Sunday, May 15, 2016
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
In general I've liked a lot of Marvel's output since the first IRON MAN in 2008. There have been some misses, however; I found both IRON MAN sequels somewhat lacking, for different reasons. THOR: THE DARK WORLD, while okay, didn't exactly light my world on fire either. 2012's AVENGERS is probably my favorite Marvel film, but CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is close behind, if not tied, depending upon what day of the week you ask for my opinion.
I was ready for CIVIL WAR to blow both of those last two out of the water. The movie had tremendous buzz and very positive advance reviews, and it looked terrific. I found myself really psyched up, looking forward to CIVIL WAR more than any other movie in recent memory (that includes THE FORCE AWAKENS). A few days before its release I compared my anticipation for it with my feelings toward AVENGERS in the final weeks before before it hit screens four years earlier.
Sadly, I think the hype kind of dulled CIVIL WAR's impact for me. It's entertaining and I liked it well enough, but it certainly doesn't supplant AVENGERS or WINTER SOLDIER for me. Right now I'm not sure exactly where I'd rank it in the pantheon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it's probably someplace near the middle.
Be warned -- CIVIL WAR spoilers abound, starting right now!
My main issue with the movie is that, from my perspective, it's built a false premise from the word "go". The inciting incident is some collateral damage caused by the Avengers on a mission, but we're told this was only the tip of the iceberg. The battles of New York and Sokovia are referenced, as seen in AVENGERS and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, as is the fall of SHIELD in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. All are used as examples of the Avengers wreaking havoc and causing scores of casualties wherever they go.
But New York was an alien invasion. The Avengers stopped it and saved the world, going out of their way to protect civilians in the line of fire. Had the group not been present, things would have been far, far worse. The fall of SHIELD, meanwhile, was incited by a government conspiracy which Captain America eventually stopped. Had he been unsuccessful, Hydra would have likely begun a war against the very coalition of nations which wants to rein in the Avengers in CIVIL WAR.
And then there's Sokovia. AGE OF ULTRON was very explicit about the Avengers saving civilian lives wherever they went, even moreso than was AVENGERS. Priority one was pretty much always keeping civilians out of harm's way, and the characters made note of this in dialogue and in action. When Ultron raised Sokovia's capital city into the sky, the Avengers worked tirelessly to get all the civilians they could out of the city, evacuating them on a SHIELD helicarrier. The day was saved and the movie had a happy ending.
Until CIVIL WAR, where we're told that no, scores of innocent people died in Sokovia. When the city returned to Earth, its landing killed civilians miles away. The writers of CIVIL WAR have retroactively tainted AGE OF ULTRON, turning the Avengers' hard-won victory into a bitter catastrophe. And worse, CIVIL WAR tells us that when all was said and done, the Avengers simply left Sokovia without aiding in any clean-up/rebuilding efforts. This is really a sucky move on the part of the CIVIL WAR team. AGE OF ULTRON wasn't perfect, but it was a fun superhero action movie with a clearly defined win in the end. Now that win has been downgraded to a Pyrrhic victory instead.
But beyond this fundamental flaw, I have one more major issue with CIVIL WAR: the film simply tries to be too big for its own good. Though I disagree with the initial premise, things at least roll along fine, plot-wise, for the first act and a half. There may be one or two holes, but nothing overly major and certainly nothing to detract from one's enjoyment of the proceedings. Characters are introduced and involved logically in the story. Then, suddenly, we have a massive set-piece battle between everyone we've seen so far, plus -- oh, here's Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man for no real reason.
I understand Marvel wanted the giant conflict to be CIVIL WAR's big draw, and while it's a terrific spectacle of a scene, a lot of fun to watch, and practically worth the full ticket price on its own, much of it feels shoehorned into the story. There's no real reason for Vision and Scarlet Witch to appear again following their earlier scenes. Hawkeye doesn't need to be here. Spider-Man's inclusion, especially, smacks of throwing in a character because they can, not because he's necessary. Ant-Man too, really. Storywise, logically speaking, there is no reason the big fight shouldn't have been between only Cap, Falcon, and Bucky on one side with Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, and Black Panther on the other.
So I have some fundamental issues with CIVIL WAR, both in terms of premise and execution. I also have some minor gripes, chief among them being that Tony Stark as a mentor to young Peter Parker is an awful idea. Part of the appeal of Spider-Man is that he's the only one who knows his true identity and he struggles to figure things out as he goes along. Giving him a mentor who knows his secret undermines a big part of his mythos.
Further, what's the deal with Zemo? He's not a Nazi, not even a baron. He's just... a guy. As my brother observed after seeing the movie, why was he even called Zemo? He could have been named Joe Smith and nothing would change. There isn't anything about this character which says he must be Zemo, which is really disappointing from Marvel. They don't usually appropriate names from the comics unless they're actually adapting the character(s) in question. Baron Zemo is my favorite Captain America villain and his portrayal here does the original character a great disservice. Plus, Zemo exemplifies (as pointed out by Vision in dialogue) that hackiest of oh-so-clever concepts popularized by the worst "sophisticated" writers -- that the very existence of superheroes will naturally lead to the creation supervillains, rather than the other way around.
The movie is also distressingly frustrating at some points, as nobody is willing to give Captain America the benefit of the doubt any point even though he's clearly right about everything the entire time. Other Avengers are ready to sign the Sokovia Accords immediately but Cap wants to negotiate over their content, which seems completely reasonable. Cap, the person who knows Bucky best in the world and perhaps has a line on whether he's actually gone bad again, wants to take him alive, but no one will give him so much as a chance to do so. For much of the movie I felt like I was watching an episode of 24 at its worst -- where historically everyone, even the people who knew and worked with him and had had their lives save by him, would immediately believe the worst of Jack Bauer based on the slightest shred of incriminating evidence.
All that said, there's a great deal to like in this film, too. Chris Evans as Captain America is pitch perfect as usual. His devotion to Bucky is great. The bits between Vision and Scarlet Witch are fun (I really like both actors in those roles), and Black Panther's portrayal is wonderful. Also, while I feel Spider-Man is shoehorned into the story, this has to be the best version of the character ever committed to the screen. He moves and acts perfectly. The action in general is great, particularly the tunnel chase and the airport battle.
I also really enjoyed the film's score by Henry Jackman. While it doesn't feature nearly as many callbacks to prior Marvel themes as I would've liked (though I did note a strain of the original AVENGERS them near the beginning and a bit of Ant-Man's theme during the big fight, as well as Jackman's own Winter Soldier theme from the previous Cap film), its main motif is suitably sweeping and tragic with a nifty upbeat version for the end credits, and the theme for Zemo is quite sinister and mysterious.
CIVIL WAR has some very serious flaws that I have trouble getting past -- but I can't help liking much of the film in spite of those flaws. In a way the movie may be greater than the sum of its parts, but it's unfortunate that's in spite of an awful premise and some ill-conceived character choices. With some tweaks, this movie could've been unassailably fantastic.