Wednesday, May 18, 2016

SUPERIOR SHOWDOWN: a review of "Captain America: Civil War"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Screenplay Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo
***1/2 (three and a half stars) 

Now this is how you get the job done!

In the continuing rivalry between the building and on-going cinematic universes of Marvel and DC, Marvel remains the clear victor. Yes, Marvel has had a several years worth of a head start but even from the very beginning with Director Jon Favreau's inaugural "Iron Man" (2008), the Marvel Cinematic Universe was initiated and has remained committed to producing a collective of films of overall high quality, substance and high flying entertainment that leaves audiences more than ready for the next installment in this collection of interlocking, serialized episodes.

Yes, I have grumbled often about the sheer prevalence of these superhero movies and the assembly line nature of their output at the expense of other films that could be made. But, aside from a couple of underwhelming features, the Marvel films have insisted upon maintaining a certain high standard that I do appreciate greatly as they not only keep me coming back for more, but it does seem as if the filmmakers have been studying their own work, the criticisms as well as the praise in order to learn from any past missteps.

"Captain America: Civil War," the third (somewhat) solo entry of our red, white and blue clad and mighty shield wielding hero is easily one of the best Marvel entries to date, strongly extending from all that has arrived before while paving a provocative path for its future. Returning to the Director's Chairs are the Russo Brothers, who helmed the excellent "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014) and unlike Writer/Director Joss Whedon's strong but straining "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" (2015), these filmmakers feel to be more than up to the challenge of executing what is known to be Phase 3 of the Marvel films, they seem to be positively invigorated by it. What we have received is a superhero film that certainly delivers considerable bang for our buck but more than any pyrotechnics, the Russo Brothers have ensured that "Captain America: Civil War" never falls off of the rails into mindless CGI bombast at the expense of characters, story and interior motivations, and surprisingly, it feels as if the filmmakers have explored their own destructive tendencies to a most refreshing and stirring degree.

Continuing from the previous installments, "Captain America: Civil War" finds Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), still consumed with locating his childhood friend turned brainwashed terrorist Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). As the film opens, Rogers and the Avengers who include Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), are on a mission in Lagos, Nigeria as they attempt to stop the theft of a biological weapon from a laboratory. Unfortunately, the mission concludes in chaos as innocent civilians are killed during the melee.

Back home in Avengers headquarters, the team now joined by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Lt. James "Rhodey" Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Vision (Paul Bettany), meet with U.S. Secretary Of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) who brings the group to task for all of the destruction, violence and loss of innocent lives in the events from "Avengers" (2012), "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Avengers: Age Of Ultron."

The Avengers are presented with an ultimatum: Sign the newly drawn Sokovia Accords, a U.N. document that will establish a U.N. committee that will oversee the actions of the team or retire. Stark, consumed with guilt and remorse (plus considerable PTSD) agrees to the team being regulated while Rogers refuses, a course of action that divides the team, especially when a terrorist attack in Vienna that kills King T'Chaka of Wakanda (John Kani), the Father of T'Challa/The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), implicates the fugitive Bucky Barnes.

As The Avengers take separate sides and turn against each other, they are also unaware of a secretive puppet master behind the scenes in Sokovian colonel turned terrorist Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl).

With the now thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe upon us, Anthony and Joe Russo's "Captain America: Civil War" is one of the finest episodes to date and terrifically shows no signs of any creative strain or sluggishness whatsoever. The Russos merge comic book flight and fantasy with the grounded, gritty, propulsive realism and and two-fisted action of a 1970's espionage thriller or even elements from a "Jason Bourne" adventure to seamless effect through their tight direction which is fueled by a strong, perceptive and often witty screenplay, fine performances from the entire cast and never allowing the special effects to overwhelm the proceedings, ensuring they only enhance superbly (most notably, the terrific moment of seeing Robert Downey Jr. as young as he was in the 1980s).

Certainly, comparisons are inevitable between this film and Director Zack Snyder's "Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice," which arrived not even two months ago to serious critical and, to an extent, fan derision. And for my money, rightfully so. Where that film was a visually stunning feature with intermittently effective characters and moments (Ben Affleck's Batman easily being the strongest component), these elements were unfortunately surrounded by a muddled morass of unclear to stupid character motivations and a level of ear shattering bombast and unending violence that was bludgeoning and frankly, boring.

With "Captain America: Civil War," the Russos essentially get everything absolutely correct where Snyder went terribly wrong over and again. Essentially both films are almost the exact same movie as they each sport a "brother against brother" narrative fueled by themes of dangers of unregulated power, the consequences of violence and also, they explore how the burdens and sins of the parents fall squarely upon the shoulders of the now psychologically damaged adult children. But where Snyder had his film exist at the most basic, shallow level, where ultra-violence was the answer to every conceivable issue, the Russo brothers have injected healthy doses of nuance, coherence, subtleties and honest pathos to the continuing adventures of Captain America and his ever growing band of teammates and adversaries.

One major issue I had with Snyder's film plus his "Man Of Steel" (2013) was the feeling that despite the ambition and risk taking, it seemed that Snyder never really understood exactly who his main characters actually were in the first place by having them behave in ways that were contrary to their own comic book mythologies. With "Captain America: Civil War," the Russo brothers have also taken some liberties with some extremely familiar characters and their respective mythologies, but at the core, our heroes remain just as we have always known them, behave in ways that remain true to who they have always been, therefore making any conceptual risks work within the parameters of the story being told.

When confronted with the Sokovia Accords the the philosophical divide that occurs within our heroes, it was fascinating to me to see the perpetually rebellious Tony Stark agree to be reined in while the patriotic, all American Steve Rogers vehemently rejects the idea of government control in favor of having the unlimited freedom to make his own choices regarding his means of protecting the country (might this be a sly suggestion that our Cap is a Libertarian?).

