The Grey Area – Can Good Acting Make A Pointless Scene Worthwhile?

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Examining a scene from Captain America: Civil War by M.Schinke


Action, OpinionNerds!

Captain America: Civil War (2016), written and directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, is not my favorite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m going to apply a phrase here that I use a lot when talking with my friends, “I don’t hate it. Hell, I don’t even dislike it. But I have problems with it.” It’s a movie I find that does not stand up to multiple viewings start to finish. There are parts of it that can be viewed repeatedly in isolation but, as a whole piece, it doesn’t work as well; at least not for me. I think once I got past the joy of watching all those Marvel characters on screen together there are just too many things that start to unravel and it pulls the movie down.

There is a scene in the fifth or sixth act of the film, a film that pits two hero’s and their allies on opposing sides of a supposed ideological divide, in which the plot finally puts Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) and Chris Evans Steve Rogers (AKA Captain America) in a room alone together to talk. The scene features some fine acting from both performers. The dialog is good with strong, individual character voices. Everything from their body language to their patterns of speech is so distinct that the line between the performer and the character blur in a way that doesn’t always happen. They just are those people. That’s why it saddens me to think that when I look at the scene from a storytelling point of view it doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose, at least in terms of moving the film forward. That is not to say the scene doesn’t have a place in the film. It’s a good character scene and it lets the actors stretch a little in a film that could easily get bogged down in effects and action scenes. It alos provides a little breathing room so the film doesn’t feel rushed. But the scene is the lowest point in the ebb between two actions beats. I’m not saying it’s a low point scene, or one that drags the movie down, but it is at the bottom of a purposeful lull.

What I’m interested in is what does the scene do to move either the story or the plot forward. I know that often I’ve used plot and story like interchangeable terms but there is a difference between the two of them that I am just now beginning to comprehend.

Story can be defined as the broad strokes of what your writing, while plot is the sequence of events that add up to tell your story. To steal an example; to say, “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. To say, “The king died of rheumatic fever on a Sunday afternoon after supper. The queen was wracked with grief and died Monday morning in her bed” is to give the plot. Another way to look at is the story is your destination and the plot is how you get there.

Narrative is the fun one. Loosely defined, as best as I can understand it, narrative is the point of view or overall emotional perspective that the narrator or storyteller wants to convey. For instance, while the story of Gojira is, “a giant monster awakes and wreaks havoc on Japan”, the narrative is about the dangers of nuclear weapons. The narrative of a piece of writing can be as simple or as complex as the writer wants to make it.

And in the end we have what the film is, “about”. FilmCritHulk, a writer whose approach I don’t always agree with, suggests if you want to find what a movie is about you should look at the end of the film and how the main conflict is resolved. This doesn’t mean the method of the resolution but what choices are made to achieve it and what changes as a result. There is still some room for interpretation in that; nothing in art is ever as clear cut as it appears.

So for those of simple of mind, like myself, the breakdown could be rendered thus;

Narrative is what the author is trying to communicate

Story is what the author is saying

Plot is how the author is saying it.

Yeah, that’s sloppy, but it’s a place to start.

In relation to this movie, and within that framework, is the character information; what do we learn about the two characters in the scene and how does that information relate back to the rest of the movie; is anything we learn important to the character’s arcs or how the story plays out.

To understand the scenes place in the film you must first understand what the narrative and the story are. This isn’t always as easy to do as it sounds. People are generally pretty good at describing the plot of a film or book; relaying events is just a matter of remembering what happened. Story can be more difficult because it’s boiling the whole thing down to the most simple description, which many times doesn’t sound as interesting as you think it should. Narrative is even more difficult because interpreting that often involves stepping way back and taking all the information from the piece into account and trying to determine what was being communicated.

Or, if you’re lucky, the storyteller can come right out and tell you.

In the case of CA:CW, the Russo Brothers have stated this in the special features of the Blu-ray set. In their view, CA:CW is about a family going through a divorce with Tony and Steve as the parents and everyone else lining up on either side of that conflict. I’m not here to evaluate that, I’m just going by what they’ve said. I think you can break the story down into its most basic form as;

The Avengers choose sides against one another as a difference in how to conduct the team drives Iron Man and Captain America apart, while a shadowy figure takes advantage of the divide for their own purposes.

Yeah, I think that works.

