Tuesday, May 03, 2016

"Captain America: Civil War": review

WARNING: it's impossible to discuss "Captain America: Civil War" without revealing a mess of spoilers, so please expect them. If you don't want the movie ruined for you, leave off here and come back after you've seen the film.

First things first: in keeping with the Marvel "Civil War" storyline, CAPTAIN AMERICA DIES.

Okay, I'm just fuckin' with you. He doesn't die.

Or does he??

No, seriously—he doesn't die.

As far as we know. But we'll miss him, the big lug.

Still just fuckin' with you.

The Plot

"Captain America: Civil War" (hereinafter CACW) is the latest entry in what is called the MCU: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. According to Wikipedia, it's the thirteenth MCU film and the first of "Phase Three," the chapter that will include the titanic Infinity War, set to happen as a two-movie event in 2018. Viewed within this larger context, CACW is a chance for the Avengers (and this is an Avengers movie, of sorts, despite the "Captain America" in the title) to acquire new team members and figure out just where they stand on one or two major issues. You can think of this film as a kind of shakedown cruise to work out all the interpersonal kinks that might diminish the effectiveness of the Avengers' teamwork. The only problem, as we soon discover, is that those "kinks" aren't merely minor problems: they're serious impediments to building trust. More on this later.

The shit-stirrer, in this case, is former US Army General—now Secretary of State—Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from "The Incredible Hulk," which starred Edward Norton as Bruce Banner*). Ross informs the Avengers that the world can no longer tolerate US-based superheroes who consistently violate other countries' sovereignty, and who cause enormous property damage along with the loss of innocent lives. Ross says the United Nations has drafted the Sokovia Accords, which provide for international oversight of the Avengers and other "enhanced" beings. Under the new laws, the Avengers would go only on missions approved by the UN oversight committee. Tony Stark, experiencing a crisis of conscience after an encounter with a mother (Alfre Woodard in a cameo) who lost a son in the Sokovia battle against Ultron, is all for the accords. Steve Rogers—our Captain America—is very much against the accords, and the Avengers begin to split along ideological lines recognizable to anyone who has followed American politics since 2001.

This ideological split runs deep enough to cause a fight among the Avengers, but along with this are a few other subplots that complicate the story. One subplot deals with Captain America's old friend Bucky Barnes, who was brainwashed and converted into the Winter Soldier. Barnes has been trying to fight through the brainwashing to recover as much of his old self as he can, but he can still be triggered and commanded to do evil things if a person possesses the book containing the Russian code words that, when spoken in sequence, will activate him. The guy with the code book is Colonel Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl of "Inglourious Basterds" and "Rush" fame), the movie's main villain. Zemo is an angry Sokovian who lost his family during the Ultron adventure; a bit like the Joker in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," Zemo wants to cause the Avengers to tear themselves apart from the inside. Part of his strategy involves framing Bucky Barnes for the death of King T'Chaka, ruler of the (fictional!) African country of Wakanda. T'Chaka is killed by a bomb while making a pro-peace speech before United Nations members in Vienna. His son, Prince T'Challa, is there at the bombing and swears vengeance on his father's murderer, which means T'Challa—who we find out later is the Black Panther—will be going after Barnes.

Things come to a head when it's discovered that Zemo is making for Siberia, possibly to unleash a hibernating platoon of other Winter Soldiers, all of whom received the same enhancing serum that Barnes had been given. One faction of the Avengers wants to go in pursuit of Barnes; another faction, led by Stark/Iron Man, is determined to bring the first group of Avengers in. A huge fight erupts at the airport at Leipzig-Halle (you doubtless saw parts of this fight in one or more of the movie's preview trailers). Not all of the Siberia-bound "renegade" Avengers make it to Russia, and not all of the pro-Accords Avengers come out of the fight unscathed: in particular, James Rhodes (War Machine, played by the always-excellent Don Cheadle) ends up crippled after The Vision accidentally blasts his mechanical suit's power source, causing Rhodes to plummet like a stone to the ground.

The focus narrows as the story moves to Siberia. It turns out that Zemo never had any intention of unleashing the rest of the Winter Soldiers on the world: instead, he kills them all while they're in their hibernacula. When Tony Stark appears along with Captain America and Bucky Barnes, Zemo plays the video footage of Stark's parents' deaths: Stark's parents had been brutally murdered by none other than Barnes, years ago, and to add insult to injury, Steve Rogers—Captain America—had known this but had kept this information from Stark. Furious, Stark attacks Barnes and Cap, and a much more personal, much more intense three-way fight occurs inside the Siberian compound. In the end, Cap manages to defeat Stark, but when Stark roars that Cap's vibranium shield had been made by the elder Stark, and that Cap doesn't deserve to have it, Cap drops the shield and leaves the scene without it.

