Sunday, May 8, 2016

Brother Against Brother - Captain America: Civil War, Reviewed

Depending on how you choose to look at it, Captain America: Civil War is the third Captain America movie, the thirteenth installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or Avengers 2.5, given the overlapping ensemble of characters. With such a pedigree, and being helmed by two brothers better known for television comedies than action spectacles, a person could be forgiven for being hesitant to commit two and a half hours to viewing it.

The good news is that those brothers are Anthony and Joe Russo, who also directed what many consider to be Marvel's best film to date, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and they display the same excellence in form and clarity here, in the most ambitious comic book movie to date. Civil War is a movie that boasts excellent fights and thrilling chase sequences, but never loses sight of the human cost of internal conflict.

Following its namesake comic event in only the broadest of strokes, Civil War opens with Cap (Chris Evans) leading an Avengers strike team in Nigeria in hopes of stopping a ruthless bank robber who turns out to be the former STRIKE/SHIELD commander Rumlow from Winter Soldier. First of all, let's take a moment to observe how cool it is that, although it is only a 4-person squad, Steve Rogers is the only white male in it, and they still kick ass on a wholesale scale. Unfortunately though, the collateral damage that ensues is yet another black eye for the World's Mightiest Heroes, and the United Nations want the Avengers to submit to their oversight, and 117 countries are getting behind something called the Sokovia Accords in order to bring them to heel.

While this has the immediate and anticipated effect of putting Captain America and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) on opposite sides of an ethical issue that has both pros and cons, the real wedge comes when Cap continues his hunt for his former war buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), now the cryogenically preserved and brainwashed HYDRA assassin, the Winter Soldier.

With everyone else hunting Bucky for his crimes, Rogers remains focused on saving his friend, and with so much of Captain America's character tied into his loyalty, it is a matter of when, not if, a line is going to be crossed, and just about all the major players are going to have to pick a side. While it is easy to peg Cap as a libertarian who doesn't want constraints, his concern about the agendas of the various signatories to the Accords makes sense too, even more than the battle around secret identities which was the crux of the comic version of Civil War.

Internal struggle is a great foil in the hands of capable writers, and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do a great job giving just about everyone a reason for behaving the way they do, and the choices they make are consistent with what we know about these characters. They even give us an insight into the guilt Tony Stark feels about a lack of closure with his parents due to their deaths, and the sense of betrayal he feels when facing off against his comrade Captain America feels justified. The hurt and regret and inevitability are crystallized in two simple lines of dialogue delivered mid-struggle:

Steve Rogers: He's my friend.
Tony Stark: So was I.

In fact, as good a job as the Russos do with the action sequences (and make no mistake, they have set the bar pretty high for any team-on-team superfights coming down the pipe after this), the most impressive thing to me is how much less overstuffed this film feels than Age of Ultron. Despite having all those characters except Thor and the Hulk (rumoured to be appearing together in Thor: Ragnarok next November), they bring Ant-Man on board, flesh out the Vision in both his mindset and his powers, introduce the Black Panther, and bring Spider-Man into the MCU for good measure!

The filmmakers do a grand job orchestrating an intimidating suite of motivations, characterizations, powers and abilities,and nowhere does it show better than in the airport set piece so prominently featured in the trailers. A dozen costumed adventurers, six to a side, squaring off without pairing off, and despite the chaos, the clear direction and consistent rhythm of the various beats and gags keep it from becoming overwhelming. Better still, neither side is trying to maim or kill the other (well, except the Black Panther), so there are lots of lighter moments, especially those involving Spider-Man in his youngest incarnation yet (Tom Holland, at 19, is the first person to play Peter Parker on screen while still literally a teenager).

Considering that Black Panther was only written in when it appeared that the deal with Sony Pictures to bring Spidey into the MCU was not going to happen, it is amazing that the two of them receive such excellent introductions. Holland's Peter Parker is intimidatingly smart but a little naive, and has that undercurrent of responsibility-inspired sadness so critical to the best iterations of the character. And if you've seen the trailer, you already know how brilliantly evocative of his roots the costume is: brightly coloured, dauntlessly unarmoured, and even possessing eyes that can change size and expression so reminiscent of the sixties cartoon, it flies directly in the face of competing trends to darken and dull the palettes of these comic legends. I really enjoyed the first two Raimi films with Tobey Maguire, but for my money, this is the best movie version of Spidey to date, and I am eagerly anticipating the solo Spider-Man movie, Homecoming, next July.

T'Challa, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), has a similar burden to Parker, which he likewise receives earlier than anticipated, but he displays none of the joy and exuberance of his arachnid counterpart. Initially driven by his own need for vengeance, he eventually displays the perception, judgement, poise and soulful dignity befitting the ruler of Wakanda. When his stand-alone movie comes out in early 2018, I will be there too.

Despite being the first film in 'Phase 3' of the MCU, Civil War does not come off like a trailer for the next film in the series (cough-Batman v. Superman-cough). They resolve the story, although they do leave threads hanging for others to pick up and explore. They play with the status quo, but not in a way that should impact Doctor Strange or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. In fact, with the next Avengers movie still two years away, I wonder where the impact fallout from the events in this movie will end up being seen?

It's astonishing to think that Civil War is only six minutes longer than Age of Ultron, but on the whole, it is a far more satisfying experience, and that's speaking as someone who generally enjoyed Joss Whedon's swan song for Marvel. With his departure, the Russos are the de facto architects and caretakers of the MCU, and are on tap for the two Avengers Infinity Wars movies in 2018 and 2019 which will cap off Phase 3.

With eight other movies between here and there, it would be understandable to have some concern about anyone having the ability to weave so many characters into any kind of coherent story with some actual emotional content to it. Having seen Captain America: Civil War, I am confident that the Russos and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige get it: that beneath the masks, behind the shields, and under the armour, these larger-than-life heroes are still human, with human flaws, and needs and foibles. These imperfections and 'hang-ups' are what made the Marvel Universe so intriguing in the comics over a half -century ago, and seeing these interactions played out on the big screen continues to be a treat.

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