Friday, May 6, 2016

Movie Review: "Captain America: Civil War" (2016)

© Walt Disney Studios
Remember watching the last couple of standalone superhero movies (read: Thor: The Dark World) and thinking to yourself, "But... wait. Why not just call [insert Avenger here] to help you fight these guys?! What are you thinking?!?" A plot limitation so frustrating, it caused more than a little eye-rolling and side glances to your theater-going buddies? Well, consider that conundrum solved, because there are no shortage of Avengers in Marvel's newest superhero flick—and summer's first big release—Captain America: Civil War. And it shouldn't surprise any of us that you would need an Avenger to fight an Avenger. In a most mature turn for the series, the groundwork is laid for the next phase of heroes and villains, and we get to witness existing character growth in a way we haven't before, without sacrificing the story in front of us.

Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the devastation of the city of Sokovia, and the continued missions of the Avengers team inevitably leading to collateral damage, the world's leaders have come together to sign the Sokovia Accords—a series of oversights placed on the activities of super-beings, with a proposal that defense of humanity be legislated by the United Nations. Avengers team leader, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), agrees with the Accord; Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) does not, particularly when his history with former best friend, the villainized Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), becomes a conflict of interest during a man-hunt for the soldier himself. But when the disagreement in strategy between Captain America and Iron Man shifts into an uncompromising feud—threatening all-out war—the rest of the Avengers must pick a side, or risk being collateral damage themselves.

When I say this is the most mature movie to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I wasn't being hyperbolic. As each character has settled into their respective story lines over the past decade, Marvel decided to pull together its most dynamic personalities—those whose histories have shaped this strange world and who struggle most with what it means to be a hero—and pitted them against each other. Their struggle is rooted in pride and vengeance, optimism versus pessimism, and we're all treated to a gut-wrenching turn of events that leaves the friendship between Cap and Iron Man completely splintered. And it's done through the perfect escalation of action, conflict, and humor.

There are enough light-hearted moments that remind you, despite the anger and pride swelling inside our heroes, it's not something they won't overcome, though they're unlikely to be same after this. The cameos and new character introductions in this movie are unreal, and what could have been gratuitous superhero overkill... wasn't. It worked. Because as the coalitions of each side—Cap v Iron Man—come together, it makes sense to bring in a few new recruits. All of this coalesces into one of the best action sequences of the series. Not just from Captain America, but all of the franchise.

Robert Downey Jr.'s years are starting to show, not unlike the very worn Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (who, by the way, has committed twice as much of his life—16 years—to his role than Downey Jr. has; no wonder he's ready to be done). Strangely enough, it adds a level of weight to the wear and tear Iron Man, as a leader of the Avengers, has had to endure. Tony Stark has evolved exponentially since we first met him eight years ago, so contrast that with the never-aging Chris Evans, not to mention the consistently self-righteous cross that Cap feels he must bear, and you have a spectacularly evolved conflict of personalities.

On the supporting cast side of things, Anthony Mackie as Falcon finally gets his moment to shine, and after a brief but underwhelming appearance in last year's Ant-Man, he's actually finding his place in this franchise with a truckload of meaty material to work with. Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch is also a standout (despite that Russian accent I can't get over), with much of the dramatic development revolving around her instability. The movie does a wonderful job in setting up the future relationships that will likely develop without committing too much screen time to it and distracting us from the Man of the Hour. Everybody gets their moment, and while the movie isn't a time-flying breeze to get through, it feels important, like big things are happening and it's worth the time it takes to get there.

Not all is perfect in Marvel-land, though, despite this being easily the best Captain movie of the bunch. With a climactic Act One car/foot chase that devolved into a Bourne Ultimatum/Paul Greengrass-style mess of shakey-cam running through the streets, the connection to the characters and the fight they were fighting was temporarily lost. It made me angry and dizzy. And while I was thankful for the eventual shift back to a clear and smooth camera choreography later on—a style that suits the shiny chrome gloss of the series—you can't help but feel this film was directed by two very different people.

And lo' and behold! It kind of was! Unfortunately for the Russo Brothers (Anthony & Joe), there was a consistency problem—but only with their filmmaking. Add in the bevy of Instagram-ready, hipster-typography title cards stamped gigantically across the screen every time we changed location (which was often), one might suspect the directing duo cared more about style than they did about substance.

But you know who didn't have a consistency problem? The writers (Christopher MarkusStephen McFeely). That script never faltered, not even once. The stakes felt higher than the usual Marvel fare, maybe because this time, the breakdown was happening within the Avengers group. The two most defined characters in the franchise got equal play in this story that expanded both of their worlds, in both personal and super-human ways. Now, there could be an argument that Captain America risked being overshadowed in his own movie—a prospect that DC films are all too familiar with (*cough*The Dark Knight*cough*)—and you wouldn't be wrong to anticipate that possibility.

Where the film goes right, though, is in making you not care. The development is steady, and the world feels richer because Cap isn't the only cog making the machine work. I truly believe that, while there are movies in this franchise I've enjoyed more, everything Marvel has accomplished was leading to this movie, because all of their many puzzle pieces came together.

The biggest challenge for Marvel moving forward, however, is how to manage this overflow of new characters. Sure, they're all delightful in their own right (and the stellar acting talent they keep bringing in doesn't hurt), but eventually, the fat may need to be trimmed. I'm not sure who, yet, falls into that "must shed" category, but considering the slate of Marvel Universe films coming out over the next 4 years... we may see some of the most steadfast faces fall by the wayside. At the very least, this time around, we get to watch them come together in the most hero-packed film so far.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

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