Sunday, May 8, 2016


When we last left the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after the end credits of Ant-Man, Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, was a prisoner of Captain America and the Falcon. I remember thinking that Marvel must have jettisoned their original idea for the third Captain America movie, which from the evidence of the previous picture looked to be a hunt for Bucky, in order to do their variation on the parent comic book company's popular Civil War series. As it turned out, Marvel has gone non-linear on us in its effort to cram nearly three movies into one. The post-credits scene from Ant-Man is reprised in the Russo brothers' Captain America: Civil War, but it takes place approximately halfway through the movie. It was somewhat jarring to realize that scene hadn't happened yet, once we learn that Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is still at large and implicated in fresh acts of terrorism. Bucky is sort of a Macguffin this time, and the film as a whole is an ambitious exercise in misdirection and anticlimax, all to conceal that while Civil War is often wildly entertaining and in many ways the superior of its crazy cousin Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the whole of it doesn't quite equal the sum of its parts and actually shares some of the insanely more-hated movie's flaws.

As the film opens, Bucky's on Cap's backburner as the Avengers address the continuing repercussions of their last misadventure in the obnoxious land of Sokovia, where there apparently was a lot more collateral damage than Avengers: Age of Ultron let on. Things only get worse for Earth's Mightiest Heroes (this time missing their mightiest, Thor and the Hulk) when their Sokovian recruit Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) bungles an attempt to get a human bomb out of harm's way and gets a bunch of Kenyans killed. Worse, some of the victims were Wakandans, residents of the reclusive but technologically advanced African monarchy whose ruler takes the lead in promoting the Sokovia Accords, an international initiative to bring the Avengers and other "enhanced humans" under some kind of supervision. The team is split over whether to sign the Accords themselves, despite pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, returning to the franchise eight years after The Incredible Hulk). Career military man James "War Machine" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is all for it, and so, surprisingly, is his pal and mentor, the eternal rebel Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who was just guilt-tripped by the mother of an American killed in Sokovia into a new appreciation, if that's the right word, of the heroes' irresponsibility. Just as he opposed SHIELD's extreme surveillance tools in his last picture, Cap opposes the Accords, and his opposition seems just as arbitrary a narrative device as before. I understand that Captain America should represent what we consider the best of America now, which includes considerable distrust of government regulation, but Steve Rogers, as a product of his more idealistic and trusting time, shouldn't necessarily share our time's libertarian paranoia. He says of himself that he's been on his own for the last 70+ years but Captain America: The First Avenger shows that to be patently untrue, unless Steve refers only to his time in the ice. You could just as easily think of Steve Rogers as the ultimate organization man, while Tony Stark seems the one more likely to be the libertarian bomb-thrower. But you see, in the original Civil War comics, to which this movie bears little more resemblance than Age of Ultron did to the comics of that name, Stark was the aggressor promoting regulation and registration while Steve, who in comics had seen a lot more of the modern world by that time than his movie counterpart has, led the opposition -- and that much of the original story Marvel Studios felt it had to keep.

It's all just talk, however, until the Winter Soldier appears to re-emerge and perpetrate a terror attack at a UN conference intended to ratify the Accords, killing the Wakandan king among other victims. Now there's a shoot-on-sight order out for Barnes, but Steve can't stomach the thought of his old buddy from Brooklyn, who he knows to have been mind-controlled by Hydra for all the time he was an assassin, being killed. Part of this, I suppose, is because with the offscreen death (natural causes) of the legendary Peggy Carter Bucky's his last link to his old life, but part of it is also the inescapable tendency of superheroes and genre heroes in general to make everything personal, and to make the personal trump the greater good in the utilitarian sense of the term. While the movie lets us know that Steve is right to want Bucky spared, because it shows us enough to make us certain that Barnes is being framed for this latest atrocity, Steve himself doesn't know this until much later. The only thing he knows for certain is that Bucky Must Not Be Killed. Personal loyalty puts his protege from the last picture, Sam "The Falcon" Wilson (Anthony Mackie), along with Wanda and later both retired Avenger Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and bewildered recruit Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) on Cap's side, while logical but conscientious android The Vision (Paul Bettany) takes Stark's side and Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) appears to straddle the fence while leaning Stark's way. Complicating things further is the lone-wolf intervention of the new Wakandan king T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who has taken on the ceremonia mantle and weapons of The Black Panther while vowing to avenge his father by killing the Winter Soldier. Since the Wakandans were big promoters of the Accords T'Challa joins Stark's team but seems unlikely to accept Tony's leadership. Stark has at least one more card up his sleeve to reveal before the teams run at one another at the airport, as we've all seen happen too often....

