April 2024

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

fc5edbe9817d3ea749b1a6b885b73bccDIRECTOR: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

CAST: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Daniel Brühl, Emily VanCamp, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Frank Grillo


Not only is Captain America: Civil War, taking its name and basic premise from a well-known storyline in the comics (albeit with various plot particulars changed from page to screen), a direct follow-up to events in both The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (familiarity with both is necessary to fully understanding everything that’s going on here), it’s also the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” answer to DC /Warner Bros’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice two months earlier, an “event” pitting two iconic superheroes against each other (at least for part of the screentime).  To that end, it’s easily better-crafted than the lugubrious BvS and more enjoyable than the bloated Age of Ultron but not as good as The Winter Soldier, which had a much more focused plot and tighter pace.  Fan service and an excess of characters and subplots weighs down the proceedings, but it still provides plenty bound to thrill fans of the comics while not glossing over the events that have led up to this point.

In the aftermath of Age of Ultronwith Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in semi-retirement and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) leading The Avengers, we kick off with Cap leading his teammates, including his trusty right-hand man Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), old friend Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and new teammate Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), on a mission in Lagos where he crosses paths with former HYDRA goon Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo).  But when this latest mission goes south and collateral damage is incurred, the United Nations, represented by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from The Incredible Hulk) hands down the Sokovia Accords (named after the fictional nation of Sokovia from Age of Ultron) to place The Avengers under government supervision.  Steve, burned by his past experiences with government corruption (SHIELD’s infiltration by HYDRA in The Winter Soldier), isn’t willing to submit himself to UN control, while his old comrade-in-arms Tony, shell-shocked into an about-face after almost inadvertently destroying the world in Age of Ultron, is backing the Accords.  “We need to be put in check”, Tony insists, while Steve believes “the safest hands are still our own”.  The ideological battle lines are drawn, with teammates forced to decide which way to step, and another plot complication pops up in the form of Steve’s long-lost friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has broken out of his Winter Soldier programming (or has he?) but has been framed for a terrorist bombing in Germany that makes him a target of both the police and African prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his nimble, steel-clawed alter ego Black Panther.  Steve’s decision to go rogue and defy both the government and his fellow Avengers to come to Bucky’s rescue will be the match that lights the fire of the Avengers’ infighting breaking into all-out war pitting superheroes against superheroes, and along the way, a shocking revelation will make Steve/Bucky’s clash with Tony more personal than they could have imagined.  And meanwhile, a mysterious man called Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is snooping around behind-the-scenes, pulling strings and fanning the flames for his own agenda.

capitan-america-civil-war-team-capitan-americaWhile the movie is titled “Captain America”, for all intents and purposes it’s really another Avengers movie, with a nearly all hands on deck assembling of characters from all corners of the MCU (the only major absences are Thor, Hulk, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill).  In fact, that’s part of the problem.  The Winter Soldier was better-paced and tighter-focused because it was firmly a Captain America movie, with a small ensemble of supporting characters.  Here, not only does Robert Downey Jr. have virtually as much screentime as Chris Evans, but the movie is jam-packed with supporting characters, and the Russos’ attempts to give them all an individual spotlight leads to some of the same overstuffing as Age of Ultron (though at least we’re spared anything as interminably boring as hanging out on Hawkeye’s family farm).  Some of this, like Cap, Falcon, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch working smoothly in tandem as a cohesive team in the opening action sequence, is effective, as is both sides using all of their powers strategically in the massive airport free-for-all that’s the centerpiece action sequence of the movie (if not necessarily the best), but other elements, like screentime devoted to the budding semi-romance between Scarlet Witch and Vision (Paul Bettany), feels like a superfluous obligatory shout-out to their relationship in the comics and like a side tangent that distracts from the main plot.   An excess of “special guest stars”, most prominently the returning Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and a fledgling Spider-Man (Tom Holland), also feels like fan service along the lines of Wonder Woman’s glorified cameo in Batman v Superman.  While they’re valuable allies in the airport battle, the characters are shoehorned into the movie and Spidey in particular feels like he’s there to toss comic geeks a bone more than because he really serves a crucial purpose in the plot (it’s telling that he drops straight out of the movie after the big action sequence).  The biggest newcomer, Black Panther, feels more natural because he actually has a direct tie-in with the main plot (Civil War serves as a “backdoor pilot” for both Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, who each have their own upcoming solo movies lined up).  While Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier is, if anything, even more pivotal to the plot here than in the movie that bore his name, and has by far the most screentime here of any installment so far, both the individual character of Bucky, and his uncertain dynamic with best friend-turned-adversary-turned uneasy ally Steve is underdeveloped.  Bucky has the potential to be a complex and tragic anti-hero, but thus far this has been only shallowly-explored, and Civil War uses him as a bit of a catalyst/wild card/plot device.  Steve and Bucky spend a good chunk of the movie together, but there was more depth and emotion between them in their scant shared screentime in The Winter Soldier.  Therein lies another problem with a movie this crowded and busy; so many characters competing for screentime dilutes the amount of central focus afforded to anyone.  One of the strengths of The Winter Soldier was that it genuinely took the time for character interaction, but too often here, the characters’ complicated and conflicted relationships don’t get enough room to breathe, with the exception of the central conflict between Steve and Tony, which gets enough development for us to understand and sympathize (at least to a point) with each man’s position.

