Monday, May 9, 2016

Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem

Score: 4 out of 5 (for Marvel newbies), 5 out of 5 (for longtime fans)

At this point, reviews of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have become like clockwork almost as much as the movies themselves. The way this series operates, it's less like a traditional film franchise and more like a television series: while each film typically stands on its own with a self-contained story, the characters and continuity that they share make it almost necessary to have seen the prior films beforehand before jumping in, Likewise, the films have a fairly uniform visual style; this is not where you go if you're looking for stylish direction that breaks the mold, but as a moviegoer, you can tell a Marvel movie from other superhero films in an instant just by watching thirty seconds. It goes without saying that this is not a very "auteur-friendly" way of making movies, but so far, the Marvel assembly line has maintained an incredible streak of quality over thirteen films and counting. Even their worst entries so far have still been watchable and entertaining, such that some critics doubt if Marvel can, or ever will, do wrong. And on that note, other critics (those that didn't dislike the series from the start) always mention how, one day, Marvel will screw up and make a bad movie. Not something like the abominable Fantastic Four reboot last year, which was all on 20th Century Fox; no, one day there will be a breakdown in the Marvel assembly line that produces a bad movie of their own, one that will tarnish their reputation just like Cars 2 did Pixar's.

Finally, we get to the part of the review where the critics say that this isn't Marvel's Cars 2. Not by a long shot. In fact, in my opinion this is one of Marvel's best. It's the Avengers sequel that Age of Ultron should've been, with a story that not only heavily reorganizes the layout of the series going forward, but which, more importantly, tells a gripping tale of a foundational battle between two men with two very different sets of ideas for how the Avengers should operate.

We start with the Avengers having become a controversial organization over the course of the series, having not only caused significant collateral damage in their exploits (New York in The Avengers, Washington, DC in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but in some cases caused the very problem that they then had to fix (the rogue AI Ultron in Age of Ultron, who devastated the Eastern European nation of Sokovia). It's one of the biggest, loudest criticisms of the emerging DC Extended Universe turned into a major theme and story point, a theme that was present in Age of Ultron but which has now been brought front and center. Even without the near-total destruction of a major US city like in Man of Steel, the world has the impression that the Avengers are a rogue outfit, an impression that is only hardened when a routine mission in Lagos, Nigeria sees the Avengers accidentally get a whole bunch of people killed. And Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), aka Iron Man, agrees with them. Following Iron Man 3, he's gone into retirement, which has only allowed the growing problems with his personal life and mental health to fester and consume him, and when he's confronted by a woman who lost her son in Sokovia, he decides that it's time to bring the Avengers under the control and regulation of the United Nations. Matters escalate when, at the signing of the Sokovia Accords that would regulate the Avengers, the building hosting the meeting is bombed, an attack that's blamed on James "Bucky" Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a close personal friend of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). Rogers fiercely opposes regulation of the Avengers on moral grounds, with his experience with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s corruption shaking his trust in major institutions; he feels that the proposed regulators may not only prevent them from coming down against serious threats, but may use them for ulterior purposes. Before long, the rest of the Avengers are lining up behind either Stark or Rogers, while at the same time, outside players are involving themselves in the feud for their own ends.

Attention Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer: this is how you do a story about superheroes fighting each other. Beat by beat, this film does pretty much everything right that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did wrong. Yeah, it's a low blow, but honestly, when the two films are such a case study in how to do it right versus how to do it wrong, it's almost impossible to avoid. In that film, Batman and Superman had to be manipulated into conflict by Lex Luthor, the philosophical differences between the two characters (Superman being an idealistic figure of hope and light, Batman being the vigilante of the shadows) being almost completely glossed over. The moment that they realize they were manipulated to fight each other (and that both their moms were named Martha, but that's a whole 'nuther can of worms), they almost immediately pretend that a film's worth of animosity that was bound to culminate in an attempt to kill one another had never happened.

Here, though? It's established right from the start that Stark and Rogers' worldviews had been diverging for a long time, the fractures between the two having been established as early as Age of Ultron and only growing deeper here. These are two men who both take serious issue with how the other sees the world and the Avengers' place in it, such that the villain's plan, despite his bragging about "destroying the Avengers from within", is less the driving factor behind the events and more just a trigger for a fight that was probably bound to happen anyway. (And on that note, the story here was a great workaround for the traditional Marvel problem of weak and forgettable villains. Yeah, he's another weak and forgettable villain, but even the film doesn't treat him as a major threat, especially not compared to the characters' personal crises. He also gets a sympathetic backstory that, without spoiling anything, plays straight into this movie's themes concerning the conflict between Stark and Rogers.) And even when the villain is beaten, them realizing that they were manipulated does not solve the very real issues between them. This isn't just the grand superhero team-up that Age of Ultron should've been, it's the grand superhero throwdown that Batman v Superman should've been as well, highlighting the differences between the main characters rather than their similarities. The result is a film that truly feels epic, not only in its length and its world-spanning scope but also in how it feels like the Avengers really have split into two opposing camps, and that this is something that they're not gonna walk away from all that easily.

