Sunday, May 15, 2016

"Civil War" blows out the big screen with a strong story and memorable characters

When the hell did Tony get a miter saw?

Movie: Captain America: Civil War
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Sebastian Stan

Civil War storms out the cutting room floor with guns a' blazing, hitting off the next phase of Marvel’s lucrative and highly acclaimed Cinematic Universe with a bigger wallop than any thrown by the film's own super humans, and minus a few acting and plot-related issues, proves itself to be both remarkably smart and genuinely funny.

In depth:   
Comic books rise and fall on their ability to remain relevant as the decades roll on, and a quick path to this coveted place in the public eye is to glean a little from what’s the current “big topic.”  So it was with the Avengers’ “Civil War” plot from the decade prior.  Formulated in and around the height of the Homeland Security conflict and its ensuing debates on freedom vs security, this timely and surprisingly mature story arc tore the Marvel world asunder by introducing heroic culpability, the dangers of compulsory registration, and the burdens of personal responsibility into the usual narrative of muscle-bound meatheads in pajamas punching aliens in the face.  That said, I was a bit unsure how this cinematic version would go down.  While the volatile discourse of freedom vs order is never irrelevant, the high times of this topic, fed by the War on Terror before starving on the shores of the looming Great Recession, are a decade since gone.  Fortunately, the Russos were able to assemble what they had, and backed by a stellar cast and insightful storytelling, forged a smart, fun, and tightly-woven movie that more than makes up for the Verse’s somewhat slim pickings the year before.

Doesn't matter who you are - this will never look cool

Civil War starts with a throwback to 1991, where we see our good old buddy Bucky Barnes a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) getting thawed out for yet another mission.  The details and significance of this scene all play out in a rather cryptic fashion, but for a “distant prologue” cliche, it actually works.  Fast forward to the present, and we find our team of spandex- and leather-clad honchos, lead by the Star-Spangled Captain (Chris Evans), conducting a mission in Lagos.  Unfortunately, things go awry, and in the super power shuffle, innocent lives are lost.  Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Robert Downey) gets his own wake-up call when a disgruntled HR worker (a serious redundancy) confronts him during an MIT talk and kicks the belabored billionaire in the jimmy with the classic “my son died because you saved other people’s lives” guilt trip.  All of this leads to an international movement aimed at putting a leash on the Avengers, requiring registration and effectively splitting the team into pro and anti camps, lead by Stark and Rogers, respectively.  The debate escalates along with the stakes with a bombing at the UN meeting meant to settle the matter - and all signs point to the currently incognito Barnes as the culprit.  Now, Captain America has to race against the clock, a vengeful Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and an increasingly antagonistic global order to reach his former friend, all while forcing a deeper rift within the world’s most powerful hero team.

Civil War is, without doubt, a triumph of writing over all else.  The script is a clockwork bird, wound up and constructed with the care of a skillful artificer, set in tune with a cinema flow that is completely natural.  The obligatory burdens of exposition and set-up can hinder even the best of movies; but Civil War made this a breeze, injecting sincere pathos and a good touch of humor into "the story leading up to the story."  The action - fast, tense, but never hectic - blended in seamlessly with the movie’s headier themes in a rare successful melding of mind and muscle in a superhero movie.  While registration and governmental control vs. free agency aren’t quite as “hot” as they were ten years ago, Civil War handled the underlying perpetual debate with wit and respect, neither bowing to the pressure of contemporary relevance, nor dipping into a ten-year-old argument that’s lost most of its power and potency.  Nothing felt out of place, and the movie aptly balanced the thematic scales just right until the end. got something in your teeth

The humor really shone through on many occasions, without distracting from the storyline or ruining the film’s tight pacing.  Too often, screenwriters - or maybe well-meaning but woefully inadequate ad-libbing actors - try to inject an out-of-context quip or two into a movie’s story at the most inappropriate times, defusing a tense situation faster than a bomb in liquid nitrogen.  But Civil War will more often than not have you busting a gut even while you’re scooting closer to the edge of your seat, with the jokes as clever and witty as the action high-octane.  The comedic timing is so measured its practically scientific, and overall there’s barely a bad step in the plot’s footing as a result.  It handles the laughs, drama and action with a nimble dexterity the likes of which are rarely seen in this genre.

