Film Review: CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, William Hurt, Marisa Tomei, Daniel Bruhl
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Produced by Kevin Feige
Cinematography by Trent Opaloch
Edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt
Music by Henry Jackman
Interestingly, Disney and Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which opens in the U.S. on Friday, May 6, 2016, follows the same basic plot and story structure as March, 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”—in which superheroes cause public death and destruction, superheroes are subsequently ostracized and criticized by society, the government tries to rein in the superheroes, the superheroes become vigilantes, and the superheroes end up fighting each other and stock villains. However, “Civil War” neatly, cleanly and entertainingly manages to succeed on every filmic level where “Dawn of Justice” flatly, loudly failed, thus resulting in a surprisingly rousing, fun, enjoyable, well-produced, well-directed, well-acted and, most importantly, funny popcorn blockbuster superhero and comic book film.
Where “Dawn of Justice” was muddled, confusing, loud, over-done, overloaded, noisy and burdened by overall disjointed and cluttered writing, direction and production and resoundingly dour, dark and depressing mood, tone and presentation, “Civil War” flips that mess on its head, and is more positive, upbeat, optimistic, breezy, lighter and brighter—in terms of mood, look, lighting, camera work, script, acting and presentation. The movie is full of tongue-in-cheek humor, sarcasm, in-jokes, regular jokes, and nods to the reality that fantasy and superhero movies have this inherent pop-culture bizarreness, goofiness and craziness, even in light of the suspension-of-disbelief fantasy and sci-fi imaginative worlds that these films reside in. Sometimes, even superheroes have to make fun of themselves.
“Civil War” also somehow manages to present a focused, clear, easy-to-comprehend and tightly-wound story, plot, screenplay and structure, even though the film is almost—just almost–overloaded by a cast that seems to continually get bigger by the minute, an abundance of special effects-laden set-pieces, over-the-top action, and the generally somewhat clichéd and cringy aspects of superheroes fighting among themselves instead of fighting interesting, bizarre and just plain crazy super-villains.
But it needs to be noted that “Civil War” does not collapse or crumble under any of these conventions—the film succeeds, again, despite of itself. And that’s a compliment, because, in some ways, “Civil War” does not really present anything strikingly new, original or inventive, and the film is a popcorn entertainment, and there is a cast that possibly could have been smaller, there are some clichés—but, darn it, it’s so fun, funny, entertaining and earnest in its desires to entertain, to be liked, to satisfy fanboy and fangirl sensibilities, to satisfy general audiences’ sensibilities, and to provide a welcome diversion to real life up on the screen, audiences cannot help but like or even love this film. “Civil War” is a great example of somehow putting all of the stock pieces of a popular entertainment together in the right manner, not skimping, putting everything up on the screen, providing a decent, understandable story, presenting positive and likeable characters, providing amazing and breathtaking special effects, and making it all work in a comprehensible, diverting, fast-paced and likeable manner.
It is a nod to the talents of directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, producer Kevin Feige and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that they somehow managed to keep the story clear and manageable, have things less dark and depressing, include plenty of that humor—and to wrangle such a large cast in so many ways—and not have anyone falter by misplaying their roles, over-stepping their roles, hogging the limelight, being too dark, being too serious, or forgetting the craziness factor and forgetting to be in on the joke, and to make a joke or two. Regularly, to the film’s credit, even in the midst of battle, someone takes the time to stop and make a joke. “I could do this all day,” Captain America (Chris Evans) says during one particular fight that almost approaches weariness when it becomes clear that none of the superheroes fighting the fight appears to be winning or losing. When these too-long fight scenes happen—and they do happen far too often in these types of movies—the viewers, even the fanboys, become irritated and exhausted. Yet, in “Civil War,” there is a humor break, and that lightens the proceedings and puts a temporary halt to the irritation and exhaustion.
At another moment, a yet-again re-booted Spider-Man (a young, energetic and youthful Tom Holland, who is not the film director from the eighties) appears (this is not a spoiler, as this has been in the media for ages) and provides several minutes of goofy, tongue-in-cheek superhero humor, lightening up the proceedings (this is a major theme for “Civil War,” so that will be noted repeatedly) just at the right time. And a major set of kudos and thanks needs to be extended to the filmmakers for including the actually inventive, original and distinctive Ant-Man superhero (an underused Paul Rudd here), one of the more goofy, funny and just plain silly–but in a good way—superheroes. Ant-Man—we’re in the superhero fantasy and sci-fi world here, so please bear with this—is able to make himself as small as an ant or as large as one of those stilted, stumbling iron giants of so many awful Asian superhero sci-fi films. During the same climatic fight scene where Spider-Man swings around cracking jokes, Ant-Man alternately becomes the size of an ant and invades fellow superheroes’ elaborate fight suits, and he increases in size to the point where he slowly destroys a huge plane. In a good way, the viewer just has to laugh at all of this.
