Friday, May 6, 2016

Captain America: Civil War — The Marvel universe turns (sorta) serious

Captain America: Civil War (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.16

Official title notwithstanding, truth in advertising suggests that this film should have been called The Avengers: Civil War.

Much as it pains him, Captain America (Chris Evans, second from right) and his like-minded
allies — from left, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Bucky
Barnes (Sebastian Stan) — realize that the only way to complete their mission, is to wade
through Iron Man and his comrades.
Although Steve Rogers’ Captain America (Chris Evans) endures a fair amount of angsty indecision in this rather busy chapter of the Marvel Universe saga, it’s nothing compared to the emotional battering suffered by poor Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). We’ve definitely left the larkish adventuring behind; although this mash-up is far more palatable than last month’s unpleasantly grim Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the core storyline borrows from the same somber, real-world textbook.

Which is to say, superhero/supervillain battles — even those that conclude successfully — result in considerable collateral damage and civilian casualties. Where, then, does responsibility lie ... and does the end always justify the means? Should superheroes be subject to national or international oversight?

Popular comic book writer Mark Millar’s Civil War storyline, which occupied numerous Marvel titles during 2006 and ’07, was a direct response to U.S. government overreach with respect to post-9/11 citizen surveillance. (And some people still dismiss comics as being trivial?) The argument divided Marvel’s characters, with Iron Man leading a faction that supported a “Superhero Registration Act,” and Captain America and various followers refusing to submit to what they regarded as a dangerous police state.

Scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have modified this premise slightly, in keeping with events in recent Marvel movies.

This cinematic Civil War opens as Captain America and a few colleagues — Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); Sam Wilson, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie); and Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) — track a terrorist to Lagos, Nigeria. It’s a crackerjack prologue, crisply choreographed by directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, and editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt.

But although our heroes successfully prevent a bio-weapon from being unleashed, Wanda’s powers unintentionally backfire, resulting in numerous civilian deaths. Back home, this proves one calamity too many for U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), who convenes an emergency meeting of the available Avengers, forcing them to watch video footage of the city-leveling events from earlier conflicts (lifted from both Avengers films and the previous Captain America entry).

If this feels similar to the way Batman V Superman opened, it’s only because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. (In fairness, Marvel’s comics struck first.)

The countries of the world, increasingly concerned by the activities of unsupervised American heroes who cross borders with impunity, have drafted a resolution that will place all Avengers under United Nations supervision. The bill is to be introduced by T’Chaka (John Kani), ruler of the mysterious African kingdom of Wakanda, the world’s sole source of the rare vibranium metal used to construct Captain America’s indestructible shield.

Stark, recognizing that his own recent failings — notably in Avengers 2 — have contributed to such devastation, views this as an acceptable alternative to more draconian sanctions. Rogers, pure of heart, is deeply troubled by the (quite likely) possibility of Avengers activities being subject to political whim and expedience.

But that isn’t Cap’s only problem. Former WWII sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), revived a few films back as the berserker “Winter Soldier,” has been spotted again. Ross wants him captured, if not executed; Rogers is convinced that Barnes’ misdeeds resulted from brainwashing, and that he shouldn’t be held responsible.

This becomes a philosophical impasse, since Stark agrees with Ross, albeit reluctantly. Cap is determined to find Bucky and protect him; Iron Man, now a government agent, is tasked with stopping them.

And, so, the battle lines are drawn. Iron Man is joined by longtime friend and similarly suited colleague James Rhodes, aka War Machine (Don Cheadle); the android-esque Vision (Paul Bettany); and, somewhat surprisingly, Black Widow. Their side is augmented further by the arrival of a mysterious, cat-like figure in black; comic book fans in Monday evening’s previous audience cheered this debut of the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), known in civilian life as T’Challa, son of T’Chaka.

On top of which, Stark goes “hero shopping” in New York, and — thanks to real-world corporate cooperation between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment — returns with another crowd-pleasing surprise.

Cap, feeling a similar pinch, supplements his side with Falcon and the Scarlet Witch; Clint Barton, the bow-and-arrow-slinging Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and smart-assed Scott Lang, the diminutive Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). The latter, in another nod to established comic book lore, eventually unleashes a hitherto untapped aspect of his unusual powers (the results of which are a hoot).

That, in a nutshell, is what makes this film so enjoyable. Despite the unhappy circumstances that lead to this team fracture — and despite a massive cast of characters that’ll require a score card for casual viewers — Markus and McFeely’s script takes pains to establish that all concerned really, really dislike what they’re doing.

“We’re still friends, right?” Natasha asks Clint, as they face off.

“Depends on how hard you hit me,” he replies.

This is an important touch, in the realm of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Batman V Superman made no such distinction; Batman hated Superman from the get-go, and their eventual clash was fueled by genuine rage ... simply unacceptable, on all sorts of levels. In Civil War, Cap and Iron Man never shed their firmly established basis of friendship, and they agonize over what blossoms into a physical clash; their respective comrades, on both sides, sorta joke their way through half-hearted skirmishes.

For the most part, anyway. All emotionally powerful stories need to bare their teeth at some point, and that definitely occurs here.

As has become the case with the best Marvel movies, Downey Jr. capably carries the emotional gravitas, his Tony Stark always an intriguing blend of cocky self-assurance, smug sarcasm and — during quiet moments — agonized self-doubt. More than any other character, Stark worries about the causality suggested by Vision, with his computer brain: that the mere presence of superheroes serves as a lightning rod for ever-more-ferocious opponents, with exponentially proportionate devastation.

At the same time, nobody can match Downey Jr.’s delivery of a withering put-down; he’s a delight to watch.

Evans, in turn, radiates the guileless, true-blue sincerity that we’ve not seen since Christopher Reeve first donned Superman’s cape, back in 1978. Evans’ impassioned belief in mankind’s nobler instincts rings true, and that’s no small thing; a lesser actor would look and sound ridiculous, trying to wring earnestness from Cap’s dialogue.

Boseman is solid as the noble T’Challa, embodying the aristocratic dignity of this reluctant warrior. (According to plan, we’ll be getting his character’s back-story in an early 2018 solo outing.) Johansson and Renner make a good tag-team, both relying on athletic grace and clever technology to level the playing field with their more powerful colleagues.

Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter, introduced in 2014’s The Winter Soldier, gets an expanded role that cleverly dovetails with events in TV’s Agent Carter. Olsen is persuasively anxious as Wanda, still sussing out the actual extent of her abilities (which, frankly, would seem to make her more powerful than any of the others). There’s also a nice dynamic introduced between Wanda and Bettany’s coldly analytical Vision: something I’m sure will be explored further in upcoming films.

Daniel Brühl is appropriately sinister as Zemo, a mysterious individual with evil intentions, which remain shrouded until the third act. In an ironic twist, given the hyper-powered antics involved, Zemo’s motivations are unexpectedly uncomplicated. And personal.

The production values are top-notch, as always, with plenty of action-laden sequences. High points include a vehicular street chase involving Cap, Bucky, Falcon and the Black Panther; and — most particularly — an airport melee that pulls out all the stops.

As has become customary, this saga’s open ending foreshadows events (and five other movies) to come, between now and the summer of 2018, at which point all hell will break loose in The Avengers: Infinity War.

And as long as each installment continues to bring so much popcorn pleasure, we’ll all be along for the ride.

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