Cover to “Black Widow” #14, Phil Noto, 2014

Marvel Comics.

Just a picture of three American businessmen being strung up by a female Russian spy.  No political subtext here.

 

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My review of “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

“Captain America: Civil War” (2016) is nearly everything I hoped it would be; it’s easily on par, if not better, than the first two “Avengers” movies.  (And I can’t help but think of this as the third “Avengers.”  Yes, Cap’s name is in the title, but this is necessarily an ensemble story about the divided superteam.)  I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

I honestly just need to be very vague in this review … this is such an eagerly awaited film, and I want to be extra cautious about spoilers.  No, there are no twists in the movie, but there are surprising character and plot elements.

The movie surprised me in a couple of ways.  One, this film appears to follow the original 2006 comic book crossover only very loosely.  (I have not read it, but I know the story.)  There is no “Superhero Registration Act” that would directly affect countless people in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s much narrower than that — a demand by the United Nations for direct oversight of The Avengers.

Two, this is definitely the darkest and most adult outing with The Avengers so far.  Don’t get me wrong — the levity and gee-whiz comic book fun that is the MCU’s trademark is still there, and it’s no Christopher Nolan movie.  But the movie’s central story device is set in motion by the question of who should be held accountable for civilian deaths.  And so many individual major characters are motivated by grief or rage.

This is notable throughout the film, for example, in the characterization of Tony Stark, and his portrayal by Robert Downey, Jr.  He’s no longer a wisecracking billionaire playboy who all the guys want to be.  Instead, he’s a troubled, pensive leader who often seems out of his depth.  We watch as his team and the events surrounding him spin out of control, and we no longer want to trade places with him.  He’s more sympathetic.  But he simultaneously fails to engender the viewer loyalty that he so quickly and easily won in every other Marvel movie he’s appeared in.

And yet … he isn’t, as I had suspected, a cardboard adversary for Captain America’s underdog to stand up to.  There are some sad things going on in his life, both during the events of this movie and in “Iron Man 3” (2013), and his failings and poor decisions are perfectly understandable.  (I won’t say more, besides that viewers will definitely get a different spin on “Iron Man 3” after this movie.)  And Downey displays a great range in playing this far sadder Tony.

One character in the movie even makes a quip about “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), and it feels like a meta reference, as that film is regarded as the darkest in the “Star Wars” original trilogy.  (And their are story structure similarities as well.)

But don’t get me wrong — “Captain America: Civil War” still brings loads of fun.  It’s an effects-laden, geeky, hero-against-hero, superteam gangfight that is straight out of every Marvel fan’s dreams.  (And, needless to say, it’s far better than its analog this year from DC.)  Tom Holland might be the best Spider-Man yet.  The action is damn pleasing, and the one-liners made me laugh out loud.  (“Made ya look.”)

The bromances (including the broken ones) seemed real to me.  I found myself liking and caring about … Winter Soldier, of all people, and I kept hoping things worked out with his friendship with Cap.  (Sebastian Stan impressed me in the role for the first time.)

What didn’t I like?  Well, I had some small criticisms.  I submit that Black Panther was a complete misfire.  The character concept is boring (he’s an African Bruce Wayne), he seems like an ethnic caricature, and he absolutely is shoehorned into the plot.  When his tough female subordinate physically threatens Black Widow, he smugly opines that a fight between them “would be amusing.”  It felt creepy and sexualized, and maybe like something out of a 1970’s blaxploitation film.  He’s also pretty blandly played by Chadwick Boseman.

Spiderman, too, seems shoehorned in as fan service.  I loved seeing him in the movie, but i wish he’d been written in differently.  (Would Stark really recruit a highschooler to combat seasoned soldiers, one of whom is a superpowered psychotic assassin?)

Next is a criticism that is just a matter of personal taste.  I myself would have preferred a movie that was even darker.  Just think for a minute about the basic story.  We have civilian casualties driving the world’s governments to seek control over its superheroes — then the heroes themselves fighting each other with what must at least be considered possibly deadly force.

That’s a story pretty much brimming over with pathos, if you ask me.  But the movie underplays those plot elements considerably.  We hardly see the civilian casualties that are supposed to drive the plot — and when we do, they’re glimpsed briefly in news footage.  And all but three of the heroes (Tony, Black Panther and Winter Soldier) display any of the anger or sense of betrayal that you would expect from a violent “civil war” among former friends.  And it is violent … members of either faction fire missiles at, or try to crush, their opponents.  Does the MCU’s characteristic banter belong anywhere here?

Finally, this could have been an idea-driven movie like the latter two “Dark Knight” films.  But only Cap and Iron Man seem to genuinely fight about ideology.  Others fight according to personal or professional loyalty, personal revenge, or just because they are a “fan” of either Cap or Tony.  And neither does the script articulate their positions especially well.  Wouldn’t it be perfectly in character for Cap to quote Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin?  “Those who would exchange their liberty for a little temporary safety” and all that?

Oh, well.  I’m probably asking too much from a superhero movie.

This was a hell of a lot of fun.  Go see it.

 

timthumb