T'Challa/Black Panther, meanwhile, has shadowed Cap in his own jet, and he finds Zemo outside the compound in Siberia. Having learned the truth—that Barnes was not responsible for his father's bombing death—T'Challa realizes that his mad quest for revenge has taken him too far into darkness. He comes to this realization right as Zemo tries to kill himself: T'Challa stops Zemo and takes him back to custody.

The other renegade Avengers had been rounded up and placed in detention. Cap goes off to rescue them, but he writes Tony Stark an apologetic letter in which he tries to explain why he had withheld the information about Stark's parents' deaths. The letter ends on a conciliatory note. Stark is now back at the Avengers compound instead of at his own home, and we, the viewers, are left with no idea as to what's going to happen next. The movie ends on an ambiguous note: Bucky Barnes elects to be re-frozen in a Wakandan facility until some way can be found to de-program his brainwashing, and we have no idea whether the Avengers will ever be able to function as a team again, given their still-existing ideological divide.

The Review

CACW delivers the goods on several levels. There's plenty of action—one would almost say too much of it, especially during that drawn-out, over-the-top airport fight—and like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," this movie deals with overtly political themes in a generally deft, show-don't-tell manner. The acting by all the principals is well done; Paul Bettany as The Vision gets to experience some romantic awkwardness in his exchanges with Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch, played with an endearing Slavic accent by Elizabeth Olsen). There are moments of humor, especially whenever Ant-Man (the reliably hilarious Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (a young and earnest Tom Holland) are on scene. At one point during the airport battle, Spider-Man says what we've all been thinking as he watches Cap throw his vibranium shield around: "That thing does not obey the laws of physics." Damn right it doesn't, and I'm glad a character finally noticed.**

The action sequences were all lively and energetic; the chases were intense (especially the foot/car chase inside the tunnel, in which we see Bucky Barnes running as fast as most people are driving), and the fight choreography was imaginative, if not exactly surprising. (In my "Deadpool" review, I described Marvel-style hand-to-hand fighting as "gymno-combat," and I stand by that: it's a messy amalgam of martial-arts techniques and corny "Gymkata" moves that looks pretty while being utterly unrealistic. Unfortunately, there's also a certain sameness to all the fights once you start to see familiar moves repeated over and over.) As I noted earlier, the airport fight goes on a bit too long, mainly because the scene is so overstuffed with characters.

CACW also comes with this own complement of quirks, delights, and Easter eggs. One Easter egg is Peter Parker's computer: for a moment, you can see what appears to be a Deadpool background or screen-saver dominating the monitor. I think the Falcon (Sam Wilson, played by Anthony Mackie), in a moment of disgust, asks Spider-Man during the airport fight whether Spidey's webs are bodily emissions: "Is that stuff comin' out of you?"—one of the best lines in the film, as far as I'm concerned. Also, thankfully, Spider-Man doesn't have to rehash his origin story in this film the way poor Bruce Wayne has to relive his parents' murder in every damn movie involving Batman. And as for delights, well... we need look no further than the brilliant casting of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May (you know you're tempted to call her "Aunt Tomei"): at 51, Tomei is still amazingly hot, a fact that Tony Stark jokingly notes when he's having his private chat with Peter Parker in Parker's apartment. (Stark calls Aunt May "unusually attractive." The movie makes clear that Stark and his normal squeeze, Pepper Potts, are on a break. Possible plot line for a subsequent movie...?) Some online folks have been up in arms at the thought of a sexually arousing Aunt May, but other fans have been quick to point out that previous Aunt Mays have been so old as to be more like Great Aunt Mays than mere Aunt Mays. Tomei is a plausible age to be Peter's aunt.

The Captain America movies seem to have taken it upon themselves to be the more serious-minded issues movies in the MCU. "Winter Soldier" made American conservatives cry tears of joy in the way it questioned the surveillance state as well as governmental power, intrusiveness, and corruption. CACW's ideological conflict also breaks along liberal/conservative lines: one faction of the Avengers, the pro-Accords faction led by Tony Stark, is obviously transnational progressivist; the other faction, led by Captain America, believes in minimal governmental intrusion and rejects nanny-statism. In this scenario, Cap's people are the rogues and criminals.

