May 9, 2016

Captain America: Civil War [12A] [2D]

Dir: Joe and Anthony Russo
Marvel's cinematic universe has, over the past eight years, reshaped the landscape of American cinema. Forget the long endangered idea of the standalone film, the standalone franchise is now a species on the watchlist. That's all down to the success of Marvel's interlocking superhero megafranchise, but what started out as a groundbreaking idea has now begun, for me at least, to devolve into predictable formula. That said, the third in the Captain America series always had my interest piqued, because the two previous films focused on Steve Rogers are easily the best the MCU has had to offer so far, and I only became more intrigued when my favourite superhero of all, Spider-Man, was added to the roster, thanks to a deal with Sony.

The film adapts the comic miniseries of the same title, keeping the same central idea, but changing the specifics of the central conflict, from a fight over superhero registration and the preservation of secret identities to a disagreement over a UN resolution to control Avengers interventions. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) find themselves leading teams on opposite sides of this issue and fighting over that and over Steve's friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), whose Winter Soldier persona may have been awakened again.

The strengths of the Captain America series so far largely continue with this installment. Chief among them is Chris Evans, who continues to lend solid presence and bring a measure of inner life to a character who could be played as little more than a square jaw and a circular shield. This film sees Steve much more adjusted to the 21st century, but the script ties back his motivations to a moral code that comes from when the character grew up. The connection of this to a funeral, early in the film, is a little on the nose, but Evans makes it work. Evans also continues to have chemistry with his co-stars, bouncing off Anthony Mackie's Falcon, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Emily VanCamp's Sharon Carter especially well.

The series also continues to deal in a more complex set of morals than many superhero films, tying the legislation that sets the Avengers against each other to the unanticipated results of their actions grounds what is an outlandish set of characters and events in some sort of recognisable world - the debate being framed here being one that, in other forms, is very live on the world stage. However, while these issues are serious, the script and the actors manage to find a tone that allows the film to acknowledge them while still remaining fun, a circle that, by all accounts, DC has yet to square.

A blockbuster shouldn't live or die on its set pieces, but it certainly helps if they're strong, and Civil War has a couple of standouts. The opening action scene, which feels, in Indiana Jones tradition, like the ending of a movie you missed, gets things off to en exciting start. Frank Grillo is great value as Crossbones and while the action is over cut at times Joe and Anthony Russo do manage to keep a degree of sense in the geography of a scene involving a lot of characters and some scattered pockets of action. It's also a good showcase for the action style, which again hits a sweet spot between comic book physics and something that looks genuine enough to not feel like you're watching a computer game.

The film truly hits high gear with its central set piece, which delivers on the hype of two groups of heroes facing off against each other. It's extremely well shot and edited, with the cutting rhythm slowing down for these twenty minutes, allowing us to get more caught up in the conflict. Best of all, this doesn't feel like the film breaking for a fight, the Russos and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely never lose sight of the conflict between and personalities of their characters. The stakes feel high because they feel personal, but that also informs the way the fight is staged, with characters often clearly holding back. It's another way that Civil War acknowledges its themes.

With such a large cast of characters, it's fortunate that most of the ensemble is on form. There are still some characterisation issues; Hawkeye, in particular, still lacks definition and the quippy dialogue could perhaps be restricted, as when most of the characters hit that register it sounds less like a character beat and more like Marvel's house style asserting itself. That said, there is much more good work here than bad. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, as Scarlet Witch and The Vision, have some strong scenes together and an interesting relationship. 

Of the new characters, Chadwick Boseman makes a strong impression as Black Panther, there's a rage simmering in the character that could make his solo film interesting. Daniel Bruhl is a fine actor, but until the closing scenes he's not given much to work with as Zemo, but those closing scenes do present an interesting take on villainy and are overall more interesting than another city destroying smackdown. The standout, however, is Tom Holland's take on Spider-Man. After the calamitously awful Amazing Spider-Man franchise, Marvel's most famous character was in desperate need of a(nother) reboot and, in the roughly ten minutes of screentime he has here, he's not only got that but what is potentially the defining cinematic take on the character. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield occasionally got the wit of Spidey down, occasionally captured his intellect, occasionally gave us his nerdy personality. Holland and the Russos nail all this, and more besides, from the first instant we see Peter. As a lifelong Spidey fan, every second he's on screen here is a joy. I can't wait for Spider-Man: Homecoming next year.

All this said, Civil War is not entirely, perhaps not even mostly, a triumph. In some ways it's not the fault of this film, but of the series it is a part of. This doesn't feel like a standalone Captain America film. One of the great strengths of the first two films in this franchise within a franchise was that you could watch them independently of the rest of the MCU. More than that, each of them plugged the character into a genre that felt like something other than a standard superhero film; first a second world war men on a mission movie, then a 70's paranoid spy thriller. This is the first time in the series that Captain America has felt like just another superhero film. A fun one, one with a few ideas, sure, but it has much more of an assembly line feel. This feeling is only added to by the overwhelming sense that, rather than Captain America 3, this is Avengers 2.5, Black Panther 0 and Spider-Man 0, all rolled into one. This episodic structure and the constant trailering of things yet to come is making the MCU, for me, feel extremely televisual, despite its scale.

Civil War is also a long film, at 144 minutes it's only 8 minutes longer than The Winter Soldier, but it feels like more than that. After the opening action scene in Nigeria there is a lot of exposition to get through and it can be slow going. To my surprise, I found this particularly true thanks to the large role that Robert Downey Jr plays here. Downey has now been playing Tony Stark for the best part of a decade, and there are more than a handful of moments here where I felt like I could tell, like he seemed less engaged than usual. He's still not bad, and when he's playing off Tom Holland's Peter Parker and in the film's very personal final fight he's great, but for the first hour I thought he, like me, was finding the process of setting the pieces a bit drawn out.

While the bigger set pieces are great, some of the other action is less engaging. Smaller action beats seem to work on a much faster cutting pattern and sometimes I found myself disengaged, wanting a better and longer view of the film's many punch ups. It's not as if the Russos have suddenly turned into Paul Greengrass, but just a little pulling back on the pace of some of the action would have made a world of difference for me.

Ultimately, fun as it often is and much as there is, at times, to recommend here, Civil War is the weakest of the Captain America series. For me that's mainly because it exists more in service of the MCU than of the Captain America films within it. I kept feeling I was missing things here, having not seen Avengers: Age of Ultron and I suspect that, while bits of the MCU continue to interest me, that's something that will only become more acute and more to the series' detriment, as Phases 3 and 4 run on.

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