Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Captain America: Civil War – A Situation Pointed South

Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War.

If you had told me in 2011, after I had just seen Captain America: The First Avenger, that not only would Steve Rogers become one of my favourite superheroes, but that his third sequel would be the absolute gold standard for all superhero movies to follow, I would have laughed in your face. Who gives a crap about Mister Stars and Stripes and his magic shield? But you should cut me some slack – in 2011, there was no way to know yet that Marvel’s plan to dominate the comic book movie market would be such a grossly profitable global success. Captain America: Civil War is pretty much as good as it gets – and I don’t mean that in an equivocating, “we’ll take what we’re given” kind of way. I mean that the ensemble superhero movie has never been done this well before, and likely won’t ever be again. For Marvel and the world of comic book cinema at large, Civil War is a triumph.

I’m frankly amazed at the skill of everyone involved with the making of these Marvel properties. I realize that massive, Disney-fueled budgets are definitely a factor in ensuring their quality, but a well-financed film is not necessarily a good film. Bringing in a major talent like Joss Whedon to lay a foundation of clever, quippy dialogue and good character work and then refining that palette with the subtler skills of Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and the Russo brothers meant that no matter how flashy and action-packed they get, these ensemble Marvel films have always operated on a basis of strong, motivated, emotionally-charged writing. If Batman v Superman is the nadir of the form, then Captain America: Civil War is the zenith: a superhero movie in which the characters wrestle with moral, philosophical, and political quandaries while still resonating as heroes, in a fictional world that’s thrilling and humourous and dark all at once, where hope and despair and our duties to ourselves and one another are always in flux. And where the Avengers knock each other around real good, of course. As a creator and a longtime genre fan myself, it’s inspiring stuff.

Civil War is a sequel to the last Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, but it trades so heavily in Marvel’s interconnected Cinematic Universe that it feels less like a solo Captain America film and more like one of the major ensemble outings, à la The Avengers. That said, its main character is still Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, still my favourite of the team established in 2012), who is still a member of the fledgling Avengers Initiative, still struggling with his fate as a man trapped out of time, and still trying to retrieve his friend and comrade Bucky (Sebastian Stan) from the wreckage the Soviets made of his mind. And speaking of wreckage: an operation in the fictional African nation of Wakanda ends in disaster, and the U.S. Secretary of State (William Hurt) informs the team that Wakanda – after New York, Washington, and Sokovia – is the last straw. The countries of the world have decided that a group of egotistical superpowered vigilantes can no longer be allowed to operate without jurisdiction, and must accept governmental oversight or be disbanded. Cap fears that losing the team’s autonomy could spell catastrophe, and so refuses to bend the knee; while Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., never more embattled) sees only more horror in their future, and immediately acquiesces. This difference of opinion creates a schism between all the characters as they are forced to take sides against one another according to their own motivations and agendas.

Robert Downey Jr.as Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War.

Here’s why Civil War isn’t just good, but great: they’re both right. You understand Steve’s skepticism of any government’s ability to make moral judgments, and you sympathize with Tony’s guilt-driven need to prevent further harm. You want them both to win. There are excellent reasons to align yourself with either viewpoint. You wish (but for the kickass action scenes it generates) that Mommy and Daddy would stop fighting and just be friends already. But that, of course, was never going to happen. Marvel plays the long game, so this is a conflict that has been boiling under the surface since Cap and Iron Man first met. Civil War is their little tussle in The Avengers writ large, and it charges their conflict with deadly energy because, even though you know deep down they won’t kill each other, that hardly matters; they’re suffering deeper wounds already. This is central to why I believe the MCU is so successful: they turn what might be a storytelling weakness (i.e. not being able to kill off their characters, their precious golden geese, without resorting to some hackneyed bullshit to bring them back) into a dramatic strength. The damage that Steve and Tony do to each other is more emotional than physical. The filmmakers aren’t killing them on the outside, they’re killing them on the inside. That’s great storytelling, and it allows Marvel to skip past the problem that many other films fail to solve: how do you make these invincible superpeople interesting and relatable?