The notion of placing superheroes under some sort of governmental authority goes back decades in the comics. My own encounter with the notion came in the mid-1980s, when I read Frank Miller's now-classic The Dark Knight Returns. The essential conflict between Batman and Superman, in that graphic novel, was much like the conflict between the Avengers' two factions in CACW: Superman has willingly become an agent and tool of the US government; he is an instrument who carries out policy rooted in US national interest. Batman, meanwhile, submits to no authority, which makes him the wild-card rogue in this scenario.*** Frank Miller's graphic novel hints that Superman's new role as a government pawn has taken a very dark turn: Oliver Reed—the Green Arrow—wants a piece of Superman because (and this is never explicitly stated, but it is very strongly implied) Superman ripped off one of Reed's arms to prevent him from ever using a bow again.****

So I give CACW credit for dealing with relevant political themes. I also liked the movie's continued exploration of the often-fraught relationship between and among the Avengers' members. Other themes, like friendship, anger, and forgiveness, came into play in a way that helped to humanize the characters (yes—even The Vision). These were all points that made CACW more than just a kid's movie.

But I also had some complaints. Perhaps because the authority theme is such a long-standing one in comic books, I had something of a "been there, done that" feeling while watching CACW's conflicts unfold. If anything, my mind traveled back to 2004's "The Incredibles," which also dealt with the destructiveness of superheroes, and the public's eventual rejection of that destructiveness: the citizens had obviously reached a point where they felt added danger was preferable to being "helped" by beings that can casually destroy skyscrapers and pound mountains flat.

And even though CACW put forth a conflict of ideologies, this conflict wasn't explored very deeply. Basically, the sequence was this: (1) the nations of the world decide they must bring the Avengers under transnational authority; (2) the team splits into recognizably progressive and conservative camps; (3) there's one big fight at a German airport in which nothing gets resolved; (4) there's a more personal fight that has nothing to do with this ideological conflict; (5) by the end of the movie, nothing has been settled. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing; as I've written before, my tolerance for ambiguity has increased as I've gotten older, and I don't mind that there might be loose ends. The next Avengers movie, though, is going to have to deal with this deep divide. If it doesn't—if it just pushes the storyline toward the Infinity War while pretending none of this ever happened—I'm going to be severely disappointed.

There were other problems as well. First, the musical score, which was a letdown. Composer Henry Jackman had done a bang-up job scoring "X-Men: First Class," but his music for CACW struck me as muddled and unmemorable—just some background clanging and banging with nothing distinctive going on, no themes to latch on to. Second, the subplot about another group of Winter Soldiers seemed full of promise... but then, Zemo went and killed all the soldiers in their sleep, turning that into a big dead end. Third: Zemo himself was a rather strange villain. As I wrote above, he reminded me of the Joker from Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," sowing chaos and causing friend to turn on friend. My coworker, who saw CACW over the weekend, also observed that Zemo's plotting seemed implausible because there were too many variables Zemo couldn't control. Fourth: there were some storytelling problems, possibly related to directorial choices. One such problem was Wanda Maximoff's accident in Nigeria at the beginning of the movie: she telekinetically lifts Crossbones (Brock Rumlow, played by the ever-intense Frank Grillo, who's rapidly becoming one of my new favorite character actors) into the air, but Crossbones's suicide vest explodes while he's floating next to a building, resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians. Couldn't Wanda have lifted him just a wee bit higher? She had all that open sky available to her. No? Another storytelling problem relates to the deaths of the Starks, who for some reason die on camera: some of those camera angles depicting the murders struck me as utterly implausible.

And while we're on the subject of the Winter Soldier, I should note that the on-and-off nature of his programming is reminiscent of something similar in two movies I'd recently seen: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II," and "Machete Kills" (to be reviewed soon). Both of these movies also feature people who either have been programmed to go bad at the wrong moment, or have gone loco and developed split personalities because of some horrific trauma. CACW, then, was the third time I'd seen that trope, so perhaps through no fault of their own, Bucky's psychological problems felt a bit repetitive to me.

One critic of CACW noted that Captain America's romantic subplot was "icky." I understood this to mean "icky" in an almost "Empire Strikes Back," Luke-kissing-his-sister sense. To wit: Cap finally shares a kiss with ex-SHIELD Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp; you'll recall that Carter was the agent pretending to be the next-door neighbor in "Winter Soldier"), but Carter turns out to be the niece of Peggy Carter, Cap's first love. The Cap-Sharon kiss happens not long after Peggy's death from old age, and I can see why it might seem strange for Cap to troll for Peggy's young, nubile relative right after Peggy herself has passed.

Black Panther was another problem. There were times when T'Challa seemed more shoehorned into the plot than an integral part of the story; this was most apparent during the Siberia segment: T'Challa follows Cap to the compound holding the hibernating Winter Soldiers, then he just disappears for a long stretch while Cap, Bucky, and Steve Rogers all fight. The African prince reappears after the fight is done, but only for that quiet discussion between him and Zemo, outside in the snow, before Zemo decides to try and kill himself.

