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Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Agents of the Shield

Note: Years ago, over drinks at a dive bar whose name I can't remember, a beligerent reader called me "the Seymour Hersh of film criticism". I had just published the transcript of a confidential Iron Man 2 meeting, and this non-fan claimed I'd made the whole thing up. Sticking his finger in my chest and screaming gin-soaked epithets that folks three taverns down could undoubtedly hear, this non-fan informed me that my source was not a real person, and questioned how anyone at a major film studio would even know about my pissant movie blog, let alone entrust the proprietor of same to share such explosive revelations with the world.

I knew the truth, but the confrontation shook me up pretty bad. I became far more judicious in posting any content that I A) hadn't written myself, or B) could't verify with a few quick emails or phone calls. Another package showed up last week and, after much deliberation, I've decied to run with this transcript of its contents. The writing on the padded envelope was familiar--which is good because the only thing inside was a promotional Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice flash drive containing a single Word document (no hair this time). You may think that what follows is an odd choice to run in place of an original Captain America: Civil War review, but this document captures the overall spirit of the film as I see it.

As a side note: there are some massive spoilers in here, for both movies--things I wish I hadn't known when sitting down to watch Civil War. If you haven't seen it yet, come back later.

Please enjoy. And if you see me drinking alone out in the wild, keep walking. As Dennis Miller once said (back when he was funny and on the right side of history), "I'm not here for you, I'm here for me".

4/15/16 Transcript of “Justice League: Damage Control” video conference (Warner Bros.)

Meeting Organizer:

J.D. Heigelmeir: Senior Steering Chair, DC/WB Cross-Channel Creative and Narrative Architecture (New York, NY)


Zack Snyder: Director, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Los Angeles, CA)
Ben Affleck: Star and screenwriter (uncredited), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Los Angeles, CA)
Chris Terrio: Screenwriter, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Santa Barbara, CA)


Dovelyn Proust: Templeton-Young Professional Errands

Begin Call, 11:34am PST

Zack Snyder: Hey, guys, it's Zach. Is everybody on the line that's gonna be on? I've got Ben here with me.

Chris Terrio: Hey, everyone, it's Chris.

J.D. Heigelmeir: I'm here.

ZS: Good, good, then we're just waiting for David.

JDH: Goyer's not coming. I told his assistant to cancel.

ZS: Oh, okay. I just thought this was a Justice League meeting, so...

JDH: It is, but Goyer's out. He's been reassigned to the Bratz remake. This doesn't leave the room, but we just acquired the brand from MGM.

CT: Is there, um... is there a replacement? I mean, ah, who will I be working with now on JL?

JDH: We'll get to that. Look, we're here to get the DC movies back on track, and that means big changes for Justice League.

ZS: Sorry, J.D., I'm a little confused. Yesterday, when I called you from set, you said everything was moving forward like we talked about last week. Something changed?

JDH: Bet your ass, something changed. Me and the rest of senior management got in on that advanced Civil War screening last night. All your talk about, "Well, sorry you guys're disappointed that we're not doing the best numbers but we've got a solid vision"--that's all out the door. Frankly, after watching what Disney/Marvel's about to unleash on the world, people are gonna give less of a fuck about The Justice League than they do about a new Star Trek movie now that The Force has awakened.

ZS: I don't see what one movie has to do with the oth--

JDH: Shut it, Sucker Punch. The adults are talking.

CT: I'm sorry, this is not how professionals talk to one another.

JDH: Oh, you wanna be off the movie, too? Done. [To an assistant in the remote conference room]. Therese, get this guy off the line and set up a call with Contracts.

CT: I am an Academy Award-winning screenwr--

JDH: Argo fuck yourself.

Conference Line Recording: Chris Terrio has left the call.

ZS: J.D., what the hell is going on?

JDH: The Russos ate your lunch, Zach. There's no other way to say it. Civil War is--and I've got the backing of the board when I say this--Civil War is, in many ways, identical to Batman v Superman. Two big heroes pitted against each other by a vengeful little prick. Lots of setting up characters for their own franchises. Crying and punching over dead parents. But it's also got something to say, a goddamned reason to exist.

ZS: But my movie has plenty of reason to exist. It shows the fascist brutality of a soul-dead world, consumed by a darkness so absolute that there can be no true heroes. There's a real grit here, a groundedness that makes the viewer really relate to--

JDH: Are you finished?

ZS: Uh...

JDH: Your so-called heroes are sociopaths. On one hand, you've got an alien god who feels obligated to help people, and can't wipe the fucking frown off his face while he's doing it. On the other hand, you've got a murderous, grumpy billionaire who's so unhinged that he gives up his two-year moral crusade against a perceived planetary threat when he realizes his mom shares the same name as Space Hitler's.

