By now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has firmly figured out its brand. They’ve got it down to a science.
It’s a lot of punching, a great deal of CG spectacle and property damage, an onslaught of verbal jabs and quips, some flying, more punching, a little bit of character introducing here-and-there, some world building from a dashing and/or bland super villain determined to take the world by storm … and did I mention punching? Definitely lots and lots of punching. Face punching. Stomach punching. You name it. Perhaps a kick for good measure. You know, the works. Personally, it’s become a little formulaic for my tastes. I don’t know, this all feels a little old hat at this point. I’ve grown weary of the episodic storytelling and by-the-numbers plotting.
But I’ll admit when someone does a good job.
With their 13th feature film, Captain America: Civil War, producer Kevin Feige and returning directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Solider) have finally cracked the code. Their ongoing, overextended cinematic universe found a way to make their long form ambitions produce philosophically-pleasing, consequence-driven results — all done with fluidity, efficiency, heavy-action and consistent entertainment value.
Much like Joss Whedon’s first Avengers film, it’s not without a bloated narrative or some bagginess along the way. But it accomplishes exactly what it needs to achieve and, at its best, the results are simply astounding. It’s among the most well-oiled, carefully-produced and smooth-running blockbusters the Disney-owned studio has made to date, and it could prove to be a real turning point for their ongoing success. Forget about the tedious mediocrity of Age of Ultron, or the predictably average Ant-Man: Marvel has produced one of their strongest films to date, and it’s proof that they’re here to stay. And if not, they’re not going down without a fight. That’s for certain.
The Russo brothers know exactly what the fans crave and give them the most bang for their buck. There’s not a single second wasted in Civil War, for the better and for the worse. And though it’s an exhausting, overlong two-and-a-half-hour TV episode brought to the big screen, it’s a good one at that. There’s a lot of food on the plate here, but these guys know how to space themselves out, eat in all the right proportions and still fight room for seconds. It’s kinda a miracle this film works at all, and while time will tell if the next Avengers film(s) will make up for the sins of the second film, it’s in the right hands with these two directors.
Everyone gets a hardy meal here, and then some. And then some. And then some. And then some. And there’s plenty of leftovers for everyone to share. Even if you come with a full stomach, Civil War finds a way to continuously wet your appetite. And that’s a pretty remarkable feat. So let’s dig in, shall we?
If you fallen behind on the last couple MCU movies, it would be wise to catch up before you make your way to the nearest theater this weekend. Civil War fully expects you to be fully up to speed, and there’s no time for newcomers to catch up. You’re either on the train or off it at this point. There’s no time for backpedaling. The actions of the last few films, most especially Winter Solider and Age of Ultron, loom heavily here. The Avengers might save a lot of people, but they’re not heroes — at least, in the eyes of the world government. They believe these mismatched superheroes are perhaps just as big a threat to humanity’s safety as some of the foes they’ve taken down. And the United Nations, lead by Senator of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), believe it’s time for them to step in as babysitters.
And as the haunting weight of the casualties they failed to prevent loom heavily over their heads, namely Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) believes they’re totally in their right. Loss is a side effect of war; it’s not their fault that some civilians died on their watch, at least as long as they were able to save many others in the process. To quote the immortal Spock himself, the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few. They can’t be expected to save everyone. That’s an impossibility. To have them on a leash would only jeopardize things more.
But Tony has already made up his mind, and so have James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany) and even Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). They don’t think they’re admitting defeat; if anything, they’re learning to become stronger, to make sure they’re not abusing their powers. Literally. But Cap’s not convinced. But these are not the only issues Rogers must deal with at the moment.
Just as things begin to get heated at home, a familiar face from Cap’s past returns with a vengeance: The Winter Solider, a.k.a. his old BFF Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Manipulated by shady forces after decades of brainwashing, Bucky has unwillingly become a full-force killing machine — one that’ll stop at nothing, but death, to do what he’s told. And as he continues to create chaos everywhere, Steve can’t stop the trained killer’s destruction because he knows his buddy is still trapped inside. Bucky can’t be the man behind these attacks, but only Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) seems to be on his side at this point. And that’s not helping Cap win many of his friends back.
With the world’s balance once again left on a balance, tension continue to mount between our superhero allies. And in the process of preserving what they feel is right and true, they’ll each need to call upon some new faces —namely a particular Wakanda prince and a certain friendly neighborhood web slinger — to help settle their differences once-and-for-all. More punches ensue.
There’s a lot of story here, as per usual, and a lot of wheels being spun into motion. It’s a lot for the Russo brothers to juggle. They essentially have 10-15 major characters at the center here, and it’s important to note that two of them, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), are only now being introduced in their current iterations. That’s a lot of meat to put on one sandwich. And yet, their direction finds a way to keep everything moving steadily and surely, with hardly a step missed. They have some difficultly balancing the tonal shifts between lighthearted comedy with grim seriousness at times (I’m going to be the instigator and admit that I thought they handled the consistency of tone better in Batman v Superman), but unlike Whedon in last year’s Age of Ultron, they never let their guard down.
