Captain America: Civil War - A Writing Master Class

Captain America: Civil War

I just got back from seeing Captain America: Civil War, and I wanted to get my thoughts down while the experience is still fresh. So this will be more of a stream of consciousness post.

A two and a half hour master class on writing
Being an author, I can't help but analyse movies in terms of writers' craft. A lot of major films these days are frankly wanting in this regard.

As folks like screenwriter Max Landis have pointed out, Hollywood relies on a formulaic mashup of derivative visuals and sounds, stunt casting, and trend chasing designed to associate each assembly line blockbuster with fond, familiar memories in viewers' minds.

Unlike its increasingly shallow competitors, Captain America: Civil War founds its action and special effects on rock solid writing.

Here are just a few of the masterful touches that elevate Civil War's script above the blockbuster mob:

  • The opening act sets up an intriguing mystery culminating in a big reveal that's genuinely startling--without cheating.
  • Despite featuring every Marvel superhero up to and including Kitchen Sink-Man, Civil War pulls off what no massive comic book crossover flick has yet managed: remaining coherent without feeling crowded.
  • I think I know how the film makers successfully wrangled their massive cast. Where lesser writers/directors would have ground the plot to a halt with exposition on each new character's origin, the Russo Brothers allude to a character's background in his first scene while making sure to clearly state his motivation. Everything else you need to know is deftly scattered throughout the film like breadcrumbs.
  • Therefore, new characterization theory: if front loading a character's origin would bog down the pacing, then give a brief nod to who he is and instead establish what he wants. Make his motivation sufficiently clear and compelling, and you can parcel out the background info later.

OK, but is it good?

Civil War

Thanks in no small part to the exceptional writing, Captain America: Civil War meets both defining criteria for a good movie.

  1. It does what it sets out to do.
  2. It generates fun while doing it.

This statement might be premature, but as of right now I have no qualms about saying that Civil War is the best Captain America movie, the best Avengers movie, the best Marvel movie, and possibly the best superhero film yet made.

I'm still digesting what I just saw, and someone will probably come along and name something I forgot in my haste that could arguably be a superior film.

But as things stand right now, I'm trying to think of a better written, more enjoyable superhero flick, and I'm drawing a blank.

Plot and themes
I'll do my best to keep this part as spoiler-free as possible. But if you haven't seen the movie yet, proceed with caution.

First up: the personal liberty vs. collective good dilemma. Both sides are represented well, mainly due to the fact that every character's motivation is firmly established and internally consistent, which evokes audience sympathy for everyone, including...

The real main antagonist: remains a tantalizing enigma until the final shocking act. I wouldn't dream of giving away the surprise. Let's just say that the Russos eclipsed Christopher Nolan's admirable foray into Magnificent Bastard territory from The Dark Knight. Civil War's villain works better, though, because the plot never cheats for him.

Seriously, this guy takes a series of seemingly unrelated actions as mundane as sending a package, checking his voicemail, and ordering breakfast, and he weaves them into one of the most diabolical plots in contemporary film.

Team Iron Man or Team Cap?
Alright, if you insist on pinning me down, I'll climb off the fence and make a statement.

There's no way to explain my decision without spoilers though, so beware.

After thoroughly and conscientiously weighing the evidence, I side with...

Team Iron Man

It all comes down to which side upholds the principle of objectively greater value.

Simply put: Cap argues against signing based on personal freedom. Tony appeals to the greater good.

The flaw in Rogers' argument--and it's fatal--is that freedom is inherently value-neutral. It's like a form of moral currency, which is worth no more and no less than the objective goods it grants you access to.

Cap appeals to freedom for its own sake, which is an empty set. Tony's position, though flawed, wins by default.

General Ross gives a definitive analogy that's never gainsaid on screen: superpowers have comparable destructive force to atomic weapons. Is it really prudent to let private individuals walk around on their own recognizance with suitcase nukes?

Would you have no objection to letting someone with that kind of power anonymously walk into your kid's school unsupervised--even if he only had the best of intentions?

I support Team Iron Man, with one major caveat: giving superhero oversight to an organization as corrupt and inefficient as the UN is hardly less reckless than letting the supers do as they please. So while I agree with Tony in principle, in practice I wouldn't sign the damn thing, either.

What side are you on? Get yourself informed. Go see the movie!

Follow me on Twitter: @BrianNiemeier


  1. A two and a half hour master class on writing

    I had almost this exact thought when I read it.

    1. If just one more person agrees with us, it proves we're officially not full of BS :)

  2. I suspect the reason the film, as opposed to the comic, is able to present both sides in a balanced and sympathetic manner is that Obama is President. No, seriously: the comic came out during the Bush administration, and the Marvel comics writers doing the Civil War miniseries all took the opportunity to air their own political grievances, turning it into a very one-sided and clumsy affair.

    1. I don't doubt it. John alluded to gun-grabber propaganda in the comics. The movie avoids such facile, false analogies.

