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As good as it gets – Captain America: Civil War

May 6, 2016

civilwar

I think we can all agree at this point that last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron was a somewhat lukewarm sequel to its serendipitous predecessor. It was far to worried about building up to the grand Infinity War event a few years in advance, and neglected to tell a sleek, coherent story of its own. It was good, but it wasn’t great. It was less an Avengers tale than a marketing effort to sell a movie still three turns of the calendar off, and as such it became a bloated mess.

Now here comes Captain America: Civil War, a Steve Rogers sequel that shoehorns in pretty much everyone Marvel we’ve seen onscreen to this point, plus introduces major characters yet to be glimpsed in these environs — and tries to achieve a completely different result than Ultron. Risky territory to say the least. Bound to fail, some would say. But the thing is, it works. It really does. This is one of the best comic book movies ever made, and it breezes through its runtime as it hits every narrative note you could possibly want. What a success — truly. One is tempted to even rank it higher than The Avengers on the chart, and it’s only how much of an improbable payoff to a studio gamble that earlier movie was that makes you think twice. Civil War is a towering achievement.

More details, notes and thoughts, some mildly spoilery, as well as a final rating below. Read on if you’re so inclined.

cw

  1. Much will be made of comparisons between Civil War and Batman v Superman, which I think is a tad unfair to the latter (which I liked). They’re different universes, with different histories and archetypes at play, and Marvel is so far ahead at this point in terms of universe building it’s the very definition of an apples to oranges comparison. Apart from two icons slugging it out in each film, there aren’t a lot of similarities. That said, CW succeeds in ways BvS could only dream of, and the seamless integration of major new players renders those goofy Aquaman/Flash/Cyborg cameos all the more embarrassing. Oh, and about one of those new characters…
  2. Chadwick Boseman does great work as the Black Panther, Wakandan royalty and vibranium-suited asskicker (can the Black Musketeers be far behind?), but the true revelation here is Tom Holland’s Peter Parker — who’s immediately the best Spider-Man we’ve yet had. His introduction is perfectly played, at once bringing in Marisa Tomei as the most unbelievably fetching Aunt May ever conceived (Tomei is the very definition of Fab at Fifty), and establishing a relationship between Peter and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark that may be the most touching thing we’ve ever seen in one of these movies. Peter is a sweet kid who you can’t help but love, and his constant quipping in his Spider-Man guise never has the atonality of Tobey Maguire or the dickish insufferability of Andrew Garfield.  Stark promptly becomes his father figure/mentor, and their interplay is superb. This may be Downey’s best work in his career-defining role, and that’s saying something. When he leans over a fallen Spider-Man at the end of the climactic superhero brawl it’s such a tender moment, and we realize now more than ever that this young hero is just a kid.
  3. Indeed, it’s the character interplay that lies at the heart of this movie, and not just the Stark/Rogers brother vs. brother material that makes up the molten core. The Vision (one of the best characters Marvel has brought to screen thus far) and the Scarlet Witch share a great dinner scene that develops their inevitable romance. Childhood friends Rogers and Bucky Barnes (the quite good Sebastian Stan) rekindle a friendship. Tony casually dismisses Scott Lang’s Pym-inspired anti-Stark rant. The Falcon and Bucky trade barbs and make terrible road trip companions. Spider-Man and Captain America, Queens and Brooklyn. And unlike the laid-on-too-thick humor of the Joss Whedon entries, the jokes here fall like a pleasant summer rain, refreshing and nourishing. Even Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is dialed back to an acceptable level of quippery, which, after the Whedon movies, I didn’t think was possible.
  4. Just as Michael Douglas was de-aged last summer in Ant-Man, Downey is retroed to his Back to School-era youth. It’s stunning how seamless this digital facelifting has become — and I can’t imagine how odd it must be for the actors who undergo the treatment. Nostalgic? Disheartening?
  5. The action sequences are well-conceived and executed by the Russo Brothers, directors of Winter Soldier and now holding the keys to the Infinity War kingdom. Though like everyone else they often fall back on the lazy ease of that incoherent visual mush known as shaky-cam, the choreography is coherent and makes full use of each character’s skill set. Everything from Bucky’s Legolas-like seizure of a motorcycle to Ant-Man going large (a situation defused by Spider-Man drawing inspiration from an “old movie”) flows superbly, and this bodes well for their Infinity War movies, which are shaping up to have a cast measured somewhere in the thousands. The Russos keep all the plates spinning, and none come crashing to the floor — it’s impressive to say the least. My God, that airport fight is really something else, like a comic book come to life. A good comic book.
  6. Is Baron Zemo really Baron Zemo if he’s never called “Baron Zemo”? Or wears a purple mask? Still, kudos to this movie for having one of the most unusually regular central villains we’ve ever seen in a capes and tights affair, one whose melancholy goal isn’t clear until the very end.
  7. Why exactly was poor Martin Freeman cast in this? Has there ever been an actor more criminally underused in big-budget movies than the erstwhile Bilbo Baggins? Surely he must be scheduled for an expanding role in future entries, right?
  8. No one is ever going to confuse this flick with an intellectual thriller, but it’s more than smart enough for what it sets out to do, and much can be said for the slow build that finally sends Iron Man over the edge and leads the old Tales to Astonish cohorts to beat the living hell out of each other. Just as things look to be defused, chickens come home to roost most wonderfully at the end of the last act, not only with things established at the start of this movie, but with the daddy issues Tony has been carrying around since 2008.

