Sunday, May 8, 2016

Marvel Watch: Captain America - Civil War (2016)



Let''s be honest - if you're trying to look at Marvel movies as individual installments - you're utterly missing the point.  I suspect you're the sort of person who, while selecting a computer, asks the sales associate what gauge typewriter ribbon this contraption will require.  The strength of the Marvel U is the serial nature and continuity, something more traditional critics seem to balk at, continually expect to flounder, but then engage with once they get down to brass tacks in their discussion of the semi-annual Marvel release.  Captain America: Civil War (2016) is the culmination of the past decade's worth of Marvel studios box office success, tight narrative management, and editorial vision of a shared universe reflecting the best aspects of more than 50 years of Marvel comics.

I should point out right here that I still have not seen Batman v. Superman, so I'll do my best not to make any comparisons between this film and one I haven't seen.  It's not fair to either.

My relationship with the original Civil War comics from Marvel is not a great one.  I loved the art in the main series, but I didn't entirely buy either Cap or Tony suddenly coming to their respective positions, and due to events in recent Captain America comics - Steve had unmasked on camera and said his name directly into a microphone as a sign of strength while confronting terrorists (it was just post 9/11) - I didn't really think it made sense for him to be the standard bearer in the comics for being anti-government management.  After all, Steve has been roughly a government op for SHIELD since his return in the 64' era and getting his own title.

At the series' conclusion, it felt like they took dozens and dozens of comics, from the mini-series to the associated mini-series, to the in-continuity issue tie-in's, to tell a story which only really needed about 5-7 issues to tell.  And, at the conclusion of that series, I dropped Marvel as a line, except for, I think, Black Panther - which I only stuck with for a while longer, and then Cap.  They were headed into doing the same thing over again with another storyline (that Skrull dealy-o), and I just raised my hands and said "I can't afford this, and you need to do this better".

Thus, I was a bit skeptical when Marvel selected Civil War as the basis for its next storyline for Cap following Winter Soldier.  If I was cheered a bit, it was that I felt Winter Soldier was an entirely new story using pieces of the comics (which I'd enjoyed terrifically), maintaining the central conflicts and many of the characters while telling an entirely different story.



Civil War manages to accomplish a tremendous amount.  It occurs within the locked-tight narrative of the filmic MCU, addressing old questions, introducing new characters for the audience to explore (Black Panther in his live-action debut and an MCU Spider-Man and Aunt May*), follows narrative threads from prior films - including the two Captain America installments, Iron Man's 1-3 and both Avengers movies.  And, in ways Avengers 2 did not succeed in doing, sets the audience on edge to see what comes next.  In fact, I'd argue, it becomes clear that Avengers 2 was somewhat just marking time until we got to this film, giving us a couple of things to take into this movie to give it weight and narrative strength.

In many ways - this formula is derived from the best comics mini-series, and comics from any publisher with a shared universe in 2016 could stand to relearn this lesson.

This movie sees Captain America and Co. headed into an adventure in Lagos, one in which, again, there's tremendous collateral damage - this time leading to the death of several Wakandans, a reclusive African nation - and, as it turns out, home to the fellow who will reveal himself to be Black Panther (spoilers?).  All of this leads to the Sokovia Accords getting dropped on the conference table at the Avengers compound with instructions for Cap and company to sign by no less than "Thunderbolt" Ross, who has somehow failed his way up from losing track of the Hulk to becoming Secretary of State.

A good chunk of the rest of the film hangs upon Cap's reluctance to sign up for UN oversight of the Avengers, something Tony Stark now deems reasonable and necessary.  And it's here that we get this odd sliver of "the real world" peeking into the Marvel U.  The characters actually remember what came before.  They've grown and changed.  The Iron Man of Iron Man 2 who told the US Senate to go to hell, they could not have his armor, is now at least saying someone in authority can tell him where to use it.  He remembers the damage done in Avengers 1 and 2, and perhaps the fallout of just becoming Iron Man.  After all, he was indirectly responsible for the villains in all 3 of his movies as well as portions of both Avengers 1 and 2.  

