Monday, May 30, 2016

"Captain America: Civil War" Review: It Doesn't Matter Who Wins or Who Loses Because We All Win In The End


The market is being flooding by what is quickly becoming known as the "versus" genre and with the recent release of Batman V Superman and the upcoming J-horror flick The Ring vs. The Grudge, having iconic characters battle one another seems to be the hot ticket at the moment. Now we have Marvel jumping into the mix with Captain America: Civil War where multiple superheroes go toe to toe in what has been promised for years to be the end all be all battle royale. Does it live up to the hype and more importantly does it deliver as both a new Captain America movie and a continuation of the ever expanding MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe)? Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital           
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  2 hr 26 min
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Release Date: May 6, 2016

Biases:  
Loves: The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy
Likes: Avnegers: Age of Ultron, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man
Neutral: Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World
Hates: Iron Man 2
Better than Batman V Superman?: Yes.

The Winter Soldier awakens.

After a rather disquieting and enigmatic opening sequence involving the brainwashing of Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) we are quickly whisked away into a very James Bond style opening action sequence with the current Avengers team attempting to thwart Crossbones (Frank Grillo) from stealing a dangerous chemical from a secure facility located in Wakanda. While they do succeed in their mission it comes at a high price with numerous innocent civilian casualties in the process. This incident combined with the tragedies of the New York invasion from the first Avengers, the fallout of Hydra's mass destruction in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the desolation of Sokovia from Age of Ultron has left a sour taste in collective mouth of both the citizens and world leaders. This leads to the creation of the Sokovia Accords, a legislation which calls for the policing of the Avengers. This does not go over well with a number of the Avengers and eventually leads to a series of inner conflicts and copious amounts of collateral damage as the two opposing sides fight for what they believe in.

That Civil War tag at the end of the film's title is a little misleading. The film doesn't exactly follow the same story that was in the 2006 comic series and there is much more going on behind the scenes, arguably more important things, which actually overshadows all the political conflict going on between the two factions. But that is more of a strength for Captain America: Civil War (henceforth known as CACW) than a weakness, it's ability to blend all these disparate story arcs for each character, most of which have been developed over multiple films prior and integrate them so seamlessly into the larger than life conflict that threatens to tear the Avengers apart is just astounding. This is made even more impressive by the number of characters being juggled around at any given moment.

Cap ponders over the effect his actions have had on others.

While The Avengers: Age of Ultron (henceforth known as AAU) struggled to keep all of its characters relevant to the story at hand, CACW finds increasingly creative and sometimes downright amazing ways to reinforce the need for so many different characters running around what essentially is an outright sequel to the last Captain America movie more so than to AAU. That is probably its greatest feat of all though, directors The Russo Brothers manage to keep everything focused on the relationship between Captain America and Bucky amidst a grand landscape that for all intents and purposes should engulf their more intimate story trajectory, but it doesn't. Everything revolves around Bucky, he is the reason behind the proposed Sokovia Accords and more importantly he is the singular reason all of the Avengers are at odds with each other and later proves to have had even greater ramifications than either side of the conflict was prepared for. If you were to strip away all the superhero bells and whistles this would still be an endlessly intriguing and entertaining piece of cinema, this is some A class writing the likes we rarely see out of Hollywood let alone a big budget blockbuster spectacle.

The story in CACW was never really a big worry as the Russo's proved back with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (henceforth known as CATWS) they know how to handle the character of Cap better than anyone. The real worry though was how well they would handle the huge roster of extended cameo appearances by a number of superheroes that generally demand more screen time than most. With CACW though they have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they know how to jam a bunch of characters in there, let them have multiple moments to shine but never overshadow the bigger characters. When I did the review for the first Avengers film I had broken down that film be each character and given some general thoughts on how they were handled and CACW is also in need of such a dissection, so here we go.

Cap and Bucky stand together.

Let's start with our main character Captain America aka Steve Rogers since this is his movie after all. Cap was a hard sell back in his first film, blindly patriotic, strong willed, kind heart and extremely humble which sort of made him flawless. While flawless isn't a horrible thing to be it certainly doesn't make for a very compelling character but between his appearances in the Avengers films and more importantly what happened to him in CATWS he has grown increasingly complex as we see him struggle to be the better person and he has sort of lost that part of himself over his last few films, which is saddening but makes him one of the most rounded characters in the MCU.

Now in CACW we see the scales tip even further for Cap as he goes from selfless to selfish. This is in thanks to the reintroduction of his best friend Bucky, the problem is that Bucky is kind of a bad guy, albeit an unwilling bad guy but he has still done some really bad stuff none the less and Cap is forced to help him much in the same way anyone who would help a lifelong friend who was in trouble with the law. Why is he forced? Well, Cap is a man out of time and the only person he still has is Bucky and he is willing to do whatever he can to save his friend. This, along with a heartbreaking reveal at the end, is why the film still feels like a Captain America movie. If this friendship between Cap and Bucky didn't work then the entire film would fall apart at the seams but thankfully it all works beautifully and delivers the best story arc of the MCU thus far.

