Thursday, May 5, 2016
Spoiler free movie review: Captain America: Civil War. Grey moral questions settled with black and white brute force.
Most of Captain America: Civil War breaks down into two storytelling modes. In one, heroes have quiet, sincere talks about their personal beliefs and intentions. They explore the principles they operate on, and sincerely try to communicate them to each other. In the other mode, they get pissed because communications have broken down, and they find creative, involved, and very immediate ways to beat the ever-living crap out of each other.
It's no surprise that one of these modes is much more fun than the other. And it's no surprise that both modes inform each other. Civil War's internal politics, and its symbolic ones, are deeply complicated. (We'll get into all that in a later piece, once more people have seen the film.) And its storytelling is similarly complicated, and not always successful. In terms of narrative ambition, and giving meaningful screen time to an ever-growing stable of onscreen characters, Civil War rivals Joss Whedon's MCU standout The Avengers. And in terms of sheer thrill, it surpasses Avengers — at least for fans who come prestocked with an emotional investment in these characters.
Captain America: Civil War is openly, unapologetically for fans. More than any Marvel Cinematic Universe film before it, it trades on the history built up in previous films, the protagonists' relationships with each other, and the goodwill (or lack thereof) they've engendered in audiences. Viewers who come in not caring about them personally — about their agendas, their emotional well-being, or at the very least, who would win in a fight — may find the film endlessly frustrating. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely spend a lot of time on scene-setting and obfuscation, and on callbacks and echoes. Like any ongoing comic title, this is a continuing story, and it's aimed squarely at people who are already completely on board.
Civil War has more baggage to unpack than Avengers, and less room for the MCU franchise's trademark humor. Still, by comparison with the heavy-handed hero-on-hero face-off in Batman v Superman, Civil War maintains a wry, light voice. Markus and McFeely also wrote the MCU's previous two Captain America films. They also scripted Thor: The Dark World, and co-created the spinoff TV series Agent Carter. And they're writing the two-part Avengers: Infinity War saga that's meant to cap Phase Three of the MCU film saga. At this point, they're intimately familiar with MCU banter, and the shifts from somber to sarcastic that keep the tone manageable. They're also intimately familiar with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and they assume viewers are as well. But that doesn't mean they charge directly into the action.
Civil War hinges on the ideological clash between Steve (aka Captain America) and Tony (aka Iron Man), the two generals in the titular civil war among the Avengers super-group. When an Avengers intervention results in civilian casualties, and the UN attempts to put the heroes under bureaucratic supervision, Tony is in favor, and Cap isn't. The involvement of Cap's old sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), both in the past and in the present, hugely complicates the situation. So do other behind-the-scenes factors. After three Iron Man films, two Captain America films, and two Avengers films where they fight side-by-side, Steve and Tony's personalities are well-established, and their roles in this particular drama are foreordained: Captain America is a compulsive do-gooder who can't imagine asking permission to save lives. Tony has seen his reckless arrogance cause catastrophes, and he recognizes the need for responsible oversight. Both men have good reasons for their perspectives.
It could be seen as a flaw in Civil War that neither of them makes a particularly good argument for those perspectives. Their ideological argument rapidly becomes a physical one, and it almost immediately morphs from a frustrated shoving match into an ugly, fury-driven grudge match. But everything about it feels consistent with the MCU's past. Steve and Tony could spend an hour of the film laying out their arguments, but it would be out of character for both of them. They're used to solving their problems with brute force, clever tactics, and steely determination, not with rhetoric. And the questions they're facing are large, abstract, and morally complicated, in part because they reflect actual current events.
Like the previous Captain America movies, Civil War looks to America's current foreign affairs policies for inspiration. Questions like "Do citizens of one nation have a right to unilaterally address global problems?" or "Who takes responsibility for civilian collateral damage incurred in an attempt to save more lives?" are rooted in real international debates, and they aren't going to be solved overnight by people in colorful costumes. For balked and cornered heroes, punching everyone who disagrees with them at least feels like an immediate answer.
The questions the Avengers face in Civil War are also increasingly familiar from other superhero films. Man Of Steel kicked off a long, weary cultural conversation about what makes a hero, and whether the excitement of massive-scale onscreen demolition excuses heroes with little interest in protecting individual people. The MCU movies have continued that conversation, particularly in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, where rescuing individuals amid global-scale catastrophe became an overt part of the story. Still, civilians died in that film, and the Avengers are continuing to pay the price, both in international disapproval and in personal guilt.
Markus and McFeely make sure that guilt is felt over and over, and not just by the leads. Part of the focus-shift to the less central characters is just a practical attempt to make them real enough to the audience that it matters who ends up on what side and why. The approach isn't entirely even-handed: sidekicks Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) both get plenty of time to prove themselves in combat. But even though they have the most right, and the most responsibility, to call Cap and Iron Man to account for their actions, they're both distressingly willing to do whatever they're told.
The approach can also feel narratively lumpy — the film takes significant detours for Vision's experiments with cooking and the inadequacies of Spider-Man's homemade crime-fighting costume. When the screenwriters focus on trivia, inertia sets in rapidly. Still, even dull downtime moments make the characters a little more human, and a little less like rubber CGI figures. Once they start smashing each other through walls, any element that differentiates them from each other helps a little.
Still, Civil War lives in those moments when the smashing starts. The central fight between the two halves of the Avengers group is a tremendous sequence, full of imaginative teamwork and impressive effects. (Though the film does often feel the loss of the franchise's two champion smashers, Thor and Hulk, who are both AWOL for this installment.) It's the sequence fans will be talking about long after they've lost interest in the ins and outs of the film's politics.
But even the non-fans may appreciate the rigor invested in making sure everyone on the battlefield has a different reason for showing up. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Civil War lets some of its more recent characters serve as franchise fanboys: Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) both drool over the chance to stand next to their heroes in a fight, and neither question what those heroes tell them. Other characters have ugly personal agendas. In particular, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), introduced to the MCU films here ahead of his 2018 solo film, proves capable and compelling, but he's exactly the kind of border-ignoring, utterly unchecked international vigilante the UN is afraid of. Off the battlefield, his personal vendetta doesn't stand up to the faintest hint of moral scrutiny. In a fight, when he's clawing his way through all other adversaries to get to his chosen target, it's simultaneously crucial to him, and irrelevant to almost everyone else.
And that complicated interplay between individual and group motives becomes significant, because for all the big, symbolic issues of responsibility, transparency, and oversight, at heart, it's just a story about personality conflicts and personal loyalty. Civil War is thrilling as spectacle, but it'll only feel satisfying to viewers who already care about these characters and their choices, and feel the weight of their lightly sketched moral conflicts. To MCU fans, it matters that these heroes disagree. It matters more that they have no idea how to resolve those disagreements without trying to flatten each other.
But just raising the questions, and heaping emotion and violence on the problem, doesn't get the writers any closer to answers. Captain America: Civil War ends with nothing really resolved — not the rift in the Avengers, not the question of whether UN supervision is a workable solution, not the question of responsibility for the aftereffects of violence. That's meant to set up more films to come, and it lets all the characters walk away equally compromised, with no one fully admitting fault. It also pulls the story closer to the real world. There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Sometimes watching them debated endlessly and fruitlessly makes us all feel like punching someone in the face. On that front, at least, Civil War fully delivers.