Friday, May 6, 2016

Captain America: Civil War Review

(dirs. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Compromise where you can. Where you can't, don't. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say 'No, YOU move'."

Guns N’ Roses once sang, “I don’t need your Civil War,” but not even Axl Rose could have predicted the rise of Marvel Studios and their event film that fans have clamored to see for nearly a decade. Kicking off Marvel’s Phase 3, Captain America: Civil War is the culmination of plot points set up in earlier entries and the introduction of new ones crafted to bring fresh energy into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When it comes to the new players, there’s a lot to love about Marvel’s latest entry, but in terms of our regularly featured Avengers, it’s hard not to notice that things have become a bit static. Civil War is something that fans of superhero movies definitely wanted, but the film doesn’t entirely make a convincing argument that it’s something we needed.

Picking up from the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War finds our heroes at odds with one another when the U.N.’s Sokovia Accords seeks to institute government control over super-powered individuals. With Tony Stark standing behind the U.N.’s plan and Steve Rogers firmly against it, battle lines are drawn amongst our Avengers. Matters are further complicated when Bucky Barnes is framed for setting off a bomb during the U.N. meeting which causes Black Panther to enter the fray, and pushes Stark and Rogers to the extremes of their respective personal and political views.

The performances are as good as they’ve ever been. Even after all these years, the actors still show enthusiasm for these characters, although Captain America is portrayed a bit wearier and Iron Man is played with a bit more of narrow-mindedness, both changes come from age and experience. While the script lacks the snappy dialogue of Joss Whedon, it does succeed in creating genuinely emotional moments, particularly the ones between Steve and Tony. But we’ve come to know these actors’ portrayals of these characters so well that there is little to be surprised by in the quality of their performances. The surprise is instead left to the performances of our newcomers, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. For the first time in any live-action depiction of Spider-Man, Peter Parker actually comes across like a teenager. Holland’s take is the closest we’ve seen to the comic character. He’s wisecracking, uncomfortable, and constantly out of his depth. T’Challa on the other hand is played with a regality that makes the Black Panther seem like he’s been an experienced superhero for years. Every word he says seems carefully thought out, but you can sense the diplomacy at war with his more primal instinct. If Captain America: Civil War makes a completely convincing statement about anything, it’s that Marvel’s upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther are in great hands with these actors.

Heroes aren’t the only newcomers, as Daniel Bruhl’s villainous Helmut Zemo has his stake in the conflict as well. Zemo’s depiction is quite a bit different from the comic character, which isn’t a bad thing. Bruhl makes the character cunningly broken and eerie, but he is plagued by the script’s lack of exploration into his extensive knowledge about these heroes, Hydra, and the Winter Soldier program. Zemo simply knows things and has access to things because film’s plot has to reach its set of plot points. Ultimately Zemo falls victim to having inexplicable insight and a plan that relies on a lot of conveniences and players being in the place he wants them to be. He’s like a world-class chess player who never read the rules and never faced off against anyone before but wins anyway. It’s not a leap to assume that Zemo was a leftover element from the Captain America 3 script before Robert Downey Jr. signed on and the film became Civil War. Through Zemo we can see the bones of the film that was, and it’s a shame more attention wasn’t given to making him gel within the revised film’s framework because there’s a fascinating individual there. Marvel may succeed time after time with their heroes, but the villains often still leave a lot to be desired.

Captain America: Civil War works best when it explores the personal stakes of its characters. It is entirely believable for Steve and Tony to land on the side they do. Tony’s desire to make sure his work ends up in responsible hands with safeguards intact has defined his character arc. Steve’s arc has been defined by standing up against bullies and world-powers that seek absolute control. The film understands these characters and follows these arcs almost to their natural ends. The personal stakes of the film also go a long way in creating depth for Black Panther, The Scarlet Witch, and Vision. We may not know these characters as well as Steve and Tony, but the film makes sure their decisions work within the logic of the characters. But with such a large cast of characters, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely don’t always succeed in allowing personal desire and political necessity to collide in ways that would be most impactful for the characters. With the immediate exception of Steve and Tony, friendships aren’t broken or challenged in any way that can’t be repaired. Our central heroes’ sidekicks and cohorts fall on the sides we expect them too, not necessarily because they understand the political stakes but because they’re simply attached to their friends and the people who called them in…because it’s easier for the filmmakers and the audience that way. Ant-Man and Spider-Man’s involvement allows for some spectacular action sequences, but the film doesn’t stop to ask why the characters end up on the sides that they do. In Ant-Man we saw Scott Lang’s struggle to prove himself as a hero and create a better world for his daughter, but that doesn’t seem to factor into his decision when he decides to join up with Cap in the face of being labeled a criminal and possibly being prevented from seeing his daughter once again. And Spider-Man, a fifteen year-old who is protective of his identity and a stranger to Tony Stark, never has time to pause and consider what government access to his identity would mean for himself and his life. While these aspects don’t damn the film, it is frustrating that the film is so busy that it never allows these characters to question the why of what they’re doing and what they’re potentially giving up.

Catastrophe. That’s the only outcome we’re expecting when the dust settles. It’s the outcome that Vision, in his godlike mathematic foresight, alludes to. But catastrophe never rears its head. Yes, we get a surplus of action sequences, some that rely too much on quick cut editing and some that are stellar feats of choreography, but none create the kind of stakes that make the film live up to the war in its title. The airport battle is one of the best superhero fights within the genre, and the showdown between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky is brutal and cathartic, but ultimately the film never reaches a place where reparations can’t be made, a place where some of our toys are lost and we’re left with a feeling of absolute uncertainty about what comes next. The stakes feel real, but the fallout feels safe and beholden to status quo. For all the film’s talk about the changing role of superheroes and suggested tragedy, the film doesn’t leave us in a place that’s so different from where Age of Ultron left us. War should hurt, but as the triumphant music soars over the film’s credits, it’s clear that Captain America: Civil War is only interested in temporary pain.

Even though it cannot balance all of its many moving parts, Captain America: Civil War is quite good, and in parts it’s great, but it’s avoidance of risk prevents it from being a true game-changer. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russos showed an ability to balance narrative stakes, action, and character moments, while not being afraid to tear things down. But in Captain America: Civil War, their inexperience starts to show and one can’t help but wish that this film had been a two-parter so that it might have reached the narrative heights of The Winter Soldier. Still, Captain America: Civil War provides many of the moments we want to see in these movies while generating a surplus of interest for future installments. So we’ll take our short-lived pain, relive the excitement of seeing our favorite characters all together, and be ready for the next Marvel event when it comes around, because like any war, we’re either with them or against them and it’s a whole lot more fun in the hype of being with them.

Grade: B