12 May 2016

First Impressions: Captain America: CIVIL WAR

It's a tough task but this is about the best follow-up to Marvel's best film, The Winter Soldier (2014) that we were going to get. It's not a superior film, although some moments come pretty damn close. It's also a fairly flawed film, which is almost as surprising as the fact that it smooths over its tonal issues and plotholes with such aplomb that it doesn't really detract from the enjoyment it stirred in me. Needless to say, SPOILERS FOREVER, so let's discuss this solid Avengers 2.5 entry into the Marvel canon.
Captain America is the one in blue.

This is far better than anything Ken Burns ever did. There is a lot going on in this film, with a solid amount of intertwining plots that are sometimes too convenient, but it sells itself on its characters and motivations so well you hardly notice. The core conceit is that after the Avengers have fucked up the world for a few years they're now paying the price and are about to be regulated by a third party, namely, the United Nations. Iron Man says this is necessary, a stance mostly fueled by his own guilt and PTSD over Age of Ultron (2015). Captain America calls this bullshit, mostly on his complex relationship with both his lost best friend-turned-brainwashed-Russian-Assassin (we've all been there), along with the S.H.I.E.L.D. nonsense in The Winter Soldier.

Everyone else trying to create a shared universe out there needs to understand this. These two factions are going to war after disagreeing over this new issue based on motivations and character growth informed by previous films' events. This simultaneously requires a deep investment from its audience, which Marvel has secured by now to a ridiculous degree. So let's talk about every possible aspect of this film. Starting with Stark.

One of the more impressive feats of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far is the reversal of Stark's ideology. This came to a head in Iron Man 2 (2010) where he refused to let the Iron Man suit become government property and instead defended his right for privatization, claiming that he should be trusted to act as an independent agent. I even wrote an article about how much this contrasted with his comic book persona. Through the past three films though, we've seen this arc where Stark is actually positioned as the big bad of the Marvel Universe. Seeds of conflict between him and Cap were planted as early as The Avengers (2012), and by the end of Age of Ultron, Civil War was inevitable.

Civil War adds to this by giving its two Team Leaders heavy personal stakes to add to their personal tiff and ideological conflict. There are a lot of reasons for these two to fight. Almost too many. If anything it's a bit too perfectly constructed. Cap has his boy Bucky to defend, mostly because he's the only one who'll do it. Stark is feeling a lot of pangs for his dead parents, and by the end when these elements literally crash into each other, it's a lot of investment that explodes to the surface.

On that note, let's get into our first gripe - how much is there in this film to really show that Bucky and Cap are BFFs? I know they grew up together and we saw a bit of that in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), but that was a long damn time ago, both in our history and the fictional history of their universe. I mean, that was like 70 years ago. There isn't a ton here to show that bond or even much of a personality left in Bucky. It makes Cap's defense of him to the end a little forced. The one thing that stands out actually is just how well they work together in a fight. They're nearly unstoppable, seeming to sense each other's moves and provide great support and combos. It's an impressive bit of fight choreography for sure.

As if all of this isn't enough, it's not a big reveal, but it's revealed that most of the reason this is happening is due to Zemo. Baron Zemo, as he's known in the comics is a weird dude who accidentally glued a Cobra Commander mask to his face. Seriously. I'm not sure this was really necessary, but it's a nice impetus for the Winter Soldier to emerge and kick some ass, which embitters both sides. Every part of this film is escalation, and he's a decent propulsive element to this. The fact that Zemo wasn't killed off is actually a strong indicator that he might return in a future installment, which I'd be for.

This contrasts with Frank Grillo's crossbones, whose explosive death in the opening scene sets the stage, echoes the impetus for the comic book version of Civil War, and falls in line nicely with Marvel's proclivity towards giving most of its non-Loki baddies the axe. I've found that I've grown to like the Captain America villains, because they're mostly just people. Winter Soldier works primarily as an action movie because it's basically just a couple dudes fighting the whole time. The same is largely true for Civil War, which even though it also features a floating density-shifting android who fires lasers out of a magic gem in his head, where the most important characters wail on each other in a test of Marvel Martial Arts.