I may stray from my colleagues on this point, but I wish the movie had done a bit more talking about the events of Winter Soldier as a discussion of HYDRA's infiltration of SHIELD provides far more context for Steve's rejection of the Accords.  If anyone has a reason to distrust an authoritative body dictating your moves, it's the guy who had to drop three helicarriers into the Potomac in full view of the public and knows about abuse of power.  Instead, it all gets summed up in a quick comment about "agendas" and being sent into places that don't need The Avengers as readily as they could be kept out.  Which, also true.

It's a solid enough argument, but it's one that can exist mostly in a fantasy world.  Someone is held liable when people die as collateral - but not nations or multi-governmental authorities, necessarily, and that's something Steve Rogers would surely recognize.  But, he's not logically inconsistent.  That same push to want to be there for the fight for the little guy that had him lining up and getting rejected again and again to get into WWII is still what drives him.  And that's nothing to sneeze at.  And the movie suggests that Steve is going through mental gymnastics trying to find a way to make it work, even as he knows he can't.

It's hard to know what Steve thinks, exactly, about the bodycount around his adventures in the films.  Unlike Tony, he's not responsible for the villainous activity around him (maybe one of very, very few superhero characters without a direct relation to their villains in the hermetically sealed world of film narrative).  It's not that it doesn't bother him, I'd think.  But he's also the only one of these heroes who walked across war-torn Europe.  Even Tony had a very bad month in a cave, not a year or more on the frontlines against science-Nazis.  It's hard to believe anyone would be okay with the fallout from Ultron's work in Sokovia.

All of this occurs at the same time Steve loses the last tether to his pre-ice-cube life.  In a scene that's both entirely modern and utterly heart-breaking (and one I've seen criticized online - the only thing spoiled for me in the movie), Steve receives a message that Peggy Carter has passed, with a quick cut to him as a pallbearer at her funeral.  The last underpinnings of the morally unambiguous battle of WWII is now lost (and, no, internet writer, Peggy's death did not need to be on screen - and learning someone has passed via call or text is how it occurs 95% of the time.  Steve was not family, is an Avenger, so it is unlikely he'd be by the bedside of a woman suffering from dementia.  Everything about the scene did Steve and Peggy justice).

The death of Wakandans visiting Lagos and additional issues draw T'Challa (aka: The Black Panther) into the fray, and - in need of a surprise element to take on expert combatant Captain America - Iron Man recruits our new Spider-Man into the fight.

And here let us pause - for obviously the addition of Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a pretty big deal.  Spidey was, back in my day, the gateway drug to the rest of the Marvel Universe, and while I came to Spider-Man via the 1980's wedding-era Spidey comics, I've read enough early Spider-Man via those amazing Marvel Essentials phone books to have opinions on early Spider-Man.   This is not that Spider-Man in many ways.  He lives in apartment, not in a house in Forest Hills.  Aunt May is Marisa Tomei.**  But - man, he still is VERY much a take on the squirrely young man I think of as Peter Parker.

For as much as I wanted to like Andrew Garfield's "now Peter Parker isn't a nerd, he's an emo angry kid" bit, it never fit Spider-Man quite right.  I found both his Parker and Spider-Man to be a bit obnoxious, but not in a fun way.   And while I liked Tobey Maguire in the role a huge amount, and the visuals were phenomenal for 2002 (they were, trust me), even the chattiness and whatnot never quite stuck the landing.  Yeah, it felt like a direct translation from the page to screen, but it could be awkward.  But this take, and this Tom Holland kid, could really bring the character back to the big screen in a big way.

Also, Marisa Tomei.***

I hope Peter can keep her frail, old heart from giving out.

The introduction of T'Challa, a character cinema has finally caught up with, gets nabbed of a bit of the tragedy I'd assumed would be handed off to his own feature film.  But, nonetheless, it provides both tremendous motivation for the character to brute force himself into the storyline in an organic and compelling way, and despite his limited exposure, he does have a complete arc and demonstrates some of what makes him one of the most compelling characters in the Marvel Comics U.  This Chadwick Boseman fellow in no way disappoints, and I cannot wait for the follow up solo film.