You kill some anonymous CIA spook in minute three, who turns out to be Jimmy Olsen; Lois Lane and Wonder Woman are less than characters, and you've turned Lex Luthor into the least interesting and least threatening villain in Superman-movie history. And, yes, I'm counting Nuclear Man.

Over in the Marvel Universe, we have two complex main characters--friends who find themselves on opposite sides of a great moral divide. They talk, they argue, they disagree vehemently, and ultimately decide they can't budge on the most important question of their time: Can super-powered beings be trusted with autonomy?

ZS: With all due respect, J.D., I raised a similar question in Batman v Superman.

JDH: Yes, you did. And you cut short the answer with an exploding jar of piss.

ZS: Actually, if you'll remember, the bomb was in the wheelch--

JDH: I was talking about the screenplay.

ZS: ...

JDH: Do you remember pitching us Justice League? It was right after we decided to add Batman to the Superman sequel, 'cause less than thirty percent of our Internet polling data showed that people wanted to see their beloved Boy Scout become an even bigger bully. It was the same meeting where I explicitly told you "No More Characters", because you and Goyer and Terrio hadn't cracked the icons you were already working with. It was the meeting where you insisted that you could fit another four into this this sequel because, well, you had two-and-a-half hours!

ZS: Yeah.

JDH: Do you also remember the story notes you received later on, the ones where myself and several members of Cross-Channel Creative suggested you tighten up some of the Luthor stuff, shave off about twenty minutes of flashbacks, flash-forwards, dream sequences, and whatever the hell else was going on in that Middle-East-jewel-heist-hell-scape--and maybe give some heft to these other supposed superheroes?

ZS: Yeah.

JDH: I do, too. I remembered it last night, in fact, as I watched [Civil War writers] [Chistopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely create watchable, likeable characters in Black Panther and Spider-Man. They each had twenty minutes of screen-time, tops, and yet all anyone could talk about after the movie was how much they couldn't wait to see more of their adventures.

I even heard someone in the lobby refer to the movie's overall themes of power, responsibility, and accountability as Marvel's delicate thematic nods to the fact that they've finally given Spider-Man a proper, loving home after nearly a decade of domestic battery at Sony. You and I know that's probably artsy-fartsy film-school bullshit, but it's a better question to ask than, "What' the villain's motivation?" or, "Why is Aquaman holding his breath?" or, "Why is Doomsday a shit monster now?"

ZS: C'mon, J.D., everyone knows who Lex Luthor is! There've been, like, a billion other movies and TV shows and comics to explain--

JDH: No, Zack, you need to explain. Your gray-sky little pocket universe doesn't exist in continuity with anything else. A roof laying on the ground is a floor. Marvel/Disney, they've built a goddamned mansion, and they earned every solid gold brick because they drew up the plans and then executed on those plans . Hell, there's stuff in Civil War that actually makes a case for Age of Ultron existing.

And you know how happy we all were when that piece of shit started letting the air out of the House of Ideas' blockbuster balloon. After Ant-Man failed to register--like, at all--with the moviegoing public, we mustered some confidence in BvS. It's all for naught now. Like I said, they're eating your lunch.

ZS: No. No, 'cause the die-hard fans love my movie. They went to see it a ton in the first couple weeks.

JDH: Yes, and they're the same crowd that had to see The Phantom Menace over and over again because they were sure it couldn't be as terrible as everyone said. The same people who are so grateful to see comic books brought to life on the big screen that they'll accept just about any drastic, uncharacteristic, blasphemous shift in a character's foundation if it means they'll get to have more of their pseudo-imaginations spoonfed to them for years to come. We love these idiots, don't get me wrong. Every dollar counts. But they're sucking the tit of a cancerous cow. BvS is a worthless, dried-up side of beef that should've fed thousands, not dozens.

ZS: What are you even talking about, J.D.?

JDH: I'm talking about markets, Zack. The depth and breadth of worldwide markets with disposable income, who will see a movie and then return with their friends, and their children, multiple times, throughout a theatrical run-- a run that their wallets and word-of-mouth will extend into a healthy lifespan of VOD, Blu-ray, and television repeats. Multi-billion-dollar markets, Zach, the kind your film will eventually limp into, heralded by cries of disbelief and derision. Civil War isn't exactly a kids' movie, but it's at least not grounds for DCFS to get involved. I'm sorry, is this getting too Network for you?

ZS: The Facebook movie?

JDH: Nevermind. 

ZS: Look, I'm not interested in making some colorful spandex movie where everybody's happy, okay? The DC comics were never about that. I mean, they killed Superman! My film is right in line with a proud tradition of--

JDH: Do you know how many main characters die in Civil War?

ZS: Let me guess. A lot.

