in there being Civil War fans.

    2. "was treated as fun and games in Civil War."

      But it was never treated as fun and games. It was brushed aside by the second half of the film but it was never made light of. The film didn't just say "now collateral damage is okay" it just shifted it's attention away from it but that isn't the same as supporting it.

      "I felt most of them were somewhat arbitrarily divided up on one side or the other."

      Given their respective histories, it wasn't arbitrary. You think it's a stretch to say that Ant-Man wanted to help Captain America get rid of "psycho assassins" when the latter specifically asked for his help? He loves his daughter and I'm sure that he doesn't want her to live in a world where these other winter soldiers are running around if he can help it. And he's in a unique position to help here because he's fighting with other superheros, and, his suit has a unique skillset in that world that's undoubtedly valuable .

      Wanda's just not going to side with Tony after all she's been through in AoU and Civil War with Tony keeping her confined and essentially jailed.

      Rhodey has always been a government man in stark contrast to Cap who was at first but eventually became jaded after what happened with shield and hydra.

      Black Widow has always been more flexible and pragmatic. Her stance here is a reflection of that. She may not be all for the accords but she wants to defuse the tension in a very shield agent fashion. Contrast this to again, Steve, who is a soldier and who's views on things are rigid and black and white.

      They aren't arbitrarily divided. Their stances are actually a reflection of their past lives, the developments of their past actions, or just their characteristics in general. Vision is the only one that you could probably make an argument for that he's probably placed on a side in order to balance the team numbers. But for everyone else, it happened naturally.

      I don't want to come across as rude, but I do find it hard to believe you're not being biased when you say Bruce's charaecter arc was a masterpiece from the opening monologue to the closing monologue, then call Tony's arc a mess. You do seem heavily skewed in favor of DC.

  5. Hi. Nice review man. What do you think of the fight choreography aspect of both iron man vs captain america and batman vs superman fight?? Which of these 2 fight you think is handled better in their own respective narrative movie and which one do you think is much more emotional?

    1. Good question. The personal impact that the fights might have had on audience members is probably very subjective, but just in terms of my perspective, I thought the BvS fight was filmed better because I could feel all those hits and it worked in several epic beats in the fight, whereas, to be honest, the Iron Man vs Cap fight, while it was choreographed well, had a lot of moments where I thought it looked fake. In terms of emotion, I had a strong reaction to Batman so methodically carrying out the last parts of his plan with an unconscious Superman but then pulling himself off the edge of the abyss right at the end. I thought the movie had done a great job arcing his character to that point. With the IM/Cap fight, like I said in the analysis above, I just didn't really see storywise why that had to be the end of the fight.. what lessons were learned, or what change did it trigger in the characters? None that I could see, they just both were able to carry on what they were already trying to carry out. So maybe it was just me, but the fact that I didn't see how the resolution of the fight worked thematically, that dampened my emotional reaction to it.

      But if other people loved that IM/Cap fight and got a lot out of it, then that's great. I don't want to take away their enjoyment, because we're all just here trying to find stuff that we love. And I actually thought Act 3 of Civil War seemed like a great portion of a movie, it just didn't seem to align with what they had set up in Acts 1 and 2.

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  7. Sam,

    In comparing the heat negative criticism the Batman v Superman received with the glowing praise that Civil War has had I assumed that it was an issue of personal taste. I loved BvS and only liked Civil War, which I found to have significantly more problematic issues than BvS.

    But I wonder now how much of this is simply a perfect storm of critics who tend to hate Zac Snyder and geek culture; Geek/entertainment websites whose financial model depends on clicks...and negativity garners more clicks along with a more verbally violent group of entitled "fanboys" who think their preferred version of a character is the only version allowed.

    On top of this Marvel has set the table for a style that is now viewed as the standard of superhero films and God help anyone with a different vision. Critics of BvS have made some legitimate points, but to me most of the criticism has been so childish, hateful and willfully ignorant that I am truly disheartened.

    1. Yes, you bring up some things that I definitely do think are at play with the critical response. I do not buy into any of the conspiracy theories (e.g., critics bought off by Disney) but I do think there was a perfect storm of things you mentioned... critics already predisposed against Snyder, sites trying to chase clicks by fanning the negativity, and comparing BvS to the superhero formula that Marvel has developed. I also think that the fans and critics alike were not prepared for a non-conventional movie structure and a story where the audience had to read beneath the surface and not take characters at face value. So many people saw it once, were left with a negative feeling, and turned that into a negative review rather than stepping back to evaluate what they had seen or give it a second viewing (even myself, who loves deep movies and tends to have a style that aligns with Snyder, rated it much higher after 2nd viewing than I did after the 1st).

