Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Continuing Adventures of Shield Man, Bird Dude, and That Guy With the Robot Arm


Hey, not only did they make an unambiguously good Captain America movie for once, they made the best Avengers ensemble film so far, too—and even the fact that both of these things don't seem like they should go together all that well can't stop it.

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven)
With Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Sebastian Stan (James "Bucky" Barnes), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Elizabeth Olson (Wanda Maximoff), Scarlett Johannson (Natasha Romanoff), Paul Bettany (The Vision), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Chadwick Boseman (T'Challa), Don Cheadle (James "Rhodey" Rhodes), Robert Downey, Jr. (Tony Stark), William Hurt (Thaddeus Ross), and Daniel Bruhl (Zemo)

Spoiler alert: mild

My hopes for Captain America: Civil War did not run high.  First, as the direct sequel to Captain America: Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, it was going to be a follow-up to the two most lackluster entries in Marvel Studios' whole thirteen-film franchise.  (Though here, I must cover my ass, and concede that I liked Winter Soldier much less than everyone else apparently did.)  Second, Cap 3 spelled the return of Cap 2's directors, the Russo Brothers; and as much as their Community episodes may be priceless, their feature film debut was just clumsy as hell—and visually boring to match.  Third, and worst of all, its title promised that the third Cap film was going to be an adaptation, however loose, of Marvel Comics' Civil War, the universe-devouring mega-event miniseries written by Mark Millar back in 2006; and Civil War kind of sucks.

I'll try to keep the comics history brief: Civil War, the comic book, tells the story of a disintegrating superhero community.  The issue that's overtaken them is whether or not active super-people ought to be free agents, or if they ought to be monitored and controlled by the government instead.  Since Civil War was a superhero comic, the recourse to violence was inevitable, and thus did Millar's story follow Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as each man mobilized his own army of ideologically-polarized superhumans in order to determine whose political viewpoint would ultimately prevail.  In the end, we learned that Cap hated security and Iron Man hated freedom, and—perhaps most importantly of all—we learned that blunt political allegories often wind up hilariously unbalanced and dumb when you try to impose them upon a cobbled-together fictional universe wherein literal gods stride through tissue paper cities, and the death toll resulting from your monthly publication schedule is probably somewhere around half a million bodies a year.

Now, I have some very mild fondness for the execution of the core miniseries, albeit almost solely because for the first time in about two decades it actually forced some kind of character growth upon Spider-Man.  And yet I think we all realize now, even if we didn't realize then (personally, I did realize it then) that Civil War was a pretty terrible fucking idea, a Rubicon across which the Marvel Universe could never really return—at least not in any kind of especially plausible fashion.  (And, lo, it very much did not: and so I present to you Spider-Man's One More Day as absolutely dispositive of my case.)

(That's the one where he makes a deal with Satan, and gets a magical abortion and a magical divorce in the bargain.  In case you didn't know.)

Anyway, if Civil War clearly wasn't the best thing the House of Ideas ever came up with, then at least it was built on a foundation of a huge shared universe with a deep, rich history, and its core conflict was born out of the believable subversion of a relationship that had been based on thoroughgoing mutual respect, and which went back more than a full half-century.

Meanwhile, the cinematic Civil War has arrived, and, initially, it seemed like an even more terrible fucking idea than the comic.  Whereas the comic book draws upon an old and worn-out fictional universe, the film necessarily focuses instead upon a very, very new one.  Thus when the governments of the world align to do something about the baker's dozen of superpowered vigilantes who've popped up in the last eight years, the murderous schism that develops here occurs only between two coworkers and not between two old friends—that is, a couple of men who just barely know each other, and have hung out together, in the aggregate, for about three hours.  Maybe even four.

Yet damned if it doesn't seem like an enormous improvement over the comic.  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve the lion's share of the credit for forging a miraculously-coherent plot out of all the disparate elements of the MCU, as well as some already pretty dubious source material.  Their strategy was a simple one, even an elegant one: they turned a plodding, clumsy allegory into a personal, character-driven story instead.