I was a little unfair to Marvel Studios in my defense of Dawn of Justice, because it was my feeling then that Zack Snyder was trying deliberately to make difficult what Marvel had made almost too easy. Civil War proves that sometimes too easy is a good thing, because most of its action sequences are effortlessly superior than the often ponderous goings on in Snyder's film. There's a fluency of visual invention and action choreography that's most absent in Dawn of Justice, perhaps because the disproportion of power between Superman and Batman makes fight choreography difficult in ways Batman's countermeasures can't compensate for. If anything, the early action scenes in Nairobi and Bucharest are more exciting than the big airport scrum, though that climactic battle finally builds momentum once it transcends the gee-whizziness of certain characters meeting for the first time while fighting. The Nairobi fight, which climaxes with a return match between Cap and Hydra agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo) and Wanda's disastrous mistake, is like the Mexico City sequence in Spectre, setting an almost impossible benchmark for the subsequent action to surpass while needlessly wasting a freshly impressive badass villain. The airport fight is stalled by its effort to imitate the quippiness of authentic comic-book fight scenes but never fails to be ingeniously inventive, especially after Ant-Man shows off his formidable new growing power. If the airport fight has a major weakness, it's the same weakness that brings the film to a screeching halt just when everything seemed to have been set up for the big fight. I had better make myself clear now: I enjoyed Tom Holland's performance as a truly youthful Peter "Spider-Man" Parker and am looking forward to his solo debut next year, but the painful shoehorning of his presence in Civil War never ceases to be glaringly obvious. The interminable sequence in which Tony Stark goes to Queens to recruit Parker while flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is the exact equivalent of the much-reviled momentum-breaking moment in Dawn of Justice when Wonder Woman watches videos of future Justice Leaguers in hazily recorded action. Overall, Spider-Man is this film's Wonder Woman, introduced with the drunk enthusiasm or a late-night card player throwing down his trump or his straight flush. But if anything Civil War has less room for Spider-Man than Dawn of Justice had for Wonder Woman; he seems superfluous to the Marvel movie in a way Wonder Woman never did in the DC film, and more obviously something imposed at the corporate rather than the creative level. If this film is three in one as I suggest, then Meet Peter Parker is one too many after The Hunt for Bucky and Civil War proper.

Civil War admirably takes a chance in ratcheting the action down significantly at the end, trusting that Cap vs. Iron Man go toe to toe (if not strictly mano a mano) did not need the enhancement of a giant object falling from the sky. It's even more daring to make the real villain of the piece such an ultimate nothing, even as everyone recognizes that if any superhero story can do without a villain it would be this one. It turns out that everyone was being manipulated by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) who in comics is another of Captain America's very longstanding foes. He lures Cap and Bucky to Siberia, confident that Iron Man, now tipped off that Bucky was framed will follow. Bucky fears that Zemo will reactivate a new cadre of Winter Soldiers created in the final days of the Soviet Union (apparently also infiltrated by Hydra), apparently with chemicals seized by the original Winter Soldier in a 1991 hit. Zemo, however, is less interested in unleashing a small unstoppable army on the world than in dropping an emotional bomb on Stark: surveillance footage revealing that brainwashed Bucky had killed Stark's parents in order to grab the chemicals. Everything Zemo has done was meant to set up this moment, on the assumption that the revelation would provoke Stark into killing Bucky and force Cap to fight Iron Man to protect his naughty buddy yet again. That's a really big gamble, but who would know better than a genre character how predictable a genre character can be? But why, Zemo, why? The answer, depressingly, is Sokovia. Instead of a second-generation Nazi, this film's Zemo is yet another disgruntled Sokovian, having expended great mental and material resources to make the Avengers fight each other as if that'll make up for everything that was actually the stupid robot's fault. Say what you will about Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, but Brühl's Zemo is a black hole of a villain who shrinks to insignificance before our eyes. The good thing about Civil War is that it can survive this implosion, but Iron Man's rampage and Stark's entire character arc leave you wondering what the film's moral actually is. Are we to assume that Tony is wrong about the Accords because everyone rushed to judgment about a known serial assassin? Or because the government actually dared to imprison the Avengers (plus Ant-Man) captured at the airport? Or because he flew off the handle in a fit of vengeance that simultaneously diverts the Black Panther from Bucky to Zemo? If anything, his own moment of mania should have cemented his belief that people like him need to be supervised if not controlled. But if anything at all, this film only reinforced Tony Stark's essential flightiness, since by the end he's ready to give the government (or at least Secretary Ross) the finger again as he did in Iron Man 2. This flightiness seems to be a universal condition among costumed heroes, since Black Panther, the most hardcore advocate of the Accords, ends up harboring a bunch of super-powered fugitives from international law. I suppose all of this can be seen as an endorsement of Steve Rogers's position in favor of maximum freedom of action for conscientious heroes, but I could see people leaving the theater doubting that proposition, if they bother thinking about it. Captain America: Civil War is a wildly entertaining film, but it probably is better if you don't think about its message too much. Think of it as just another superfluous element of a movie bursting at the seams with far more than enough stuff to make a terrific film, whose makers simply didn't know when to quit.

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