Characters from prior installments appear.  Scarlet Witch, The Vision, Avengers Hawkeye and Black Widow.  Solo adventurist/ heist-hero, Ant-Man.  Iron Man best pal, James Rhoads as War Machine.  Of course we get Bucky Barnes - central to our story as his past of assassination becomes very, very present.  And an upgraded Falcon, neatly replicating a lot of what he did in the comics with some ill-defined powers, now part of his Falcon rig/ bird costume.

With Peggy vanishing from the world, we shift our focus to Sharon Carter, Agent 13, who is given a great deal more to do, and demonstrates some of the gritty stuff that her Aunt brought to the table.  It's interesting - and seemingly utterly within character - that Steve has waited until Peggy's passing to reach out to Sharon.  The moment they get feels both forced and earned.

Like The Winter Soldier, this movie was directed by The Russo's, which I saw some writer sniffily stating had worked on TV's Arrested Development - which actually makes a tremendous amount of sense when you consider the multitude of moving parts in Civil War, the varying characters at odds with varying motivations, and the fact they feel like family that means they can't just walk away from one another.  When the movie does go in for a laugh, it's both earned and - god forbid - actually funny and character driven (and we even get a brief shot of the Stair Car).

What's not so shocking after the high-flying adventure of Winter Soldier is how great the action sequences work in this film - but it's all up a level we've not previously seen in a superhero movie to date.  You might have expected the roadway chase in Avengers 2, or seen the Bond-like sequence in Lagos in Winter Soldier, but this stuff is all executed in clear, crisp detail.  None of the Nolan-esque "I understand a fight is going on, but I can't really see it" stuff that popped up all too frequently in the Batman movies.  The choreography is perfectly matched to the cinematography, and we get big-screen superhero sequences in a way that had always made sense in the comics panel but never exactly made it to the big screen.

Yes, there is the set-piece battle royale between the Avengers factions.

I don't know exactly what non-lifelong-comics-folk would think of this sequence.  For me, it was truly everything I like in a big, epic superhero event, of gigantic proportions, of heart-rending tension that, at this moment, can only be settled with a physical confrontation (our heroes are all done with talking - it's gone nowhere).  I literally laughed in nerd-delight and whoo-hoo'd in various parts of this sequence.

I saw the movie on Saturday morning, and later went to FCBD at my LCS, Austin Books.  Both manager Brandon Z and a fellow I met there named Gil were all too ready to discuss the movie with me (Gil was dressed up as a surprisingly dead-on Tony Stark-in-his-workshop).  And all of us were fairly well buzzing about actually seeing what the movie had to offer, insofar as raw superhero spectacle.  The Russos truly seemed to bring the best of comics, cartoons and more to the screen.

The breakdown of The Avengers as a team, semi-plotted by outside forces - but driven by the tension within the team since their first meeting - does land the right bit of gravity.  I wasn't a fan of how Joss Whedon handled the initial meeting of The Avengers, and that's both a bit of my preferences and that Cap was put in an odd position as seemingly the least exciting character - the square in a room full of seemingly edgy characters.  But Winter Soldier and Avengers 2 deeply braced Cap's position for both the audience and the writers to handle Cap not as a naive fish-out-of-water with dudley-do-right tendencies, and instead make him the moral core of the Marvel U.

The takes on both Cap and Tony are far more nuanced than I'd expected.  It's not just two dudes shouting at each other - there's real regret on both sides, real internal conflict for both.  The quick-to-belittle Tony is in check this movie as weightier elements come into play, and both Evans and Downey are more than up to the task.

I had wondered how Marvel planned to move in to the next phase now that they're out of origins and background stories for their major players.  It seems they've found a fantastic new jumping off point for their heroes.  While you can track where this is headed, there are enough unknowns that it's not some shoddy plotting I don't need to see play out.

There are numerous plots in this movie, pulling up the past, pushing toward future movies.  It's a whirlwind of a film, but - and I'd have to watch it again (and I will, gladly) - I think it holds.  There are bits of the plotting that I want to follow up on to make sure they make sense, but all-in-all, the movie holds together as a dark, middle chapter before we head towards bigger things.

But in writing all of this up, I'm amazed at how Marvel has essentially broken the convention of how movies are supposed to work as stand-alone vehicles, forcing upon the public the burden of a shared universe narrative - but without all the extra homework.