It’s interesting to note how similar the basic plot structure of Civil War is to Batman v Superman.  Two iconic superheroes are pitted against each other by ideological differences, misunderstandings, and circumstances (Batman/Superman and Captain America/Iron Man).  Both involve controversies about whether superheroes should be subject to government oversight.  There is a meddling manipulator  (in BvS, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, here Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo) who seeks to destroy the superheroes not by fighting them himself, but by getting them to fight each other.  Civil War, while flawed, is easily a better movie and a far more enjoyable experience than the dreary slog of BvS. While BvS seems to think “serious” means the sun never shining and no one ever cracking a smile, Civil War balances its serious elements with plenty of whiz-bang derring-do and one-liners (the lion’s share split between Ant-Man and the incessantly quipping Spider-Man, though Tony’s sarcasm, while a little toned down, is still onhand).  In BvS, flimsy motivations and weak character development made everyone seem to do things just because.  Here, there has been enough chain of events and groundwork leading up to this point for us to buy the 180 degree shifts that make the loyal soldier Captain America go rogue and rebellious bad boy Tony Stark cast his lot in with Big Brother, and we get group debate scenes where each character argues their case.  The tension between Captain America and Iron Man that has cropped up off and on in both Avengers installments comes to an explosive head.  While Iron Man at times comes across as the antagonist (much like Batman did in BvS), many viewers one-sidedly supporting “Team Cap” or “Team Iron Man” will feel torn by the end.  Everything isn’t cut-and-dried or morally black-and-white, and neither side is necessarily either completely right or wrong.  And while Zemo’s motivation might be cliched, he at least has one, and it’s both a little more subdued and a little more sympathetic than what we might expect from a typical comic book villain, and while his plan might be a little convoluted, it at least makes more sense than the incoherent BS the ostensible super-genius Lex Luthor was up to in BvS.

When it comes to action, the Russos again show their flair for choreographing action and hand-to-hand combat, with various memorable action sequences including the opening fracas in Lagos, The Winter Soldier singlehandedly proving a handful on more than one occasion, and of course the airport battle royale pitting both teams against each other in their entirety, the movie’s centerpiece sequence where the Russos throw everything but the kitchen sink at the audience.  The Russos do a nice job showcasing the teamwork of various characters working together and using their powers strategically, including a move inspired by, of all things, the Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back (leave it to someone as geeky as Peter Parker to get battle tactics from Star Wars movies).  There is plenty to delight comic fans in this seventeen-minute sequence, and the number of characters duking it out together and individually provides enough variety for it not to get boring, but for my money, the more gripping action sequences are smaller ones: a three-way highway chase with Captain America pursuing Black Panther, who in turn is chasing Bucky, and the climactic three-way hand-to-hand duel with Cap/Bucky versus Iron Man.  While the airport battle features lots of flashy special effects and everyone’s powers on full display, it’s a battle between friends and teammates who are holding back (at least to an extent) and who would prefer to not actually hurt each other.  These smaller-scale confrontations have more intense emotions and more personal stakes, and in both the highway chase and the final battle, not only is Steve fighting a formidable opponent, but struggling to protect Bucky at the same time.  Also, the way Bucky commandeers a moving motorcycle is one of the coolest action shots in the whole movie, and Steve stopping a helicopter from taking off with his bare hands is probably the most Herculean moment Captain America has gotten onscreen yet.  The final battle is intensely personal in a way the over-the-top airport rumble could never hope to be, and the emotional stakes are high.  There’s something a little sad and painful about watching Captain America and Iron Man in a no holds barred throwdown, like watching two friends fall apart, and the uncertain ending (which to its credit rolls the credits without anything really resolved) leaves our heroes in a possibly even more tenuous position than The Winter Soldier (at least then, The Avengers were still a united team).  The CGI recreating a young Robert Downey Jr. for a 1991 flashback, while not quite 100% on-target compared to the real Downey from his own movies from the 1980s or early 1990s, is the best example of this kind of effect so far, surpassing Ant-Man digitally de-aging Michael Douglas to 1989 for the opening flashback, or Terminator: Genisys recreating 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Cap3Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. (who for all intents and purposes are equal co-leads despite this being officially a Captain America movie) bring their A-game.  Evans has grown into Cap’s skin over his several outings in the role, and here he gets to explore the culmination of the conflict that has been brewing both between Steve and Tony and Steve and the government since he woke up from the ice.  Steve’s uncompromising devotion to his strict sense of right and wrong, no matter the forces arrayed against him, will surely strike different viewers as either admirable or bull-headed (or both).  Possibly more impressive though is Downey, who’s gotten us so used to his quipping smart-ass self that some may have forgotten he’s capable of straight dramatic performances.  In Iron Man 3 and Age of Ultron, Tony showed glimpses of a darker, more serious side, but nothing compared to here.  This is easily the most serious Tony has ever been onscreen, and it’s also Downey’s strongest performance yet in a role he’s been playing for nearly a decade.  Tony still makes his share of sarcastic one-liners, but he’s also a troubled, guilt-ridden man whose arguably misguided actions trying to atone for his past costly mistakes steer him into even more pain.  Both Steve and Tony are sympathetic here, which makes the choosing of “sides” not as easy as some might expect, and viewers may fluctuate over who they agree with over the course of the movie.