  8. Yes, I saw it 5 times and learned something new each time. It is definitely not fast food. I agree that any talk of Disney/Marvel paying off critics to rate BvS poorly is beyond silly. Marvel may want their movies to do better but it is in their best interest for BvS to receive positive views as "a rising tide lifts all boats."

    There is no conspiracy, but things transpired in a way were the tenor of negativity "feels" like collusion rather than several different issues coming together in an unfortunate tornado of negativity. Having said that I do think that the sites fanning the negativity for clicks are part of a deliberate strategy not simply personal taste, unless their personal taste is simply to make money.

    Another issue that BvS brings to the forefront is the inability of many consumers to understand the difference between objective statements ("Lex Luthor had a reason for hating Superman") and subjective statement ("I didn't like Lex Luthor's reasons for hating Superman".) The former is true objectively; while the latter is only true from an individual's perspective. Many people can't seem to understand the difference. And that seems like a majority of the criticism.

    1. Great minds think alike! I have also had several debates with people about your objective/subjective point. I agree with you that, just because enjoyment of movies overall is subjective, it doesn't mean there is nothing that can be objectively analyzed about movies. A claim like your Lex motivation example or "XYZ happening made no sense" can be objectively disproven, but a claim like "I thought XYZ was too confusing" can be a valid opinion.

      For BvS, it seemed to get lots of hate from people who simply missed a lot of the objective facts of the movie. So you can criticize BvS for being too sophisticated or too multi-layered, but you can't say that it made no sense.

  9. I find your theme and character arc review of Civil War interesting. But I also feel the movie has some plot problems that very few critics have seemed to mention. BvS had many critics/consumers seem to have issues with a nonlinear story. Well Civil War was certainly linear, but that didn't help some of the plot points from being confusing, at least to me.

    For example Zemo’s plan hinges on things just happening to turn out the way he wants them. I mean for the videotape to work, Zemo specifically needed Tony Stark to be there, since the tape only has emotional value for him. Yet Zemo does not provide any information to Stark about the base or the tape. If Falcon had not given Tony the address of the base, he would never have arrived. Cap and Bucky would have shut Zemo down. Plan fails.

    1. Yes, you are right about that plot problem and others. I think Civil War was sort of bailed out because Zemo's true motivation was supposed to be a "surprise" at the end, so the stuff he was doing along the way kind of made sense at the time but then in hindsight, when you realize what Zemo was actually trying to do, his actions were full of holes like you pointed out. (But audience members wouldn't notice unless they actually went back through it carefully.)

  10. Your review was wonderful for the movie Captain America Civil War, I have read many rounded reviews on the Internet, though the movie has a large number of fans, but we cannot deny that the movie is perfect, there still exist some serious problem in it, Btw, We are now promoting our costume http://cosplaysky.co.uk/cosplay-costumes/movie-costumes/captain-america-costumes.html, can you help to do a article review for us ? we would offer the costume to you , your critical review would be much appreciated to us,it reminds us to improve

    1. Thank you for your comment. I wish you the best of luck on your costume, but I actually don't focus much on Marvel at all (this post about Civil War was a rare exception) and I don't consider myself expert in costumes or cosplay. Thanks for the offer, though.

  11. Who is Everett Ross and Penny?

    1. Everett Ross was the character played by Martin Freeman, underdeveloped and nonessential, as evidenced by people not even remembering who he was. Penny was just a typo for Pepper.

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  15. This comment had to be split into two parts because it's too long and I still wasn't to address every part of your blog post that I didn't agree with.

    I wrote some older comments before but those were written on my phone and at 4am in the morning and as a result my points were not as articulated as well as they could have been. It was also hard for me to quote specific passages from your blog post (which is really nicely written, by the way, though I really couldn't shake off the impression of bias being present in how you viewed things) in order to address specific arguments.

    You found the film to be thematically disjointed but I believe this is because you only considered certain angles but not others. Some of your views on how the plotlines and character arcs should be concluded are also flawed and too pigeon-holed into certain frameworks and narrative styles.



    These are two examples of how others have been able to identify a central idea and theme that ties in multiple plot threads of the film. The themes of choice and agency, as well as the relationship of friendships and family, and how it gets destroyed in escalating and increasingly uncompromising conflict are all explored in the film.