I can’t give this a high enough recommendation. Like others I’ve long felt that the Marvel movies, while always up to a certain standard quality, have become a bit by the numbers, molded more by studio diktat than artistic vision. Pleasantly average, as it were. Civil War may very well come from that same assembly line, but if it does, it’s that movie-making method’s apotheosis. This is a tremendously entertaining, finely-crafted affair that concludes at the same time it builds, making it the Avengers movie we wanted but didn’t quite get in 2015 — while throwing in Spider-Man to boot. Maybe the highest compliment I can give is this: I couldn’t think of one single nitpicky thing to really bitch about. Not one.

This is the best comic-to-screen effort of this new era. Make it a point to see it in a theater.

Five Stark-made webshooters out of five.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Warren B. permalink
    May 13, 2016 6:57 pm

    I’m gonna be honest, I was left pretty unsatisfied at the end. There were great moments in the film, some of which you already mentioned (Best. Spider-Man. Ever. Also, I haven’t seen the Ant-Man film yet, but now I’m prompted to go do that), but the themes didn’t really mesh.
    Much (well, something) was made of denying Zemo his suicide and bringing him in to face justice by the book, but most of what Cap and his allies do during the film fly in the face of that basic concept. Cap places his emotional responses above the authority of the UN. Wanda never really answered for throwing Crossbones and his grenade into an occupied building, IIRC. Cap and Bucky (severely?) wounded government employees and performed a prison break for several characters who did actually act rather unlawfully, in full view of the world. The most justifiable action was helping Bucky escape the strike team, but that was before it was explicitly revealed that Bucky was framed, ignored the fact that he’s still a huge danger to human life when his conditioning kicks in, and they still keep on running after the frame comes to light.

    In the comics Civil War, ten years ago(!), they tried to show the reasoning of both sides fairly, but botched it by making Tony and the pro-reg side come out with things like murderous Thor-Clones, interdimensional gulags, plans with sentinels, and so on. In the movie Civil War, it’s obviously more subtle, but personally I think they botched the other side’s stance by their actions. (So it’s alright for Cap to spring anyone he likes and make fugitives of them, because he feels it in his water, or his trick knee is throbbing and there ain’t a thunderstorm a-comin’?)
    I can only see the morality as spurious and muddled, at best; hypocritical and a double-standard at worst. (One rule for super-heroes…) It almost made me sympathise more with Zemo than Cap. Worse, it made me think of and compare it to BvS. And that almost made me fall to my knees and howl, in the cinema car park.

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