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The Use of Tonal and Overtonal Montage in Captain America: Civil War – Emmanuel Johnson

Tonal and overtonal montage(s) are great carriers of meaning and emotion within film. It is crucial for the audience of a media text to understand what is being shown on screen.

The expression of emotion often plays an important role in the understanding of narrative by the audience. In Captain America: Civil War, both tonal and overtonal montage are used in during the final battle scene between Captain America and Iron man. These montages were employed by directors, Anthony and Joe Russo in creating the necessary mood and tension for the scene, which they intended for the audience to connect to.


Montages within 21st century films are progressions of the Soviet Montage techniques, propagated by primary pioneer, Sergei Eisenstein (Todd 1989). The role of montages in modern day cinema, as seen in Captain America: Civil War, is to absorb large narrative structures, and condense them into limited timeframes.


Jean-Louis Baudry argues that, ‘in a spectacular operation similar to the Lacanian mirror-stage, the cinematic apparatus functions ideologically to produce a subject that misrecognises itself as the centre of the represented world’ (1985: 537 in Dunne and Quigley 2004: 156). Steve Rogers (Captain America) has always been represented as a righteous character who is unlike everyone else. But during the build-up to the fight scene, we learn that Steve is not so special after all, as he accepted to being as selfish as everybody else. Film narratives rely on the power of montage to help communicate their message.


No art exists independently (Corrigan, White and Mazaj 2011: 140). The implementation of tonal and overtonal montages in this scene worked effectively in covering several meanings within a regulated timeframe.

The fight between Captain America and Iron Man is one that would last a good number of hours but is captured within a much shorter period, thanks to interplay between the given scene and Black Panther’s with Baron Zemo.

This allowed for film editors, Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt to go back and forth between both scenes; capturing multiple stories and meaning within minutes.

Overtonal montage is also evident within the scene, represented in meaning and emotion within a fast-paced scene.

Tonal montage was used in representing the emotion Tony Stark went through, after discovering the identity of the man responsible for his parent’s death. Dudley (1984: 19) maintains that cinema allows for us to see afresh, see farther, but also see in the same manner.


Overtonal montage is used in capturing the final moments of the fight, as Captain America uses his shield in destroying Iron Man’s suit. This is represented through an assemblage of fast paced shots, showing close-ups of Captain America’s facial expression and Tony’s, as he gets attacked by Steve.


Rohdie (2006: 34) establishes that: ‘every shot, sequence of shots, series of sequences and entire films have two directions. One is toward the reality it depicts and the other toward the composition and enunciation of that depiction’. Using Overtonal montage, the film directors were making it clear that, The Avengers had officially been torn apart because of the fight and disagreement within its two key members.


The implementation of tonal montage in this scene made myself aware of the heart ache that Tony felt. This was the first depiction of the character in such state. Bazin nd (cited in Shaviro 2001) envisioned what he called ‘the myth of total cinema’ and described it as ‘a recreation of the world in its own image’. Perhaps the most realistic part of the scene was Tony’s reaction to discovering the killers of his parents. This reflects a reaction many people would identify with; thus depicting the use of Tonal and Overtonal montage in portraying reality.

Deeper meaning was also represented in the scene because, Captain America was conflicted over his identities, and which to follow. He had to choose between being a super hero; represented by his shield, or the guy known to never give up on people and be there for them. Choosing the latter would have future implications on the nature of his character in future. This connotation was embedded in three fast paced shots, stressing the significance of montage in cinema.


The use of Tonal and Overtonal Montages helped communicate the message behind the film’s narrative, which was that, The Avengers needed to go against each other, to make them completely unprepared for the Infinity War. Multiple storylines were compressed within few minutes.


The fate of about 10 other characters in the film were dependent upon that scene. The emotional dispute between Captain America and Iron Man would mean that, other members of the team will choose sides, affecting the storylines of Infinity War and the upcoming individual films: Spiderman: Homecoming, Black Panther, and Ant-Man and The Wasp.

Bazin cited in (Gray 1967: 45) defines montage as an ‘abstract creator of meaning, which preserves the state of unreality demanded by the spectacle’. Tonal and Overtonal montage(s) are used in this film as mediums in exaggerating reality. Captain America is a symbol of hope and justice but is represented as a mutant with super-human strength, which is unrealistic.


Debord (1994) mentions that modern day society ‘prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane’, and montages aid in the mass production of this process, for the entertainment of individuals afraid to face reality for what it really is.

The use of Tonal and Overtonal montage(s) in the Captain America versus Iron Man fight contributed greatly to the overall success of the film.


The Overtonal montage also was used in comparing both the fight scene and Black Panther’s with Baron Zemo. This highlighted the contrast in both scenes as Zemo discussed that, it was his plan all along to divide the Avengers. As this was said, a juxtaposition was made, showing Iron Man and Captain America falling into the trap set for them. Another contrast was in the fact that, whilst T’Challa was making peace with Zemo outside, Tony and Steve were doing the opposite inside.


Contrary to opinion expressed by Bellour (1985), which argues that, the attempt to connect theory to visual practise has been unsuccessful, the Russo brothers successfully used the concept of tonal montage in eliciting the complex emotion of betrayal by Steve, which Tony felt.


The role of montage in film is crucial, as it helps to break down seemingly complex narratives and meanings into ideal formats, which members of the audience can relate to, express complicated emotions, and aid in the expression of the artist’s vision.








Debord, G. (1994) The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.


Dudley, A. (1984) Concepts in Film Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Gray, H. (1967) What is Cinema? Andre Bazin: Essays Selected and Translated by Hugh Gray Volume 1. Los Angeles: University of California Press.


Rohdie, S. (2006) Montage. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Shaviro, S. (2001) ‘The Cinema of Absence: How Film Achieves a Greater Reality by Showing Us What Isn’t There’. Film Supplement: The Periphery. Available at < http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=7939> [22nd June 2017].


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