Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

2016, d. Joe and Anthony Russo

Normally when I write a review of a comic book movie, much of it is spent talking about what the film got wrong compared to the comics, or addressing oversensitive fan complaints.  With Captain America: Civil War those two main talking points are taken out of the picture.  It is -- he says without putting too much mental effort into this statement -- the best superhero movie to date.

True, any comics purist who wants to see comics literally translated to screen may not be so thrilled with the film, as beyond the title and the schism between team Captain America and team Iron Man, it doesn't owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the comics event that inspired it...but then the Civil War comic is all kinds of crappy and it's doubtful even the purists would want to see it replicated verbatim. 

No, what makes Captain America: Civil War such a great comic book movie is that it doesn't owe much at all to comic book history.  It instead owes thanks primarily to the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that laid the groundwork before it.  This is an event movie bigger than either two of the Avengers films, one that expertly juggles a massive cast and 13-ish films of Marvel back story to create a wildly entertaining and, what's more, emotionally challenging movie experience.  It does what an "event" comic is supposed to do, which is bring a wealth of disparate characters together into a conflict challenges all of their might.  In this case, it's each other.

I'm not going to go heavy into details.  The film opens with a set up that allows it to be somewhat self-contained, finding the Avengers engaging a team of mercenaries in Nigeria only for Scarlet Witch to miscalculate a save, causing tragedy instead.  As a cumulative result of all of the Avengers (and other super human) encounters in the past, the United Nations call for oversight of the Avengers.  Immediately the team is at odds with this decision, but when Captain America's best friend-turned-Russian assassin is implicated in an attack on the UN, the groups are even more at odds, eventually coming to blows.

The film has purpose in showing the differing philosophies around what these heroes do, and how they feel they should be able to do it.  It's a film about responsibility, accountability, trust, loyalty, and friendship.  The fight sequences are just the rather dazzling eye candy to physically embody these differences in opinion.

For the first time, really, we have a superhero movie that trusts that its audiences know the language, that the story can move forward at a blazing clip without stopping to explain the players, their powers, or any sort of technology that comes along.  It's a superhero movie that trusts in its story, without second guessing who its audience is (or could be), and so lets the story and characters drive it.  As such, virtually every primary, secondary and tertiary character gets a shining, (and, more often than not) meaningful moment.  Not only that, but the film manages to introduce two new heroes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and makes their appearances meaningful to this story, not as set-up for the forthcoming Black Panther or Spider-Man movies.  In fact, Black Panther gets a pretty amazing arc in this story in a small amount of screen time.

This isn't an Avengers movie in name, even though it really is.  Since it's under the Captain America banner so it does center its focus on Steve Rogers, picking up many of the threads where Winter Soldier left off.  But here it is Cap's character who is the driving motivator of the movie.  It's his actions, his personality, his sense of honor and justice which cause the schism within the Avengers.  I would say Chris Evans edges out Robert Downey Jr. in screen time, but Downey's got a heavy part to play here as well. It really is their differences that causes the "Civil War".  The script does an excellent job justifying why people align as they do, and the motivations aren't always simple.  Sometimes it's belief, sometimes it's loyalty, sometimes guilt, and in some cases it's for status.

What directors Joe and Anthony Russo, with writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely are doing is fielding new ground, creating a film unlike any before.  They're producing a movie that is the second sequel in a series (Captain America) but not necessarily the third act of a trilogy.  At the same time they're acting as the third sequel to another series (Iron Man) and the second sequel to yet another series (The Avengers) as well as epilogue to another film (Ant-Man) and prologue to two more (Black Panther and Spider-Man).  It's got all this to juggle and yet it remains its own story.  It's truly the first ever cinematic version of an "event comic", one that carries on the stories of a universe of characters, but also acts outside of their own ongoing arcs.  The promise here is of a new form of storytelling for future movies, of films that don't need to follow formula, and of finding new ways of raising stakes.  It's about taking the idea of a superhero universe and using it to tell any kind of tale they wish to, of utilizing a vast pantheon of character and character types and both meeting and subverting expectations. 