I've tried to write this a bit dispassionately, because I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  I suspect that came through.  It wasn't particularly useful to just make like the little kid at the end of The Incredibles, just waving my arms and shouting "that was totally wicked!".  But that's very, very much how I felt.  The balance of characters and characterization were all there, the story felt satisfying and barely trumped up (I still don't buy that the first time the Avengers would hear about the Sokovia Accords would be after it has been signed by triple-digits worth of the U.N.). And, man, were the action set pieces phenomenal.

Whatever happens, box-office-wise with this movie, it felt to me like a win.  I can't believe I'm seeing this kind of movie on a routine basis.  


*I think the casting of Maria Tomei suddenly became far less controversial for fanboys used to a snowy-haired septuagenarian once we remembered - why are we complaining about Marisa Tomei?

**a fact we have quickly rationalized in light of her being Marisa Tomei

***again, we're not above adapting our preconceived notions of what Aunt May should be

11 comments:

Paul Haine said...

For me, Age of Ultron feels more confident and solid the more I watch it, whereas Civil War felt very flimsy: too many characters that could have been removed without affecting the story, like Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Hawkeye. Not much depth to the political side of things. I enjoyed the film as I watched it but I'd be surprised if I revisit it any time soon.

Ryan Steans said...

Can't do it. I've tried to re-watch Age of Ultron and it just feels like a bulletted plot point list played out. I agree, this movie is crammed with characters, and it's comic-booky nostalgia that elevates the film for me - it so replicates the excitement of a summer cross-over event from the 1980's, it was pushing a lot of buttons for me. And, of course, I don't need any introduction to any of these characters, so its just getting them onto the screen that matters.

I intentionally avoided discussing the real-world analogies one could apply to the film as, unlike The Winter Soldier, it doesn't lend itself to that sort of thing in a 1:1 style. It is the toe dipping in the water of how comics often wind up being about themselves, with potential for discussion of management and misuse of power - something many superhero stories grapple with in the modern age.

JaredMithrandir said...

"Let''s be honest - if you're trying to look at Marvel movies as individual installments - you're utterly missing the point. "

And that is why the MCU is not going to last, during Phase 1 and most of Phase 2 each film worked as a stand alone no matter how much critics said otherwise. But since Age of Ultron it's been going down hill.

A Movie needs to work on it's own, otherwise I don't care what Universe it's in.

Ryan Steans said...

I'd say it's probably a little premature to call the patient dead if the box office holds on this one. But, yeah, I definitely wonder how long this can last. Film critics have been predicting a superhero implosion for years, and this summer has already seen record breaking numbers from two superhero movies, a record breaking spring Deadpool movie that's part of the X-Verse, and there's nothing that says X-Men won't continue the trend, I guess.

I re-watched part of Avengers last night, and it's very much NOT a stand-alone film. It nearly requires prior viewing of Thor, Iron Man and even Captain America to get what's happening in the movie (that the movie did so much better than those is puzzling, but whatevs).

I dunno. We're in a completely different age of serial storytelling than we were ten years ago. Between Netflixing TV series and Harry Potter proving you could put out a series of movies that totally did not stand on their own, the audience seems to be much better with serialized storytelling these days than old fashioned episodic storytelling, and, for good or ill, that's something comics have done since the 60's. They were in the right place at the right time.

But, yeah, the question remains - exactly how bloated can the Marvel U get before it collapses in on itself? So far they seem to be able to pull it off, but surely there's a critical mass, as there often is for comics readers, of too much interconnectivity and dependence on seeing 30 other movies.

Paul Haine said...

I genuinely thought that Ant-Man was the film that would have people going 'eh, I can skip this one' but it seemed to do ok, and I saw it in the cinema despite myself. Now I'm thinking it'll be Dr. Strange. I can't muster up any enthusiasm for Cumberbatch doing what so far seems like a Batman Begins retread.

Ryan Steans said...

I'll be honest - and maybe this is a blog post and not a comment - but making a bi-monthly or so excursion to the cinema to see the latest superhero film has largely replaced my former addiction to superhero comics themselves. I don't even really care if the trailer looks good or bad - Marvel puts out at least a C+ on most of their product (the only bit I've flatly rejected is "Agents of SHIELD"), and that's more than I can say for any comics line.

