Monday, May 9, 2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR Is the Pinnacle of the Marvel Shared-Cinematic-Universe Experiment


- CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the new pinnacle of the Marvel Studios movie model. You've got to sort of step back and admire all of the things that this movie accomplishes in one fell swoop. It successfully caps off a trilogy of way-better-than-anyone-expected Captain America movies. It successfully serves as a culmination of slowly-building Avengers-related storylines from the last couple of Cap, Iron Man, and Avengers films. It successfully sets the stage for the next set of Marvel movies - including the next Avengers, Black Panther, and Spider-Man. Those last two are particularly remarkable. CIVIL WAR leaves fans chomping at the bit for a Black Panther solo film - desperate for more from a character who many likely have never heard of prior to this movie. And it single-handedly resurrects Sony's struggling Spider-Man franchise, making Spider-Man awesome again in about fifteen minutes. Sony execs have to be ecstatic at the major solid that Marvel just did for them (note to FOX: let Marvel take over Fantastic Four in a similar fashion - you know it's the right thing to do). And so, on a big-picture, meta level - CIVIL WAR is a pretty amazing accomplishment. But it's also a damn good movie. It's a testament to how a big blockbuster tentpole can juggle a ton of characters and sub-plots yet still feel thematically and tonally cohesive. The movie's got some of the most epic action scenes ever seen in a superhero movie. It's got a cast of dozens of heroes - old and new. It's setting up tons of stuff for future movies, and paying off tons of stuff from previous movies. But it somehow all works, because the film's central conflict is rooted in character in a way that makes sense - with clear stakes and a satisfying mix of gravitas and fun. This is what happens when there is a guiding hand overseeing a fictional universe - one that truly gets the characters, that has a vision for where this is all going and why.

CIVIL WAR picks up after the events of Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, quickly throwing us into the heat of battle as we follow Cap and his new Avengers in Sarkovia, trying to stop the totally unhinged Crossbones (Frank Grillo's character from the previous Cap movies - now sporting full super-villain regalia) from acquiring a deadly bio-weapon. But things go south when The Scarlet Witch uses her powers to stop Crossbones and save Cap's life - she ends up inadvertently destroying an entire section of a high-rise in the process. The fallout of the damage leads to The Avengers coming under scrutiny from the government, in particular from a returning General "Thunderbolt" Ross. The US - and the U.N. - want the Avengers to become an officially-sanctioned and accountable organization. Tony Stark feels that cooperating is the best and only way to keep the Avengers active. But Steve Rogers has his doubts. Since waking up in the modern era, Cap's become skeptical of government, and worried that he could be made to betray his values in order to serve someone else's agenda. Tensions become further strained when Cap's former best friend - Bucky, aka The Winter Soldier - re-surfaces, and becomes the target of a government manhunt. Cap, convinced that the old Bucky is still there beneath the years of brain re-wiring he underwent, is determined to find and exonerate his pal. But doing so puts him directly at odds with Iron Man and the new, government-friendly Avengers. This internal conflict fractures the team into two distinct factions. In order to get to The Winter Solider, Cap must go through Stark and those loyal to him.

The central conflict between Cap and Iron Man is handled extremely well here. In an ideal world, we'd get even more time understanding the two characters' clashing ideologies. But the movie gets a lot of mileage out of every scene, and the face-off is set up in a way that makes sense and feels true to the characters. What's impressive is that both characters' points of view make sense. Steve Rogers, the idealist, sees the Avengers as having - as needing to have - a truer moral compass than any government. Stark, the realist, sees compromise as a necessary evil towards progress. What nicely muddles things though is that, generally, it might be easier to side with Cap. But when it comes to Bucky, Cap is clearly letting his emotions override his sense of duty and justice. He stubbornly sets off to save The Winter Soldier, on a slim hope that Bucky is being set-up as a fall guy, that the old Winter Soldier is no more, that the old Bucky is still buried somewhere beneath the emotionless killing machine he'd been transformed into. So while this is Cap's movie - while we are inclined to root for him and his faith in his friend - there are sections of the movie where you can't help but side with Tony Stark. And you've got to give credit to CIVIL WAR for giving their battle some layers, some complexity. Contrast that to the "Hey, let's fight! No, let's be friends." clash-of-wills that drives this summer's *other* big hero-vs.-hero movie, and CIVIL WAR looks that much better by way of comparison.

