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Friday, May 6, 2016

Panel Vision - Captain America: Civil War Review

Edited by Robert Beach

Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately in the endless build-up to Captain America: Civil War is how much Captain America has become the embodying ideal of the superhero. This happens sometimes when a specific superhero property explodes into the popular consciousness, transforming its title character from well-known hero to universally recognized heroic ideal. Superman in 1978, Batman in 1989, Spider-Man in 2002, and now Captain America, they all stand as the best example of the superhero in their moment in time. 

The hows and whys of that phenomenon vary from character to character, but the essential unifying factor is each of these characters embodied some necessary conflict or fantasy that spoke innately to the concerns and ideas of their time. In the case of Captain America, I think what’s elevated him to nationalistic ideal and ambassador of an entire genre to the masses is his sense of loyalty, his commitment to ideals and to people. The quiet genius of Captain America: Civil War is it takes Cap’s great strength and turns into the fracture that shatters the entire Marvel status quo. 

Before I get into the set-up, let me just say that Captain America: Civil War is incredibly excellent, crammed to the gills with powerful emotion, and the best action the MCU has ever sported. I wanted to say  and make it unequivocally clear that this is a great film because in discussing the story, I am going to be getting into some possible/mild spoiler territory. If you’re afraid of any spoilers at all, just know Captain America: Civil War is an absolute triumph. 

An emotional rollercoaster punctuated by the best action the superhero genre has ever seen and the greatest use of continuity-driven storytelling since Avengers. It’s a remarkable balance between Captain America’s personal story and the stories of those around him that never feels rushed or short changed. It functions perfectly as both Captain America sequel and Avengers follow-up. 


All that said, our story revolves around the Avengers coming under closer scrutiny after a mission botch in Africa brings the ire of the secretive, but immensely powerful, African nation of Wakanda.  The Wakandans lead a UN charge to bring the Avengers under the yoke of world governments, a prospect which splits the team down ideological lines. Some, like Tony Stark, view the team’s past exploits as rudderless and destructive, believing their cavalier attempts to police the world without accountability to be doing more harm than a good. 

Conversely, Captain America doesn’t like the idea of following orders dictated by personal political agendas rather than morality.  The situation is made worse when a bombing at the UN is pinned on Cap’s brainwashed, cybernetic best friend Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. Cap is forced to go rogue to try and protect his friend from authorities that are prepared to shoot first and ask questions never. The various Avengers that’ve signed up with the UN, and Wakanda’s prince-turned-king T’Challa, to bring those responsible to justice. 

Despite that sounding like a lot of plot, Civil War is structured well enough that the film breaks down very nicely into easily digestible pieces, mainly in terms of scope. That’s the film’s other brilliant central idea. As Civil War powers from act to act, the story, stakes, and scope only get smaller and smaller. It’s a very risky approach, shedding the usual boom and bombast trappings of Marvel’s phase 2 initiative for climax grounded entirely in raw, brutal, ugly interpersonal relationships. 

“Personal” really is the perfect term for Civil War, and a great explanation of why it works as well as it does, underneath the warring ideologies this is a personal story about friendship and obligation in an adult context. Most specifically, Captain America is constantly being caught between his friendship for Bucky, which itself stems from a desperate desire to recapture even a sliver of the life he had back in the ‘40s, and his friendship with Tony, which has shifted to desperately wanting to regain the Avengers status quo that was achieved when the team first formed. Both these relationships are informed by a nostalgic longing for the original times that informed these friendships. Cap’s dedication to clinging to his friendships as a way to regain those times only leads things into calamity when the real past between Winter Soldier and Iron Man finally comes to light. 

Speaking of that real past, that’s part of the way the movie expertly deploys continuity to inform character. Cap’s distrust for the government might’ve seemed strange after Avengers, but in the wake of Winter Soldier and discovering Hydra’s corruption, it makes total sense. Conversely, Iron Man’s decision to support the government might clash with the Tony Stark of Iron Man 2. In the wake of Age of Ultron, where an entire country was devastated by the very machines Tony built to keep it safe, it makes a lot of sense that he’d be willing to accept more oversight. 

The same idea extends to the additional characters being dragged in from elsewhere like Scarlet Witch’s past history with the violent aftermath of Tony’s actions, Ant-Man’s flippant “crime as protest” past, War Machine’s origin of taking the Iron Man suit for the government specifically because Tony was becoming unfit to wield it, or Black Widow’s complicated history of self-determination and government subservience. This is a big part of General Ross’s role in the film as well now that he’s become Secretary of State. Ross’s Incredible Hulk baggage makes his slow shift from reasonable political ambassador to the Avengers to hard bitten anti-superhero figurehead a perfect transition. 