Plus, when the international community decides to impose itself upon the Avengers here, it doesn't come off as a preposterous overreaction to the kind of thing that's been happening every day for the past fifty years.

And so, while we find Tony Stark dealing with the political fallout from the Avengers' cosmic battles, we catch up with Steve Rogers, who's still trying to actually finish the plot from his last movie by finding Bucky Barnes, HYDRA's brainwashed Winter Soldier, and bringing him back in from the wilderness.  It doesn't seem like these two problems have all that much to do with one another, and, actually, they don't—at least, not until Bucky blows up a conference of the world's leaders.  This makes Bucky public enemy no. 1; it catapults Tony into the position of an enthusiastic superhero kapo; and it forces Cap to make the decision to save Bucky's life by defying law and justice and, incidentally, his metal-geared acquaintance from the Avengers, Iron Man.

Consider that.  It's nice.  It's clean.  Above all, it's just one paragraph.

But the improvement doesn't just stop at the source material: it's a hell of a lot better than both of Cap's previous flicks—and it's a marked improvement on both of the previous Avengers ensemble films, too.  Beating the former wasn't all that hard, of course, but I have an urgent need to give praise when it's been so well-earned: the Russos, while more-or-less hewing to the same general style as Winter Soldier, have actually managed to turn their indifferent action staging and matter-of-fact aesthetic into something like a strength.  (Although perhaps that says too much. The first action sequence has more reduced shutter angle than Saving Private Ryan, which is a definite stylistic choice, even if I don't especially care for it here; and the big cartoonish action sequence in the middle is, indeed, thrillingly big and very amusingly cartoonish.)

I think it must come down to this film's vastly more pleasant cutting scheme, which I can't quite figure out since the creative team hasn't changed at all in the meantime.  But the proof is in the pudding: Civil War lets its shots breathe in a way that Winter Soldier never did; it puts them together with a far tighter sense of continuity, geography, and narrative flow, too.  It's hardly the greatest action movie ever made, but I found myself thinking a lot more of Jack Reacher, with its clinical outlook toward violence, than I ever did Winter Soldier, which only made me think of the overly-busy messiness of Bourne and latterday Bond flicks.  For one action scene, I even thought of The Raid.  (It was a negative comparison, obviously; but not strongly negative, which, in terms of The Raid, is actually something of a real compliment.)

As for Civil War's superiority to the two Avengers films, that's even more trivial to explain: Civil War's climax simply avoids devolving into a giant, grinding bore.  Sure, it comes dangerously close to feeling untrue to the character who provides the impetus for Civil War's final battle—but the actor involved sells it so well that I had no trouble at all buying it, and, almost uniquely in a Marvel movie, it involves combatants on each side that we might actually be able to muster the slightest bit of interest in.

If there's anything seriously wrong with Civil War, then, it's that the film turns so crucially upon Cap's attachment to Bucky; and as much as Markus and Feely play absolutely fair with Steve Rogers' feelings upon the matter, it would've been nice if we, in the audience, could have given but a fraction of the shit that Cap clearly does when it comes to his erstwhile bud.  Obviously, this is less Civil War's fault than it is Winter Soldier's—it's honestly hard to name a movie that cared less about its titular character than that one.  (Yet I almost wonder that if I endeavored to rewatch Winter Soldier, if the former would play a lot better now than it did then.)  In any event, Civil War certainly attempts to make up some lost time, but even at 140 minutes, it doesn't get very much of a chance: Bucky gets a few choice moments, and absolutely nothing that will make you really believe in his and Cap's friendship, unless you're already primed to accept that friendship as read.

The other issues are minor ones, like the way the film drags on for about an hour in the most po-faced manner you could imagine, endlessly haranguing you about collateral damage like it's some serious moral failing if you don't care about dead fictional civilians, right before turning on a dime and becoming something almost completely different—but for only about forty-five minutes in the middle, almost exactly as if someone (possibly someone named Kevin Feige) had inserted a prefabricated act-shaped narrative module from some other, poppier Marvel movie.  There's no doubt that the Russos handle this transition exceedingly well; and there's even less doubt that a version of Civil War without this extended action-comic sequence would be a far less lively and frankly less enjoyable experience.  But those seams are beyond evident.  Especially the seam named "Paul Rudd."

