Any artistic medium is to some degree in conversation with its audience. It evolves in reaction to the cultural climate in which it lives. Maybe that means embracing convention, or maybe that means rejecting it, or maybe that means something else entirely. Art does not exist in a vacuum. This is especially true when it comes to film, a medium which has been largely controlled by corporate interests for its entire lifespan. Mainstream film exists, for better or for worse, in response to the perceived will and whim of the consumer.
But that’s not news to anyone reading this. Most of us are capable of watching a Hollywood film and recognizing which parts of it were supposed to appeal to which demographic. This isn’t to say that the obviousness of their construction precludes them from being good art. I’m not that snobby. Still, the blockbuster cinema of the 2010s reflects one particular audience impulse which I find a little troubling.
I want to talk about how movies make sense.
If home video made it easier to spot “mistakes” in movies, what with the ability to pause and rewind at will, the internet made it easier to share those findings. It’s one thing to spot a continuity error and recognize it as such. It’s another to post that error online for millions of people to deride. We’re living in the age of CinemaSins and IMDb Goofs; anything “wrong” with a film is sure to be called out on Twitter or YouTube, and retweeted and shared over and over and over so that everyone knows about the flaw. God help you if your film’s plot doesn’t hold up to such ironclad analysis. Your film needs to make sense.
That’s a loaded word. “Sense.” Internet culture is notoriously obsessed with logical reasoning. If something doesn’t play by an arbitrary set of prescribed dogma – and everything will have the screws put to it – then it’s judged to be bad and dismissed. You see this most often in video game culture, but it’s infected film culture as well. “Why didn’t [x] just happen?” is the rallying cry. Films aren’t taken on their own terms. Rather, they’re judged on how well they match up to that preconceived dogma of “sense.” It’s such an insidious attitude because it’s hard to argue against it from any other perspective. If you join in the debate and defend a film, all you’re doing is buying into the idea that such criticism is valid. The best you can do is say, “That doesn’t matter to me.”
This discourse is so dominant that mainstream cinema was inevitably going to evolve in reaction to it. It was only a matter of time. Last week, I saw Captain America: Civil War, and I saw the beginning of the end.
Civil War makes sense. I should clarify: it makes logical sense. It is painstaking in its setup, fanatically dotting each I and crossing each T. The film proofs itself against the CinemaSins of the world. It’s written with “Why didn’t [x] just happen?” in mind. I couldn’t help but picture the Russo brothers hunched over a desk, their fingers calloused from furious typing, weeping bitter tears as they delete ten pages because they forgot to explain why Black Widow walks from one part of the airport to another.
Civil War has logical tunnel vision. It’s so committed to making logical sense that it forgets to make emotional sense. We know why Iron Man and Captain America are fighting. We know their respective perspectives on the issue of being accountable to the United Nations and on Bucky’s continued freedom. The film doesn’t bother to explore any of this on an emotional level. Iron Man thinks the way he thinks because a mother of someone who died in Age of Ultron confronts him backstage at some event. The film asks us to believe that Tony Stark is just now realizing that innocent people have died during some of his fights. If you’re looking at the film as an equation, it works. Tony plus grieving mother equals desire for accountability. But a film is not an equation, and this scene plays more like an excuse than a development.
That turns out to be true for almost every scene in Civil War, a film which bends over backwards to fill any plot holes, and in the process forgets that it actually has to be a movie. Spider-Man is in Civil War. The excuse for his inclusion is “Tony needs another member for his team.” He’s not there because the film needs him to be there. He’s there to be cool in the big airport fight and then disappear. The same is true of Hawkeye and Ant-Man. The movie gives us the how, but not the why.
This prioritization of “how” over “why” runs through practically every scene. It moves its pieces from place to place, taking care to show us every step of their movement, lest we scream “plot hole!” It spends so much energy on this that it doesn’t bother to be about anything. Much like with The Winter Soldier, the characterization of Civil War as a timely and politically-charged work is entirely regurgitated marketing. The hard-hitting political analysis here amounts to “Is government oversight good?” It doesn’t explore that in any significant way, because it’s too busy paving the way for the big airport fight. Is this the future of blockbuster cinema? This genre is poised to become a factory for Rube Goldberg machines, producing note-perfect devices which don’t actually do anything.
I would be less worried about this if audiences hadn’t so roundly rejected Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a few months prior. Yes, I know, comparing these two films is as hacky as it gets. But it just so happens that these to films serve to best illustrate this point. See, Batman v Superman only makes emotional sense, not logical sense. It’s Civil War’s inverse.
Let’s look at a major climactic moment in both films. In Civil War, the final brawl between Cap and Tony is spurred by the revelation that Bucky killed Tony’s parents. Cap tries to reason with Tony. After all, Bucky was brainwashed at the time. “I don’t care. He killed my mom,” says Tony, and the fight begins. In Batman v Superman, the title bout is about to end with Batman skewering Superman on a Kryptonite spear when Superman asks him to “save Martha.” Martha Kent is his adoptive mother’s name, and Lex Luthor is holding her hostage to induce the fight. Martha also happens to be the first name of Batman’s murdered mother. This revelation humanizes Superman in Batman’s eyes. He throws down his weapon and agrees to help. “No Marthas will die tonight.”
Civil War’s mom scene is the result of a lot of context-free scenes scattered throughout the film. It opens with the Starks’ murder, though we don’t know it’s them just yet. Tony’s first appearance is in a memory of the last time he saw his parents. The night of their death is revisited a few times before the moment where Tony learns the truth. It’s all seeded so precisely. You can’t argue that it comes out of nowhere. It makes logical sense, but is there an emotional truth? Civil War doesn’t put in the legwork to make this scene mean anything. All it cares about is getting to the scene without tripping.
Then there’s Batman v Superman. Its mom scene was widely and loudly mocked. From the Civil War lens, the scene doesn’t make sense. Why does Superman call his mother by her first name here? Why does Batman care enough to immediately stop trying to kill Superman? There isn’t a checklist of previous scenes that explicitly set up this one. Most people found it ridiculous. Unlike Civil War’s mom scene, Batman v Superman’s has an emotional truth at its core. We know Batman harbors tremendous guilt about the deaths of his parents. We know that he is threatened by Superman’s superhumanity, and disgruntled over being lectured on his brutal methods by a man who killed thousands in his fight against General Zod. It’s only when he sees Superman at his weakest, begging for his mother, that Batman can see himself in Superman. He drops the spear because he recognizes Superman’s essential human frailty for the first time. Yes, it takes a goofy and nonsensical route on its way to that moment. It’s enough that the moment itself is so emotionally raw. It has a naked power that something as overwritten as Civil War never comes close to achieving.
For the record, I don’t even like Batman v Superman all that much. But I’d rather it was the future of blockbuster cinema than Civil War. The former is messy and stupid, but riddled with blunt feelings and vague psychology. The latter is sensible and clinical, but there’s no there there. Both films are all about building up to a big fight. Civil War wants to justify its fight, excusing its own gratuitous fanservice by laying out the path it takes to get there. Batman v Superman doesn’t make sense by that definition, but it feels like it does. For me, the power of cinema is in feeling more than comprehending. I understood Civil War perfectly. It just didn’t have anything worth understanding.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.