    While you have in another blog post, (I can't remember which one exactly) dismissed the contemporary understanding of what a theme is, and instead suggested that in literary terms themes must be used to make a conclusion about a subject, that goes against what the general understanding of what themes are and how they are used. In fact, what you're describing sounds more like a "thesis". It's not really what themes are. Themes are subject matter, that yes, does require some level of consistent presence throughout the film.


    *"The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the thematic idea of loneliness in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text's or author's implied worldview."*

    So your suggestion that Civil War is thematically disjointed is already misguided. I don't think every work needs strong and overt thesis to anchor the story. I'm not saying it's bad, in fact some of the best works feature it in the form of powerful commentary. But what you're describing comes dangerously close to what an aesop is.


    Kind of how certain documentaries are there to document cause and effect and exploration of a particular subject, there doesn't need to be a preaching angle to the subject matter. Often times people leave it vague and up to interpretation. Cap and Tony's stances for instances are not presented in a clear right or wrong manner, not to most people anyways. The film explored how agency served as a double-edged sword to nearly all of the characters. Every major character (with the exception of Spider-Man who only went home bruised, though as the author of one of the links I posted put it well, his entire involvement of becoming spider-man also ties into the theme of agency) ended the film dealing with drastic consequences as a direct result of their choices in the film. The conviction behind their choices and the consequences from them all vary to various degrees but all of them ended up in worse positions than they started out in.

  16. Let me tackle one of the things you've said in your blog post:

    "the resolution of the fight did not allow Tony to actually learn his lessons about the danger of vengeance. The only reason Tony failed to carry out his vengeance was because Cap physically stopped him. This circumvented the actual lesson being learned. To learn the lesson, Tony would have had to come to a realization and then reined himself in."

    You said that Tony's arc can't be a reflection of "vengeance is destructive and toxic"(paraphrasing) because he was forcibly prevented from killing Bucky and didn't do it on his own accord, therefore he didn't learn that vengeance is bad. This is a very narrow and limited view on the matter, not to mention it's just not correct. Think about how criminals or people in real life are forcibly stopped by law enforcement or tossed into prison. Many of those people end up reflecting on what happened after they can cool off. To say that Tony didn't learn that vengeance is bad and destructive because he was forcibly stopped is just incorrect and has no real basis in real life.

    We see in the film's ending that he's reflecting on things that have happened and he knows he behaved poorly. That's basically confirmed in Homecoming when he tells Peter to be better than himself. There's also the fact that by the end of the film he isn't attempting to find Cap and Bucky in order to fullfill his revenge. Yes he was stopped the first time, but why didn't he just try again if he didn't learn his lesson? Because he let it go, he knows in his heart it wasn't justified. It's reasonable to conclude that he knows that he acted in the wrong. So even at your own suggestion of what the theme could be if it was "vengeance is/can be destructive and dangerous", it could work here and is certainly present in enough characters namely Zemo, Black Panther, Iron Man. It also ties in with agency, destruction of family, and is explored through contrast of other characters who aren't specifically motivated by revenge but are still effected by it.

    Here's another point I want to address:

    "Cap starts with trust in himself and loyalty to Bucky above others (e.g., Tony), through the rising action of the movie he has the same convictions, and by the end we have Cap trusting himself over the Avengers and clinging to his loyalty to Bucky."

    I want to point out that character arcs don't have to be formed the way you're suggesting here and be filled with overt and drastic changes in motivation or some large life lesson learned. Changes could be very subtle and happen upon reflection.

    Yes, Cap did start out protecting Bucky and ended up doing the exact same. His loyalties didn't change. But he dropped his shield at the end of the film after Tony pointed out that it was his fathers. Do you think Cap would have done that at *any* point of the film prior to that moment? Cap reflected on everything that happened and decided that yes, he is guilty in some ways and acted selfishly and made big mistakes born out of his choices Cap, per word of god (the directors) has given up the identity of Captain America at that point. The point here is that it's a change in spite of a lack of motive shift.

    A lot of this just ties back to what I said in the beginning, I think you're just not considering multiple angles. You viewed a lack of a character arc in really specific terms but people have been able to identify other ways the characters changed. Your views on what themes the film should/could have followed, were well thought-out, but again it's not the whole story and there were clearly recurring themes at play in the story that you didn't bring up or maybe just didn't consider, all of which cultivated to an ending, like I stated earlier, where every character ended up in the worse position than they started out in.

