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Marvel Triumphs Again with Captain America: Civil War!

Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I am hard-pressed to recall (the last decade of Pixar movies is the only thing I can think of that comes close) and Captain America: Civil War is even better than I had dared hope, an extraordinarily HUGE movie with astounding action and powerful emotional beats that pay off story-lines that have been building through the twelve (count ’em, TWELVE) previous Marvel Studios movies ever since 2008’s Iron Man started this whole crazy adventure.  I am a huge fan of the under-appreciated Avengers: Age of Ultron (click here for my review), but a strong case can be made that Civil War is what The Avengers 2 should gave been, a film that embraces the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting the characters through a wrenching emotional trial and eventually shattering the team that had come together in 2012’s The Avengers.

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Following the events of Age of Ultron, Cap has been training and leading a team of Avengers consisting of himself, the Falcon, the Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision.  As Captain America: Civil War opens, we find that Avengers team hot on the trail of Crossbones (the mangled ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  As the try to stop Crossbones from obtaining a deadly biological weapon, a fight breaks out in the crowded streets of Nigeria.  Though the Avengers successfully stop Crossbones and his mercenaries, a tragic accident leaves a dozen civilians dead.  This proves to be the last straw for a world that has suffered from a series of increasingly-escalating super-hero/super-villain battles (as seen in the previous twelve Marvel movies).  Over a hundred nations band together to create the Sokovia Accords (named after the nation destroyed by Ultron in the climactic fight of Age of Ultron), declaring that the Avengers will no longer be an autonomous entity but now one governed by a UN-appointed supervising panel.  Tony Stark, desperate to find some way to prevent future civilian deaths and ensure that the Avengers remain a force for good across the world, supports the accords.  Captain America, worried that the international politics at play might prevent him and other super-heroes from acting whenever they feel it is necessary in order to save lives, opposes them.  This philosophical debate becomes more urgent when Cap’s former partner and best friend Bucky Barnes, now the brainwashed hit-man code-named the Winter Soldier (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) resurfaces and is apparently responsible for the murder of hundreds at the signing of the Sokovia Accords.  Tony begs Cap to let the world’s governments handle the subsequent manhunt but Cap refuses to leave the fate of his friend in the hands of others.  This schism shatters the Avengers and leads to not only an epic, absolutely insane multi-character super-hero-versus-super-hero throw-down in the Berlin airport but also a devastating confrontation between former friends now turned bitter enemies Cap and Tony, the results of which look like they will reshape the Marvel Cinematic from this point forward.

I love long-form story-telling.  Whether in movies, TV shows, novels or comic-books, I am a big, big fan of epic sagas, stories that take a while to unfold and so therefore are able to build narrative momentum and power as they progress.  No one has ever before done what Marvel has accomplished with their interconnected movie universe, and I am continually impressed and amazed at how well this gamble has paid off.  Captain America: Civil War serves as the final word as to why this sort of connected universe is a great way to tell stories.  Civil War isn’t bogged down by the continuity baggage of being the thirteenth Marvel Studios movie.  In fact, it works so well exactly BECAUSE of that fact.  The collision point at which Cap and Tony Stark arrive in this film is powerful — and the results of that collision so devastating — because we have spent so many previous movies developing our affection for and engagement with these two characters.  We’ve seen their individual journeys and also their slow, grudging path to comradeship and friendship with one another.  (The defining moment of 2012’s The Avengers, and my very favorite beat in a film drowning with great moments, is when, as the battle for New York rages, Tony says: “Call it, Cap,” thus sealing their bond and showing us that, for the first time ever, Tony has acknowledged that there might be some things another man can do better than he can.)  And so now when we watch that friendship break, and break so badly, here in Civil War, the accumulation of story-telling from across all of those previous films adds many powerful layers of resonance.  (Compare this to Batman v. Superman, which also tried to tell a story of a confrontation between two super-heroes with different viewpoints, but without any of the patient development we have seen in these Marvel movies since 2008.  I rest my case.)

As I always try to do, as I discuss Captain America: Civil War in this review I will try to avoid major spoilers.  But there’s a lot to dig into and I would hate to spill the beans on any of Civil War’s many wonderful surprises.  So if you haven’t yet seen the film, know that it is spectacular and you should go see it immediately, and prepare for a tremendously fun time in a movie theatre.  C’mon back once you’ve seen the film.

Everyone else?  Onward!

This film is called Captain America: Civil War, and it certainly serves very well as the third and final film in the trilogy of Captain America films.  I enjoyed the second Cap film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though I was a little disappointed in how little screen-time Bucky/the Winter Soldier actually got in a film named after him.  I commented in my review that I hoped the next Cap film would spend more time focusing on this character’s journey and the implications behind his return and his violent past as the Winter Soldier.  I am very pleased that Civil War delivers on this.  I am impressed by how smoothly screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have been able to insert the Winter Soldier character into a story inspired by Mark Millar’s 2006 Marvel comics Civil War miniseries.  They wisely made the Winter Soldier the crux point of the entire Cap/Tony split here in the film, a device that is very clever and that works wonderfully.