Another place where this film shines while Batman v Superman flounders: world-building and sequel hype. Whereas that film couldn't even give Wonder Woman a proper character arc, instead saving that for her own standalone film and simply shoehorning her in to let us know that that film was coming, here we get an excellent new hero in the form of Prince T'Challa of Wakanda, aka Black Panther. His father, King T'Chaka of Wakanda, was among those killed in the bombing at the signing of the Sokovia Accords, and he joins Stark mainly out of a desire for revenge against the Winter Soldier. Not only does he play a major role throughout the film in driving the plot forward, he also grows as a character from the young, pissed-off guy trying to avenge his father as he learns what's really going on. It actually made me more excited for the upcoming Black Panther standalone film, because he was given a much better platform to show why he would deserve one, instead of simply telling us "hey, hope you're excited for the Wonder Woman movie!" in the bluntest possible terms. Instead of blatant sequel-bait, he was a fully-formed character in his own right, just like all the rest. It didn't hurt that Chadwick Boseman did a phenomenal job playing him either, giving me the confidence to believe that he'll pull off his own movie. The film's new take on Peter Parker/Spider-Man (now that Marvel has the film rights back -- hallelujah!) doesn't get as much screen time, but even here, the film finds something interesting to do with him. Here, he's a kid with spider powers who's already been fighting crime for several months now (which tells me that we thankfully won't be getting yet another take on his origin story), who Tony Stark recruits to his side with the promise of a college grant. It's explained as Stark bringing in some more firepower to make up for the fact that so many of the Avengers seem to be siding with Rogers, and while he doesn't get the attention that Black Panther does, he gets enough to establish his character and give him time to shine. (Oh, and again, Tom Holland will make for  an outstanding Spider-Man if this film is anything to go by.)

The returning supporting cast hasn't been forgotten either. Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) spends the film coping with her grief at having inadvertently caused the tragedy in Lagos, her lack of faith in herself pulling her towards Stark but her desire to overcome that pulling her towards Rogers. Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier must answer for the sins of his past as an operative for HYDRA, which continue to haunt him. Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is lured out of retirement by his sense of attachment to Wanda, whose brother Pietro sacrificed himself to save him in Age of Ultron. Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is personally loyal to Rogers, while James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) is personally loyal to Stark. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) sees her allegiance called into question, agreeing with both Stark and Rogers on various levels. They didn't really need the biggest character arcs, given that they've all received a ton of development in past films, a case of the "modular franchise" style of the Marvel Cinematic Universe showcasing its strengths. Regardless, each of them gets an arc of their own, however little, such that I can see any of the major supporting players here headlining their own movie, which was way more than I could say about the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg after their horribly-shoehorned cameos/teasers in Batman v Superman. This is how it's supposed to work: when characters are introduced, they're supposed to get enough development with their first impression to make us care about them in later episodes (like this film). To go back to my TV analogy, this is how television shows have been doing it for decades. If a show fails to make you care about its characters from the first episode, it is going to fail. I don't really need to talk much about how well each of them did acting-wise -- they've all been playing these characters for a while now, and it shows in how comfortable they are with their performances. All of them did an all-around great job.

Finally, with this being a blockbuster superhero film, we come to the action and special effects. What can I say, if you've seen any of these movies, you know to expect them to deliver on this front, and Civil War doesn't disappoint. The Russo brothers may not be the flashiest visual stylists, but they know how to put on a show, and the action here is outstanding even by the historically above-average standards of Marvel. The trailers have only hinted at all the outrageous stuff that hits the screen, with the airport fight in particular standing out even before the sheer balls-out turn it takes halfway in. The film never loses its sense of humor, either; Paul Rudd's cameo as Scott Lang/Ant-Man was a blast and a half, and I guarantee that some moments in this film have probably already been turned into Tumblr memes. This is a big, bold, and beautiful movie that knows why we see movies like this, and it delivers in spades.

The Bottom Line:

Even if you've missed some of the previous Marvel movies, you'll have a great time with this one, a film that has both more depth and less brooding than its rivals (not naming... oh, come on, we know exactly what movie I'm talking about). If you have been seeing these from the start, however, then this movie is a reminder of just why you've been watching these. It's a symbol of the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with great characters, great action, and a tone straight out of a thrill ride. Either way, see it.

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