That kind of continuity emphasis and the film’s confident pace means everyone is afforded a good amount of screen time and presence, even if there are only a handful of main heroes. The only hero who gets shortchanged is the Vision, which feels more like a decision of necessity than anything else. The unfortunate fact is the Vision is basically a living God, so he tends to stay out of a lot of scenes. If he was involved, he’d have been able to solve everything without even raising an eyebrow.  

Martin Freeman’s character is in the same boat as, despite such a major casting, he gets very little screen time and contributes nothing to the overall story. I’m pretty sure he’s just hanging around to be important in future films, most like Black Panther, but it feels like an awkward cameo and strangely structured. Sharon Carter, who first appeared in Captain America: Winter Soldier, is also a little underused, but least gets more development than the other two even if she’s got the specter of future films hanging over her. 

Still, just being important for the universe is in no way a death sentence as new characters like Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Zemo are all fantastic. Black Panther’s impossibly cool blend of king, James Bond, and Batman is a perfect translation of the comic character. And his quest for vengeance parallels the film’s overall themes of obligation, emotion, and relationships. Spider-Man only really appears for the big fight at the airport (which we’ll get to, trust me), but he’s a blast to have on hand and adds a great measure of complexity to Tony’s plot when Stark takes him under his wing.  Tony’s identity has always been defined by legacy: whether it’s the one he’s created for himself like in Iron ManAge of Ultron, or the one he’s inherited like in Iron Man 2. Spider-Man fits perfectly into that struggle as Tony sees him as a chance to leave a legacy that isn’t tainted with destruction or failure. 

Finally, there’s Helmut Zemo, the film’s villain and the latest in a string of really good Marvel bad guys. Zemo’s a very different villain than anything we’ve seen in the Marvel movies before, fitting in more with the foes of the Netflix shows like Kilgrave or Kingpin in he’s a uniquely human bad guy. He’s not tied to Hydra or any big, evil, organizations; he’s just one man driven by a vendetta against the Avengers for reasons that are, again, refreshingly human as compared to the operatics of Loki or pure crazy of Ultron. 

What’s more, his methods manage to avoid a lot of what’s become cliché for the Marvel blockbuster structure in the wake of phase 2.  For once, there’s no legion of henchmen, no doomsday machine, no ticking clock, and he’s not even working the “lovable rogue” approach of a lot of Marvel bad guys. In a lot of ways, he’s a complete subversion of the very idea of super villains, fighting the heroes with a weapon so immaterial and destructive, there’s no counter against their own human flaws and failings. 

While all these conflicting emotions and powerful humanity is what makes the film satisfying and impactful, I can’t deny the action is what makes it an absolute blast to watch. The Russo Brothers’ choreography is still the best the MCU has ever looked, and they bring a great eye for unique character styles when it comes to the big multi-hero throw down at the airport at the end of act 2. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen people with a ton of powers like this face off, and it’s a gloriously awesome fight scene, emphasizing everyone’s unique powers and skills. 

Spider-Man’s trademark banter is amazing, and his web work is the coolest its ever looked. Falcon’s wing suit has even more awesome features. War Machine’s walking arsenal set-up is great, and Ant-Man is a absolutely show-stealing addition to the line-up. Scarlet Witch is another big stand out as the Russos have more interesting ideas on what to do with her powers than Age of Ultron ever really did. The airport fight is easily the film’s best battle. But the other sequences are equally excellent, most notably an extended brawl and chase in between Cap, Black Panther, and Winter Soldier that escalates more and more as it goes along. 

It’s been said that while the DC heroes are mythic Gods Marvel heroes are more like a Soap Opera, and I’d argue that’s as true as possible in terms of Captain America: Civil War. I just don’t think that’s a bad thing. Marvel heroes are operatic, so they do boil down to human identities, flaws, and personas underneath all the powers, ideologies, and myth. That's what Civil War is all about. It’s a movie about slowly ripping away all the protective layers of blockbuster sheen and comic book fancy from these characters till we’re left with raw truth at the heart of their existence: that no matter how much power they have they’re just people. They make mistakes. 

They can be loyal to the wrong people; they’re emotional when they should be logical; they cling to hopes they can never achieve; they make bad decisions that put those closest to them at risk; and sometimes, they break, maybe in ways that can’t be repaired. All of that should be depressing or cynical, but it’s not. It’s just honest and in a way respectful and inspiring.  

It’s a story that doesn’t talk down to you, doesn’t assume you need these characters to be perfect to like them, care about them, and empathize with them. Civil War is a film that trusts its audience enough to not only accept flawed individuals as lead characters, but to accept those don’t mean Captain America or Iron Man stop being heroes. The flaws just mean they're people as well as heroes.       
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1 comment:

  1. Great review. I especially agree with your bit about the characters not having to be perfect. That aspect adds more depth, dimension, and makes the characters more relatable.

    - Zach (