“Okay, anybody on our side hiding any shocking and fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose? I’m open to suggestions!”
Well, well, well…isn’t this conspicuous timing. Not even two months after DC Comics attempted to kickstart/defibrillate its own nascent cinematic universe with a wholly fabricated, varicose, mercenary, oft nonsensical apocalyptic grudge match between its two biggest stars, Superman and Batman – who, despite over a century of unparalleled name recognition, had a combined one film of sanctioned warm-up (2013’s grim, pulverizing Man of Steel) between them before the opening bell rang – Captain America: Civil War, the latest – which is to say the thirteenth – entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) lands with all the requisite bad blood and fists a-flyin’ one could possibly want, except, you know, also sane, and coherent, and almost singularly exciting. This, of course, assumes audiences are interested in those sorts of things. If DC was truly beholden to anything other than its kamikaze release schedule (as of this writing, nine additional films to drop by 2020, not counting any further adventures of Superman, or the standalone Batman jaunt Ben Affleck is now apparently open to), it almost certainly would seek not to invite unflattering comparisons with the unquestioned industry standard, but, in this insane convergence of like minds and unlike products, it has accomplished exactly that. Speaking as one of the approximately eighteen critics of any badge level nationwide that recommended – grudgingly, but technically true – Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I can say without reservation that Civil War utterly obliterates it on each and every level one might wish to explore – technical, dramatic, philosophical, character, what have you. As presented, DC’s impromptu blood feud barely has the depth of the paper it was written on, whereas the simmering personal rivalry between Steve Rogers/Captain America (a harried but resolute Chris Evans, more comfortable in the role than ever) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., justifying his record salary with some seriously heavy lifting) that powers Civil War and eventually devolves into something nastier has existed in a minute but detectable form from the beginning. It helps that, with the MCU, the “beginning”, as with most points on a standard timeline, is actually quantifiable, and not just a dart thrown hopefully at the wall.
Comic book history is replete with examples of heroes battling other heroes, though, I suppose, never really before now on the big screen. Civil War considers the stakes of its titular conflagration with impressive thoughtfulness, neither meanders nor takes shortcuts, and ends up imparting not just meaning but (selective) gravity on proceedings that, in lesser hands, would almost certainly defy both. This isn’t the simple act of choosing random characters off a video game’s fighter selection screen and pressing “Start”. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun from start to finish. Civil War is the Captain’s fifth MCU film with at least a co-starring role, and Iron Man’s sixth. Bringing these two crusaders of common purpose to actual, ill-intentioned blows is a fairly involved process that draws, deeply and directly, from the established character level – it’s Stark’s rampaging ego, skeleton-filled closet, and sardonic “Big Brother” tendencies vs. Rogers’ creeping ennui, all-encompassing soldier’s mentality, and stubborn, desperate need to help. Stark and Rogers are long-running members of the same team – The Avengers, who, perhaps, you’ve heard of – though, when pressured, their significantly different worldviews and methods of working put them at increasing odds and threaten to cause a seismic, perhaps irreparable, foundational break. The Avengers last assembled en masse, of course, to defeat the insidious Ultron, a genocidal artificial intelligence with a towering, incredibly proactive god complex, the voice of James Spader (how often those two things go together), and all the people skills of Ted Cruz channeling Freddy Krueger, in a movie that, despite prophesying his period of influence as an “Age”, only truly succeeded in seeming to run that long. Avengers: Age of Ultron, with its comic excess of moving parts and spinning plates, not to mention all the table-setting for future films with which it was charged, was the first and so far lone MCU vehicle that palpably threatened to crumble under its own weight, and was only held aloft by the heroic efforts of director Joss Whedon, a specialist in marshaling the strengths of small screen heroes who was scarred enough by his second Avengers experience that he left his considerable ongoing stake in the MCU behind completely in favor of more personal projects and a well-earned measure of mental health.
