Captain America: Civil War Review – Heroes You Can Believe In.
All eyes are on Marvel Studios this weekend as their latest, and potentially biggest, super hero team-up arrives in theaters, Captain America: Civil War. The third film in the Captain America series, this entry could also be seen as The Avengers 2.5, a gigantic ensemble movie that involves all of Marvel’s most loved heroes hashing out the moral and political implications of the world shattering events seen last year in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. While this film does indeed address many of the hanging questions from the last Avengers movie, luckily that is not all it does. The Captain America series has become the “adult” franchise where Marvel gets to explore thornier issues and cultural concerns in the context of a universe populated by god-like beings who like to wear costumes. Through character development, smart dialogue, and humor, Captain America: Civil War gives us a human perspective on these titans while telling a compelling story of revenge and betrayal.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
At the end of Age of Ultron, we saw The Avengers prepare to become a global peace-keeping organization. Their ties to SHIELD have been dissolved through the events of The Winter Soldier, and the attack by Ultron has galvanized the team to become a pro-active force against violence and terrorism. Unfortunately, many members of the team disagree on how that role should be approached. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is haunted by the destruction his Ultron robot caused, and agrees with the UN that super-powered individuals should serve under the aegis of governmental control. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes that those with great power should have the final say in how to exercise those powers in order to avoid compromise by ideologically driven groups like SHIELD and HYDRA. After an anti-terrorism operation goes sideways and kills civilians, the heroes are forced to choose sides. In the midst of all this, it appears that Cap’s old friend Bucky has been embroiled in a terrorist plot, and the star spangled Avenger may have to break the law in order to clear his name.
The Captain America franchise has staked out the ground of building up the various characters rushed into the limelight by the action oriented ensemble movies. In The Winter Soldier, we got to see Black Widow and Nick Fury as fully fleshed characters, revealing their back stories and motivations. In Civil War, the ambitious Russo brothers give us character development for a half dozen heroes: we get to see the early tragedy that formed Tony Stark’s views about accountability, more is revealed about the process that has co-opted Bucky and turned him into the murderous Winter Soldier, Wanda Maximov and The Vision are given a chance to address their vague powers and the resulting emotional conflicts they create, and the two new heroes, Black Panther and Spider-Man, get to have a compelling origin that gives their characters motivation while not spoiling the in-depth look they’ll receive from their upcoming solo films. That’s a lot of characterization for a movie that is also juggling two competing plot arcs about a super-hero civil war and a terrorist plot.
I found the acting in Civil War to be far superior to Age of Ultron, and the Russo brothers allow their characters to feel much more fleshed out and human. They also get to show their own flare. Everything Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) does as Widow feels intrinsic to her character, and she gets much more license here to be her own person instead of being Joss Whedon’s bullshit girlfriend of the week. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is shrouded in mystery, but everything he does feels organic to what we do know about him. The villain has a great back story and his plot is much more personal and deadlier than the half-baked endeavors of Loki or Ultron. Everyone has purpose and motivation…well up until the climactic battle between the heroes where some characters seem to be slotted into either the pro-government or pro-liberty teams just to make the fight interesting and even. Sorry, Ant-Man, I don’t understand why you’re even here let alone fighting your personal heroes for some guy you met for five minutes in another film!
Lesser of Two Evils
The greater focus on characters and their interactions means that the two major plot arcs succeed or fail based on our believing the motivations behind them. The terrorist arc, about a villain manipulating The Avengers as revenge for a personal tragedy that resulted from the super hero shenanigans from a past movie, feel really really grounded in the themes of the movie. It feels like a legitimate expression of the distrust and fear towards super humans that is driving the whole film, only perverted and taken to an ideological extreme. It’s great.
The titular civil war…has some great moments but feels a bit overblown. Like I said, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient motivation for many of these characters to nearly beat each other to death. For some characters, it works really well: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers really have a personal bone of contention, and when they fight you can understand that they mean business. Black Panther and The Winter Soldier likewise have beef and their fights are intense. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) are drawn into the fight by friendship and loyalty, and they make sense. Natasha is caught between duty and friendship, and her reaction to the conflict ends up being the most poignant and complicated. Everyone else? Damned if I know why their here, except a “civil war” of four guys fighting with one person torn between sides would be kinda lame, so everyone else is along for the ride.
…Which is a shame because when the stakes become personal, the actual brother versus brother fighting is at its best and most intense. You’ve seen the trailer where it’s a two v Iron Man brawl, and let me say that fight is legit. You’ll be blown away. Not only is it shot wonderfully, it involves three characters who have very good reason to try to kill each other at that particular moment. Real motivation, real stakes, real damn good action.
You’ve got to believe it to see it.
The movie is beautiful, though not flawless. There are two styles to the action, one where the camera is panned out and the action unfolds before your eyes with little interference, and one where the camera is tight and shaky. Not all of the wide shots are great (but most are) and not all of the shaky-cam fights are a headache (though some are.) It once again is about context. Black Widow crushing skulls with fast kicks and flips works wonderfully, while the camera trying to follow Falcon’s actions in the same manner ends up robbing his moves of grace. The sweeping shots of Spider-Man or the gigantic form of Ant-Man are great, but seem squandered when it’s just Wanda waving her hands around or The Vision just kinda floating there.
Once again, it’s the story that sells the action, and for the most part Captain America: Civil War delivers such a well scripted and paced story that you’re going to love the action. I thought the story and character development for Avengers 1 and 2 was weak, so I didn’t get much from the action. A dozen dudes I don’t know or care about fighting a villain with no teeth doesn’t rev my engine. The Captain America franchise has consistently given us great heroes and villains engaged in a struggle that is well defined and fraught with personal engagement. Civil War has a few hiccups, but it is still a compellingly personal narrative that delivers great action and a tense plot. Go see this movie, it will actually make you excited for the Marvel Cinematic Universe again.