Overall, I found CACW to be watchable, and even intense, but it had major flaws in terms of how it dealt with the conflicts it had laid out and how it told its story. There was deftly staged action and a good measure of humor, but some of the movie's problems were simply too big to ignore. In a recent tweet, I gave the film a 6 out of 10—just this side of positive. I'd be okay with watching it again, but if I don't rewatch it, I can live with myself.

UPDATE: I completely forgot to mention that, during the airport fight scene, I called "Empire Strikes Back" a few minutes before it actually happened. As Spider-Man and the grossly enlarged Ant-Man closed in for their mutual smackdown, I predicted that (1) Peter Parker was going to crack an "Empire" joke, and (2) he was going to attack Ant-Man using the "snowspeeder's tow cable" strategy, wrapping webbing around Ant-Man's legs to make him tumble. Not to say that this particular prediction required any astuteness on my part: if anything, I suppose that I and the film's screenwriters are of roughly the same generation, so we're all inevitably prone to making Star Wars references.

*William Hurt himself claims the role isn't a reprise: it's more like a reboot. Fair enough, but he is playing the same Thaddeus Ross who had, several films ago, dedicated himself to pursuing the Hulk.

**You could argue, in one-upsman fashion, that there's plenty that defies the laws of physics in these superhero movies, and I'd agree.

***This is what made "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" so bizarre for me: at the end of that movie, it's Batman who hints at the establishment of the Justice League. Really? Batman? Batman the loner?

****In Miller's story, Reed functions just fine as a one-armed Green Arrow. There's also the fact that Reed could probably have gotten himself a robotic arm from Bruce Wayne or someone else. Ripping off Reed's arm thus comes across as a gratuitously cruel act, enough to make the reader wonder just how far over Superman has crossed to the dark side.



Charles said...

Only commenting on this now because I just saw this yesterday.

I enjoyed it in general, although I agree with your coworker that Zemo's plot was way too complicated and relied on things happening that he could never have predicted. In particular: How did he know that Stark would follow Cap and Barnes to the Siberian complex. Everything hinged on that! The UN bombing to frame Barnes was more reasonable--but it only seems so because we know that T'Challa is (or would become) the Black Panther. Did Zemo know this? If so, how? Even without this knowledge, the plot is still reasonable, as it does get the world (and the Avengers) searching for Barnes, but it's not quite as clever as it appears.

And I agree about the camera angles in the Starks' death scene. First of all, why is there a camera there in the first place? If you look at the crash (which we see three times, I think), it's obvious that there is no building there that would need a security camera. Even if there was a building lurking in the shadows, Barnes causing the car to crash at that exact point would be quite a stretch. A camera on his motorcycle would make more sense, but wouldn't have been positioned properly to catch the action. A body cam would make even more sense, but would of course not show the face of the person doing the shooting.

All that aside, though, even assuming that there is a building lurking in the shadows (two, actually, because I think we see wide footage of the crash from two different angles) that has a security camera trained on that exact spot, the camera moves. Not just in terms of panning and zooming, which would make no sense for a stationary security camera, but actually moving like a handheld camera. The whole thing was just ridiculous.

So, yeah, I enjoyed the film overall, and I don't think I was bothered as much by the repetitiveness of some of the fight choreography, but just about every aspect of Zemo's final plot made no sense at all. It really annoyed me and took me out of the film. True, absurd plots that rely on a chain of events over which the villain has no control and cannot possibly predict are stock-in-trade for the film industry, but it still annoys me every time I see it.

Charles said...

Oh, and another thing I thought of: I've seen a number of sites now sporting lists of "easter eggs" in the film (term in quotes because most of these are "references," not easter eggs--not everything has to be an easter egg, guys), yet none of them have mentioned that Tony Stark/Aunt May flirting is actually a reference to RDJ and Marisa Tomei's fling in the 1994 film "Only You."

Kevin Kim said...

Good thoughts, all.

Yeah, Zemo's plotting was contrived, and I don't think it was as well done as the Joker's plotting was in "The Dark Knight." Part of the reason is that, at least for me, the Joker isn't entirely an earthly being: there's something weird and eerily miraculous about his insanity, and I think both Nolan and Burton were at pains to enfold their Jokers in an aura of implausibility that suggested this unnaturalness (e.g., Jack Nicholson's just standing there while the Batwing came at him, guns blazing—something echoed by Heath Ledger's "Hit me! Hit me!" moment in Nolan's film, when the Batcycle came at him with guns blazing).

Interestingly, there's a YouTube video devoted to the "four major plot holes" in "Civil War," and your beef about Zemo/Stark is one of them.

Your Downey/Tomei reference goes way, way down the rabbit hole, at least for me, especially since I never saw "Only You."

Charles said...

Yeah, I don't think the Venn diagram of "MCU fans" and "Only You fans" has a very large overlap. I only know about the latter because HJ likes the film.