Since that sputtering but hard fought victory, in which the largest Avengers contingent yet converged on the fictitious Eastern European slum Sokovia to stop Ultron from co-opting a giant chunk of its densely-populated capital city and turning it into a floating bomb, the greater unit has fragmented into a freelance S.W.A.T. team of manic peacekeepers led by Rogers, an apparently PR-focused arm led by Stark, and, because, despite the assembled star power, this isn’t an Avengers movie, a handful of conspicuously absent “Sirs Not Appearing in this Film”. Rogers’ strike force begins Civil War having tracked the fearsome villain Crossbones to the tenements of Lagos, Nigeria, which it immediately begins tearing apart in its zeal to engage the enemy, and vice versa. Whereas Dawn of Justice’s early moments focused on battles and events that, while theoretically related to the larger story, felt disconnected all the same, Civil War’s white knuckle close encounter with Crossbones is something of a standalone set piece, yet deftly builds momentum toward the trials to come while establishing a number of salient points about these Avengers. The Captain runs a seasoned, tight-knit, highly effective team, preternaturally skilled at handling the most dangerous scenarios imaginable, which helps explain why the cracks appear along certain lines when, after the Lagos mission goes sideways and results in massive civilian casualties, the government finally steps in to curtail what it sees as the group’s unchecked, potentially devastating power. It’s a testament to Civil War on an overall construction level, and to the thrumming, engaging direction by Joe and Anthony Russo (also of the revelatory Captain America: The Winter Soldier and NBC’s much-missed Community), that even scenes wherein the characters engage in heated but relatively mannered, closed door political debate neither stunt nor slow the narrative whatsoever. The team’s internal deterioration is presented as an organic thing, gradual, recognizable, rooted in tense interpersonal history and established character traits rather than an itemized list of plot requirements. The rift plays out with the smooth, sinking inevitability of watching a clockwork mechanism snap into place. Soon enough, the Avengers are fractured, and drifting, having been presented with far and away their most formidable enemy yet: each other.
This was inevitable. Creating supervillains with any true heft or staying power has got to be hard and thankless work, and it’s not as if the MCU had featured a plethora of particularly memorable antagonists thus far. Alongside the parade of mostly anonymous psychotic industrialists, aggrieved daydreamers, and megalomaniacal aliens, you’ve got what? Loki, the Winter Soldier, and maybe the Red Skull?* That first pair corresponds, tellingly, with two of the very best films in the entire Marvel franchise**, and the second, just as interestingly, maps specifically to Captain America. It seems the Captain just apparently brings out the worst in his adversaries, though perhaps they are tailored to play off and expound upon the topographical realities of his character, since, even among his tribe of “superheroes with problems”, Captain America, a man clinging to capital-letter concepts like Duty and Honor as a way to make sense of a world and time he doesn’t understand, is set apart. Despite sky high stakes and a combined fight roster every bit as big of Age of Ultron, there is no mistaking Civil War for anything but a Captain America movie, which is a good thing. Avengers films may remain the MCU’s big ticket tentpoles, the end point to which all its other entries build, but the Captain’s continuing adventures are steadily becoming its gold standard for leaner, cleaner, altogether more gripping action that operates both within and sometimes well beyond standard superhero parameters. Many critics impressed upon the spectacular Winter Soldier the mantle of the 1970s paranoia/political conspiracy thriller, ala The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor, except writ extra-large and explosive. Playing off that mindset, Civil War can pretty easily be distilled down into a pulse-pounding manhunt/race against time picture, though that belies its intricate craft. Rogers, to whom the mission is everything, squirms against the prospect of invasive federal oversight while Stark, whose own feelings on the subject are tinged if not dripping with personal tragedy, attempts to rein him in. Complicating matters beyond anyone’s control is the re-introduction of the so-called “Winter Soldier”, the brainwashed elite shadow assassin fashioned by Hydra out of the remains of Rogers’ childhood best friend Bucky Barnes, who is implicated in an embassy bombing at precisely the wrong moment to foster enduring diplomacy.
*I was sorry in a way to see the maniacal, overachieving Crossbones go, as, with a little additional screen time, he would probably have qualified as #4.
**Notably also the only two MCU villains that were eventually seen in a semi-heroic light, which speaks to their complexity, especially in the face of the comparatively garden variety yammering madmen we’re left with otherwise.