The clash between Cap and Iron Man also leads to some absolutely phenomenal action sequences - including the centerpiece airport smackdown that might just be the coolest superhero battle yet put to film. I can't say enough about this sequence - it really felt like an all-time great comic book action scene come to life - except that even the comic books rarely do big action as right as this. This is a sequence where every action beat tells a story, where every line of dialogue is on-point. Superheroes pair off for dream match-ups. But even as funnier and lighter-hearted scuffles occur around the periphery of the battle, there is a seriousness at the center of it all that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The airport sequence is a testament to how good writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are, and how freaking great The Russo Brothers are at directing these films.

Let's talk about the Russos. In The Winter Soldier, they departed fairly drastically from the first Cap movie. That first film was a two-fisted World War II adventure (and for that, I loved it). But the second film took on the vibe of a 70's conspiracy-thriller - delivering great action and superheroics, but also keeping the action rooted in a tension-packed atmosphere of paranoia and distrust. In CIVIL WAR, the brothers further expand this series' stylistic palate. The film carries over some of the vibe of Winter Soldier - it certainly feels like a direct sequel to that movie more so than Winter Soldier was to The First Avenger. But if I had to describe CIVIL WAR's vibe with one word, it'd probably be: Marvel. The movie partially maintains the spy/international intrigue trappings of Winter Soldier, but just expands and grows to become something much bigger and crazier and comic book-y. As many great comic books do (particularly the big crossover events), CIVIL WAR keeps bringing in disparate elements into its world, and having fun with the fact that all of these big mythic characters and ideas all exist in the same universe. By the time we get to that airport battle, the movie is operating on a level of sheer grin-inducing comic book euphoria, because we're not just seeing characters duke it out - we're seeing worlds collide. The Russos seem to effortlessly blend the movie's different type of action together, in a way that gives different sequences huge stylistic contrasts. The early scenes in Sarkovia have a Winter Soldier vibe - quick-cutting, neck-breaking action. Later, we meet Black Panther, and he's got his own unique fighting style - cat-like, vicious. And then that airport scene is just pure comic book splash-page - huge, epic, larger-than-life.

At the same time, what's so admirable about CIVIL WAR is that it takes its time between the big action set-pieces, and makes sure to devote scenes to the quieter (but crucially important) character stuff. There's one scene towards the end of the movie - involving Daniel Bruhl's villainous Zemo - that I almost couldn't believe was in a mainstream superhero movie. It was quiet, poetic, contemplative. It was a scene that Bruhl acted the hell out of. The fact that CIVIL WAR makes time for these sorts of moments is exceptional.

Those moments - the whole movie - work so well because this cast is just damn good. In some of the Marvel movies, it's been easy to forget the caliber of actors that are now a part of this universe. But man, CIVIL WAR - maybe more so than any of the Marvel movies to date - is a reminder of how great these guys can be. I've been a champion of Chris Evans since he shocked me in The First Avenger - but now, older and wiser, it's clear that he's really grown into the role of Steve Rogers - now really feeling like an iconic elder statesman and leader. Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, turns in what may be his best overall performance as Tony Stark. RDJ has always been awesome at embodying Stark's quick-wit and charm, but here he gives him a real emotional core - this is a guy being pushed to his limits, at the end of his rope - desperately trying to keep both his team and his life together. Sebastian Stan is another real stand-out. In Winter Soldier he was mostly a silent badass. Here, he's got some great, memorable moments. Stan completely sells Bucky Barnes' inner turmoil - his joy at getting to pal around again with Cap, his torment at knowing that he has committed atrocities while not fully in control of his own faculties. Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch was a little iffy for me in Age of Ultron, but here, she's fantastic. Scarlet Witch is great here - she has her own, crucial arc that's played to perfection by Olsen. And her relationship with The Vision? So good. Paul Bettany kills it here, getting to play The Vision as more than just an AI, but a still-learning almost-human being trying to make sense of his budding feelings for Scarlet Witch.

And by the way ... the movie's Vision/Scarlet Witch arc? Emotion vs. logic? Putting personal relationships over duty to the team? See how it pretty much perfectly fits into the movie's larger thematic storytelling? That's why all these different characters and subplots work so perfectly in concert.

But going back to the cast for a second ... I think this is the first Marvel movie where I was actually reminded how good of an actor Don Cheadle can be. And Anthony Mackie. Scarlett Johansson seems rejuvenated, doing a great job of positioning The Black Widow as a woman caught between two friends, unsure of who to side with and keeping her true intentions close-to-the-vest. Age of Ultron didn't do Hawkeye many favors, but Jeremy Renner gets to show-up and be really fun and cool and likable here. Paul Rudd gets some of the movie's best and funniest moments. I thought the Ant-Man movie was pretty good, but Ant-Man in CIVIL WAR kicks ass.