Civil War is an astoundingly well-guided mega-blockbuster in practically every sense. And though it’s a little too calculated for my tastes, it’s shocking that Marvel pulled something this gigantic off at all. Not to mention from the two guys who, just ten years prior, were the filmmakers behindYou Me and Dupree. What a difference time can make. Their direction here is arguably the strongest and most confident the studio has had to date, at least since Jon Faverau. Even with all the plates spinning around them, the Russos always find a way to keep the story focused, the action consistent, the storylines manageable and the laughs consistent. And most impressive of all, screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely figure out how to give at least 74 percent of the cast their time to shine.
Downey Jr. gives arguably one of his best Tony Stark performances to date here —letting us see his angrier, more vengeful side, while never having to sacrifice his sense of humor and humility. His versatility and dramatic range is constantly on display and always impeccable, and it makes you wonder where this side of the character has been in, you know, Iron Man 3 and Age of Ultron. But he’s not the only bright spot, of course.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Spider-Man steals the show. Period. End of Sentence. No question. Lock the gates. Holland is an absolute natural as the boy in red and blue. Even the screenplay falls back a little too much on his jokiness, he always finds a way to make his nerdiness appealing, his quirky sense of humor seem natural and his naivety appear charming and relatable. Much like Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) later in the film, Peter Parker plays a wonderful surrogate for the audience’s eagerness, excitement and “oh shit” enthusiasm as the fighting commences between our main heroes. He accomplishes a firm understanding of the character as if he’s played it his whole life, and he works the snappiness, quick-wittedness and talkiness fit like a glove, and in ways some of the other Spider-Man films hadn’t quite cracked themselves.
What I’m ultimately trying to say is, I’m very, very, very, very excited to see where they take him with Spider-Man: Homecoming next year. We may truly be in for something…..spectacular. I know, I know. Let’s move on, shall we?
Behind Spidey, Vision is possibly the best inclusion of the bunch, and easily the second funniest character in this sequel as he works his dry, mechanical viewpoint to his advantage. He’s often the most fascinating character, and perhaps the most well-written. He’s an ace in the cannon, and I hope they don’t waste him in the future. Additionally, Black Panther is expectedly awesome, and I also expect only good things to come from him in his standalone feature. And as mentioned earlier, Ant-Man works much better as a comical supporting character than as a lead, much like the missing-this-time-around Hulk, but perhaps he would have done wonders under Edgar Wright’s watch. Meanwhile Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is much more endearing here than he’s been in a good while. It looks as though Marvel is finally figuring him out too.
But not everyone gets as many moments to shine. Like, oddly enough, Captain America himself. Evans’ character seems a little too stiff this time, as he’s often overshadowed in his own movie. And Elisabeth Olsen, as Scarlet Witch, tries her best but comes out optimized by her fluctuating accent and limited availability. Daniel Bruhl, meanwhile, ends up just another fairly weak villain in MCU’s cannon, and Emily VanCamp is little more than a forgettable love interest character for our titular superhero.
Hurt is fairly underutilized here as well, but don’t even get me started on how much they waste Martin Freeman. I don’t want to get too deep into his role here, but seriously? You have one of the most charismatic actors in the world and you give him what, a few lines of exposition in one-or-two scenes?! For shame, Marvel. For shame. Don’t you ever waste Freeman. He’s a precious resource. Use him wisely next time.
Overall, Civil War is a pretty demanding, longwinded movie, but it leaves a lot to talk about — as made evident by this equally longwinded review. There are more than a few talking points I don’t want to spoil or discuss quite yet, and there’s just some things that are best left experienced by the viewer. Like an epic, 20-minute airport battle halfway through, one that’s quite possibly the best action scene the MCU has produced to date. It’s a beautifully intercut, endlessly watchable and shockingly easy-to-follow brawl that, unfortunately, gives us our happy ending way too early in the game. It makes the next 45 or so minutes a bit of a drag in comparison, but they nevertheless find enough twists-and-turns to make it all worthwhile.
So while it’s certainly not flawless (though what superhero movie is?), Civil War is perhaps the most breezy, confident and well-organized film the franchise has offered yet. It’s a massively appealing, well-made lark that should please fans fitfully, while still giving everyone else enough to warrant the big screen experience. Though it’s hard not to leave this a little winded and in need of a big, long nap. It might be a fight to the finish, but it’s a darn good one. It might work better as a continuation than as an individual entity. But if something works, it works. I can’t deny good results, and Civil War is a fight worth celebrating. Just make sure you come locked and loaded.