There is other, more macho, tough-guy humor that’s not as broad or goofy, but the humor still serves to lighten up the proceedings at just the right time. The leader in this type of tactic, of course, was the Bond franchise filmmakers, who made sure to include humor, in-jokes, tongue-in-cheek moments, clever comments and asides at just the right moments in what are essentially spy, action, sci-fi and fantasy films, to provide comic relief and relieve the suspense and tension. Steven Spielberg also borrowed this—he has said that the Bond films were a major influence—in his Indiana Jones franchise, giving Jones similar asides at just the right moments to break the tension. Good superhero, action, sci-fi, spy and fantasy films can include some well-placed humor, jokes and even silliness—if done correctly—at just the right moments to provide a quick laugh, and that is what “Civil War” accomplishes so well. That humor may well be the saving grace and high point of the film, despite all of its other positive attributes.
In “Civil War,” during a mission to stop villain Brock Lumlow (Frank Grillo) from stealing a dangerous biological weapon, the Avengers—for the unitiated, a group of superheroes with enhanced abilities that set them apart from society–accidentally blow up a building, killing several innocent humanitarian workers. This, of course, mirrors events in the recent “Superman” movies, in which Superman, also trying to stop a villain, also destroyed a building, also apparently killing innocent people. Thus, in both movies, the international community responds in outrage, demanding some type of action be taken against the superheroes. In “Civil War,” a whopping 117 countries agree to sign an accord that would place The Avengers under United Nations and international governance, ending the group’s ability to operate individually, outside of government control. These moves are viewed by about half of the Avengers group as too restrictive, and the group’s de facto leader, Captain America, or Steve Rogers, opposes the accord. A team of Avengers supports Rogers and the group’s independence. However, Tony Stark, the billionaire industrialist and defense contractor played so ably and strongly by Robert Downey, Jr.—again, with just the right bits of snark, sarcasm, inside-joking and world weariness that deflates the character’s ego just a bit and grounds him just a bit—supports the accord and ends up squaring off against Rogers with other Avengers.
Meanwhile, while the Avengers fight amongst themselves and debate and discuss world politics, civil disobedience, crime-fighting, do-gooding, the morality of fighting against evil, good-versus-evil, a bit of geo-politics, the role of government in superhero crimefighting and other weighty, superhero-world intellectual matters, while also somewhat crazily beating the living manure out of each other around the planet, causing the somewhat ridiculous destruction of roads, cars, buildings, planes and other infrastructure that would likely cost billions of dollars to repair—even in a fantasy and sci-fi world—there’s a crazed psycho on the loose who could pose a danger of letting loose a team of dangerous villains.
Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is running around the globe causing mayhem by controlling the actions of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and, apparently, by attempting to let loose that team of villains—essentially, psycho soldiers—and by causing the Avengers to turn against themselves. It should be noted that this also directly parallels the story and plotline of “Dawn of Justice,” in which Lex Luthor is creating a new psycho glob-thing called Doomsday and is plotting to turn Batman against Superman. The plots are so similar in both movies that, somewhere along the line, if you closed your eyes during one or both films, you could forget which one you’re watching.
As Zemo plots his doom, death and destruction, the Avengers fight each other. The Avengers physically and mentally fight; they fight against the government accord by going renegade and underground; and they try to stop Zemo by tracking his movements and plans. Additonlly, the Avengers also try to stop the imprisonment of Barnes, who is accused of all sorts of mayhem; work to avenge the death of a king who was killed by terrorists at a United Nations meeting (once again, literally mirroring a scene in “Dawn of Justice” in which numerous innocent people are killed by a terrorist at a meeting on Capitol Hill); and work to stop the release of the psycho soldiers, also known as winter soldiers.