Yeah, this is a short blog post. I'll do that later some time.

JaredMithrandir said...

"I re-watched part of Avengers last night, and it's very much NOT a stand-alone film. It nearly requires prior viewing of Thor, Iron Man and even Captain America to get what's happening in the movie (that the movie did so much better than those is puzzling, but whatevs). "

No it really doesn't, there are references to things that happened before, like how Game of Thrones is filled with references to the Mad King, but are not seeing that doesn't take away anything.

It's only because you did see the others that you keep reading it as more dependent then it really was.

RHPT said...

It bugs me that Captain America seemingly doesn't care all that much about collateral damage. Sure, he's been in a real war, but you're involved in 9/11 type events every couple of years and it doesn't give you pause? I get Cap's motivations in the movie vis a vis the accords but he comes off cold. And you would think Cap would be more understanding towards Tony in the final act. Don't get me wrong, I think the movie is great. Loved Black Panther, [SPOILER] (!), and Spidey, and the conflict between Cap and Tony, but it was difficult for me not to side with Tony.

And while I'm nitpicking, I didn't like that Peter called Aunty May "May". Respect your elders!

Ryan Steans said...

@Jared - I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on that one. I'm not sure a first act that relies mostly on recounting events of other movies as exposition is necessarily a "stand alone" film. Except when it is, as evidenced by the lopsided box office tilting toward Avengers with clear audience satisfaction with that movie.

@rhpt - Yeah, I hear you. I'm not sure Cap shrugs it off, but he doesn't say much about it either, does he? He's clearly aware it's a problem and rushes in to help folks as soon as the conflict is passed, and he is "Mr. Perimeter of Safety" in Avengers. But he seems to mark it up as something less than what would have happened if they weren't there. Which is a perspective of sorts. And one we know cops and soldiers live with daily - but it doesn't get fully explored.

I actually thought the subtext of the final act was that neither Cap was maybe more on Tony's side than he wanted to admit - and Tony seeing The Raft up close and personal maybe pushed him more toward's Cap's side - which is why you needed that big reveal at the end to make it a personal tragedy.

And I don't know about kids these days. I was a Texas kid, and we said "sir" and "ma'am". Only people who do that now are expecting a goods-for-payment situation.

JaredMithrandir said...

The Audience doesn't need to know anything more then what they were told. Thor also told us things that happened in the past that we don't see.

Ryan Steans said...

@Jared - I find it fascinating that you follow this site and continually comment when you agree with nothing I have to say. Look, I try to have a big tent here at this site, which is kinda unusual since this is a personal blog and not a media outlet. I've met some terrific people entirely through the fact this site is public and I've been pretty loosey-goosey about allowing comments from whomever wants to say something. And I don't particularly care all that much if someone disagrees with me. I figure enough disagreements and they move along. In general, that's what's happened. Or I block comments when we've had the occasional troll.

I'm old and tired. I feel I've done all the extending of olive branches and trying to find a place to split the difference and consider a different opinion that I'm required to do. I've provided ample room for middle ground and multiple perspectives. I could spend hours writing careful explanations defending my points, expound with evidence and and point of fact on something as trivial as superhero movies and their structure vis-a-vis traditional movie franchises from the mid-20th Century (see: James Bond). In the past, I might have. But I'm not going to.

Spending that time or writing those responses will not change your mind. I've been doing this for over a decade and I've been online since the mid-90's (as an adult). I know how this goes. So, I'm exercising my right to manage my personal journal and the attached comments as I see fit. Moreover, to manage my personal time.

You're welcome to read the site, obviously. But I'm not going to read or publish any more of your comments. You'll be happier in the end not spending time on me and what I think.

I apologize that this is the route we're taking, because it's not fun for anyone. But I am sure you can take comfort knowing that I am a coward who was unable to stand before your razor sharp insights and or to defend against your steel-trap logic. That's cool. I'm fine with that.

But I do this for fun and to have fun conversations, and - at this point - whatever is happening here is neither.