Captain America: Civil War
2016 orgy of superheroism
Plot: After counting up all the money made from the countless other Marvel superhero movies, Disney executives--a mouse, another mouse, their dog friend who walks like a human, their dog who walks like a dog, a perversely pantsless duck, a pair of homoerotic chipmunks, another mouse, and a frozen severed head--decide to make another one. They checked their calendar and noticed it was Captain America's turn to get his own movie, but the cricket, in a moment of brilliance that can be expected from the most diminutive of the Disney executives, suggested they go ahead and include all of the superheroes. "Even Ant-man!" chimed in one of the mouses. "Yes! And we'll even throw in a couple superheroes who haven't been in other movies!" added another mouse. With "You have to spend money to make money" as their mantra, they got their computers and made themselves a blockbuster.
I'm wondering if this seemingly endless series of incestuous Marvel movies is a little too ambitious. Actually, I'm wondering if this movie all by itself was a little too ambitious. As my faithful readers know, the Captain America movies have been my favorites of these comic book movies, and a lot of that is because of their subtext. The first movie contained interesting sidebars on propaganda. The second had timely messages about the sacrificing of freedom for security. This one wrestles with ideas about what America's international role should be. As with the other Captain America movies, the themes are handled gracefully and intelligently, squeezed in between scenes of superhero fisticuffs.
I want to talk about those fight scenes. There are some special effects that are slightly askew, surprising for a movie released in 2016. Characters don't always fall right, they don't mesh with the surroundings perfectly, and there's some weird-looking superhero running. I hated an early fight scenes where Scarlett Johansson, Bird Man, Mopey Fire-Hands Girl, and Captain America are chasing terrorists around. The editing was jumpy enough to induce vertigo, and it was hard to tell what was going on all the time unless "what was going on" was just characters moving really fast. It's certainly possible that I'm just too old for this sort of thing.
However, these Avengers movies (and whatever they want to call this, this is really an Avengers movie, isn't it?) all have one big fight scene with all the heroes and heroines doing their things at once, sequences so smoothly choreographed and creatively storyboarded that you can't help but drool a little bit. This one, as you know if you saw any of the previews, features the split Avengers fighting each other at an airport. It's one of the best action sequences I've seen in a while, or at least it is until Ant-man does something that doesn't make any sense to me and makes the whole thing kind of stupid. The heroes get funny things to say--especially the new Spider-Man who can't shut up--and it's a blast watching all these different superpowers collide. It must have been a blast to write, too, and I'd love to know what ideas didn't make it past the brainstorming stage.
As exhilarating as that lengthy action sequence is, however, it doesn't really carry the emotional impact that it should. At this point, we know these characters about as well as we can even though some of them haven't even gotten their own origin stories yet. Captain America, Iron Man, and Ant-man have, and Spider-Man's had his origin story on the screen about twelve times. If I see that character's uncle die one more time, I'm calling it quits. But as intimately as we're supposed to know these characters and as much as we're supposed to understand their relationships, this big fight scene strangely lacks gravity. It's electric and it's funny (I did laugh out loud twice during this scene), but it doesn't have the impact that it should, probably because you know nothing's going to really happen to any of these characters. Well, except one of the black guys. You know that because it was given away in the previews. So the stakes really aren't as high as they could be and really should be, and the scene winds up not even mattering in the end. It's popcorn fluff which, to be honest, is what I paid to see anyway and shouldn't be complaining. You can't tell that to the woman a couple rows behind me who gasped audibly when something bad happened to the black guy though.
A lot of it has to do with how ambitious this all is. There are so many characters and so many angles that the real emotional impact and your connection with the characters gets a little lost in the CGI mayhem. At the same time, things are so simplistic. The characters are faced with a big decision, and all but one of them makes the decision with such ease. In a way, it's a perfect representation of the way politics works in America, a land where you really have to be either this or that with nothing in between. In this Civil War, you're either with Iron Man (really, this is an Iron Man movie as much as it is a Captain America movie, right?) or you're with the guy who got his name in the title. Children watching this movie won't care at all, but any reasonable adult is going to be torn between these two ideologies, and that's really what helps the movie work. Without a real villain, that conflict is what drives the movie, both with the plot and with the story's themes.
Technically, there is a villain, but he fails to stand out and has an evil scheme that is about as convoluted and perforated as Jesse Eisenberg's in the Batman v. Superman movie. This movie doesn't quite have a "Martha" moment, but it comes pretty close. By the time we get to the climactic fight scene, one that is supposed to be personal and probably intensely emotional, you're distracted with thoughts about whether any of this should have worked out anyway. Daniel Bruhl plays the villain, the terrifically-named Helmut Zemo, and I don't have the comic book background to know whether that character's a big deal or not.
I will say this about these characters. Maybe it has something to do with the amount of times they've been thrown at us in these movies, but the actors and actresses playing these superheroes have become these icons as much as Christopher Reeve became Superman. I'm not sure anybody else will ever be able to play Iron Man because Robert Downey Jr. does such a good job as Tony Stark. Chris Evans and his giant biceps will make all future incarnations of Captain America superfluous. From top to bottom, even if you don't have any interest in the superhero they're portraying, you're at least going to like the performance of the actor or actress in the suits.
Critics and regular people seem to love the way this movie balances the tension and action with the humor and lively characters, but you could also argue that there's a lack of consistency. They're juggling so many ideas and characters and alluding to previous movies and setting up future movies that it would be difficult to strike a consistent tone and get from point A to point B smoothly. And with so many characters, it's impossible to really flesh all of them out. To me, that's one of the flaws of a movie like this. Captain America, Iron Man, and, to a certain extent, Scarlett Johansson are round characters. The others are pretty thin. Spider-Man, as likable as this new kid playing him is and as funny as his quips are, is essentially just an enthusiastic teenager and really nothing more. Black Panther is vengeful and pretty much nothing else. Bird Man doesn't really have any characteristics, does he? And I still don't know what's going on with Vision. Like Thor, that's just a superhero I can't understand.
This sprawling Marvel universe shows no signs of slowing down. I reckon in another decade, there will be movies (maybe War Machine 2 or something) that feature well over a hundred superheroes and superheroines. Most of them will remain enjoyable and put underoo-clad asses in the seats, and I did enjoy watching this one on the big screen. I think it was my first Marvel movie that I saw in the theater actually. This third installment of the Captain America story depends too much on previously-established characters who don't really grow as much as the writers and director want us to believe and throws enough new characters at us to distract us into missing storytelling flaws.
I didn't think it was as good as either of the other Captain America movies.