Captain America Civil War Chris Evans

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR Review: Friendships on the Fritz

Monday, May 09, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Captain America: Civil War

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Holland
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

Captain America: Civil War practices skepticism with every situation. It is never sure which of the movie’s warring ideologies -- freedom to do what is right versus checking the power that accompanies that freedom -- is right. In a given moment, each has its merits. In the end, the film and its directors, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, still aren’t entirely positive which side is correct. Its denouement implies that the only solution is to let these tensions coexist in perpetuity, because the security of the world depends on it.

But the third film in the Captain America franchise (and 13th in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe) is not all high-minded dissertations on the role of government, guilt, surveillance, and power in general. It maintains and builds upon the foundation of witty charm and action thrills inherent in these Marvel Comics-based movies. To that latter point, Civil War might even be the strongest example of action filmmaking in the studio’s superhero oeuvre to date. It falls into familiar narrative traps as it attempts to shoehorn in new character introductions as it serves the corporate mandate of universe-building synergy, but even then it makes the introductions funny and visually thrilling despite how unnecessary they are to the overall arc of the film.

Those thrills get going early in the movie. A team of Avengers led by Captain America (Chris Evans) is introduced in the middle of a sting operation, waiting for terror leader Crossbones (Frank Grillo) to launch an operation to steal a vial of an infectious disease for use in a chemical weapon. At the start, the assembled Avengers operate with the well-oiled machine efficiency of a sports team that is clicking. The heroes complement each other every step of the way, even finding time to tease each other -- this type of operation is small potatoes for a team used to defeating alien invasions. But the fight loses its structure as variables change by the second. The Avengers soon have to start spinning too many plates in the air. Distractions happen and miniscule breaks in concentration lead to disaster. The team is able to save hundreds of thousands of lives by preventing the disease from falling into Crossbones’s hands, but dozens are hurt or killed because of unforeseen circumstances during the fracas.

The sequence becomes a microcosm of Captain America: Civil War’s conflict, something the Russo brothers and cinematographer Trent Opaloch present visually -- the shock and anguish is told to us by the disappointment on the Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) face when she sees that they were unable to save the day for every person. The action is tight and concise until it’s not. But there is an organization to it. Captain America, who pushes for the highest amount of freedom in how the team conducts its business, is not wrong to suggest that they know what they’re doing. He is not comfortable with losses they may suffer along the way, but he is willing to take responsibility and shoulder that guilt.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who sat out the operation at the beginning, does not see things the same way. He has been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder for several entries in the series. His guilt overwhelms him to the point where he thinks he and his Avengers teammates owe the world something more: accountability. He is unwilling to accept the collateral damage Captain America argues is a (monumentally sad) consequence of trying to save the human race as a whole from existential threats. That’s not good enough for Iron Man, who sees the team’s failings and thinks they can get exponentially worse -- this is a world where mind control exists, and these superpowered people are gods among humans. Iron Man is not being a wet blanket. His reasonableness is powerful and persuasive, because even the best-intentioned people make mistakes. He thinks they should be held accountable for those mistakes and be made to atone for them. The governments of more than 100 others countries in the world agree, as they sign a treaty meant to reign in the Avengers’ power called the Sokovia Accords, named for the destroyed country from Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The Accords break the Avengers into two ideological camps. Captain America’s cohorts, including Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), view them as an unnecessary impediment to the Avengers achieving their overall goal. Iron Man’s crew, like the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Vision (Paul Bettany), are concerned with a lack of checks and balances. These are issues they could solve during (heated) discussions, but the world throws a crisis in their way, in the form of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap’s old World War II buddy who spent decades as a brainwashed super soldier for the Soviets and fictional terror organization Hydra. The tensions between these superpowered friends -- the pain felt by these characters at their inability to come to a graceful agreement on giant issues is palpable -- are not able to be hashed out in calm and rational ways when international disasters appear imminent. International laws are broken, manhunts are arranged, and external actors are swept up into the intrigue, sometimes not in entirely convincing narrative ways.