Apart from the “star” status split between Evans/Downey, the rest of the large ensemble scrabbles for screentime, with probably the biggest supporting parts going to Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, and Anthony Mackie.  Johansson gets to do some butt-kicking, especially in the opening fight in Lagos, while Stan doesn’t get much to do apart from his share of moments in the various action sequences and Mackie serves up more of the faithful sidekick (a more thankless version of the same awaits Don Cheadle on the opposing team).  Chadwick Boseman has a commanding presence and Black Panther (who looks and fights something like a cross between Batman and Catwoman) is a formidable combatant; Boseman’s T’Challa should be capable of carrying his own solo movie.  Also waiting in the wings to go from “special guest star” to headliner is young British actor Tom Holland, whose Peter Parker is awkward and geeky without laying it on as thick as Tobey Maguire and whose Spider-Man never shuts up even in the midst of fight scenes.  It’s interesting to note that, going from Maguire to Andrew Garfield to Holland (the first actor to play a teenage Peter Parker who’s actually a teenager), the various onscreen incarnations of Spider-Man are undergoing a bit of a Benjamin Button effect (so too is Aunt May, who’s gone from Rosemary Harris to Sally Field to Marisa Tomei).  Holland is delightful in his smallish role here, but feels shoehorned into the movie to give us a dose of Spidey; we’ll have to wait for his upcoming solo outing to fully judge his version.  While Daniel Brühl’s Zemo is a bit of a thinly-developed plot device and a catalyst for the main conflict, in a way it’s interesting to see a comic book baddie who’s not a flashy supervillain or a megalomaniac and isn’t interested in the usual comic book villain goals of money, power, or world domination.  Zemo is low-key and inconspicuous, with no colorful costume, superpowers, or special fighting skills, but he’s methodical and diabolical, and while his motivations and goals are mysterious for most of the movie, when finally unveiled, they’re both more modest and more personal than we might expect.  Brühl does an effective job in limited screentime making Zemo both creepy and, in the end, surprisingly sympathetic.  Elizabeth Olsen seems somewhat stronger here than in her debut in Age of Ultron; maybe she’s grown into the part, or is better-handled by the Russos.  Paul Bettany brings a vaguely Vulcan-esque cool logic to Vision.  There are walk-on roles from Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, and Martin Freeman (Freeman and Tom Holland add themselves to the ranks of British actors who can adopt flawless American accents), and bit parts for Marisa Tomei (certainly the hottest version of Aunt May we’ve yet encountered), John Kani, John Slattery (in another flashback as Howard Stark), Hope Davis (as his wife Maria), and Alfre Woodard.  As always, there is the question of why some characters sit this one out (Hulk’s absence is plausible due to Banner going underground again as of the ending of Age of Ultron, but it’s a little strange that Nick Fury and Maria Hill would have nothing to say about all the Avenger vs. Avenger mayhem that goes down in this installment).  One gets the feeling Thor and Hulk are conveniently left out because their inclusion on either side would end the fight in about five seconds.

There are other, smaller flaws.  A kiss between Steve and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter feels forced and unearned, and we’re not interested in this shoehorned semi-romance because it’s so thinly-developed.  A mid-credits scene serving as an epilogue to one of the movie’s central conflicts comes off as a curiously anti-climactic afterthought.  Not only does Daniel Brühl’s “Helmut Zemo” resemble the comic character in name only, but with some minor script tweaking he could have been left out of the movie altogether and is an obligatory villain in a movie that arguably didn’t really need one.

But none of its flaws stop Civil War from being an eminently enjoyable slice of big summer blockbuster comic book movie entertainment, reliably serving up plenty of moments to pop the eyes of comic fans.  Yet at the same time, there’s something vaguely hollow about the proceedings for all the flashy effects and big action scenes.  Civil War doesn’t match either the joyride of The Avengers or the mix of gripping spy thrills and emotional depth of The Winter Soldier.  But nor does it get as bogged down as Age of Ultron or mistake “serious” themes with depressing the audience like the woefully mishandled Batman v Superman.  Fans of the convoluted and crowded Marvel Cinematic Universe should find much to enjoy here, even if it doesn’t invent the wheel.

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