So, let’s take a look at the scene:

I like this scene. I like the little shout out to Timely Comics, the forerunner of the modern Marvel Comics Brand. This scene has a bit of drama and a little bit of humor. But how much I like the scene isn’t in question; I want to see how much it actually contributes to either the narrative, story or plot.

Tony and Steve enter the scene with their differing points of view, illustrated by their opposing takes on the 1941 Lend-Lease Bill. It’s clear the characters don’t hold any substantial personal animosity towards one another; in fact there is a clear effort to avoid the issues dividing them. During the course of the scene we see Cap almost swayed to Tony’s side not through agreement with his outlook, but by virtue of pragmatism. However when we reach the end both men exit the scene with the same mindset that they entered it with. It could be seen as supporting the narrative but these are two people being pushed apart by circumstance, not by any substantial conflict in character. The scene shows them having a disagreement, a big disagreement, but a disagreement none the less. The break up of a relationship is an intensely emotional matter. It can be sloppy and mean and no one gets out unscathed. In my opinion this feels more like a business deal gone wrong. The disagreement over the Sokovia Accords is supposed to be a metaphor for a deeper conflict between the two men but the film seems to go out of it’s way to assure the audience that what’s happening is not personal, completely undercutting the narrative.

The only real character information we are given is the fact that Tony and his love interest, Pepper Potts, have broken up. He tells Steve that his inability to give up being Iron Man led to disharmony and that supporting the Accords was meant to be a band aid on that wound. This revelation includes a flippant call back to Age of Ultron and the event in Sokovia for which the aforementioned accords are named; an event for which Tony’s guilt is supposed to be part of what is driving his action. There is a minor bit about Tony having some deep rooted issue with Cap stemming form his fathers adoration of the man possibly causing a jealous stain in Tony’s heart, as he feels cap got affection from his father that should have been his. In my view this further undercuts the ideas that this is a relationship breaking up or that Tony is operating along an ideological track. It starts to read more as a one sided sibling rivalry. This piece of information, along with others in the film, is meant to paint Tony as acting from an irrational and emotional place to support the idea that his murderous turn towards Bucky at the end is the result of a sudden emotional break down. But even if it’s important for the audience to know this information, is it important that he communicate this to Steve? The very notion of Tony acting out this way, in part, because he broke up with his girlfriend undercuts the entire premise of the movie, and this is done virtually from the start with Tony’s second scene. In terms of supporting the narrative it doesn’t really seem to give us much. That alone wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t also undercut the story. While something akin to the Sokovia Accords might sound like a good idea from a real world perspective it falls well short of useful functionality in a world that has already suffered more than one alien invasion and an attack by an almost unstoppable sentient artificial intelligence. This emotional turmoil is meant to provide a context for why Tony is supporting this action as without some other context he would just look like the bad guy in a Captain America movie, an appearance I’m sure the film makers were very keen on avoiding. Whether you come away from the scene feeling the effects of Tony’s emotional issues on his actions or not is really up to one’s power of perception but it feels like he’s laying his emotions on the table hoping his personal trouble will persuade Steve to believe it’s a good idea to lock up people trying to do good in their weird world because they won’t play ball with what I’m sure we’ll find is a totally ineffectual set of guidelines.

On the other side of the character equation we get nothing necessary from Steve. We hardly get anything from him at all. My read is that the purpose of Peggy Carter’s death is to set Bucky up as that last living link to Steve’s past, explaining why he is so bent on protecting him. Not that Steve should need a reason to want to protect Buck, but if we are going to have a heart to heart between characters over their inner motives this would have been the time to do it. As it stands there is no information revealed about him that either the audience or Tony already didn’t know. Nothing in this scene moves his arc in the film forward or influences his approach to the conflict. His purpose in the scene seems to be as a receiver for Tony’s emotional info dump.

