Wednesday, May 11, 2016

When Tony Comes Marching Home

Year: 2016
Director: Anthony & Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson
Run Time: 2 hours 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Captain America: Civil War is one of those frustrating movies that renders film criticism even more useless than it already is. A negative review is but a fragile echo in the void while Marvel plows through their stacks of money with a bulldozer. And a positive review is extravagantly pointless, because you know you’ve seen the goddamn thing. But I watched it, and I’m morally obligated to give my two cents. Why not have some fun with this exuberantly pointless exercise?

I’m not a regular blog. I’m a cool blog.

So, Captain America. The Avenger that nobody would give a flying fart about if he weren’t played by the human mountain we call Chris Evans. Full disclosure, I haven’t seen the first two Cap movies, but I’ve been on my roommate’s Tumblr page enough to grasp the gist of things. The constant between the films (aside from a set of wholly bland villains) is Captain Steve Rogers and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and the fact that the series is essentially a longform exploration of male friendship is by far the most interesting thing about it. Oh, also Cap’s friend Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is there, though he hardly finds a convincing reason for his presence. A third wheel is a third wheel, even if you’ve got a bird suit.

Bucky has been brainwashed by the Nazis Hydra to become the Winter Soldier, a mindless assassin who carries out their wickedest deeds when read a special passage from a Dr. Seuss-esque red book. Tensions have already been rising between the Avengers when, following a botched mission, the government decides to regulate the team, having them answer to the UN. Because nothing streamlines saving the world like handing the reins to international bureaucracy. This effort is spearheaded by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Iron Man himself.

When Bucky lands himself in the sights of the coalition, an already dubious Steve assembles a team of MCU cameos to help him save his friend and also the world (from the requisite milquetoast villain, Zemo – played by Daniel Brühl), defying the UN Accords. Iron Man assembles his own team, including an olive branch from Sony: Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

Meanwhile, Hulk and Thor are vacationing in the Poconos.

It’s intriguing that both of this year’s major superhero mash-ups (Civil War and Batman v Superman, and please allow me to extend my humblest apologies for bringing up that crapfest again) directly grapple with the collateral damage caused by superhero brawls. It’s an important conversation to be having, in terms of the depiction of onscreen violence, but I can hardly think of a less exciting tend for comic book movies. It’s just one step above that stultifying superhero standby of “I must resist using my powers because they’re bad (and we can’t afford the special effects).”

And do you want to know the worst thing? In terms of directly addressing the repercussions of their own violent content, Batman v Superman is actually the superior film. Only in that regard, mind you, but talk about a plot twist. That movie, while incomprehensible, actually had high stakes and some clear consequences. In Civil War, the Accords are pretty inconsequential, just a garnish for a massive action sequence between two sides chosen as arbitrarily as a game of dodgeball.

Civil War plays it way too safe, and the supposedly grand, operatic plot beats feel like they’re tiptoeing on eggshells, not wanting to throw a wrench in Phase 3 with anything as gauche as [SPOILERS a major character death or even a stubbed toe. They refuse to even allow ludicrously minor characters like War Machine (Don Cheadle) the dignity of being bumped off to raise the stakes, no matter how clearly he super duper died in the film. And so help me God, if I don’t get to see Thanos crack open Vision’s (Paul Bettany) stupid, didactic Klaatu forehead before the end of Phase 3, I’m going to rip myself in half.] All I’m asking for is that a storyline as grand and sweeping as Civil War be treated with a little more gravity than Thor’s latest bubble bath.

Well, maybe I’m overextending myself expecting gravity from this guy.

OK, I’m calming down. Though Civil War fails to reach the heights of the raging maelstrom promised by the comics, the trailers, and the advance reviews, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. But as a piece of popcorn superhero mayhem, the film largely delivers. Frankly, the one-on-one action sequences between Captain America and Iron Man pull so many punches that they end up smacking themselves in the face (and yes, a hardcore moment that is almost instantly retconned counts as a pulled punch), but when our other heroes get in on the fun, the movie gets a shot in the arm.

Where Civil War truly triumphs is its ensemble action, which is an astonishing feat of character juggling. The ubiquity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is helpful, precluding the film from having to reiterate backstories for returning characters like the spuriously-accented Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the expert agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), or the sharpshooter Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, and I am pleased as punch to report that his appearance got the biggest applause from my audience), but the script stays true to their personalities and longform arcs.

It manages this while also introducing two entirely new heroes to the pack: the vengeful Wakandan prince Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the snotty teen Spider-Man in his third cinematic iteration. I’m deeply concerned to admit that I actually enjoyed Tom Holland in the role, because I sure as hell don’t want to shell out money for an umpteenth Spidey flick.

The guy has more regenerations than a Time Lord.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. The movie doesn’t get as distracted by its massive smorgasbord of superheroes as I do. In a jam-packed chase sequence as well as the inevitable showdown between both teams in a massive airfield, Civil War effortlessly weaves an infinitum of motivations, personalities, and character struggles into one seamless, breathtaking tapestry. The only hero who doesn’t get his fair share of the pie is Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who’s just here to have fun. Although, considering the cotton candy froth that his film turned out to be, I guess that’s still staying true to Ant-Man’s mission statement.

Plus, despite the stakes being dismayingly low on the grand narrative scale, these fight scenes are filled with little moments that will sock you in the gut. One scene in particular with a helicopter stopped my heart for a second.

OK, TWO scenes in particular with a helicopter.

The relative intensity with Russo brothers bring to the action also serves to give the Whedon-tinged dialogue more comedic punch when it does arrive. This is a transitional film between two Marvel phases with two distinct personalities, and tonally it’s an excellent midpoint between the both of them. So while I found myself immensely frustrated by large portions of this overlong film (this is no empty complaint – I could slice half an hour off this behemoth and never miss it – including two, count ‘em, two romances so chaste they feel vacuum sealed), it’s still an excellent entry in the overall Marvel canon. Enough that I can confidently proclaim that, whatever happens, Doctor Strange will still be the worst MCU flick out this year.

TL;DR: Captain America: Civil War is a grand achievement in unwieldy ensemble filmmaking, but plays it too safe to be a superhero classic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1286
Reviews In This Series
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)


  1. "and the fact that the series is essentially a longform exploration of male friendship is by far the most interesting thing about it"

    Oh, I suspect you'd feel very differently about this if you ever sat down to watch First Avenger and Winter Soldier. The upshot is that on paper it's an exploration of male friendship; in practice, it really, really isn't.

    "I could slice half an hour off this behemoth and never miss it – including two, count ‘em, two romances so chaste they feel vacuum sealed"

    Right on. "I wanted to bone your aunt, but you'll do!"

    ...And yet, I loved the stupid thing.

    1. Yeah, the Cap/What's Her Bucket romance is some deep, dark Freudian sh*t.

      And I tried so hard to bring myself to want to watch the other two Captain America movies before I saw this one. Guess who has two thumbs and couldn't muster the enthusiasm.