Monday, May 9, 2016

Movie Review – Phantom on Captain America: Civil War

A co-worker recently told me that he just wasn’t as excited about Civil War as he had been about the other Marvel movies. He’s not a comic book guy, but he goes to see almost every movie that comes out, to the point where he runs out of domestic releases and has to hit up theaters that carry foreign films.

It would be fair to say that he is a much more avid consumer of film than I am.

When he said that, I told him that I totally understand. We agreed that we’re much more excited about the forthcoming Suicide Squad just because it looks like something different. The Marvel movies are a fairly homogenous source of excellent entertainment. They share an overall look and tone even if the subject matter and stories vary wildly. All of that is totally fine because that’s how you build a brand and have success.

To date, I have loved every single Marvel movie to some degree and have watched all of the official Marvel Cinematic Universe films multiple times. My favorite is still Captain America: The First Avenger. I haven’t retroactively decided that some are bad like many people have. I have zero desire to see Disney and/or Marvel fail in any way. I don’t ever want to be the one pissing in the Cheerios because I love and admire what they do.

Guys – I still think Iron Man 2 is pretty awesome.

I think you might see where I’m going here.

Before I get into spoiler territory, I want to say that Civil War gave us some of the most awesome and memorable scenes and characters in the history of the MCU. I will be talking excitedly about Black Panther, Giant Man, and Spider-Man for years to come. The film was gorgeous and from a visual standpoint, nearly flawless. Spider-Man looked like a video game character a few times, but otherwise I was delighted by how seamlessly these over-the-top superheroes fit in to the world around them.

Tom Holland was fantastic. Every second that Spider-Man and Peter Parker were on screen it felt like Marvel saying, “This is how you do it, dum-dums”. I don’t hate the other Spidey films like some do, but the MCU Spider-Man is the one I have always wanted to see. They nailed it. Not just with the characterization, but with the way he moved and fought and interacted with the other heroes. And there is exactly as much of Spidey as you need. His appearance wasn’t too short, but it also didn’t overshadow the movie and detract from your enjoyment once his part was done. Plus, “Spider-Man Will Return”.

Chadwick Boseman could very well be the new center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I cannot believe how much he owned the screen in every scene he was in; hanging with these characters that we’ve been watching for almost a decade. His T’Challa was powerful and charming and right. I am not familiar with Boseman as an actor, but had no trouble with his instantly having credibility in the context of the film. His confidence came off as assuredness rather than swagger, which makes him an interesting counterpoint to Tony Stark, who can back up what he says, but still comes off as arrogant.

I noticed superhero themes! I’ve been complaining for years about the lack of iconic scores for our modern superhero movies. I don’t know if it’s because I have watched the MCU movies so many times or if it’s because the themes are genuinely more outstanding than I was giving them credit for, but I picked up on Cap and Tony’s theme music in the score over and over again.

My problems with Civil War were the incredibly slow first hour, a villain that I thought was a little weak and predictable, and my own personal fatigue with a central storyline. I examine these in more detail down below, but that’s SPOILER territory.

Overall, though, the movie blew me away. Aside from a little dodgy Spidey CGI, the visuals were tremendous. The action was easy to follow and engaging. There were some massive sequences that I’m going to need to see again to truly appreciate.

Story-wise, Marcus, McFeely, and the Russos took on the ridiculously daunting task of providing a sequel to not just Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but also to Avengers: Age of Ultron. A sequel that had to tie together narrative threads from those movies while also featuring the largest roster of A-list (thanks to the MCU) superheroes ever seen in a live action film. They had to merge massive, world-spanning events with a bunch of characters with insane superpowers and make it all make sense. And they totally nailed it. Any concerns I might have had over handling the potential – and necessary – scope of the coming Infinity-whatever movies are washed away by the competence with which the story of Civil War was told.

You must see this in a theater. There is a skill to the craft of visual storytelling that we don’t often see at this level. All of the flair and splash of a summer blockbuster has been successfully combined with the human elements of an intense drama. It should be jarring when Civil War switches between the two, but it isn’t. That’s partially due to the foundation that has been laid by the incredible talents that have overseen the MCU to this point, but mostly due to the vision (no pun intended) of the above creative team.

Now it’s time for


I guess this is also the part where I’m going to bitch about stuff, because Civil War was not, in my view, perfect. Several of my issues are personal taste. You may or may not agree and I’d be thrilled to hear what you think in the comments here or in the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group. This would have been great as a podcast episode, but I just don’t have the time this week.