Iron Man isn't very happy with Cap at the moment.

Next is Iron Man aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who unlike Cap hasn't had quite as many great stand alone ventures with the sole exception of the very first Iron Man film (which is still in the top 5 superhero movies of all time category). Even with the lackluster Iron Man 2 and 3 though Tony Stark's arc leading up to his involvement in CACW can be traced with a fine pen. From his excessive drinking, daddy issues and growing concern for keeping those with power in check, his viewpoint on the Sokovia Accords not only makes sense but one can say that considering the amount of guilt that he has stacked up over the years he really had no choice in the matter. CACW is as much about Tony's growth and exploration of his dark past as it is Cap's struggle to save his friend and how their alternate trajectories ultimately clash in the end makes this film arguably the most emotionally kinetic entry in the MCU.

Wanda still struggles to find her place in the world.

The other characters are more in the background than in the Avengers films (for the better some would say) but that doesn't make them any less relevant. One of the bigger additions is The Scarlet Witch aka Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) who aside from being used as a plot device in AAU has been sort of awkwardly handled overall. Here though she is given some room to breath and even gets her own subplot involving the collateral damage she caused that resulted in numerous innocent civilian deaths. One can draw parallels from the X-Men films with her fear of how others perceive her and her powers and that is somewhat refreshing to see explored in the MCU finally even if it never really gets resolved here.

Vision remains one of the more enigmatic figures in the MCU.

Then there is Vision (Paul Bettany) who is still the biggest enigma of the entire MCU, an omnipotent being who is quite possibly the most pure of mind, body and soul out of all the Avengers but somehow is really bad at cooking apparently. Vision was one of the best surprises in AAU despite his limited screen time and the questionable actions by Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Thor which led to his creation, but in CACW he isn't given much to do aside from babysit Wanda. If their scenes and obvious chemistry together weren't as good as they were then this could have been terrible but thankfully that wasn't the case. Plus we get Vision commenting on the infinity stone wedged into his forehead which brings forth some grim foreshadowing.

Ant-Man finally gets his time to shine.

Probably the biggest wild cards in play though that will have everyone a buzz are the additions of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Ant-man (Paul Rudd). As for Ant-man, you can almost view his appearance here as redemptive with his stand alone film last year being widely dismissed as unnecessary fluff and then having arguably the best (and most surprising) action scene in the entire movie which is saying a lot considering the company he is keeping here. While he will still be considered as more of a lower tier superhero it is hard not to imagine some of those people who felt indifferent about his inclusion in the MCU finally giving the little guy a chance.

It's Spider-Man, in the MCU...nuff said.

As for Spidey, well what can one say other than he was simply fantastic and probably the biggest scene stealer of them all. Seeing him finally getting to interact with the likes of Iron Man and Captain America was a real treat but it was Tom Holland's enthusiastic performance that really drove home how different and amazing this Spider-Man is from what has come before. This is what Spider-Man should have been like from the get go, that's not to say there was anything inherently wrong with the Sam Raimi Spidey, it's that this one just feels right. If you aren't on board after his throw down with Ant-man or how he constantly fanboy's out on being included in this roster of superheores, then it will never happen. If it was Marvel and Sony's desire to re-establish the character and get people interested in him once again then mission succeeded.

Black Panther's story carries a surprising amount of weight despite his limited screen time.

Black Panther was an interesting character to throw into the mix. Not very many people know of him and his stand alone film isn't due out for at least another year, so there was really no way to know what to expect. Luckily, as is the norm with Marvel, both the casting and the writing were on point but it was the Russo Brothers who found a way to integrate him into a film with a number of headliners already and allow him to have one of the most emotional character arcs out of everyone. It isn't as heavy or dire as the Captain America versus Iron Man plot line that drives the main story, but the difference from where he starts to where he ends up was wholly satisfying and never felt tacked on which is a feat in and of itself.

While all of those characters got their moments to shine in some form or another the same can't be said for the rest of the group. With a film as jam packed with characters as this there are some characters that don't get the same love and attention as others and there are more than a few casualties. Starting with the more minor additions we have the return of former General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) who is now a Senator. We hadn't seen him since The Incredible Hulk and despite Hurt being the one and only link to that bastard stepchild of the MCU, his presence here feels more or less pointless as he becomes more of a figurehead than anyone who deserves our attention. CATWS handled this sort of role much better with the Robert Redford character.

Unsurprisingly Iron Man and War Machine stand together in this fight.