JDH: None.

ZS: What? You've got a movie called "Civil War", and nobody bites the bullet? And you accuse me of lousy storytelling? That sounds lame as hell.

JDH: Marvel/Disney doesn't need to kill off its characters to keep people interested in them--or give their characters artificial motivation because they've been written into a corner. At the beginning of Civil War, there's a ghastly terrorist attack that levels a building in a developing country--

ZS: Sounds awesome!

JDH: It's not awesome. It's a goddamned tragedy. And the characters treat it as such. Scarlet Witch reacts in horror. Captain America is visibly shaken. Tony Stark upends his entire worldview after talking with the mother of a young man who was killed in a similar incident.

The United Nations asserts itself, demanding that the Avengers cede their authority to a governing body. It's the same plot as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre, but this time, you've got characters who disagree about going underground--who will take up arms against one another because they have different views of which freedom is greater: that of the people or their protectors. It's like Watchmen, if The Watchmen acted like they actually stood for something.

ZS: Um, I think I know a thing or two about Watchmen...

JDH: Where's the evidence? Anyway, the main thing Marvel/Disney get right is an understanding the audiences want their heroes to get along, to actually be heroes. Even in their darkest hour, when Cap and Iron Man are about to kill each other, you can feel the love and the sorrow of several great movies exploding out of them.

In that big runway fight everyone keeps talking about--which does in fifteen minutes, by the way, what you couldn't manage in five hours--the Russos stage an emotion-driven, inventive display of spectacular powers. Even though you've got a giant man swiping at a guy in a flying metal suit, and a teenage witch hurling opponents into planes using pink energy clouds, or whatever, these are all still recognizably human characters. They don't hate each other, and some of them actually agree to take things down a notch so that there'll actually be a tomorrow.

I know everyone blew Winter Soldier like it had a candy-cane dick, but Civil War is the real political-intrigue movie. It's also a fun summer blockbuster. It's also something John and Jane Public will go back to more than once and buy on DVD. And you can bet your ass they'll pre-order tickets for Black Panther and [Spider-Man:] Homecoming. Compare this to the Justice League spin-offs, which will probably never see the light of day--except the ones we Shyamalan'ed into and out of production before Dawn of Justice came out.

ZS: J.D. I really don't think you're being fair here. Again, comparing the two movies...it's okay to like them both. The world's big enough for both.

JDH: Most people like McDonald's cheeseburgers. And if you gave them a filet mignon from a Michelin-rated bistro, chances are they'd like that, too. But having taste is different from having taste. One is physiology. The other is discernment. I'd trust the bistro owner to prepare and improve upon the Big Mac. I might trust the Mickey D's manager to clean the bistro's toilet, but even that's fifty-fifty.

ZS: So you're saying Civil War is perfect, and my movie's shit, right?

JDH: In a nutshell. I mean, this is the third Captain America film to feature distractingly awful CGI face-work. Jesus Christ, it's Disney--you'd think they could spend a few hundred extra bucks to get someone who knows what they're doing. Either that or hire a young Robert Downey Jr. look-alike, instead of just plain embarrassing themselves. You'll know the scene when you see it.

Some of the Vision/Scarlet Witch stuff was clunky.

But, yes, in the grand scheme of things, Batman v Superman, and you, too, Zach, will soon be remembered as unfortunate but necessary missteps on the rocky road to franchise success. Just like Sony rushed their abominable Spider-Man reboots, we're starting fresh--as of today.

Is Ben still there?

ZS: Um, yeah. He's been practically catatonic since that "Sad Affleck" video came out. We're running low on non-verbal scenes to shoot and are hoping he snaps out of--

JDH: Maybe this'll cheer him up. Benny! Guess who gets to play Executive Producer?

ZS: What?

Ben Affleck: [Singing, barely audible] Because a vision sofly creeping...

JDH: Zack, you've got three weeks to bring Affleck up to speed on your way out the door. We'll do a soft roll-out. First we'll announce him as EP. About two weeks later, he'll be officially tapped as quote-un-quote co-writer, and by July Fourth, Ben--my beautiful, talented, Oscar-winning golden child--you will be the director of Batman: Reconciliation!

ZS: What about me?

JDH: You're going back to commercials. Pepsi Dark needs someone, stat, and no one does sugary rage-boners like Zack Snyder. We've brought on Bruce Timm and Geoff Johns to work with Affleck on the Batman script. DC is theirs now.

ZS: But they're cartoon and comic book writers! You can't do this to me!

JDH: You did this to yourself, and to us.

ZS: I don't understand!

JDH: Watch Civil War in a few weeks. You will.

Conference Line Recording: J.D. Heiglmeir has left the call.

End Call, 12:07pm PST

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