Too much, too crazy, too ridiculous, too overloaded, too depressing, too corny, goofy and silly? Reading the above graphs—which generally skim over and generalize the plot, subplots, backstory and specific details of the over-riding, film-by-film story—one could think so. But, once again, with strong direction that keeps things moving at a swift, well-paced, well-edited and well-staged pace; keeps the story, plot and subplots cohesive and clear; keeps that balance of action, set-pieces, special effects and humor; keeps the dialogue loaded with those in-jokes and asides; and remembers to provide some spectacular set design, production design, cinematography, costuming and action sequences amid the geo-political talk, the Russos keep things moving, light and entertaining. As always, special kudos and credits need to go to the literally hundreds of special effects artists and companies who work so hard and long to bring these set-pieces and effects to the screen—their work in “Civil War” is excellent. The film also has a story that takes the viewer to various locations around the globe (even if many of the scenes, er, may not necessarily have been actually shot around the globe, thanks to sound stages, CGI and special effects), providing a bit of Bond-like exotic-locale location flair and style.
The crazy cast of characters includes so many superheroes, the film does risk over-loading in this area, but credit must be given to the stellar cast of actors, who provide strong screen presence, credibility, believability and general acting abilities in portraying, well, comic book superheroes who fly through the air in metal suits, produce fire from their hands, fly like human jetpacks, shoot spider-like webbing from their wrist, move objects with their minds, produce sudden force fields that stop bullets and projectiles, become small, become big, and leap tall buildings in single bounds (wait—well, that’s “Dawn of Justice” and “Civil War,” too). Chris Evans keeps it alternately light and superhero-macho as Rogers/Captain America; Downey, Jr., makes Tony Stark likeable despite his arrogance, government buddiness, acute self-awareness and tinge of snottiness and snobbery; Don Cheadle is strong in a small role as a Stark partner; Holland entertains as the third actor to play Spider-Man in the last fifteen years, and, it should be noted, he channels Toby Maguire’s previous, lauded turn as Spider-Man by recalling Maguire’s similar befuddled, teenage mix of awkwardness and invincibility; Scarlett Johansson basically, well, being beautiful and spy-like as a supporting superhero; Rudd’s funny, inventive Ant-Man; Elizabeth Olsen, looking good and acting tough as a character known as the Scarlet Witch; and Daniel Bruhl excels as, again, a quite Bond-like super-villain who achieves that rare, difficult feat of being the main villain, but also being consistently watchable, interesting, scary and strangely entertaining. Bruhl, again, raises another Bond comparison—Christoph Waltz’s superbly, equally psycho Blofeld in 2015’s excellent “Spectre.”
For a superhero comic book movie to be compared to a Bond film is a compliment, and with its mix of action and humor, sprawling set-pieces and contingent of macho, playboy heroes and psycho villians, “Civil War” does indeed recall some aspects of Bond films.
However, despite all of the accolades and despite its just-under-the-wire success, one aspect does emerge after viewing “Dawn of Justice,” “Civil War” and even some of the recent Bond films: It’s far past the time for superhero and action movies to quickly, immediately abandon the already tired, clichéd and over-used plot gimmick of having heroes fighting against each other, having heroes going renegade, and having heroes going against government governance, restrictions and accords. This hero-against-hero, hero-as-renegade gimmick is just over-used, tired—and done. And the aspect of asking viewers and fans to question the actual tactics of superheroes and their actions is also tired, clichéd and done.
Filmmakers need to simply get back to the conventions of having the good guys be the good guys and the bad guys be the bad guys, and films in these genres need to get back to having the heroes fight actual villains. Presenting the viewer with clear-cut distinctions of who is good and who is bad, having the good guys solidly on the side of clear-cut good, and having the bad guys clearly presented as being on the side of clear-cut bad, makes for better storytelling, is far more satisfying, enjoyable, fun and relatable for the viewer, and generally makes for better films, stories and characters in general.
As noted previously, everyone needs a hero—at any time in history. And people need heroes today, just as they did yesterday. And people will need heroes in the future. But the superhero universe—whether it’s the Bond universe, the “Star Trek” universe, the “Star Wars” universe, or the Divergent, Resident Evil, Underworld, Harry Potter, Twilight, Mission: Impossible, Suicide Squad, Batman, Superman or Marvel Cinematic Universes—need clearly-defined, likeable and truly heroic heroes who people can support, rally around and cheer with a clear conscious—and with clearly-defined definitions and parameters about just who that hero actually is, in print, on television, and up on the screen.
So hopefully, future films will present this world of clear-cut heroes and villains, and get the superheroes to please stop fighting each other, and have the superheroes focus their energies directly on fighting the real bad guys. Surely, if screenwriters need some inspiration for future villains, they need to look no further than their daily real-life newspapers and real-life current events. The real world, alas, is full of plenty of bad guys and villains who can provide plenty of inspiration for future stories.