But before the movie (and for that matter, the audience) can be simply divided into either "Team Iron Man" or Team Captain America," I deeply appreciated how the Russo brothers demonstrated that there are in fact, no easy answers as the shades of grey are extremely hick and even when sides are chosen, compromises always occur and the goal line is always moved.

For Tony Stark, the one of the Cheshire Cat grin, quick with a quip and armed with seemingly nine lives, the events of the past have come to take a...ahem...stark emotional toll. From surviving a voyage through a wormhole and cheating death only to emerge shaken with PTSD, to nearly losing the love of his life despite his greatest efforts to the contrary in Director Shane Black's "Iron Man 3" (2013), to seeing the virtual manifestation of his own hubris run amok with the unleashed Ultron, Tony Stark has seen the limitations and consequences of his own genius and arrogance, despite his best intentions. Now, he nearly finds himself in a period of defeat. By agreeing to sign the treatise, it is as if Stark feels that the best way to save the world would be to protect it from himself. And even still, despite his best efforts, he realizes that he is unable to bend the world to his will now that he is at odds with Steve Rogers, a relationship fraught with rivalry but one that has now revealed a deep friendship and reliance that threatens to find itself undone permanently.

For Steve Rogers, his reluctance and ultimate refusal to align himself with the treatise feels to make even more sense given his past in the 1940's where he was utilized as a symbol of government propaganda for the supposed "greater good" of the war effort in Director Joe Johnston's "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011). Combine his ambivalence with his friendship with Bucky Barnes, a relationship that provides a strong dramatic undercurrent to the character of Captain America, as Barnes truly represents the last piece of the life and time Rogers knew before being thawed out in the 21st century. Again, he is the ultimate "man out of time," a figure eternally displaced in a world he has adapted to but may not ever understand--meaning the only thing he is able to understand is his own moral compass, which will also forever be out of step with the times, including Tony Stark, despite their friendship.

Since their emotional states and motivations affect their alliances with each other, they also spiral to the motivations and alliances of their friends and teammates thus causing the split, which explodes in the film's dazzling centerpiece, an all out superhero brawl in an airport hanger--an excursion that could have been a conceptual disaster but beautifully brought me back to my inner 12-year-old as the Russo brothers made those Marvel comics pages burst to vibrant life. It is indeed hero again hero as current and former Avengers plus some surprising new arrivals mix it up to a deliriously enthralling effect. And even then, all of the fighting is story driven as the themes of alliances, violence and vengeance within all of the characters play off of each other. Captain America wants vengeance against those who captured and tortured his life long friend. Iron Man wants vengeance against all of his worst impulses and inner demons. Black Panther wants vengeance against Bucky Barnes for supposedly being responsible for the murder of his Father. Even Helmut Zemo's full arch stems from a place of vengeance and retribution.

With that, "Captain America: Civil War" becomes a two and a half hour exploration of the futility of vengeance, how violence begets violence, and how revenge does not lead to redemption. Nearly all of the characters within the film are wrestling with their own respective levels of guilt, remorse, responsibility and the dire consequences of their own actions, which only further mount in complexity and weight. Whereas by contrast, "Batman V. Superman:  Dawn Of Justice" strongly felt to exude the concept that violence is the only answer and it should be utilized by any and all means necessary, consequences be damned.
The Russo brothers are also wise enough to understand that every superhero film does not need to conclude in yet another yawn inducing apocalypse, as Zack Snyder seems to have not met an overlong, extended finale that he didn't like. In its own way, "Captain America: Civil War" grows quieter and more sobering by film's end. While the climax of the film is ferociously knuckle bruising, it is also a sequence of painful intimacy and revelation.

But hey...there is one--well, look...the most crucial difference between what the Russo brothers have delivered compared to Snyder's effort is that "Captain America: Civil War" is actually...FUN!!!!! For all of the serious themes, these are superheros and the Marvel films have always ensured that audiences will be given a terrific piece of entertainment, therefore we are entertained without sacrificing any substance or being crushed under its own conceptual weight. The Russo brothers keep all of the elements moving briskly and purposefully. I was immensely impressed that they were able to keep all of these costumed characters interesting and in control, unlike other comic book movies (like the "X-Men" series for me), where filmmakers have struggled and often felt to be shuffling characters from scene to scene not really knowing what to do with them.

By now, you are all aware that Spider-Man (now played enthusiastically by Tom Holland) has been re-booted for the third time in 14 years and believe me, I was more than worried that his addition to the proceedings would be one more hero too many. Surprisingly, it was a superb injection as we are now given possibly the youngest version of the wall crawler yet (and that also goes for Aunt May who is now played by the unbelievably foxy Marisa Tomei) and his boundless energy, agility and innocence, especially when contrasted with a figure like Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, made for terrific comedic banter, supplying the film with palpable lightness as well as signifying great promise for his own upcoming solo feature. Just as Joss Whedon accomplished with his two "Avengers" films, the Russo brothers have also ensured that ever character has their role and moments to play, no one is expendable or extraneous, and everyone combines to give the film the biggest, best punch we could ask for.

And at the core, it is the story of Steve Rogers whose life as Captain America is not treated as world weary burden or tortured pose, but as nothing less than his calling to do the right thing as he views it. If one is to join him on his quest, he is indeed grateful for the support but he is more than willing to walk the world alone if need be, thus providing that classic Marvel comic melancholy that always sits at the heart of their characters. "Captain America: Civil War" succeeds greatly as it firmly accomplishes what really feels to be a near impossibility in our superhero movie saturated more than satisfies while simultaneously leaves you wanting even more!

So, what else am I even left to say at this time but to conclude this review with a rallying cry of "MAKE MINE MARVEL!!"

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