In building to its thrilling centerpiece – an old school WWF “Survivor Series”-style six on six tag team match that plays out in and lays comprehensive waste to a regional airport – Civil War rewrites the MCU’s already impressive record book for technical proficiency and epic storytelling. The action throughout is, by turns, breezy and breakneck, tightly choreographed and bugnuts crazy, demonstrating superb negotiation/utilization of confined spaces and a clever array of environmental factors, whether it takes place in a cramped high-rise stairwell, a packed freeway tunnel, or during a frantic jailbreak whose trail of destruction leads through an outdoor promenade choked with pedestrians. There is so much expert hand-held tracking during the various fight scenes, particularly in the early going, that the camera itself almost becomes a third combatant. Because of its focus on Stark and Rogers, and overall mastery of tone, Civil War actually does a fair better job of gracefully juggling and spotlighting their remaining teammates than either of the official Avengers films have (even the superior original). Particularly shiny, even in what amount to extended cameos, are Paul Rudd as the gung-ho, overcompensating Ant-Man, Elizabeth Olsen as the tortured but defiant Scarlet Witch, and Paul Bellamy as the stranger-in-a-strange-land robot hybrid Vision, polite to a fault even as he wields a terrifying assortment of powers. The latter two underutilized as full share new Avengers in Age of Ultron, the former cutting the definition of an unassuming figure as the star of his own solo vehicle, this trio’s wild success is reflective of Civil War’s larger dedication to character detail and to presenting arguably the first 360-degree experience in MCU history. New to the fray, but enthusiastic, are the African prince turned vigilante protector Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman with smooth assurance both behind and beyond the mask, and, of course, the long-awaited MCU debut of the Amazing Spider-man, here imagined as a super young teenager (Tom Holland, ingratiating, and shot out of a cannon) still coming to wide-eyed terms with his powers, a mere six months removed from receiving the world’s most famous spider bite.
As in Age of Ultron, there is a metric ton of moving parts here for the filmmakers to supervise, yet Civil War steps lightly from the start, and never remotely wrong. Leaving aside the inherent implausibility of the MCU on a physical level, the film, despite its minefield of possibilities, never offers up the least reason to suspend our suspension of disbelief. The action is rollicking and the serious moments convey the exact proper tone, whereas the occasional comic asides are generally completely unexpected, and, not coincidentally, hilarious. The Avengers’ abilities, as with that of any team, are meant to be complimentary, so the climactic airfield scrum unfolds as a relatively fascinating ground-to-air (and back again) chess match, or, if you prefer, the highest-powered game of Rock-Paper-Scissors in history, with ebbs, flows, reversals, and surprises galore. Watching the dirty dozen splinter into adversarial pairs and trios and scamper off to duel, dervish, and deal damage is a real kick. The Captain unsurprisingly thrives in his element, casually ripping out an extreme cardio routine suitable to end informercials as we know them, and devising ever inventive new uses for his indestructible zip-line boomerang shield, while the junior webslinger’s pervasive “gee-whiz” enthusiasm, even at the height of battle, helps keep the proceedings, if not exactly light, then at least buoyant. Like its predecessor, just when you think Civil War has exhausted itself, it finds an extra gear. It’s strange. A single viewing (at home) was all it took for me to crown Captain America: The Winter Soldier the unequivocal best MCU film to date. I wasn’t expecting the throne to be challenged this soon. As much as Civil War thoroughly entertained me, Winter Soldier still gets the grudging head-to-head nod for its tight, propulsive narrative and numerous, truly harrowing set pieces. It’s the difference between settling back into your seat with a smile as the action washes over you and subconsciously inching toward that seat’s edge because you honestly have no idea what is next. Whichever posture you prefer, Captain America’s two most recent adventures together represent a new standard of quality within the superhero realm, and exist as a sharp and delightful rebuke to all those various other houses currently spitting comic book flotsam and/or jetsam out into the marketplace with half the vision or one tenth the care. Leave it to the professionals, please.
“Captain America: Civil War” (2016) 4/4 stars
Grateful h/t to Wikipedia for helping me keep all my MCU and DECU facts straight.