Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

With massive tentpole movies locked into extremely specific release dates way ahead of their actual releases, 2016 was always going to be the Summer of Superheroes Twatting Other Superheroes: ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’, ‘Captain America: Civil War’, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’. Hell, let’s call it Summer of the Semi-Colon by way of an alias.

‘B vs S’ was first out of the traps and got the kind of critical drubbing last seen aimed at ‘The Lone Ranger’ (and like that movie, ‘B vs S’ – while no classic – turned out better than anyone gave it credit for), and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’, which opens in the UK tomorrow, is already being submerged by a wave of negative reviews.

‘Captain America: Civil War’ was always going to emerge victorious. Unlike the rushed attempt to springboard a two-part Justice League movie after just ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘B vs S’, and unlike the all-of-the-place quality control of the ‘X-Men’ franchise and the narrative shell-game of the timelines (Deadpool’s piss-taking line in his own magnificently meta solo movie is a spot-on bit of parody), Marvel have developed their stable of icons and villains over a decade and a dozen movies. Nothing in ‘Civil War’ feels rushed or shoe-horned in. The MCU’s timelines and nexus points have been so carefully mapped out that ‘Civil War’ variously functions as: the conclusion to the Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes arc that links ‘The First Avenger’ and ‘Winter Soldier’; a de facto ‘Age of Ultron’ sequel (only sans Hulk and Thor); a passing on of the baton from Peggy Carter to Sharon Carter (a.k.a. Agent 13 – and kudos to all concerned for giving Emily Vancamp more to do this time round); ‘Iron Man 4: Let’s Give Tony Stark’s Ego Another Kicking’; a showreel for ‘Black Panther’; and a teaser trailer for ‘Spider-Man: Hey, Kids, We’ve Got the Rights Back and This Time it Won’t be an Andrew Garfield Suck-Fest, Honest’.

In other words, there’s a lot going on in ‘Civil War’. The opening mini-movie (redolent of a James Bond pre-credits adventure) has the team intercepting some desperados out to get their filthy paws on a biological weapon. One of these desperados is Crossbones (Frank Grillo), Cap (Chris Evans)’s second division nemesis from ‘Winter Soldier’, and he almost gets the drop on our square-jawed hero. Enter Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who takes care of business but at the cost of an entire building and some civilian casualties.

This debacle coming so soon after the city-wide destruction of ‘Age of Ultron’, the Avengers are hauled up before a committee (making ‘Civil War’ the second major superhero movie, after ‘B vs S’, to steal a plot point from ‘The Incredibles’) and it is impressed upon them that if they want to continue saving the world, they’d better agree to some checks and measure PDQ. Because nothing says “thank you for saving the world” more than grey-suited bureaucracy.

At this point, ‘Civil War’ makes the first of a couple of wobbles – neither are franchise-disruptingly serious, but they’re still annoying. Cap’s reticence to accede to the whims of politicians is understandable given the political conspiracy shenanigans he got caught up in the middle of in ‘Winter Soldier’. However, Stark (Robert Downey Jnr)’s volte face from supremely arrogant twat who was basically the architect of everything bad that happened in ‘Age of Ultron’ to bleeding-heart/survivor’s-guilt-orphan-boy/ascendee-to-moral-high-ground comes off as a character arc too far; it’s founded on just one scene – and no matter how good Alfre Woodward is as the voice of conscience, I just don’t buy Stark’s tunnel-vision Messianic certainty crumbling based on just this one encounter. Indeed, something happens to War Machine (Don Cheadle) late in the game that, if the scripters had found a way to stage it at the outset, would have pushed Stark down the required narrative avenue a lot of convincingly.

The fact remains, though, that this is ‘Cap vs Iron Man’ and the conflict needed to be established pretty quickly. It’s compounded, effectively enough, by a bombing that disrupts the signing of the accord and for which one B. Barnes Esq is in the frame. Only Cap won’t give up on his old buddy and goes rogue in order to find out the truth of the matter. This section, Cap teaming up with Sharon Carter (and a potential romance simmering away), while one B. Panther Esq (the effortlessly charismatic Chadwick Boseman – bring on the guy’s solo movie) stalks Bucky, is easily the best part of the film.

Soon enough, though, loyalties are tested and sides are taken and it’s time for the big airport smackdown – and ‘Civil War’ takes its second wobble. The sequence is a grandslam piece of showboating which is (a) utterly devoid of narrative tension – after all, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) has been plotting away in the background so it’s no surprise that Bucky will turn out to be innocent(ish) and the revelations about the real villain of the piece reserved for the final act; and (b) simply too top heavy. If ‘Civil War’ is one green monster from the id and one Nordic god short of being an actual Avengers film, then it overcompensates for their absence by throwing everyone else into the mix. When the warring factions square off against each for fifteen minutes of action, a few sardonically humorous character beats and about a gazillion dollars of special effects, the viewer is presented with – on screen at the same time – Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson, shockingly short-changed by the script), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch, War Machine, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant Man (Paul Rudd), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Bucky Barnes and Black Panther. That’s twelve iconic characters having a brawl. For fifteen minutes. During which Ant Man makes buses and planes and even himself very small and/or very big. For the most part, the scene is fast, frothy and funny (“are we still friends?” as former partners trade punches; Spider-Man being reminded that fighting doesn’t usually involve so much talk), but it never escapes the fact that it’s so top-heavy the bottom of the screen practically screams for an RSJ to shore it up.

Thankfully, the film continues for another half hour and gets its groove back on (mostly: there’s one horrible moment that’s written in purely to stoke up Stark’s hatred for Bucky, and the way it’s incorporated sucks donkey balls), moving towards a finale that doesn’t actually require entire postcode areas to get blown up or mansion-sized gunships drop from the sky.

As ‘Winter Soldier’ debated the legitimacy of control, ‘Civil War’ questions what happens with it. The script stacks things in a certain someone’s favour, and does so in such a way as to absolve them of any and all thorny j’accuses. There’s a similar sense of cop-out as regards the politics of piece, which don’t make a lot of sense when you subject them to even the slightest critical scrutiny. Nonetheless, when it does work, it works brilliantly. Its best moments are, by turns, exciting, flamboyant and intense. ‘Civil War’ is, like the previous Captain America films, a superhero movie that’s actually about something; and it gets to play around with big themes without hunkering down in a mire of crushing joylessness a la ‘B vs S’.

The thorn in its side – arguably the thorn in every other superhero movie’s side – is ‘Deadpool’. In a way that no example of its ilk has done in recent years (bar, notably, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), ‘Deadpool’ allowed the superhero movie to be fun: big, dumb, adult-orientated fun. How the next slate of Marvel offerings shape up remains to be seen, likewise whether ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is as bad as early reviews suggest. But it could be that ‘Deadpool’ was either the death knell or the wake up call for the superhero genre. They say that a week is a long time in politics, and we’ve still got a ways to go until ‘The Infinity Wars’.

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