The Last Jedi is a Messy Masterpiece
Captain America: Civil War is a battle between people who, with a few notable exceptions, don’t want to hurt each other all that much, which is arguably the biggest difference the Marvel movie can boast towards it’s DC counterpart. So while the film may feature the most violent, epic, and well-cast family feud in film history since Kramer v Kramer: Dawn of Divorce (was that the title?), the tension, both comedic and dramatic, stems from the discomfort most of the characters feel facing off against one another, as anyone who has felt the need to “take sides” in a feud between friends can relate. The end result is an engagement that, while properly violent and exciting, is also touching and frequently hilarious, ultimately adding up to a film that well earns its place on the “top ten superhero films of all time” lists that geek bloggers around the country have been forced to invite it to, even now just a few weeks after it’s release.
For my own review, I’ll have to apologize for already invoking a no-doubt predictable ,and maybe even a bit cheap, reference to Batman v Superman, but as any critic employed during the near-simultaneous release of Armaggeddon and Deep Impact will tell you, sometimes the elephant-in-the-room forces a contrast. In this case, I can’t help but be a bit confused by the fact that two movies with such a similar premise and theme can have such an extreme gap in quality. Maybe it’s the tone, maybe it’s the acting, maybe it’s the fact that the motivations of the characters in the Marvel movie are all clear by the end of the film.
The fact is, in a franchise that has benefitted about as heavily from superheroes fighting each other as it has superheroes working together, the inevitable battle between WWII-era super-soldier and modern iron-suited industrialist has proved to be one of the franchise’s most tantalizing teases. Even in the other two Avengers movies, when the lead characters (especially the Hulk) frequently seemed to be going at each other’s super-throats, the potential fisticuffs between the two heroes who got along the least was held off for years. So long, in fact, that by the beginning of Civil War, the third Captain America film (though the third or fourth Avengers film would be a bit more apt) the two have actually grown inextricably close, and seem to genuinely care about one another. It’s a bit more complex than a growly vigilante and a red-and-blue alien trying to kill each other.
Captain America: Civil War picks up where the previous Avengers movie, not to mention the previous Captain America movie (because these movies are seldom sequels to just one other movie), left off, with a world that has become somewhat suspicious of the team after the group destroyed an entire city in East-Europe in battle with an evil, James Spader-voiced robot of their own creation (you had to be there). As heroes do, they attempted to save as many innocent people as they could, but it becomes apparent that a few innocent civilians slipped through the cracks; a fact which now keeps the robot’s creator, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., appearing here, out of contract, and so likely richer than Thor for it) up at night. So when, after a similar disaster in Lagos, the Secretary of State (William Hurt) comes knocking at the Avengers Compound with a resolution that effectively renders the group agents of the UN, as in “makes Saudi Arabia the head of the human rights committee” UN, Tony is game. Unfortunately, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the eponymous Captain, is not. Both sides make sense in a way; previous Cap and Iron Man movies have made it clear that governments and institutions should not be trusted with the powers superheroes wield, but the question now is, can the heroes themselves be trusted? Especially if they’re privately owned and acting without oversight?
The issue quickly becomes much more problematic when the conference to ratify the accords is bombed, with the blame being placed on Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s childhood friend from the ‘40s who, like Steve, got superpowers and was frozen for the better part of the century, but unlike Steve, he got a cool robot arm in place of a shield. He was also thawed by the wrong people, and wound up on several government watch lists as a result, although Steve still thinks there’s good in him. Unfortunately, Steve’s defense of his old friend makes enemies of his new ones, who are called in by the UN to hunt the two icemen down when they are both branded criminals.
The battle lines are drawn, with Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) making a welcome appearance to join Steve and Bucky, alongside Steve’s pal Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the fresh-from-retirement Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the world’s most dangerous redhead, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson). Facing them down are War Machine (Don Cheadle), the Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and, in his third recasting in sixteen years, everyone’s favorite wall-crawler (Tomm Hollander). But, the scene stealer here (even in a film this crowded) is the cinematic arrival of Marvel’s oldest black superhero, the Black Panther, played with ice-cold intensity by Chadwick Boseman. As well, Daniel Bruhl noticeably shines as the movie’s actual villain, but to say any more would be telling.
It’s kind of a miracle that a movie with this much going on is as well-paced as it is, a fact you can credit to the directing Russo Brothers, who capture the action with a frenetic, Paul Greengrass-eque energy. The two best action scenes in the movie take place within the first hour, and don’t even involve Iron Man. Unfortunately, to say that the intensity does not let up from there would be disingenuous. While the film is surprisingly less bloated than Age of Ultron, it lacks the pointed focus of The Winter Soldier, or even Guardians of the Galaxy; the film is devoted to being both an airtight political thriller and the biggest superhero skirmish in history, and often, trying to figure out which scene belongs in which movie proves more difficult than figuring out which hero is on which side. Some scenes, primarily those involving Spider-Man, while fun, bring the action to a pronounced halt. For the sake of moral complexity, the film also may actually run the risk of declaring too big an indictment of its heroes and their career path. If anything, it will produce more conversation about which side is right than most superhero moves do.
Aside from these quibbles, Civil War is still fast-moving action epic that manages the impressive feat of keeping its impossibly numerous characters at center stage, with several of the most engaging sequences and set pieces in recent memory. There are far more stunts in this movie than one would expect from a CGI-laden blockbuster. The greatest alchemy the movie achieves, however, is in its tone (another one of DC’s failures). Like many of Marvel’s better movies, it’s exciting, thrilling, and often engaging. But it also just might break your heart.