And of course, you can’t ignore the tried-and-true acting chops of the stars involved.  We don’t need to retread old territory, here; Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., and Scarlett Johansson, among others, are old hands to this game, and as actors embody their characters so fully that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.  More noteworthy is how some of the newcomers, real and relative, perform admirably next to their heroic counterparts.  Anthony Mackie, like always, is pure joy as Falcon, a subtle source of comic relief without descending into silliness, and plays off naturally against everyone he shares a scene with - even the taciturn Winter Soldier himself.  He and Evans have perhaps the best chemistry in the entire movie, more than either had with Downey, and really make you root for them even if you side with the pro-regulation faction.  Lizzie Olsen mixes vulnerability and strength in just the right quantities as the young Scarlet Witch, even as her budding…”relationship” with the Vision (Paul Bettany) might squick out those in the dark - and drum up all sorts of unpleasant memories for anyone aware of their tumultuous affairs in the comics.

No, my good sir - we salute you
But the real cast show-offs are Tom Holland and Paul Rudd, respectively playing Spider-Man and Ant-Man.  I had no expectations for either actor coming in to this; I confess that I never saw, or had an interest in seeing, Ant-Man, and Holland, obviously, is a complete blank.  But Rudd was a total hoot, playing up his own character’s obscurity while keeping step with Stark and even Mackie in the humor department (on a separate note, you’d best believe I intend to rectify that “never seen Ant-Man" situation).  But it was Holland, slinging in with the best rendition of the web-head in over a decade, that really steals the show.  All the Wolverine Publicity he received in the promotionals had me worried, but my fears proved unfounded.  As Peter Parker, he was more convincingly awkward than Toby Maguire, and didn’t flash “potential school shooter” vibes like Andrew Garfield at his worst.  His two-man tango with Downey was priceless, and nicely sets up whatever mentor-student relationship they’re likely to have in next year's Homecoming movie.  Likewise, when all the heroes duke it out in the film’s pseudo-climactic scene, he runs rings around some of the best fighters in the universe, tossing out snark like confetti at a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  For a character that’s recently built up a reputation for being hard to peg down, it’s my hope that Marvel’s biggest icon has finally found a home in the talented Mr. Holland.

Unfortunately, not all of the acting was up to snuff, as Chadwick Boseman was a painfully lackluster Black Panther.  As the First Son of Marvel’s very own Mary Sue-topia, T'Challa admittedly didn’t have a whole lot going for him in terms of a fleshed-out characterization until recent, but there’s still enough to put a little life into the man.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t catch the memo, and Boseman ended up shooting for the “vengeful young man” stereotype with all the reckless abandon of Ahab charging the White Whale's broadside.  It was as if Boseman dug so deep into depicting T'Challa based on what he represents, that he paid scant attention to showing us who he is.  As a result, the cat man was entirely superfluous to the film, sweetening neither the humor nor even the plot; he literally could have been anyone else.  He plays exactly one important role regarding the story’s resolution in the end, and frankly, his lack of any real characterization or development made it feel as staged as a "very special episode" in a teen drama from the 90s - only, you know, less believable.  

There are a few other failings of the film - most are negligible, though one or two...not so much. Helmut Zemo, the main antagonist, sets up a brilliantly evil plot, but his last salvo driving the wedge in the Avengers felt rather contrived, especially compared to the fantastically mature political and ethical build up from before.  Likewise, there's the general feeling that this movie should have been Avengers: Civil War, and not Captain America: Civil War; even accounting for the greater degree of interconnection in the films, it seemed so much bigger than Cap's personal needs and issues.  Beyond all that, though, the film more than delivers on its promise.  While last year’s Marvel flicks gave a rather lukewarm showing, if the rest of the third phase follows in Civil War’s footsteps, I can't wait to see what's in store for us.

Grade: B+

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