The answer, as the Russos see it, is simple. You make them people: fallible, flawed, and fighting as we all do to maintain equilibrium in a confounding world of shifting values and uncertain futures. It’s their accountability – to the public, to each other, and to themselves – that makes them heroes. This is a film in which collateral damage is shown to have real and lasting consequences, not only for the innocents caught in the crossfire but for the heroes who fail to protect them (or allow them to be hurt in the attempt). There’s a villain here (Daniel Brühl), motivated by a desire to take revenge for his family after the Avengers screwed the pooch in Sokovia, who is more of a plot device and a reinforcement of the central character conflict than an interesting character in his own right – but that’s okay. The real villain in Civil War is the doubt that eats at the hearts of the best humanity has to offer (which makes them all that much more like us normal folk).

It’s easy to draw a line between the writers and Abraham Lincoln. If the title of the film isn’t on-the-nose enough for you, how’s this quote, taken from the closing paragraph of Abe’s first inaugural address?
"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
This is the conflict that Marvel have established between their famous superheroes, which transcends marketing blasts and merchandising and endless internet argumentation. It’s a conflict of the heart and mind. It is sorrowful, but rings with hope. It reminds us of who we are, and who we ought to be. It touches on larger, more ancient battles, which endure in the form of the myths that these dumb CGI-filled comic book movies represent. If anyone ever tells you that the superhero genre is ruining the art of cinema – you show ‘em Civil War. That’ll shut ‘em right up. 

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa (a.k.a. Black Panther) in Captain America: Civil War.

Oh, and Spider-Man’s in this movie! Did I mention that? The Russos, in about ten or twelve combined total minutes of screentime, manage to portray the character of Peter Parker better than anyone ever has on film (with the arguable exception of Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films which, while excellent, were still basically big-budget bonkers Sam Raimi art films). This is a Spidey (Tom Holland) that fits neatly into the MCU, whose character feels fresh and correct, who is more likeable in just a few scant scenes than Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire combined. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye of any comic book geek. And Spider-Man isn’t the only “new” character that’s introduced. The collateral damage in Wakanda means that its crown prince, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) – who assumes the hereditary mantle of Black Panther in times of need (and dons an absolutely pimpin’ costume, made from the same material as Cap’s shield, which is native to his homeland) – becomes personally involved. Boseman plays T’Challa with quiet confidence, absolutely embodying the power and grace of his namesake, and strikes an immediately exciting figure that makes him feel like a natural fit within this ever-expanding cast. He is wondrous to behold in action, too, as feline as you would expect, without feeling gimmicky or out of place. (All of the film’s action is incredibly exciting, but, as I could spend an entire article discussing just that one aspect, a passing mention will have to suffice.)

And there is so much more that Civil War accomplishes within its generous runtime, outside of the central conflict, and it treats nearly all its elements with equal care and aplomb. Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), battles with the guilt brought on by her failures, and rebels against Vision (Paul Bettany), whose instinct to protect her might be more romantic than pragmatic. Natasha Romanov, a.k.a Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), struggles with her decision to side with Stark when it places her friendship with Steve in jeopardy. Bucky, when he’s conscious and cognizant, questions his own identity and his ability to make his own choices. Even Cap and Tony have emotional baggage on the side, when the deaths of loved ones, past and present, interrupt this already convoluted situation. Every character has a role to play, which is clearly communicated and easily relatable.

Is it an absolutely flawless film? No. It’s long, and so stuffed with content that some of it can’t help but feel slightly underserved (like Vision – where did he disappear to at the beginning of that airport brawl?). Its cinematography, score, and sound design are functional at best. A weirdly tone-deaf opening makes for an odd story introduction, too: the mission that goes so awry for the Avengers in Wakanda is treated, until the final moment, with the same wowie-zowie excitement as any normal adventure. A friend opined, and I agree, that if the point was to communicate the arrogance and irresponsibility of the team, then perhaps the scene would have been better shot at ground level, through a bystander’s eyes. As heroic as they look onscreen, these people would be terrifying to behold in action – especially when the action is careening towards the café you’re sitting at.

The film’s faults are far outweighed by its triumphs, though. It’s in the consistency and sensitivity of its script, the intelligence of its direction, and the dedication and skill of its actors that Civil War comes together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. In my review of Winter Soldier, I claimed that until 2014, Captain America felt irrelevant to the postmodern pop culture zeitgeist. With Civil War, he has become the zeitgeist: a cinematic embodiment of our global hopes and fears about this strange and frightening world in which we live, and the strength we can draw from ourselves and those we trust. In 2016, he’s the hero that Superman ought to be, and one that’s much better than we deserve. But then, he’d tell us that everyone deserves a shot at redemption, wouldn’t he?

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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