The two characters walk into this three-and-a-half-minute scene with their individual points of view and they walk out of the scene with those points of view still in tact. So after almost three minutes of acting and drama absolutely nothing changes. The Knightmare scene in Batman v Superman is almost four and a half minutes long and even though it does give some support to Bruce Wayne’s fear of Superman that serves to illustrate to him why he feels Superman must die, and even as much as I like the scene, it serves no purpose in terms of furthering the plot. It’s a scene that supports narrative and theme, but it’s a dead spot in the forward momentum of the plot. Take it out and you don’t lose much. Even with that said there is an artfulness and an energy to the scene, married to the storytellers layered delivery of information that at least provides something of interest. This scene between Tony and Steve is supposed to be meaningful. It’s supposed to be weighty and push the character drama of the film. It’s supposed to be important to moving the film forward. But, by the end of this scene, nothing changes for either character. Neither one has moved any closer to understanding the others point of view, but they also haven’t gained any new animosity for one another. The only practical piece of information that is conveyed is that Steve learns that Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlett Witch, is being detained at the Avengers compound. Having this information relayed to him wasn’t necessary as that’s where she lives anyway and Steve didn’t need to know this to believe that Tony is wrong; it’s what he came into the scene thinking. In terms of moving the plot forward this scene accomplishes nothing other than to be an additional three minute spacer between two action beats so the movie doesn’t feel as if it’s rushing to get to the next fight. If anything it could at least have some style. If the scene isn’t going to say anything important, it could at least say nothing in an interesting way. Maybe as a single take? Maybe use the imagery to build something more subtextual into the scene? Maybe make the scene visually uncomfortable to sell the emotional divide your trying to build? I don’t know what the circumstances were that led to the creative choices for the scene but it doesn’t say anything and it doesn’t say anythign in a boring way.

To provide a little contrast there is a deleted scene from James Cameron’s 1894 classic The Terminator that is similar to this one.

It’s a four-and-a-half-minute scene with some very fine acting coupled to some solid character work. It features an important turning point for Linda Hamilton’s Sara Connor where she admits her fears but stakes a determination to effect important change, showing a strength and resilience she didn’t know she had. In that same light our journeyman, Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese, finally has a break in his steely facade, revealing a depth of pain and sadness that had just barely been kept under wraps in the face of the duty to which he’s been discharged. It’s a really good scene and almost any director would feel absolutely foolish to toss it out. But James Cameron isn’t just any director. The scene gives us a lot of information but it doesn’t drive the plot forward. The whole movie goes on pause for four and a half minutes while the characters talk about things that are interesting but are either redundant or irrelevant. Because of this, the scene was cut. The Terminator is 107 minutes long. CA:CW is 147 minutes long. James Cameron thought his scene was too much and brought the films pace down to a point where he was willing to cut almost five minutes of screen time with some solid acting in it. The scene in CA:CW isn’t even this revealing of character from both of it’s leads and yet The Russo’s left it in, even though excising it would have no substantial impact on the film.

I know the thought process is that scenes like this are vitally important to these kinds of films as they keep them from being all plot and no, “heart”; another term which makes my sphincter tighten whenever I see it used. It just feels to me like the movie is taking time away from it’s story to lock us in a room with our two main characters for three and a half minutes for no reason other than to have Tony Stark tell us he has emotional issues that don’t seem to factor much into the rest of the story in any more than a tangential way. If Cap and Tony were seen to have more than a working relationship I can see where trying to inject some, “heart” into the proceedings would matter but, even then, it seems pretty one sided. Taken as part of the whole anthology of Marvel films the scene might be acceptable on a surface emotional level, though it still feels like a tough sell. If you are viewing CA:CW as it’s own film divorced of the rest of the MCU this scene seems to want to reference a relationship that doesn’t exists within the films context. For me, that’s what makes it hard to buy into the films narrative as the Russo’s lay it out. None of these people feel like a family, so watching many of them so easily turn on one another, while including so many characters that aren’t even part of that, “family” in the fight, doesn’t carry much emotional weight.

I like this scene, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to watch at all, but whether it adds anything to the movie overall or not is a question I have a hard time answering. I’ve spoken before about how I feel audiences have a character fetish. After years and years of being told that characters are the most important aspect of a film, we tend to be very forgiving of movies with major storytelling or structural issues if we like the characters in them or feel that thy get priority over the plot. But I want to stress that this examination isn’t about liking or disliking the scene; it’s about the function it serves in the film. When you begin to break it down and look at how everything relates, it doesn’t seem to offer much that the movie couldn’t live without. The main function of the scene, what it appears to place the most emphasis on, is the revelation of Tony’s emotional distress. I don’t like second guessing storytellers so I won’t presume to know better than they about how to approach this, but it occurs to me there must have been a better way to reveal this information to the audience without having to just have the great RDJ sit down at a table, look at the camera and spit it all out. To me, this means either The Russo’s were not confidant in their ability to convey this information or they didn’t trust that the audience would be able to pick up on it. Their solution was pragmatic, but not particularly artful in my opinion.

Clever endings aren’t my bag.

Laterz

(Follow *NotThePopularOpinion on Twitter @Only_Grey)

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