Sunday, June 5, 2016

Captain America: Civil War Movie Review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one hell of an impressive machine. It has churned out three Iron Man movies, two Thor movies, a dedicated Hulk movie, two Avengers movies, Ant Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and now a third Captain America movie (or Avengers depending on how you look at it). Through all of it, the stories have toyed with more important themes and topicality. They have often remained a notch above just popcorn and candy, explosions and mayhem. Now, after lots and lots of catastrophic destruction in the name of heroism and the self-anointed good trying to stymie evil, Captain America: Civil War aims to dive deep on the divide between those who would allow for an unchecked team of independent heroes (or vigilantes, call them what you will) and those who would seek to control them, track them, and direct them in order to minimize collateral damage and tamp down the public belief that these “enhanced individuals” are running roughshod over the globe.

To some extent, X-Men explored some of these ideas first with one set of mutants fighting against registration and the other side seeing the benefits of it and at least trying to stop them from giving the public and Congress more reason to distrust them. The Avengers had destruction in New York trying to prevent extra-terrestrial forces from taking over. They had mass destruction in the fictional Sokovia to prevent Ultron from even greater destruction and dominance. And Civil War begins with the takedown of a baddie (played by Frank Grillo) in Lagos that leads to the accidental bombing of a civilian building and killing of eleven aid workers from the fictional country of Wakanda in order to save Captain America.

If a military unit did the same thing, it would be regarded as a war crime. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees for the Foreign Language Film Oscar was a Danish film called A War. It dealt with a military commander on trial for war crimes after he made a decision that saved his men but sacrificed local civilians in Afghanistan. The difference in opinion over an issue like this sort of boils down to which life you believe is worth less. For others it’s about the role of the military operating within civilian settlements and villages. Should their own sacrifice as professional soldiers come before that of people who are present merely by accident? This argument is at the very foundation of the divide that fractures the Avengers Initiative and has Captain America leading one faction against another led by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.).

Tony is haunted by all the death and catastrophe that goes unanswered in their wake. He is visited by a woman (Alfre Woodard), who chastises him for all the chaos in Sokovia which killed her son. After the superheroes stop the villain and leave town, they don’t see and we the audience are not privy to, the collateral damage that lies in their wake. What Civil War did most for me was to think back on Superman fighting General Zod in Times Square. Think about everything that was destroyed, the concrete falling to the street. There must have been civilians injured or killed, not to mention the property damage. And you can play that little thought experiment with virtually any superhero movie. So Tony is on board with the so called Sokovia Accords orchestrated by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to keep the Avengers in check, only sent on missions when approved by a special panel. He is willing to have his power limited. Some would say that’s the most effective use of your power. On his side are War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow, Vision (Paul Bettany), and new character Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) – the alter ego of the newly-crowned King of Wakanda. Later Tony recruits Spiderman (Tom Holland) who is now part of this universe.

On the Captain America side are the ones who see themselves as holding special privilege and capable of making decisions better than any international coalition. They include Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant Man (Paul Rudd) pulled in from another movie, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) pulled out of retirement. The question throughout Civil War is how much you can believe of an independently operating enforcement squad such as the Avengers. As audience members privy to nearly all the facts in the plot, we know that Captain America’s concern over his old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and the mind control that causes him to commit heinous acts is founded on solid ground. We know he’s right, but among some of the many hard-earned successes of the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is that we also never fail to see things from the point of view of Stark’s side. To them it looks like the set up for another PR disaster involving the deaths of innocents and the further loss of empowerment of their team.

Part of what makes Civil War so good and without question the best film in this series thus far is that picking sides is a near impossibility. Perhaps we’ve always taken for granted that superheroes should have a free pass to operate how they choose. Sure, other movies have given the usual lip service about vigilante justice, but ultimately the hard questions are never grappled with. Markus and McFeely take that question head on and force us to consider where we stand on the issue. Who isn’t on the side of a superhero? But then who isn’t also on the side of democracy, limited power, and oversight in order to prevent abuse of power or, at the very least, misguided and ill-informed decisions. We’re talking about the foundations of a functioning democracy that has a strong executive leader (as we have in the United States). And by extension, Civil War is also talking about America’s and the world’s response to terrorism in a post-9/11 world. How much unilateralism is acceptable? How much should be totally in the open and decided by a community of nations? What about drone strikes? And how much do these actions contribute to and invite challenges from more powerful enemies, as Vision points out?

One of the smartest decisions in the story is having a villain – Helmut Zemo, played by Daniel Brühl – who is revealed not to be entirely a villain at all. To have had a standard evil villain would give the Avengers team an obvious common enemy to battle. But the central conflict in Civil War has to be among the Avengers themselves. Brother directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who made Winter Soldier one of the best action-directed films in this series, again set up action sequences that are clearly-defined and laid out. These guys are obviously students of action filmmaking. Any time you have an enormous action set piece involving a dozen characters battling, keeping track of everything in the shooting and editing process is a mammoth undertaking. Making all the material into something that is coherent to the audience is, to me, an incomprehensible task. But the Russos and their editors, Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt, pull it off.

Incredibly, Civil War manages to raise the emotional stakes of the series and truly is a sprawling story that not only demands that you care about the fate of the characters, but works hard to achieve an emotional connection between audience and story.

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