This essay contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War. This is your warning.
The high point of Captain America: Civil War is an extended action sequence roughly 90 minutes into the 150-minute epic, wherein 12 superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe go head-to-head in an evacuated airfield in Leipzig. On one side, there’s Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Vision, Spider-Man, and Black Panther; on the other, there’s Captain America, The Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and Bucky Barnes, AKA the Winter Soldier. The fight is over two core issues—whether or not the governments of the world should regulate the Avengers and how they’re utilized in disaster situations, and whether Bucky Barnes should be turned over to the authorities for his past crimes. (That, in essence, is the dual conflict of the film, with Iron Man on the side of the government, and Captain America opposing, mostly for personal reasons.) But all that matters is that a dozen heroes duke it out for about 15 minutes, and do so in spectacular fashion.
On a base, fundamental level, this scene should not work. There’s never a distinct sense that any of these characters are driven by bloodlust—even the newly introduced Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, who ostensibly wants revenge on Bucky for his father’s death without ever seeming terribly bloodthirsty—or that they intend to put anyone in the ground by the end of the tussle. Basically, the fight scene is a large-scale version of that time when you were a kid and you bashed all of your superhero figures together for the hell of it. This is Marvel at its best: bright, fast-paced, energetic, inventive, and above all else, fun. (One day, DC might figure out that last part of the equation.) The newer characters—Spider-Man, Black Panther, and even Ant-Man, played once again by a I’m-just-so-happy-to-be-here Paul Rudd—stand out most of all, with the latter getting a (literally) big chance to shine in the final moments.
The sequence is propulsive and thrilling, far more so than the rest of Captain America: Civil War, for one very notable and obvious reason: it was shot with IMAX 2D cameras, unlike everything else in the film. That no doubt explains why this sequence is presented with a sense of basic clarity and coherency, while the other fights—an early battle in Lagos or even the climactic tête-à-tête in Siberia—are filmed as if the men behind the camera had drunk one too many Red Bulls before heading into work. At best, we can say that directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and will soon helm the two-part Avengers: Infinity War saga) were inspired by other recent action films in staging their fights. At worst, they have no capability or interest in filming cleanly composed action sequences when not restricted by technology.
The truth, of course, can be found in neither of these polar opposites. Captain America: Civil War is the latest in a long, long, long line of action movies that lean too hard on shaky-cam-heavy battles. All such scenes are intended to make the audience feel as if they’re right there, next to whoever’s in the middle of the brawl, getting punched and kicked around. The camera shakes to replicate a character darting an ducking through a crowded marketplace, or being punched in the stomach, or dodging a kick to the face, and so on and so on. These films all owe an unpayable debt to none other than The Bourne Supremacy, the 2004 sequel to The Bourne Identity, directed by Paul Greengrass. Greengrass brought his jittery documentary-style filmmaking straight from socially conscious films like Bloody Sunday to two of the Bourne films, as well as Captain Phillips, United 93, and Green Zone. In the decade-plus since The Bourne Supremacy, so many filmmakers have adopted Greengrass’ style, less because it fits a story and more because it sufficiently caught audiences’ attention and studio heads felt it should be replicated ad hominem.
Captain America: Civil War may be inspired by the shaky-cam style in its action sequences, but all it does is suggest that staging a clear version of the various fights would show all the CG seams. It’s not just thrilling to see Iron Man and Captain America go head-to-head in Leipzig because we like the characters and enjoy seeing them fractured and against each other; it’s thrilling to see them go head-to-head because we can actually see them fighting each other. Marvel movies have specific issues that hold them back from being great, and Civil War’s not much different: the films feel less like their own things and more like previews for the next things (which will, of course, function as previews for the next next things), and the villains are always less impressive and charismatic than the good guys striving to stop them. (Daniel Brühl is fine as the vengeful Zemo, but his storyline feels weirdly grafted onto the battle amongst heroes.) But the shaky-cam problem is one that doesn’t have to occur in these movies. We can say that Marvel movies leaning into anticipation culture is a problem imposed by higher desires for branding and franchising. Shaky-camera action sequences are a self-imposed problem.
It’s not as if it’s impossible to make a modern action movie with a clear mise-en-scene and camerawork that isn’t obnoxiously, laughably jittery and hand-held. (Watching B-roll footage of Civil War emphasizes that the Russos, or maybe Marvel in general, might want to buy a Steadicam or three for the future Avengers movies. Please.) Think of the deservedly well-loved John Wick, with Keanu Reeves as an impossibly badass hitman lured out of retirement to avenge the death of his dog. That film, with a sequel coming next year, was celebrated as much for its intense violence as for its direct, unfussy staging. A great irony of that film’s slick, clean, and smoothly shot action sequences is that its two directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, worked as second unit directors on—yes, really—Captain America: Civil War. One can only wonder if they were hampered by a desire by the directors or Marvel honcho Kevin Feige to shaky-cam up the place, or if maybe they were only in charge of the Leipzig battle.
Joe and Anthony Russo do a workmanlike job behind the camera for Captain America: Civil War, which is a perfectly fine brand deposit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even as the MCU threatens to balloon to the point where it’s like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, with just a wafer-thin mint causing it to explode from within. That the Russos rely on unnecessarily hand-held camerawork is enervating, but it’s not groundbreaking. They are not the first, nor the last, filmmakers to think that Paul Greengrass’ choices in the Bourne movies were not just aesthetically unique to that set of stories, but could be employed anywhere, in any way. And of course, Marvel movies make a ton of money every year; why break what doesn’t appear to need fixing? (Leave aside the reality that we’ll never know how many people regret too late the decision to see this film in 3D or IMAX 3D, the latter of which is the best way to experience the Leipzig battle, and suffer the shaky-cam consequences.) We need to think only of last year’s behemoth success Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which may not lean too hard on hand-to-hand combat, but also didn’t lean too hard on hand-held camerawork. Marvel movies have already separated themselves from DC by not wallowing in the grim and dark; their filmmakers should move even further, and stop wallowing in the visually incomprehensible.