Speaking of kick-ass ... Black Panther. Chadwick Boseman is another great actor who gets to be a great actor in CIVIL WAR. The prince of the fictional monarchy of Wakanda, Boseman's Panther is regal, contemplative, dogged. When he goes into action-mode, Black Panther is a sight to behold. But even out-of-costume, Boseman makes the character shine. And again, the movie's strong writing makes sure that the character isn't simply shoehorned in to the narrative. His arc of personal loss and revenge is a huge catalyst for the big events of the film, and yet another strong thematic parallel to the main Cap vs. Iron Man conflict.

The one character who is *maybe* a little shoehorned in is Spider-Man. But everything involving Spider-Man in CIVIL WAR is so good that it's hard to really care. And the character does serve a real purpose beyond simply hyping up his upcoming solo film. Because this Spider-Man, played by young, fresh-faced Tom Holland, is the perfect newbie to throw into the clash of established heroes. Spider-Man brings a sense of awe and wonder (and a strong supply of great, often hilarious quips) to the big battles - but his gee-whiz attitude is the perfect way to give those big fight scenes some street-level sense of perspective. Holland is great - a total natural. He feels like a kid from Queens who might actually be Spider-Man. His casting feels like a stroke of destiny. The scenes of him, as plain old Peter Parker, in his Aunt May's (Marissa Tomei!) dumpy apartment, feel so spot-on and authentic and perfect. And the movie takes such a clear joy in introducing Spider-Man to the larger Marvel universe that it's totally infectious. Seeing Peter Parker awkwardly confront RDJ's Tony Stark, or get the NYC born-and-bred seal of approval from Captain America - I mean, come on, this is geek-out material of the highest order.

I'll also mention Daniel Bruhl, who, as mentioned, plays the movie's sinister puppet-master Zemo. Like many, I became a big Bruhl fan following his phenomenal turn in the movie Rush. The guy is good, and he's great here as Zemo. The thing is, Zemo is not the kind of villain you might expect. This is not the raving-lunatic, pink-spandex-wearing supervillain from the comics (at least not yet), nor is he comparable to other Marvel movie big-bads. This is a much more understated role and a more subdued sort of villain - but I really dug that about the character and Bruhl's performance. Bruhl's Zemo is a unique, tragic character who I hope we see more of in future films.

Now, there is so much going on in CIVIL WAR that, inevitably, the movie suffers from some moments that feel rushed or that don't-quite-make-sense. It's the very rare big action movie these days where the plot actually feels 100% airtight (I will give a shout-out to Kingsman: The Secret Service for being one such film), but I've never stopped holding out hope for a supervillain scheme that actually holds up to any sort of scrutiny. The fact is, Zemo's plans in CIVIL WAR are ultimately a bit questionable - with a million lucky occurrences having to happen for his plans to have a shot of working. Again - sort of part and parcel for big superhero movies at this point ... but CIVIL WAR is so close to perfection that it would have been amazing if it had stuck the landing in this regard. By the same token, the movie sort of pushes things too far in its climactic final showdown between Cap and Iron Man. No spoilers, but RDJ's final bout of berzerker rage just feels too contrived to fully buy into. Evans and RDJ both do a fantastic job of selling each character's determination and grief in that final battle - but it seems to come at a point when cooler heads should probably have prevailed. As good as the movie's script is - for the most part - it seems to grasp at straws a bit in order to set up that final confrontation.

But CIVIL WAR does so many things resoundingly right that it's hard to dwell too much on the few instances where it falters. This is a movie that feels like the strongest argument to date for why Marvel is doing things the right way - for why their shared universe is the gold standard for cinematic shared universes. What Marvel nails above all else is that they capture the essence of why people love these characters and what makes these characters great. The fact that Black Panther and Spider-Man resonate so much in CIVIL WAR - with so little relative screen-time - is proof positive of the Marvel magic that the studio currently possesses. So is the fact that a movie starring Captain America - a character who was a joke to the general populace in the not-so-distant past - just had the fifth highest-grossing opening weekend of all time. For all the fireworks in CIVIL WAR, the heart of this particular series - the journey of Steve Rogers - has been handled with remarkable skill by the Marvel braintrust. Credit to the Russo Brothers, to Chris Evans, and to Marvel for (excuse the phraseology) making Cap great again. The success of this movie is well-deserved.

My Grade: A-

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