    1. Thanks for thoughtfully engaging with the blog post. I don't have much time here tonight, but I'll just share a few quick reactions.

      Yes, if you broaden the definition of "theme" then there are certainly themes at play in Civil War, but I think the Act 1 themes and the Act 3 themes are quite distinct. (Sure, you can always go very broad like actions-and-consequences and get everything to fit under it, but the movie got more specific at times and then didn't follow through on those, in my view.) And I agree with you that themes were "explored," but my personal taste is for more thematic "development and conclusion" rather than just "exploration," which can be aimless. This is personal taste.

      I still think Tony's parental revenge angle in Act 3 was separate from his guilt-about-Avengers-overreach at the beginning. And at the end, if the thematic coherence comes from everyone ending up worse than they started because of "consequences," then I think the "Stank" jokes were really misplaced.

      I also still think the seriousness and weightiness in Act 1 about the Avengers' actions (which I thought worked well) was really undercut by all the jokes in Act 2 and elsewhere.

      You're right that Tony seemed to not be going after Steve any longer at the very end, but I still don't think the filmmakers showed us a real lesson being learned on his part. (And yes, that is a personal preference for me to see character arcs that end up in a change or realization by the character.)

      I think it's good that others found strong meaning for them from this movie. Most Civil War fans I've interacted with do not engage in this type of analysis. And this blog post was just a tracing of how I view movies -- from my perspective. (Of course I'm biased, because I can only view movies as myself. But I do have consistent things I look for in terms of themes, arcs, motifs, and coherence across all three of those aspects.)

  17. Your blog post is one of the few very comprehension articles on the film. While I disagree with a lot of your conclusions, I appreciate how well thought-out your arguments are.

    "but my personal taste is for more thematic "development and conclusion" rather than just "exploration," which can be aimless. This is personal taste."

    Well the thing is I do think there was a valid conclusion to the themes explored. Many people have pointed out how the conflicts dealt lasting damage to the characters. If the film wanted to explore how these characters are destroyed by their own choices (the tragic irony of being "yourself" means being punished for it), then the logical way to do that is to follow through and have the consequences stick. If they wanted to explore the destruction of friendship and family, then they need to keep it that way at the end of the film and have the dismantlement of that family stick. The Avengers were literally left with two active members with the rest of them as fugitives. And while Tony isn't pursuing his revenge by the end of the film, the Russo brothers have confirmed that come Infinity War, there is still going to be tension between them and they aren't going to just interact like nothing happened. I don't think it's aimless. There's a clear cause and effect.

    "I still think Tony's parental revenge angle in Act 3 was separate from his guilt-about-Avengers-overreach at the beginning. And at the end, if the thematic coherence comes from everyone ending up worse than they started because of "consequences," then I think the "Stank" jokes were really misplaced."

    That's only a problem if you viewed the themes of guilt and avengers-overreach as the core of the film. It may have a large presence in act 1, but it doesn't make sense to judge the film by act 1. The core themes are present in act 1, 2, and 3 when you look at the film as a whole. There's also the fact that the avengers overreach and superhero accountability "theme" could just be a plot element. Not necessarily a thematic base.

    Act 1 already set the foundations of the theme of friendship and the destruction of it that continues throughout the film. It also establishes foundation of agency and consequences, and how the level of agency over their choices never changes but the consequences became more drastic.

    This is seen in the stark contrast of how they were trying to resolve the conflict during the beginning and end of the film. It began with having a discussion about their disagreements then escalated into physical conflict.

    You're right about the misplaced jokes. I've actually been a consistent critic of how Marvel's humor could be overbearing. It's very similar to how Dr. Strange inserted that very inorganic laugh by the asian guy after they won the climatic battle. But I don't think misplaced humor negates the thematic validity. It just lessens it, and the degree to how much is diminished will obviously vary from person to person, but for me it just wasn't that big of a deal in Civil War. Yes, Rhodey will continue to call Tony'Tony Stank'. Great. He's still partially paralyzed and the Avengers are still left with only two active members. Captain America and his crew are left on the run in which you could only conclude is going to bring a significant decrease in quality of life. Those lingering thoughts still leave me sadden for these characters in spite of the bad humor. Even Zemo didn't end up with his ideal scenario of being dead.

    " but I still don't think the filmmakers showed us a real lesson being learned on his part."

    Well if he isn't pursuing the revenge, then that's a lesson learned. It's certainly a change from how much of a determinator he was during the fight in Siberia to how he's just sitting in his chair not actively looking for Bucky.