Captain America: Civil War has already become one of Marvel's best-received movies within a week of its release.
Many — including Vox's own Alex Abad-Santos and Todd VanDerWerff — are praising the film for packing in a high concentration of superheroes with heart, wit, and, most importantly, efficiency. Having seen how much endless tweaking and getting forced into contractual corners hurt 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron, it's even more refreshing to see Captain America: Civil War nail that balance.
But among all the thrilling fights and grounded conflicts, there's still one baffling moment in Civil War, landing with nowhere near the same agility as the movie's zipping superheroes.
When Captain America (a.k.a Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans) turns to several comrades from previous Marvel movies in order to bolster his side of the titular civil war, he ends up crossing paths with Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (now with the CIA) with whom he exchanged mildly flirty banter in Captain America: Winter Soldier.
That dynamic continues in Captain America: Civil War, probably at least in part because Marvel signed VanCamp to a multi-picture contract. This time, though, Steve also learns that she is none other than Sharon Carter — the niece of his World War II–era love, Peggy.
Civil War treats this revelation as a touching one that bonds the duo closer than ever before. When Steve strikes out on his own to stand up to Tony Stark/Iron Man and the stern eye of the United Nations, Sharon risks her job to help him operate outside the law. Eventually, he rewards her loyalty with a kiss.
On paper, this sounds ... well, fine. Not very imaginative, but whatever.
In practice, though, it's jarring. Even the most enthusiastic opening-night audience in Los Angeles — who clapped for just about every triumphant moment in the movie — couldn't muster up enough energy to care about Steve and Sharon coming together. Whereas moments like Black Panther's first appearance and Black Widow's gravity-defying kicks inspired cheers from the almost 800 people assembled in the Hollywood Arclight Dome, Steve and Sharon's kiss got what I can only describe as: ".....eeeuuuuugh?"
And the crowd was right.
Every stolen glance between Steve and Sharon feels clunky; every attempt at chemistry reads as a distraction. When Sharon is revealed to be Peggy's niece — a fact most fans knew already in Winter Soldier, given that Agent 13 is also Sharon Carter in the original comics — my first reaction was confusion, not whatever catharsis screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus were going for.
And, yes, part of the problem is that Evans and VanCamp — despite being demonstrably capable of charming performances otherwise — have about as much of a romantic spark as wet concrete. It's like the movie is smashing two very pleasant, but politely uninterested Barbie dolls against each other. But the bigger issue is that there are so many more compelling threads in the movie that Steve making a move on Sharon just feels shoehorned into the action.
This isn't to discount the fact that romance is still an intrinsic part of superhero movies, no matter how big, bad, and bleak they might get. Most Marvel movies are careful to complement their leading superheroes with a corresponding lady friend, as per the comics: Tony Stark and Pepper, Thor and Jane, Steve and Peggy.
Even Black Widow and the Hulk made eyes at each other in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and much of this year's sleeper hit Deadpool (featuring a Marvel character but produced by Fox, rather than Marvel Studios) hinged on the titular character trying to make himself whole again for his fiancée, Vanessa.
But Civil War is immediately different. That much is made clear from the get-go, when Tony reveals that even he and Pepper are "taking a break." And what makes Steve and Sharon's unsupported flirtation even more confusing is that the fierce bond keeping Civil War together isn't a burly and/or witty man kicking ass for the love of a lady.
No: Steve Rogers is kicking ass for Bucky Barnes.
Both Winter Soldier and Civil War hinge on Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Steve's childhood friend turned super soldier experiment gone horribly awry. Steve and Bucky are so loyal to each other that they would — and often do — risk everything they have just to see the other one safe.
Their unblinking, steadfast relationship is at the core of everything Steve does in Civil War. Even if it's not explicitly romantic (though many fans have read it as such), their friendship is far more compelling than his glancing attempt to sweep Sharon off her feet.
Sharon might have a more significant role in the comics, but the film version of her is thin, used for convenience. The movies never give her any particular personality of her own. Really, it's just a shame that Civil War, an otherwise fantastically fun movie, defaulted to a stock and unconvincing romance, instead of figuring out how best to use Sharon's skills.
Then again: If she didn't have a flirtation with an Avenger, Sharon might have just quietly faded away into relative obscurity. Just ask Maria Hill.