Not that we're displeased to see his goofy face: in fact, he's one the few people who actually seems happy to be here.  His presence therefore throws the tone off something fierce, albeit in a very appealing way—perhaps even in a very necessary way.  (Indeed, if the Russos deserved credit for nothing else, someone needs to mention what a great job they did in sublimating their cast's rather blatant fatigue into something that actually builds their characters, rather than undermines them.)

In marked contrast to the weary veterans, however, the new additions are defined by enthusiasm: Rudd's Ant-Man is rapidly becoming my favorite cinematic superhero ever; Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa, pursuing his own revenge against Bucky, gets me psyched to see his and Ryan Coogler's movie; and, as much as I might miss Sony's Segregated Spider-Man, Tom Holland is, simply put, one fantastic Peter Parker.  Oh, and there's a great Community cameo, that doesn't call too much attention to itself, but is wonderful all the same.  Of course, the huge cast's biggest loser is still Elizabeth Olsen, who remains community theater-level bad as Wanda Maximoff, and especially in terms of her awful, ever-fluctuating accent.  However, apropos of nothing, I think this movie might be even more dismissive of stupid old Hawkeye than any Marvel movie to date, and that's a very good thing

But, as long as I'm telling the whole truth, I guess I can't avoid mentioning that the way that Cap and Iron Man put their opposing forces together is the messiest, least-motivated part of the whole movie.  Peter Parker's introductory scene, especially, is terribly misplaced: it needed to be moved up somewhere into the first act if anyone ever wanted it to not stop the movie as if it had slammed headfirst into a brick wall.  But even here, once they all team up and go at it, if it's sloppy (and it is), it's also sloppy in the very best comic book tradition, and I frankly adored it.

Captain America: Civil War is a genuine achievement.  Marvel Studios have done extremely well with their weirder projects, like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and even Thor (which is, in my opinion, at least as off-beat as those other two).  And I have no doubt in my mind that Dr. Strange will join their august ranks.  But as far as Marvel's core franchises have been concerned—the Avengers movies, supplemented by Steve Rogers' and Tony Stark's solo adventures—Civil War marks the first one that I can fairly say I actually kind of loved, ever since Robert Downey first wore that suit of CGI armor all the way back in 2008.

Score: 7/10


  1. I totally forgot about that Community cameo! That was great!

    And I see we're going to have to have our own Civil War about Hawkeye, who is probably my favorite Avenger. Irrationally, maybe, but still. Don't make me throw down the gauntlet.

    I think if I'd either seen the previous two Cap films or read the Civil War comic run, I would share your stronger feelings about this film, but as it stands I still find it good-not-great.

    And god DAMN is Elizabeth Olsen tiresome in a completely shabby, half-baked character. "I can't control their fear. Only my own." Where the hell did THAT come from? She's living in a completely different movie. Maybe an After School Special.

    1. I'll admit, I have a lot of fun teasing you about Hawkeye. I actually like the character, you know. There's always room for a useless superhero in my book, if the comic or the movie is aware of it.

      I kind of wish they'd killed the Scarlet Witch instead of Quicksilver. Not that Aaron Taylor-Johnson has delivered a worthwhile performance in years himself, but if all they were going to do was turn Wanda Maximoff into a garden-variety telekinetic,* they should've at least kept the new superhero with the visually interesting powerset.

      But, hey, his alternate universe 20th Century Fox version is returning in X-Men: Apocalypse, and the Evan Peters performance is way more fun anyway!

      *I know you have no reason to know this, but in the comics, the Scarlet Witch had radically different powers. She could manipulate probabilities and essentially make bad things happen to bad people, the unlikelier the better. It was a kind of a nebulous power, to be sure, but I think that would've been more fun than another Telekinetic With Glowy Nonsense. Plus, I imagine the writers would've found that the slippery grasp she had on those bad luck powers would've made it a lot easier to write about Wanda as a potential menace than the rather less compelling "sometimes I can't lift the shit I thought I'd lift."