My biggest issue was the pacing of the first hour. I found it to be incredibly slow and tedious. I get that they had things to set up, but it sure did take them a while. The opening of the movie was fantastic and exactly what I wanted – the new Avengers team working together smoothly and efficiently, with the rookie recruit Wanda still learning the ropes. This is where my first issue comes in.

In saving Captain America – and dozens of civilians – from a self-immolating Crossbones, Wanda accidentally magics him into a building with people inside. Wakandans, to be precise. Crossbones blows up and takes innocent civilians with him. This brings King T’Chaka and his son into the picture, but it also continues a tiresome (to me) plot point.

I am weary of the collateral damage story. It started in 2008 with Iron Man and has been a recurring story point in the MCU ever since. It’s most noticeable in the Iron Man and group movies and, quite frankly, I’m over it. I understand that it’s representative of the world we live in now that is covered by a blanket of constant Outrage, but there’s a reason I go to the movies – to get away from the real world.

This ongoing story about the repercussions of the heroes’ actions keeps them from ever being the truly aspirational superheroes that I want to see. They just keep fucking up and can’t do anything right. And even if that’s not the whole truth and just the perception of the world they live in, this is the filter through which these characters are being presented. Yes – one of the major trademarks of Marvel’s characters is that they are flawed and “human”, but there are plenty of other flaws to choose from.

That being said, the fallout of the Avengers’ actions was the cornerstone of this mostly excellent movie’s plot, so I can’t be too mad. But I want this to be laid to rest. There are other, better stories to tell.

Like the collateral damage thing, the pacing of the first hour was pretty much a necessity. The stories had to be told. We had to see where everyone was and T’Chaka and T’Challa had to be introduced. I think some of the stuff with Bucky was a little clumsy because it was hard to tell what was going on with him. Once it is revealed that Zemo is setting him up it all becomes clear, but initially it feels more awkward than mysterious trying to figure out what he’s been doing since he was last seen in Winter Soldier or referenced in Age of Ultron. I think an earlier scene of him just trying to live life but being unsure of who he was might have been helpful. I also wonder how much Spider-Man’s semi-late insertion compressed Bucky’s story. I’m sure we lost something to that scene with Peter Parker and Tony Stark (which was well worth the time).

Side Note: Am I the only one that thought Tony looked super weird in that scene with Aunt May? Like he had been added digitally or something?

I also wonder if we lost a Pepper Potts subplot. When Tony is giving his presentation at MIT there is a reference that Pepper cancelled and Tony clearly has some heavy feelings, but it isn’t ever followed up on or mentioned again. Also, young Tony looked incredible. I shouldn’t have been surprised after what they accomplished with Chris Evans in the original Cap, but I was.

I wish Giant Man and Spider-Man could have been surprises. There was no way Spidey could have been kept a secret, even prior to our modern media environment, but it was only toys that spoiled Giant Man. That would have been incredible to just have sprung on me in the theater. But both elements were still amazing and will continue to be amazing long past the point where any element of surprise would have worn off.

Scott Lang was more than just a fun addition to the teams. As Giant Man, he was the literal turning point in a battle that saw Cap’s team at a severe disadvantage. Plus, he had my favorite line in the movie. Normally that honor goes to Black Widow, who has had some of the best dialogue in the history of wiseasses, but Ant-Man’s way-overly-superheroic delivery of, “Here you go, Captain America” when he hands Steve his shield back is THE BEST
Paul Rudd was delightful.

I’ve avoided reviews and commentary as much as possible because I want this to be my own views on the movie and not responses to what other people have said, but even before Civil War was released I saw many people questioning why Tony would ever agree to oversight from a foreign body. That’s something that has been building not just since his disastrous hubris in Age of Ultron, but ever since he completely changed Stark Industries back in the first Iron Man.

Tony Stark may have the biggest ego on the planet, but he is pretty susceptible to guilt. It could be said that guilt is one of the main motivators for his actions as Iron Man. Guilt over the legacy of Stark Industries, guilt over the death of Ho Tinsen, guilt from never being able to give Pepper what she wants (this is my perception and might not be overtly presented in the films), and of course guilt over the collateral damage from his actions. He is constantly trying to find a better way, and for eight years now the Stark Way has been yielding more and more negative results alongside the positives. And people keep shoving the negatives in his face because he is the most accessible and publicly visible of all of the Avengers. He’s the guy that has to deal with the angry mobs. This is made abundantly clear by his encounter with the mother of one of the casualties of the Sokovia battle.