Zemo's overall plot, though, is a a bit of a stretch. It's contingent on both Stark and Cap arriving at the secret underground Siberian bunker at the same time, which Stark only did once he started to believe that Bucky was innocent. I suppose Zemo figured Stark would track down Cap out of anger using the same high-degree sleuthing he used to somehow discover that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. It also doesn't make a ton of sense that Cap knew that Bucky killed Stark's parents, although it's been posited that he may have learned that from Armin Zola. In a film where everything else lines up so neatly, it's a little jarring, but as I said earlier, it's overshadowed by the immense personal stakes it pours on to get these guys to pound each other.

This whole plot is also essentially a fake-out that works really well because it's not about what the heroes think it's about. It's almost as if they're too used to being in these kinds of movies. Of course they figure that Zemo's looking to destabilize world governments with an army of super soldiers, but it's actually about breaking up the Avengers themselves. Zemo also knows what movie he's in and he's counting on the heroes to try to foil him, which on that note, it's important to remember that he's successful, even if Cap tries to reconcile at the end.
You damn well better respect the Falcon.

Speaking of that, there's no way that Captain America would be able to take a direct punch in the face from Iron Man's armour, right? I mean, regardless of Cap's stamina, Iron Man can punch through a brick wall. I love the conceit that Cap and Bucky are way better combat fighters, and again similar to the comics, Stark's only advantage is analyzing his moves and providing counter-measures technologically. As we're talking comics, I do love that they threw in the most iconic shot. Just as his defensive iconography contrasted with the Winter Soldier's offensive metal arm, it also provides a great weapon vs. shield imagery.

For the haters who say that every Marvel movie is the same (I've jumped on that bandwagon before), Civil War really proves that they know what they're doing. Looking back over the past two years, we have an extreme variety of films, from Winter Soldier to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Age of Ultron and Ant-Man (2015). With varying degrees of quality of course, each of these is telling a very different story with wildly contrasting tones. After such an extensive build-up, Civil War burns down the universe almost completely. This seems in part to make room for the next couple films that will likely only tangentially touch on the core MCU / Avengers storyline such as Dr. Strange (2016). This may be the first Marvel film that ended without feeling like it was setting something else up, in the sense that there's no clear follow-up on the horizon to predict where the story goes. Presumably, Black Panther (2018) will carry on these theads to some extent. But this largely didn't feel like a set-up movie. It felt like a finale movie.

Having said that, let's talk about the characters a bit, because in addition to introducing Black Panther, which yes, is setting him up for his own movie, but he still feels like he belongs here, we've also got Spider-Man. There's no doubt that Spidey was a late addition because it feels really really natural to excise all of his parts and still end up with a cogent film. Still, about a third of the way through the film I realised that I had actually forgotten we were getting our third cinematic Peter Parker of the 21st-Century and started getting really excited. It would have been easy for Spider-Man to completely dominate the screen because  he's more popular than every other character in this movie, but he's handled well as this obnoxious rookie who's pretty inexperienced.

He gets an incredible introduction, though. As soon as Tony Stark says he knows someone, and the screen cuts to "QUEENS" I knew what was coming. It's a great into. Since her casting this has been discussed quite a bit, but the Marisa Tomei Aunt May thing is really really weird. This is mostly because she's pretty hot (acknowledged by Stark himself), but also because part of Spider-Man's deal is that he frets over his old feeble auntie who barely gets by. Not to denounce it completely, I'd be curious where they go with this in the awkwardly titled Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Spider-Man himself really steals the show in this movie, even if they seem to conspicuously avoid the use of the phrase "With great power comes great responsibility," yet come up with possibly the best way of saying it without actually saying it. They probably should have just said it. The phrase has lasted as long as it has for a reason. It's succinctness as a mantra is fantastic. He injects a ton of fun into the proceedings, and is totally realised on screen in both Parker and Spider-Man identities. It is a total shoe-horn, but it still gets me more amped for Homecoming than I was.