All the lessons here are positive, as opposed to the resoundingly negative lessons learned in Batman v Superman.  Trusting the characters to lead the story and to move it forward is the key.  It's not that story-driven can't work, but character driven is so much more satisfying.  Balancing humour and action with purpose, giving each scene meaning to someone, there's very little waste here.  Likewise there's very little confusion, there's clear motivations and pretty clear action.  There's clear direction (the Russos come from ensemble comedy so it's no wonder they're so good at juggling the vast cast) with no sense of self-serving.  There's no "cool shots just for cool shots sake" here.  The cool shots are all in service of the film. 

It's not a flawless movie (there's a bit of shakey cam in the opening sequence that I didn't care for, and the foot chase with Cap, Winter Soldier and Black Panther had them lapping cars on a German roadway which I found stretched the credibility of the limits of their powers) but it's as close to perfect as a superhero film has gotten to replicating the experience of comics.  Civil War is so jam packed with amazing moments one doesn't even have time to process it all.  There's cool in-film moments like Falcon's suit upgrades (Redbird, wing shield) and Ant-Man going to "try something" to just cool moments in cinema history like there being three black superheroes on screen at the same time (and all being fantastic) or the greater sense of global scale and impact. 

Beyond that, Civil War carries forward the idea of Iron Man 3, that there need not be a status quo.  What comics have the luxury of is time standing still, but actors age, therefore so must characters.  Getting a superhero in their prime from mid-20's to mid-40's (give or take ten years) means about a half dozen films with those actors in their roles.  You're not going to see most of the major story arcs for any of these characters on screen, nor should we.  The better option is to do stories that make sense for these incarnations, and feature the growth of these characters from the start of their hero career to whatever end game makes sense (we haven't reached that particular crossroad yet).  There's really been nothing like this in cinema, and Civil War makes a good case for keeping it going as long as it keeps working and growing.

GEEK THOUGHTS

- My favourite character in the mix was Ant-Man, which surprised me as much as anyone, but really I quite loved everyone in this film, even Wanda and Vision.

- I think it's fantastic that William Hurt is back as General Ross (last seen in Universal's Incredible Hulk which starred Ed Norton as Bruce Banner.  No Mark Ruffalo in this one tho. I wonder if we'll see Liv Tyler in Thor: Ragnarok (described as a Thor/Hulk buddy road movie)?  Actually, I know we won't.  Bruce doesn't seem to think all that much about Betty Ross.

- The opening, pre-credits sequence of Black Panther has to be General Ross' Thunderbolts invading Wakanda and having their ass handed to them by T'challa, doesn't it? 

- This film version of Thunderbolt mountain was really frickin' cool.  I want a 20 minute "One shot" for the Blu-Ray showing how Cap breaks in there.

- I loved Tom Holland within 30 seconds of him being on screen.  I'm not much of a Spider-Man fan but they've finally nailed this character. Hopefully Sony let Marvel call the shots for Homecoming, because we can't trust them to make a good Spidey film on their own.

- Wanda and Black Widow both get some great moments here, but we need more female superheroes kicking ass.  I loved the scene of T'challa's Dora Milaje facing off with Black Widow - "Move or be moved", and T'challa's reaction - "As amusing as it would be...".  We need a great Bond-style Black Widow movie, and we need it now. 

- I didn't even mention Zemo.  He's the villain of the piece and he plays his part perfectly.  Akin to how Iron Man 3 skewed the character of the Mandarin, Zemo is skewed here.  Those same purists who complain about the Mandarin will probably have the same complaint but I like how it played out tremendously.

- It's truly hard watching these heroes fight, and there really isn't a "wrong" side. 

- There's a scene of a de-aged Robert Downey Jr. with his parents (John Slattery and Hope Davis) and it's the best it's been so far.  It looks *almost* flawless.

- I also thought Hope Davis was Julie Delpy who played the trainer of the Black Widows in the Age of Ultron flashback, and I wondered how exactly Howard and her met...but yeah, it's just two actresses who look like each other.

 - I'm super excited for everything Marvel has coming up, except Dr. Strange.  There's a character who has never done anything for me.  But then again, none of the MCU characters to this point are long-time favourites of mine, and I've come to like them all.  I kind of wish Tilda Swinton was playing Dr. Strange tho.