07 May 2016

"Captain America: Civil War" Review

I'm going to give my SPOILER ALERT early, because any information can ruin a movie - something I wish I remembered before devouring every sneak peek I could find for Captain America: Civil War. If you sneak too many peeks, you gain a pretty good grasp of the whole without even seeing it. You can predict the plot.

Strangely, a fan like me often wants to predict the plot, which is why there are so many web sites and podcasts and YouTube channels specifically dedicated to that purpose. Like an appetizer, it tides you over while increasing your appetite, and all the while, you just assume the filmmakers are still going to surprise you.

And then they don't.

It's not their fault. Not entirely. Sure, sometimes formulaic writing and genre tropes are to blame; but again, if I watched every Captain America: Civil War trailer, tv spot, and clip leading up to the film's release, why am I surprised by the lack of surprise?

(Knowing this was another Russo movie, I even watched Community for the first time - every single episode! - because that's how eager I was for more of their work. At least now I notice the cameos.)

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't agree with a lot of the hype surrounding Civil War - specifically that it's the best superhero movie ever, or even within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For me, Winter Soldier still holds that title. Repeat viewings might cause a change of heart, but like they say, you can't un-ring a bell, and I can't undo all my sneak peeking. My sons and I walked out of Ant-Man gushing pleasant surprise because we walked in knowing very little. We walked out of this...divided. Given its theme, maybe that was appropriate!

However, it seems like I only muster the energy for a review when I'm disappointed by a movie, which is kind of sad and not entirely fair. After all, I only see them and write about them because, under all the nitpicking, I do enjoy them. So as I delve into details, I'm going to try a binary approach and balance all my complaints with sincere praise. I know that's a bit ironic, given this movie largely resists binary, black-or-white interpretations, but whatever.

I'm going to call these warring sides "Team Obvious" (led by Captain Obvious, obviously) and "Team Other Hand."

TEAM OBVIOUS: There are a lot of superheroes in this movie. While most critics seem to disagree with me, the ensemble is somewhat distracting and hard to keep track of - even for someone as prepared as I was. Every character has his and her own motivation, but more effort goes into building their supporting arcs than resolving them. Wanda/Scarlet Witch's is like a cringe-worthy custody battle. Natasha/Black Widow's rolls downhill from Winter Soldier - less poignant and more predictable. Spider-Man is welcome but extremely unjustified. He and Ant-Man actually end up looking somewhat bad for their contributions, which are given blindly.

There's a joke in the Winter Soldier HISHE (How It Should Have Ended) in which Steve wants to call in the Hulk for help and Nick Fury tells him no, without good reason. The implied problem with a larger superhero universe is that it's hard to explain why more heroes don't appear in each other's standalone stories to battle world-altering forces. With Civil War, it's like the Russos took that to heart (they do watch Honest Trailers), but proved why it's problematic. If you came for a Captain America movie, you want other characters revolving around him, not competing for your affection.

TEAM OTHER HAND: Spider-Man is awesome in this movie. That's one claim I agree with. He's Tobey Maquire's nerdy vulnerability combined with Andrew Garfield's wit and charisma, and more age appropriate. His involvement may have been shoehorned, but my happiest moment in the theater was when QUEENS showed on the screen and the Stark/Parker banter played out. So much fun. It's saying something, then, that I'm even more interested in Black Panther than Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both characters steal the show, but T'Challa/Black Panther's role is handled the most gracefully, and his presence is the least objectionable bit of franchise-building. He could have made Iron Man unnecessary (and saved him from taking such a brutal emotional beating). Ant-Man is great as usual, even if a LEGO playset spoiled his big moment weeks beforehand.

TEAM OBVIOUS: A related but distinct complaint is that the master villain, Zemo, is not a Captain America villain, but an Avengers villain. He is reacting to Sovokia (a name I'm getting tired of hearing) and the death of his family. Essentially, he's the Maximoff twins if they went after the Avengers alone instead of throwing in with Ultron. This is the most obvious reason why Civil War is not a Captain America movie; if it wasn't trying to be one, the various plots might have had more room to grow on their own.