Tony doesn’t even try to deflect her accusations or point out how many people’s lives were saved. He is just beaten down and defeated. He has nowhere to go. And that is why he is so receptive to Secretary Ross’ presentation of the Sokovia Accords. He just doesn’t want the responsibility anymore. He has lost confidence in his ability to call the shots and feels like his teammates are just running wild.

We have long suspected that Bucky murdered Tony’s parents while operating as the Winter Soldier. The scene is teased early in the movie (I think this was actually the opening), though Stark’s parents aren’t identified as the victims. We as the audience have a pretty good idea what’s up and the tension from this is played upon throughout the movie. I’m very impressed at how the filmmakers brought Steve and Tony’s teams into conflict prior to this huge reveal. It was a brilliant way to keep the War Civil without making anyone look like the bad guy. It’s only later, when Tony, Steve, and Bucky seem to have mended fences that the bomb is dropped and things get truly ugly between Cap and Iron Man. It was a masterful storytelling device that pulled the rug out from under the audience just when they thought things might be okay.

Except, of course, for the fact that we hadn’t seen the fight from the trailers yet. I fucking hate movie trailers. That would have been a devastating reveal.

Speaking of which, the filmmakers did manage to keep one MAJOR thing a secret – the existence of the Raft.

My jaw dropped when that thing emerged from the ocean. Not just that it existed, but that Tony knew about it. This is another plot point that I don’t think got enough service. I feel like the rest of the team would have been at least annoyed that the government(s?) were socking villains away in some secret facility with no trials. But it was awesome seeing this controversial place on the big screen and it was executed perfectly, with Secretary Ross playing the unapologetic – perhaps even enthusiastic -  jailer.

Helmut Zemo was a character that would have benefitted from not having the name of a Marvel villain that I am already familiar with. He had a great story and motivation and Daniel Brühl did an excellent job, but I was just expecting more super-villainy. I’m not saying it was needed, but when you’re expecting this guy:

And all you get is this guy:

It’s a big adjustment to make. My hope is that we will see him return in the future. It certainly seems to be set up for that since he’s one of the few villains that survived the wrath of Marvel’s superheroes. One wonders why they even need the Raft. Emil Blonsky and Justin Hammer must be lonely in there.

Okay, so I don’t want to sit here and examine every single thing about the movie. I just wanted to get some of my thoughts down and, in so doing, examine them and come to a final (for now) verdict on Captain America: Civil War.

It was massive. It successfully wove all of the narratives of the included characters into a cohesive whole while adding two entirely new characters and not making them feel like afterthoughts. And yet it was still a Captain America movie that served as a direct sequel to Winter Soldier. Civil War served up satisfying portions of all of these characters we love, while leaving us wanting more. I was afraid we wouldn’t get enough of anyone with all of the faces involved, but the filmmakers managed to satisfy me.

This was the first MCU movie that I didn’t immediately want to see again. It’s darker and doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, so there wasn’t that high that you typically get – that rush of excitement over a movie job well done. This one weighs pretty heavy.

At the end Rhodey is crippled. Most of the Avengers are fugitives. Tony Stark is more alone than he's ever been and left with even more guilt. Bucky is a one-armed popsicle.

But it demands thought and conversation. And now that I’ve done the thought part, not only do I need conversation, I want to see it again badly. I need to further digest everything that was presented. Now that I know the extent of Zemo we get, I want to go back and be able to appreciate him for what he is and does.

Civil War presented exactly the story I was expecting, but executed it in the most satisfying way possible. I still don’t think it was perfect, but it got so much closer than it ever should have given the storytelling task it set out to accomplish.

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  1. ******* SPOILERS *******

    "I also wonder if we lost a Pepper Potts subplot. When Tony is giving his presentation at MIT there is a reference that Pepper cancelled and Tony clearly has some heavy feelings, but it isn’t ever followed up on or mentioned again."

    Actually it was. Later in the film Tony is discussing how he blew up all his armor to "give up" being Iron Man, but he didn't want to stop. He says he and Pepper are separated largely because he wasn't finding the time for her in between the business and the Avengers before commenting that somehow his dad was able to find a balance in life that he can't.I think it was also there to underscore the "Avengers are your family" bit from the letter.

    1. Yep. Turns out I was in the restroom.

    2. I was actually going to joke about how it was so quick all you likely had to do was take a pee and missed it...