Joining him in obscurity are War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). War Machine has never really been handled all that well in any of the films he has popped up in, not even the Iron Man movies. But his job in CACW feels even more tacked on than usual. Aside from joining in on the big battle he seems to only be there as a plot point. While the ramifications of what happens to War Machine at least appears to carry some weight he at least had a reason to be there which the same cannot be said for Hawkeye whom Marvel has struggled repeatedly to create a reason for his involvement in anything that takes place in these films. While it was nice that he got a family in AAU, his role in CACW all but undoes everything Joss Whedon created for him as there was really no reason for him to care nor partake in here which left his character feel more pointless than usual.


Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) have a fair amount of screen time but in truth neither really had much to do outside a couple action scenes with Falcon and a surprisingly large number of scenes with Widow giving pep talks to people (perhaps Johansson was still pregnant during filming?). At the very least Falcon doesn't feel quite as useless as he did in CATWS and delivers a few memorable moments but Black Widow feels oddly forced into her scenes. Yeah she is a spy and spies switch sides blah blah blah, but ultimately that never really does the character any justice as she rides the middle lane to the point of her not really being a part of the equation after a while. Her story and character arc in AAU was much better realized than the form she takes here.

Falcon still struggles to make us care that he is part of all this.

Lastly there are the villains of which they are in short supply which only makes sense considering all the in-fighting going on with the heroes. They are used sparingly but that seems like the right call, especially in regards to Crossbones (Frank Grillo) whom was part of the Hydra infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. in CATWS but got away. Most will not recognize him due to his mask and horribly scarred face on top of the fact that he is solely relegated to the very James Bond-esque opening action sequence, but none of that prevents how effective he was even with just a few minutes of screen time. Plus it helps give a little more closure to the storyline of CATWS.

The other villain introduced here is a much more subtle presence. Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) has no superpowers, isn't wielding some sort of super technology and basically feels very small in comparison to the world he is forcing himself into. What makes him work so well though is exactly how insignificant he feels in the grand scheme of things. The fact that he is able to do what he eventually does is even more impressive considering how incredibly mismatched he is with those he chooses to call into battle. The real power behind his character though lies in his motivations which may seem a bit too simple and generic at first but becomes one of the more powerful character arcs for a villain in the MCU since the introduction of Loki. He probably won't have as big a fan base as the God of mischief since he isn't nearly as fun a villain but then again his back story has much more weight behind it.

Team Iron Man is ready for action.

Even though the success of CACW depends heavily on how well it balances and uses each its large roster of characters it surprisingly isn't reliant on them. What that means is that despite characters like Hawkeye, War Machine and Black Widow coming up a bit short when compared to their fellow Avengers it doesn't bring the film down like it would your typical Avengers-centric film. Everyone outside of Cap, The Winter Soldier and even Iron Man are nothing more than glorified cameos and don't have much of an impact, good or bad on the overall story being told. In fact it is a bonus that they are involved at all as the film as a whole would work whether they were in it or not.

The last note to touch upon is perhaps the one thing everyone already expected the film to deliver on which are the action scenes. If there is one quality that nearly all Marvel films share it is they always provide the expected pyrotechnics to back up their formidable storytelling (well, aside from maybe the Thor movies that is) and CACW is no different. The really surprising thing though is that while the big action set pieces such as the opening attack in Wakanda or the big confrontation at the airport are as jaw dropping as one would expect it is the smaller and more intimate confrontations that really draw us in.

Team Captain America is ready to stand their ground.

The conflict between Cap and Iron Man is the crux of the whole film and despite having the Zemo and Winter Soldier subplots, it is the slow divide that forms between the two heroes that leads to one of the more emotionally fueled beat downs in the entirety of the MCU. The best part is that if you came to see a bunch of superheroes beat the crap out of each other it is there and isn't just a quick 5 minute confrontation (cough...Batman V Superman...cough), but you also get those moments where Cap and Iron Man must eventually face off and better yet is that those moments are earned by everything that came before from both this and previous films. It's hard to imagine anyone, no matter what your expectations are, either big or small come away from CACW unsatisfied.

Wrapping this up, CACW has set a new benchmark for the MCU. After the somewhat disappointing AAU and the lukewarm reception of Ant-Man Marvel needed to bounce back and get in the good graces of their fans again and the Russo Brothers have done just that. Is it the best superhero movie ever made? Well...not exactly, but it sure is close (the first Avengers movie still has a better balance of spectacle versus story). A recommendation isn't really necessary as Marvel has a built in audience for these things but just in case you are looking for a nudge in the right direction, if you were to see only one superhero movie this year then see Deadpool...but if you want to see two superhero movies go ahead and check out CACW, it's not to shabby either.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

The Russo Brothers have proven to be Marvel's muse and with them at the helm for the upcoming Infinity War films we should all be in for a treat if CATWS and CACV are any indicator. If you felt a little burned or just plain underwhelmed by AAU (what's wrong with you?) then CACV should heal whatever wounds that were inflicted as it showcases everything we love about Marvel, great characters, intriguing story and enough action to fit into two movies.

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