The other stand-out is again Paul Rudd's Ant-Man, who finally gets a showcase as Giant-Man, although his mini-moves disabling Tony's suit were pretty clever. This all coagulates when Spider-Man fights Giant-Man while referencing "that really old movie," The Empire Strikes Back (1980), in a great setpiece that's fun, action-packed, and exhilarating.

Naturally at this point, we ought to talk about the fact that Iron Man's side is so stacked. War Machine, Vision, and Spider-Man alone are a fearsome damn team, and to throw Black Widow and Black Panther into that mix is dirty. Team Cap (which by the way, I'm totally Team Cap, hardcore) tends to feature more gritty fighter-based heroes. Scarlet Witch is their biggest heavy, who seemed to help everyone all the time telekinetically throwing combatants off each other. She should have used some of that mind-control power from Age of Ultron.

The Winter Soldier may actually be the greatest ally on Team Cap because he's essentially been developed as the best fighter in the MCU. I don't think he's ever been beaten in a straight up fight, except of course when Iron Man blows his arm off here. The tiff between Black Widow and Hawkeye is amusing, and together they both continue to be the heart of this franchise. Jeremy Renner is again kind of worthless, but he's trending upwards in character growth, and his battle against Vision was pretty clever. He also seems to be gaining more ground towards his comic book counterpart in his sly witticisms and irreverence.

Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow continues to grow and tie everyone else together, though, and it's a perfect fit that she takes the role Spidey did in the comics by switching sides to Cap and helping turn to the tide. She's a powerful personality and struggles to find her place in a world where she doesn't even know where her loyalties are supposed to lie. I wasn't really on the "Black Widow should get her own movie!" bandwagon until now. I think we have a lot of backstory to cover.

At the same time, though, Marvel seems completely disinterested in backstories, which is fantastic. How did Crossbones get his armour and cronies? Who cares. Who the fuck is Black Panther? Fuck you, that's who. We never saw the spider bite this random teenager! GTFO that's Peter Parker, ya'll know me. It's an incredibly refreshing proposition. We all have Wikipedia. We'll look up shit we care about understanding.
You know, two black guys here, but you'd never know. THANKS.

It's to this film's amazing credit that every character is largely balanced and gets a little spot to shine, even if it feels like the Winter Soldier's film even more so than The Winter Soldier. To clean up the rest - it's been said elsewhere and I agree, that Don Cheadle somehow looks really really old. Black cracked. Did Miles Apart (2016) run him ragged? Also, did anyone out there not think that Sharon Carter was Peggy's daughter or niece or whatever? I thought that was always a known thing. Maybe i just assumed it, correctly. That little bro moment with Falcon and Bucky is spectacular. Speaking of which, I also love the inclusion of Redbird which was totally lol-worthy.

And if Sharon Carter is related to Peggy Carter, is Martin Freeman's Everett Ross related to General Thunderbolt Ross? Too coincidental. No, they're not in the comics, but it seemed weird to me. I'm curious how his role develops. I feel like Martin Freeman was up to some shady shit, although the basis of his character is largely benign.

I didn't speak too much about the ideologies presented or film techniques at work here, but they're largely up to par. It's great that a big film like this is willing to take the time to engage in thoughtful discussion between its principal characters; confident enough in its action showcases to not feel the need to have giant cities destroyed all the time.

It's telling that out of all the little pockets in the development team, this Captain America squad has been the one tapped to bring Infinity War (2018 & 2019) to the big screen. It offers a lot of reassurance that those big flicks won't suck. The big question is how these other weirder threads will continue to tie together, although the Russos seem to favor a stripped down story rather than an expansive one. Infinity War ought to never end, though, so who knows what's going on. By that time a lot of these actors will have aged out of their roles as well, too, so it's tough to say.

In the end, I feel like it's easy to dismiss the superhero genre until we actually get a film that's as good as this. In that airport fight, every single character has a reason to be there, which is a tough task to pull off as smooth as this film does. This and Deadpool (2016) could make a lot of year-end lists, which is an indication of them breaking down and destroying the genre as much as anything else. Marvel is undoubtedly trending upwards, and now it's up to Dr. Strange to work his magic. Ho-hoooo!

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