Funny, restrained and aspirational, Marvel’s cast of do-gooders do actual good – a nice change.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
THE GOOD: Funny, inventive fights, more personal scale.
THE BAD: Some plot flaws, overstuffed.
RATING: A A A A
It’s impossible to talk about Captain America: Civil War without also discussing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both are comic book movies featuring marquee heroes fighting each other as much as their villains, and both hit theatres within two months of each other.
That’s where the similarities end. Batman v. Superman still managed to pull in close to a billion dollars in box office revenue worldwide for Warner Bros. and DC Comics, but that’s bomb territory for a movie of its size and budget.
Critics savaged the film and fans criticized it for fundamentally misunderstanding its characters. It set new records in fastest box office drop-off – and with good reason. Ultimately, it was dour, humourless, dumb and uninspired.
And then there’s Captain America: Civil War.
The movie, which opens Friday, has its flaws – a few plot holes and a large cast of characters that might be hard to follow for non-fans. But otherwise it’s an utter joy for Marvel fans.
It’s good in so many ways that Batman v. Superman isn’t, and is likely to make crazy bank for Marvel and its owner Disney for months to come.
With Great Power: The crux of the story this time around sees just about all the existing superheroes introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far divided over a new attempt to control them.
After the events of the first two Avengers movies and the previous Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where large parts of New York, Washington D.C. and fictional Sokovia were destroyed, the United Nations has voted to bring the Avengers under its auspices. A controlling council will decide where and when to deploy them.
As in the comic book series that inspires the film, on one side is Tony Stark, who feels guilt over the wanton damage the Avengers have inadvertently caused.
It fits with the now eight-year arc his character began in the first Iron Man movie, where he decided to don his powered armour and become a hero after seeing firsthand the human toll of his previous arms-dealing ways.
Captain America, on the other hand, has trouble swallowing the pill. What if the UN sends the Avengers somewhere they shouldn’t be, or doesn’t deploy them to somewhere they’re actually needed? Governments and agendas change, he argues, so the heroes need to be free to pursue their own consciences.
Some critics have problems with how the Marvel Cinematic Universe forces connections between its films and TV shows, but Cap’s moralization justifies the approach in a big way.
It’s his former flame Peggy Carter who helps him realize the road he must take, and if you’ve followed her Agent Carter TV show, you’ll understand just how apt it is – and how important and inspirational a character she is in the grand scheme of things.
There’s an element of maturity here, where the heroes must finally come to grips with the effects they’re having on the real world. The various members of the Avengers have different ideas of how the repercussions should be dealt with, so they pick sides and line up behind Iron Man or Captain America.
It’s not just the heroes who have learned that with great power comes great responsibility – so too have the film makers.
Brothers Joe and Anthony Russo wisely apply the theme of the movie – the human toll – to the action itself, and it is noticeably scaled down from what audiences have come to expect from giant superhero blockbusters.
There are, thankfully, no senses-shattering, city-exploding mega-battles between heroes or villains here, with the fights being more contained and personal. Even the core villain of the film has a very human reason for his actions, not to mention the lack of any sort of costume or megalomaniacal designs.
It’s an incredible display of restraint for a superhero movie.
The exception to that is the knock-em-out, drag-em-down melee that takes place at an airport between Team Cap and Team Iron Man. Sure, there is some property damage, but there’s no human toll – the airport has been evacuated.
The Russos really let their hair down for this one extended fight, and boy is it great. It’s funny and inventive, with the assembled Avengers – plus a few new heroes – chucking curveball after curveball at each other. A flummoxed Stark even remarks, “Does anyone else have any secret abilities they want to throw out here?”
The Funny: Speaking of funny, the Marvel movies have made humour one of their trademarks. While Batman and Superman traded brooding grimaces, Captain America, Iron Man and the rest instead choose to throw zingers. And there are lots of them, especially in the second half.
The Russos spend much of the first half building the drama and tension, and deepening the relationships between characters. But they also do so with a dash of humour, often with moments of incongruity. We see the Vision, for example, trying to cook Paprikash for the Scarlet Witch, the budding beginning of a romance that comic book fans know is going to happen.
But it’s when Stark starts looking for recruits to reinforce Team Iron Man that the jokes really get cranked up. It’s no spoiler that Spider-Man is in this movie – he’s a major part of the trailers and the marketing – and the scene in which Stark meets Peter Parker for the first time is pure gold.
Spidey acquits himself amazingly here – he’s one of the best parts of the movie, which is why fans at my screening cheered at the post-credits promise that “Spider-Man will return.”
The humour infects many of the characters, and it’s often understated and incongruous, like when the dour Winter Soldier – stuck in the back set of a car – asks the Falcon, sitting in the front, to move his seat up. Falcon refuses, and we laugh.
Thinking back to Batman v. Superman, I can remember only a single joke, a poor ratio for two-and-a-half hours of grimness. Civil War, on the other hand, keeps the funny flowing right until the very end.
They’re Heroes, Remember? At some point while watching Batman v. Superman, I couldn’t help but wonder: These guys are supposed to be heroes?
Batman was an angry, embittered crank bent on vengeance while Superman was constantly being framed as either superior to the people he was supposed to be protecting or potentially evil. I can’t say I liked either throughout or at the end.
It’s the opposite in Civil War. Despite their disagreements, it’s easy to understand and relate to both Cap and Iron Man’s positions. Not only do both want to continue protecting the world from threats, it’s also clear they maintain a healthy respect for each despite all that happens.
This is a Captain America movie, however, and the Russos manage to do a good job of keeping it centred on Steve Rogers – no small task with the huge cast assembled.
Cap never wavers in his morality, nobility or correctness, which is everything the character has always been about through decades of comic books. He is a paragon of virtue, a symbol of hope that people can always be better.
He was originally created to be a beacon of light against the evil of the Nazis – his mission remains the same today, even if the figurative enemy is different. With Donald Trump and his message of hatred just one step away from the White House, it can be argued that paragons are more necessary now than ever.
Therein is the biggest difference between Marvel and DC movies so far. Marvel’s film makers have, almost without exception, understood the fundamentals of what makes their characters so great and why they have endured for so long. There’s no need to reinvent them as gritty or realistic for modern audiences.
Give us something better to shoot for – that’s why comic books and comic book movies exist, or at least why they should. Captain America: Civil War gets that in spades.