Captain America: Civil War (2015) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem
Running Time: 146 min.
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Bruhl, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, William Hurt, Paul Rudd, Jeremy Renner, Tom Holland, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Slattery, Hope Davis
Small role and cameo: Alfre Woodard, Frank Grillo, Stan Lee
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Review published May 6, 2016
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, almost as if trying to address Batman v Superman and how to do a major superhero battle film right (or, after the disappointing Age of Ultron, how to do an Avengers film right), unloads Captain America: Civil War into theaters with a reverberating bang. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, having already impressed with one of the best superhero flicks in the prior Captain America outing, Winter Soldier, prove that they have consummate chops in the genre with another film to contemplate putting in one's top ten favorite of all time.
The first order of business is that the Avengers aren't just misunderstood, like Batman and Superman in their film, but that the public knows exactly what they have, and even sees the importance in them, but also wants to be able to control them. On their part, the members of the team also see themselves as human beings with responsibilities to go along with those great powers, and have to mull over serious considerations that their actions have consequences. It's one thing to save the lives of thousands, if not millions, but if through an error, they end up killing hundreds all on their own, it's something that weighs heavily on their consciences as Earth's only line of defense against powerful master terrorists and strange extraterrestrial entities. As with most superhero films, the effects are global, but the stakes are, refreshingly, completely personal, which gives us the ability to invest in these characters in a way that the DCU haven't yet been able to do under the care of Zack Snyder.
Loosely taking off from an idea borne of the giant crossover storyline mostly under the direction of comics writer Mark Millar, Civil War is a movie that addresses something that is not often remarked upon in superhero stories, and that is the cost of the collateral damage, especially in human lives, when super-powered humans battle one another over an urban landscape. The beginning of the film shows us firsthand the cost of trying to save people, as the Avengers' mission against villain Crossbones (Grillo, The Purge: Anarchy) in a battle at the heart of Lagos, Nigeria, sees the deaths of many innocent bystanders, including many from the (fictional) country of Wakanda.
Enter Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (Hurt, Race), who pushes forward the Sokovia Accords, a law that requires United Nations approval and oversight when engaging in future world-saving battles that might jeopardize the lives of helpless people. Tony Stark (Downey Jr., The Judge), haunted by guilt of a young and promising teen's death resulting from his own perceived recklessness, signs on, thinking that this law will not only be inevitable, but that agreeing with it now saves them from a more severe implementation down the road. Steve Rogers (Evans, Playing It Cool), once used as a government propaganda tool for things he didn't always believe in, think it's a bad idea, not only opening up the superheroes to be used as a tool for a bunch of selfish bureaucrats, but also because the absence of quick and decisive action, or even inaction in some cases, may cost countless more lives down the road.
After a terrorist explosion ends up killing the Wakandan leader, his son, prince T'Challa (Boseman, Gods of Egypt), who is also a super-powered human clad in a pliable form of vibranium (the same nearly indestructible substance from which Cap's shield is composed) known as the Black Panther, vows revenge on the responsible party, with signs pointing toward Bucky Barnes (Stan, The Martian), once the Soviet-brainwashed assassin called the Winter Soldier, as the main culprit. Barnes disavows any knowledge, Captain America, who sees the good in him when he's not triggered into malice, protects his old friend, and together they vow to unearth the real mastermind behind the tragedy. However, they can't get far, as acting on their own brands them as criminals, which means the Avengers who've signed the new law, led by Iron Man, must keep the peace so that costumed vigilantes aren't acting of their own accord, possibly causing more distrust from the public and governments they've sworn to protect.
While Civil War is a Captain America film, and does feature its titular hero in significant enough amount to maintain that, this could just as appropriately have been an Avengers film, as there are more members of that super-team in this film than in any entry thus far, with only Hulk and Thor as significant members missing from the line-up (they'll return in their own adventure in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok). The miracle of the film is in how it gets us on board for the battle royale without substantially changing the personalities of the players involved, or in making any side look malicious. While most viewers will likely side with Captain America's faction (it is his movie, after all), there's a logic and pathos to Tony Stark's concessionary stance that makes him also heroic, even though he directly puts himself as an adversary to those who are also trying to do good.
The film is also impressive for having just enough time and rationale for each member of the teams to be on the side they choose, with each hero having chances to contribute -- this is not just Cap vs. Tony, and a flavorless army on each side. There is a villain in the film, but he won't go down into the pantheon of great movie bad guys, merely serving as a catalyst for the events that unfold. At the very least, while his modus operandi is the same as Batman v Superman's Lex Luthor, at least Daniel Bruhl's (Burnt) performance as Baron Helmut Zemo doesn't erode the good will of the film as Jesse Eisenberg's manic turn does.
Scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who not only collaborated on the first two Captain America entries, but also created Cap-Universe TV spin-off "Agent Carter", the storyline touches all of the bases necessary to make it a success. There is a great deal of table-setting involved in taking heroes from allies to battling frenemies, so it's to their credit that the build-up doesn't feel forced or overly contrived to get us there, even though it does take quite some time, about a third of the film's 2.5-hour length, for the story momentum to finally kick into high gear and be the film we are all expecting going into it. As the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is a great deal of overhead, and it continues to expand, so the fact that even casual viewers of Civil War will have little problem understanding the stakes and the nature of the two-dozen-or-so characters given ample screen time is something to bestow praise upon for being able to deliver with such consummate skill.
If there are lulls to the film, they come mainly in the large-scale jittery action set pieces. It's not that any of them are bad; they are all, each and every one of them, visually imaginative, as well as very impressively mounted and choreographed, even if overly jittery in execution. However, there's a curious lack of exhilaration to them that makes them feel like they're perfunctorily checking off boxes of audience expectation rather than in trying to tell a good story. Characters fly, crash, smash, and pummel each other while going at high speeds, and yet there isn't a that feeling of weight or destruction to anything they are doing, despite a lot of well-rendered special effects to make everything look monumental. But, without them, fans would be outraged that they were not getting their money's worth, so they are there in all their glory, and at least they are peppered with some decent humor to make them modestly entertaining as a diversion, even if the sight of buildings crashing on superheroes we care about don't resonate the way they might in if witnessed in real life.
Civil War also introduces the MCU to Spider-Man (Holland, In the Heart of the Sea), traditionally Marvel Comics' most popular character worldwide, as part of a deal between Disney and Sony, who desperately needed some revitalization and freshness to a character that had grown stale under their care. Knowing he needs allies on his side prior to mounting his quest to roust up Captain America and his crew, Tony Stark personally recruits the star-struck, impressionable teenager at his home in Queens (introducing Marisa Tomei (The Big Short) as the sexiest Aunt May to date) to assume even greater responsibilities in his quest to do what's right. Fans of Spider-Man will be happy to note that the character is more than merely a cameo in Civil War, even though the purpose of his inclusion is more to set up for his solo adventures with Sony than in making him an integral part of the MCU, but it's seamless and, more importantly, sparks a great deal more fun and interest in his character than anything that could be mustered in the Amazing Spider-Man reboot attempt of the last several years.
Well acted, nicely paced, and with enough nuggets of fun moments to overcome the heavy amount of plotting necessary to set up for the main events, Civil War rises to the top of the superhero genre to become one of the better entries thus far, entertaining in just about every respect for the here and now, while also leaving fanboys and fangirls eagerly anticipating what's next in store. It's a lot to juggle narratively, but the Russo brothers have continued to put on the best show one could reasonably ask for in spending one's hard-earned movie-going dollars.
©2016 Vince Leo