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Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Sebastian Stan, Tom Holland
The superhero genre film has evolved into a critic-proof behemoth that seems limitless in its momentum despite its decidedly limited potential for originality. Bad things happen and good guys fight them, ad infinitum, with ‘bigger’ being the only compulsory adjective in describing each progressive installment. While Marvel has certainly handled their property with better care than others, and undoubtedly made the right choices in crafting such an expansive and long-term commitment to their stable of heroes, the formula is inarguably thin, and for many the looming prospect of dozens more crowding theaters in the coming years, populated by more and more characters, weighs heavy. That said, it’s hard not to watch an Avengers-related film without being impressed by the experience and the studio’s immense dedication to the project.
Captain America: Civil War is the latest in the series and on many levels, one of the better in the canon, able to introduce new players into the game without feeling too crowded and offer up a mostly compelling story, even if there are numerous flaws in the logic and a nagging air of been there, done that throughout. Superbly directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, the brothers deliver on many fronts, including some truly inspired actions moments and some genuine emotional hits, something the franchise has slowly been getting more deft at managing. The story wisely steers clear of a global threat and untold destruction, instead, much like the earlier Batman v Superman, answering for their previous actions. Unfortunately, a lot of it is bloated, and the answer to every conflict, like all superhero films (and the action genre in general), is simply to fight (save for one wonderful verbal exchange between Captain American and Iron Man). While that might be the central conceit of the comics and even (arguably) the reason for why they exist, it grows tiresome, especially when such great care has been made to develop these characters, many who reveal a depth that could and should explore alternatives. There is a moment in this film when one hero learns a devastating secret about another, kept from him by a friend whom he believed was his most trusted, that has the greatest emotional depth in the entire series. It is a spectacular humanizing moment and one that could have become defining for the characters and the franchise, but instead becomes another ten minutes of punching, even if that punching is well choreographed and expertly directed.
The story starts in a very good way, with Captain America (Chris Evans), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in Lagos, Nigeria attempting to stop some terrorists who have taken to the streets. In the chaos, part of a building explodes, leaving many dead and injured. It is just the latest in a long string of casualties associated with the Avengers. Back at their headquarters, the team meets with Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), who informs them that 117 countries have signed the Sokovia Accords, a plan that will have the United Nations run oversight on the Avengers. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers feels it’s too restrictive while Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks it’s the right move, feeling guilty for his failings, especially in the aftermath of his Ultron creation. The two leaders find allies on both their sides and soon the entire team is split down the middle.
In Vienna, where the accords are to be ratified, a bomb detonates, killing many, including the President of Nigeria whose son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), later reveals himself to be Black Panther. Surveillance images seem to suggest the culprit is Captain America’s old friend Bucky Barns (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Soldier, an American operative who was captured and turned into a mind-controlled Soviet assassin many decades ago. Captain America, along with Falcon, set out to find him and prevent authorities from killing him, trying to learn why he supposedly used the bomb. Meanwhile, the two factions of the Avengers gear up for a showdown.
That showdown is the film’s centerpiece, a contrived battle that takes place when story plots converge and the talking is over. And while it is staged and filmed with great skill (notice too how there’s not a populated building in site), it is also the biggest conundrum, one echoing its aforementioned counterpart in DC’s Batman v Superman where a battle is born from a catchy movie title. Much like that film, we learn the same thing: two opposing forces of equal strength and punchability make for a long boring fight. Indestructible combatants knocking each other around don’t have any suspense, which admittedly the filmmakers seems to understand, even having some of them, while fighting, ask each other with a wink if they are still friends. But what is the point? The clumsy battle is just one shot after another of one hero tossing another before that one does the same. The banter is mostly unfunny, and the set up for it doesn’t even feel fight worthy. That’s not to say there isn’t some fun to be had. The appearance of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is grin-inducing, and Spider-Man (recast with Tom Holland) is surprisingly good (though it’s still hard to imagine a guy like Stark calling in a teenager to do his work for him, but I will say his recruitment of the boy is very well done, especially given the nod to Downey Jr.’s involvement with Marisa Tomei–playing Peter Parker’s aunt–who co-starred with him back in 1994’s romantic comedy Only You). It tries to end with something dramatic and shocking, which might have been, but like every film with franchise potential, it’s only a cheap ploy and quickly resolved.
Like most of the Marvel films, there’s no shortage of quality acting, and once again, Downey Jr., who has really given Tony Stark a lot of growth in the years he’s made the role his, shines. A character that has made a great deal of mistakes, perhaps his biggest not with an enemy or his team but a with woman he loves, Pepper Potts (a no-show in this one). Evans is equally good, further giving his complex character more depth, who too has come a long way since his introduction. Olsen is also exceptional as Wanda/Scarlet Witch, a young inexperienced Avenger who has troubling untapped powers but wants to do good, burdened by her own demons. And then there’s Boseman, who creates a moody, likable new entry in the series and shows promise as Black Panther.
There is a line that Marvel (and other studios in this genre) are having to lightly tread. Appealing to the growing trend of darker stories with a cast of characters from comic books that are generally marketed for children is not an easy task, and as the films lean further and further toward the adult side, the joy for kids looking to see their favorite heroes battling foes is fading. Captain America: Civil War is mostly a humorless film, save for a very few moments, which is not a criticism but rather an comment on the times. As with the very good Captain America: Winter Soldier–still the best in the Marvel franchise–this is a serious movie that again tackles serious issues, putting consequences on the table and forcing the ones responsible to consider who they are and what they’ve done (though let’s be honest, without them, things would have been a lot worse). The Russo brothers bring screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely‘s script the breadth and depth it demands, levied by thoughtful and dynamic performances throughout. While it suffers from too much time in unnecessary combat and concludes with a solution that softens the ‘war’ angle and would seem like the first idea Captain America should have offered from the word go, the movie succeeds mostly because it does what it sets out to do very well. There are problems aplenty with this and the franchise overall, especially as Marvel continues to try and outdo itself, but their greatness lies in respect for the characters and more importantly, the fans. Perhaps though, that is its greatest weakness as well, binding them to repeat what they know will work.