In particular, I would have liked to see Wanda more involved in the Zemo storyline, given that obvious parallel. She also might have been more involved in the Cap/Bucky plot: Her powers came from the Mind Gem, we've seen her use them to awaken people's memories, and the primary problem with Bucky is that his mind needs resetting. It's a lock and key that never come together. Instead of solving problems, Wanda gets blamed for causing them, and we last see her huddled in a straight jacket. If it weren't Cap's movie (so-called), she wouldn't need his rescue; he would need hers. After losing Bucky in the first movie and fighting him in the second, Steve spends the third reuniting with and saving him at everyone else's expense. To what end? For Bucky to be put back on ice. Why couldn't Wanda have prevented that?

TEAM OTHER HAND: Zemo is still one of the most interesting villains of the MCU. Nontraditional and sympathetic, he joins Loki in surviving (barely) his first movie. His return seems unlikely, but who knows? Maybe he's the next chump to strike a deal with Thanos.

And to be fair, Civil War definitely starts and ends as a Captain America movie: Rumlow/Crossbones is the character nemesis, even if he exits quickly; Steve and Bucky do get to renew their brotherly bond; and with the burying of both Peggy Carter and Winter Soldier, Steve completes an arc that was always about finding where he belongs.

TEAM OBVIOUS: Speaking of Carter, we get a forced romance between Steve and Sharon - as if this movie wasn't already busy. We knew it was coming, but I for one expected a bit more preparation. They agree the kiss was a long time coming, but do we? They barely interacted in Winter Soldier, notwithstanding Natasha's attempts to play matchmaker.

TEAM OTHER HAND: I was still glad they didn't ignore Sharon entirely. Also, Sam and Bucky showing their approval was priceless.

TEAM OBVIOUS: This movie has a lot of those establishing shots mentioned earlier, labeled with big white letters that don't share visual continuity with the first two installments. That's because this is a globe-trotting movie, more so even than Age of Ultron, amplifying the need to build future MCU foundations. Establishing shot indeed! Winter Soldier was more grounded, tracking Cap's every move as soldier, then fugitive, then leader.

TEAM OTHER HAND: I usually defend the franchise-building in these movies and consider it the MCU's strength. Winter Soldier was a political thriller and so the action revolved around that; Civil War is, as the name implies, a larger conflict on a wider battleground. It doesn't have the luxury of that "I just like to know who I'm fighting" epiphany that simplified Steve's world. "How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?" Falcon asked last time, and this time, the answer is more complicated. As even my eight-year-old son remarked, that tonal and moral diversity is "different and interesting."

TEAM OBVIOUS: The last act revelation that Bucky killed Tony's parents was so predictable, I forgot it was supposed to be a secret. I was then distracted during the ensuing battle because I was trying to remember why Tony didn't know Bucky was brainwashed by Hydra. Sure, knowing wouldn't make it easy to forgive him...but certainly easier. Also, when did Steve find out? He didn't have the luxury of rewatching computer brain Zola's rapid confession in Winter Soldier like the rest of us.

It's frustrating when a story's conflict only exists because the characters don't share certain crucial details. Worse, that the villain can confidently rely on that.

TEAM OTHER HAND: What I didn't predict was Zemo killing the other Winter Soldiers instead of waking them, which was a nice twist that avoided the Doomsday problem from Batman v Superman (which I still haven't seen, but I'm assuming there's a parallel there). And yes, diplomacy always fails on screen. While that may be for the sake of conflict, it's also tragically accurate to reality. No one wants to be pushed around. Everyone wants justice until they're the ones on its receiving end.

Other Hand gets upper hand? I'm not really keeping score. Civil War doesn't declare winners, so why should I?

Update: Grace Randolph's spoiler review on her YouTube channel Beyond the Trailer goes into even more detail on a lot of these same points, plus several I forgot to mention. Not all of her concerns are mine, but I definitely agree that this movie makes Captain America a less likable character, which is a shame considering Winter Soldier is what convinced me he was cool.

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