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Film Review – Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016; Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)

The confluence of the release dates of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has created a contrast between the year’s tentpole films of the duelling Marvel and DC cinematic universes that might not otherwise have been quite as stark (har!). But it’s difficult not to notice that both films are aiming to achieve the same kinds of things: throwing iconic protagonists into mortal conflict with one another, staging battles on an enormous scale, seeding future sequels in the rival comics corporations’ sprawling big-screen extended realities (they also both make this viewer, at least, anticipate one such subsequent film that much more breathlessly: Wonder Woman in one case, Black Panther in the other). They even fundamentally share the exact same core political metaphor about the prudence of government oversight over the power of superheroes (read: of superpowers), or the existential dangers of limiting their freedom, depending on whose side you’re on.

One cannot hit the nail on the head too squarely in stating that this is not a comparison which reflects at all well on DC’s efforts. Marvel has built to the central dialectical conflict of Civil War over twelve films, and has done so with patience and intelligence while adhering to an overriding house style that has discouraged some distinct film artists from playing in their creative sandbox (Edgar Wright, Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVernay come immediately to mind) but has allowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interweaving series of films to maintain tonal and narrative consistency, if not always a strictly high level of quality. DC rushed all of that painstaking world-building work into two Superman-centred films (and really mostly into one), entrusting its vision to a single director, Zack Snyder, with considerable visual gifts but equally considerable weaknesses of perspective, imagination, and empathy. Perhaps DC will course-correct yet, though it may take a genuine box office flop to convince them of the error of their frantic catch-up-playing ways (summer contender Suicide Squad may yet be happy to oblige). But for the moment, Marvel stands ascendant, and Civil War, though not without flaws of its own, is its victory lap.

It’s galvanizing proof of Marvel’s growing expertise that the film runs that lap at full speed and capability. In the steady but energetic hands of Anthony and Joe Russo, directors of the last Captain America adventure The Winter Soldier (whose political implications I criticized after seeing it but were perhaps part of a richer tapestry than I appreciated at the time), Civil War renders the core disagreement between the titular Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in terms more personal than ideological. For Stark, the wiseacre zillionaire playboy with the powerful red-and-gold battle exo-suit, dormant, disavowed guilt over an arms-dealing past, the death of his parents, and the collateral damage of recent Avengers missions is given a face by a grieving mother (Alfre Woodard in a small, indelible role) whose son was killed in the disaster at Sokovia in Age of Ultron. Even the Cap must entertain some doubts about the essential rightness of the Avengers’ activities after a mission to stop a biological weapon theft in Lagos, Nigeria ends in multiple civilian casualties.

Convinced that the Avengers’ actions need to be put in check, Stark backs the UN’s proposed Sokovia Accords that would make their intervention in any situation contingent on the approval of a UN panel. Rogers is not without a measure of sympathy, but with the stinging betrayal of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s recently-exposed infiltration and exploitation by Hydra in The Winter Soldier as well as Stark’s world-policing ambitions gone badly wrong in the form of Ultron, he can’t bring himself to trust monolithic institutions or the brilliant elites that run them over his own moral and strategic compass. Civil War, its script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, manifests their disagreement as the core dilemma of American power: neoliberal institutional control of judiciously-applied military might vs. libertarian distrust of government and fundamental belief in righteous exceptionalism. There’s a bit more to it than that, and that bit more is grounded in personal motivations first and political ideology a distant, almost invisible, second. But that’s the essence of the conflict in broad strokes.

The Avengers cleave into factions behind the two opposed alpha males and their stubborn worldviews. Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) remains loyal to his brother-in-arms Rogers, and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) gravitates towards them as well, haunted by her role in the Lagos tragedy but chafing at her friendly but firm house arrest enforced by a sweater-wearing Vision (Paul Bettany). Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) surprises her longtime close ally Rogers by siding with Stark and the Accords, along with Vision and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle). The Accords are due to be ratified in Vienna against Rogers’ objections, with King T’Chaka (John Kani) of Wakanda as its public face (humanitarian workers from his isolationist but highly advanced African nation were among the victims of the Lagos explosion). But another bombing interrupts the ceremony and claims more lives, including that of T’Chaka, and blame for the attack is very quickly (too quickly?) laid at the feet of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Hydra-brainwashed Winter Soldier and Rogers’ childhood best friend.

Protecting Bucky puts Rogers and his allies in violation of the Accords, especially after the meddling Sokovian terrorist Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) activates the Winter Soldier’s programming and creates a highly public and highly destructive incident in Vienna. Deeply involved in this incident is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the son of the slain Wakandan King and the country’s new ruler, who also happens to be Black Panther, a hyper-athletic superhero with a black vibranium-weave suit and sharp vibranium claws (also the material from which Captain America’s shield is made, vibranium is mined in Wakanda). When Rogers and Wilson escape with Barnes in tow, T’Challa finds common cause with Stark’s side, which enables the exacting of vengeance against the man whom he believes to be his father’s killer.

Anticipating a head-to-head confrontation, Rogers, Wilson, Barnes, and Wanda Maximoff shake Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) out of retirement and also add the peculiar talents of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to their squad. Intercepted at Leipzig’s airport by Stark, Romanoff, T’Challa, Rhodes, Vision, and a lippy teenager in a spider suit (Tom Holland), an epic tilt ensues, all the wonky debates about the limits of power and contending political philosophies literalized into a spectacular heroes-on-heroes intersquad battle that is followed by a much more personal fistfight in a secret Siberian base with great meaning to Bucky’s past, and to Tony Stark’s as well.

If this sounds like an overstuffed movie already, the surface has barely been scratched. There’s a funeral for a Marvel movie/TV heroine (appropriate timing given the cancellation of her showcase program by ABC), a micro-romance between Cap and her niece and heir to badass secret agent-dom (Emily VanCamp), small no-nonsense government functionary roles for William Hurt and Martin Freeman, and one or two exhiliratingly-staged action sequences that I haven’t even found occasion to touch on. If the Russo brothers are not the best directors of fight sequences working in Hollywood today, then they are at least my favourites (if they cannot claim the best directors of action title, then that’s because the prodigious Brad Bird still draws breath). They can maintain clarity and pace in the fray, and their beats and gags twinkle with wit and invention.

Civil War also features two separate franchise launches: Black Panther, a character given pride, intelligence, and moral gravity by Boseman and due to go solo onscreen in 2018; and Spider-man, a character given his third movie origin story in the past decade and a half, this one a model of economy unfolding in a single scene in teenaged Peter Parker’s bedroom (the latest Spidey reboot drops next year). This is a lot to do in a single 147-minute film that also has its own story to tell, but the strain doesn’t show as it undoubtedly did in Batman v. Superman. For such a busy movie, Civil War is lean, efficient, and above all entertaining.

Juggling as many balls as it does without so much as breaking a sweat, Captain America: Civil War nonetheless squirms out of resolving its central political dilemma in predictable fashion. Invested in presenting both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as inherently good men with justified convictions, the Russos can’t bring themselves to make either come across as more right than the other, nor can they make them both seem resonantly, tragically wrong, as in the comics. Civil War raises the spectre of the fundamental dichotomy between freedom and security that absorbs the ongoing political debate in America concerning both its place in the world and its citizens’ rights in relation to the maintenance of that place. But for its own purposes, it can only conceive of that debate as opening a chink in the national armour to be exploited by malevolent exterior threats, a disagreement that exposes weakness rather than reinforcing strength. Captain America: Civil War is strong blockbuster entertainment product, but it pulls its political punches, unwilling to land too devastating a blow.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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  1. June 9, 2016 at 8:53 pm

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