  3. I'm Team Cap: Liberty is what he stands for not simply freedom of one to do what one will. Liberty is freedom that does not impinge upon another. Liberty is a prerequisite for any one to attain their potential and to be of the most good to any common good. Therefore, liberty may not be sacrificed in the name of the common good as it will undermine the common good. Caveat: liberty is not an excuse for vigilantism. There are solid reasons to prohibit supers from going about and fighting whatever evil they may find to be personally abhorrent.

    1. To clarify, I'm pro-liberty and anti-license. Team Iron Man supports UN oversight, which would be a deal-breaker if this weren't a binary option.

      You're correct that liberty isn't the freedom to do as one will. That's license.

      But "freedom that does not impinge upon another" isn't liberty, either. It's license in handcuffs, with just as little objective content.

      Here's what I propose: license is the ability to do whatever you want without restriction. Liberty is the freedom to do what you _should_ without coercion.

      For example, no one is free to do evil. Your last sentence acknowledges this principle.

      Captain Rogers' objection to the accords was that they took away the Avengers' choice. But the choice in question was the ability to commit the sort of vigilantism that we agree is morally illicit.

      Anyway, thanks for the invigorating debate :)

  4. As someone who thought the first two Cap movies were the best superhero movies, I was delighted to find that this was even better than they were.

    It was an ingenious way to show a complex moral issue without reveling in lazy moral relativism, which I'm fairly certain any other modern movie would have done, or choose a side quite clearly and obviously, like the original comics did.

    Oh, and Spider-Man was great. I never thought they could nail Peter Parker so well, but they easily did here. Was kind of hoping someone would have alluded to a certain Devil in Hell's Kitchen, though.

    Bring on Avengers 3!

    1. Hear, hear!

      Marvel promotes the Avengers as its premier franchise, but with his two most recent movies, Captain America has won an upset victory and claimed the MCU crown.

      You allude to the reason. The Russos understand these characters, and objective morality, far better than Joss Whedon does.

      I'm as surprised as you are that Civil War features the best big screen version of Spider-Man. Spidey's appearance here changed my feelings about a new Spider-Man film series from contemptuous indifference to intrigued anticipation.

      Just watched the last episode of Daredevil season 2 last night. It's a sin that the movies don't at least mention him.

      Aunt May: "Peter, how on earth did you get that black eye?"

      Peter Parker: "This guy Matt from Hell's Kitchen. Don't worry, though. I gave as good as I got."

      Avengers 3 had better significantly up its game if it wants to stay competitive with Cap's franchise.

  5. "The Incredibles".

    I win.

    This was great, but "The Incredibles" is perfect in almost every way. The only thing that doesn't totally work is that one awkward poop joke at the beginning. That's it.

    Everything else in that film is not just good. It's spectacular. You want to talk about a master class on writing? Study THAT script. And listen to Brad Bird's director's commentary.

    "Civil War" was great, but the pacing was off a bit. The airport fight should have flowed directly into the Cap/Bucky/Iron Man battle (I can think of few ways it could have worked). Separating it by such a relatively long length of time felt slightly underwhelming in comparison - though that twist was indeed brilliant. In a world where the Academy Awards actually went to the best performances RDJ would have an Oscar nomination.

    1. No argument on The Incredibles. It's the only guide they'd need to make a good Fantastic Four movie for a change.

      While discussing Civil War with my comic geek friends, I learned a little tidbit that did retroactively lower my opinion of the final showdown.


      Apparently, in the original version of the script, Captain America was supposed to die. (The shot that blew off Bucky's arm instead hit Steve).

      Imagine Downey's already superlative performance; then add the emotional trauma of knowing he'd murdered Steve Rogers.

    2. I'm actually glad they didn't kill Cap for a couple of reasons. First, that comes dangerously close to having the villain's plan actually succeed, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, one of my favorite things about the MCU is its optimism.

      The other, simpler reason is that I figured that's what would happen, but when it didn't, I was genuinely surprised.

      I was happy with how it ended. I don't think they needed to do anything differently.

  6. I suppose I take a different view: those who do not sign end up on Team Cap by default, because the choice is between corrupt oversight and no oversight.

    What puzzled me for a while is why Stark felt guilty about the Sakkovian deaths. Why would people blame him rather than Ultron? Is this just another 'let's blame the good guys because they're American' bit that got so old during GWB's Presidency?

    Then I remembered: Stark created Ultron. Which he created as an external control (like Hydra/S.H.I.E.L.D. tried to do in Winter Soldier), because he needs an external control on his actions, despite feedback from others saying it was a bad idea.

    Still not sure why the Wakandan king blamed the Avengers instead of the bad guy for their deaths. He was the one blowing himself up after all...

    Also, alternate Sakkovian accord that could be acceptable: don't go into another country's sovereign territory unless that country rests/allows it, or the U.S. government orders it.

    1. I'd be more inclined to support your alternate accords. Also, on Geek Gab Daddy Warpig brought up using economic; not military, sanctions to keep the Avengers in check.

      Both plans could be used together. Are the Avengers defying orders and violating sovereign airspace? Freeze Tony Stark's accounts.