That includes the introduction of Peter Parker, otherwise known as Spider-Man (Tom Holland, making his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a recent deal gave Marvel legal rights to include him with their other heroes on the big screen). On one hand, the character serves no function within the story. Civil War could cut him completely and would not lose anything important in its structure or conflict. But it would lose much of its warmth, because this third onscreen iteration of Peter Parker is the closest in spirit to the comic book origin of the character. He is believably youthful in appearance (Holland is a 19-year-old who doesn’t quite look his age), which makes his character’s high school life feel real. But beyond physicality, Holland’s Peter is a nerdy kid who gets excited by being in the presence of super scientist Tony Stark. His deference to Iron Man in all things, including asking for instructions in a battle sequence, is sweet. This kid knows he’s out of his element with these veterans of world-altering events, but he’s willing to give it his best. He’s the most endearing part of the film, even if he is borderline useless to its mechanics.

The other new hero introduced in Civil War fares a little better than Spider-Man when it comes to impacting the narrative. King T’Challa of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman), known as Black Panther when he puts on an impeccably sleek suit, is present at the signing of the Sokovia Accords as a full supporter of their vision, but he doesn’t necessarily think that vision applies to him. He has anger and revenge on his mind for reasons separate from the Avengers. This makes him a wild card when it comes to allegiance. But he has wisdom beyond his years, which leaves him as something of an ombudsman for the movie, willing to see each side’s views.

An emotional throughline that is neither mechanically useful nor endearing is how these heavy thematic issues affect these heroes’ love lives. Several characters, including Captain America, Iron Man, and the Scarlet Witch and Vision, deal with romantic problems. Some shut out their significant others due to their increasingly guilt-induced withdrawn nature. Others build a romance with little cinematic evidence for such a thing to begin -- cooking a meal for someone only shows that one has tenderness for someone else, but does not explain why such tenderness exists. Another still fast-forwards a romance in an unbelievable way, resulting in one of the weirder onscreen kisses in recent memory. In a less stuffed film, these romantic elements would have room to breathe, but here it doesn’t work. This doesn’t serve the love stories and it takes away from the things the movie does well, like showing how ideology and external events can bring friendships and partnerships to the breaking point.

And the Russos sure do have a knack for showing that breakdown and the complicated emotions that accompany it. While showing off their visual talents -- every character has a distinctive fighting style and the idiosyncrasies of each (very different) environment become part of the battles rather than mere backdrops for a bunch of people punching each other --  the co-directors and actors show how difficult it is for good-hearted people to truly burn their bridges with each other. During a mid-film battle sequence at an evacuated airport in Germany, this group of heroes are not out for blood. They trip, stun, and subdue each other without displaying a killer instinct. One character says, “You were pulling your punches.” Another wonders, “We’re still friends, right?” These rifts are painful for all parties because they genuinely care about each others’ feelings and well being.

The directors’ attention to movement as how it relates to individual personalities is stellar. Characters make decisions only they would make, based entirely on their unique skillsets. Black Panther, whose suit is designed to absorb and neutralize heavy impact, charges headlong into superpowered fists without caring about the repercussions. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), whose shrinking powers make him vulnerable to the mayhem that surrounds him, twists and flips, hoping to remain undetected long enough to get his licks in on his temporary adversaries. But the main event is the three-part fight at the film’s climax, which loses all sense of control and turns into a rage-filled free-for-all, motivated by real, profound betrayal (by way of omission).

None of this is to say the Russos have taken a game-changing step forward for the action genre, but they show a deeper level of thought than simply designing a bunch of explosions and fist fights. The level of competent and functional action craftsmanship on display in Civil War is the best of any Marvel movies. When paired with its ideas about freedom, accountability, and how “doing what’s right” can mean very different things even for good people, the film becomes more than just a disposable piece of fluff.

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