This film also can and should easily be considered the third Avengers film, as it features every single Avengers character (except for Bruce Banner and Thor), while also weaving in Marvel cinematic universe characters who had not yet appeared in an Avengers film (like Paul Rudd’s Ant Man!) while ALSO introducing a number of brand-new-to-the-Marvel-cinematic-universe characters (the Black Panther, Spider-Man) who will play important roles in the Marvel U. going forward.

Possibly the most impressive aspect of this film is how well it is able to juggle this boatload of characters.  I was bowled over by how well the film was able to integrate all of these characters together, weaving them in and out of the story.  Many, many super-hero sequel films have collapsed under the bloat of too many characters.  I can’t ever recall a super-hero film with THIS many characters, and yet under the steady hands of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, Civil War makes it all work and look easy.

Robert Downey Jr. has been absolutely amazing as Tony Stark ever since his very first scene in 2008’s Iron Man That this wonderful Marvel Cinematic Universe exists at all is a testament to how dominatingly perfect Mr. Downey Jr. has been in the role, and how well-embraced by audiences he has been as this character.  Incredibly, Mr. Downey Jr. is better than he has ever been, here in Civil War.  He’s been given some truly meaty material to play with here in this film, and he is devastating.  Civil War gives us a very different Tony Stark than we’ve seen before.  This isn’t a rehash of the same character having the same arc that we’ve seen before.  Civil War completely acknowledges, in a very graceful way, everything that has come before, and shows that this universe and these characters are changing and progressing (or regressing) as the films unfold.  We’ve seen in Iron Man 3 and in Avengers: Age of Ultron that Tony Stark has become increasingly concerned with finding a way to break the cycle of violence unfolding around the world, and to find a way for him to be able to stop having to be Iron Man.  We see that desire pumped up by many degrees here in Civil War, as Tony is deeply affected by the civilian deaths that the Avengers have caused.  The heartless, ego-centric Tony who we met at the start of the first Iron Man has transformed into someone deeply pained by the loss of even a single human life.  Even more powerfully, the self-centered Tony who didn’t trust anyone other than himself, the man who in Iron Man 2 refused to allow any government oversight over his activities and who boasted that he had “privatized world peace,” now, here in Civil War, is the loudest voice for the idea that the Avengers are too powerful to be autonomous, that they must submit to governmental oversight and supervision.

Meanwhile, in a beautiful twist, Captain America has traded places with Tony.  Cap, who started in Captain America: The First Avenger as a soldier who was perfectly comfortable following the orders of others, now finds himself in a place where he is distrustful of others and only trusts himself to decide what is in his, and the world’s, best-interests.  What a clever narrative development this is, and what a wonderful pay-off to the journey of these characters.  Chris Evans absolutely owns the character of Steve Rogers/Captain America.  He was terrific as Cap right from the start, but now so many movies later it’s extraordinary how perfectly he is still able to play this character, continuing to bring new shades and developments to his journey.  Meanwhile, as I’d just commented above, I was staggered by the power and emotion of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance here in this film.

Civil War works because both Cap and Tony are right.  The initial, fan-exciting “hook” of the promotion of this film was the idea that the heroic Iron Man would be the villain in Cap 3.  But thank heaven, perhaps even more than in the original comic book Civil War mini-series, the film takes great pains to present both Cap and Tony as having completely legitimate points of view.  This is what makes the film so compelling, as we see the schism develop and as we see all the other super-heroes choose sides.  You can make a perfectly sound argument that both Cap and Tony are each 100% right.  This is extraordinarily great story-telling.

What’s even more impressive is that, because of that careful development, Civil War is a super-hero film that is filled with action and yet has hardly any villains in it.  And, after Crossbones is dispatched with about ten minutes into the film, there is not a single SUPER-villain in the film at all.  (SPOILER ALERT: There is a gloriously well-constructed fake-out in the third act, in which we learn of the existence of five more super-soldier super-assassins being kept in cryogenic freeze in Russia.  I expected that, of course, in the end Cap and Tony would have to lay aside their differences to band together to take down these super-assassins in a big ol’ battle royal.  But, nope, the film totally avoids that direction in favor of a far more interesting, and far more gripping, ending.)  (SPOILER ALERT #2:  When Martin Freeman (The Office, The Hobbit) popped up as an apparently minor official in the global Joint Counter-Terrorist Unit, I figured that they wouldn’t cast such a big-name actor unless this character would turn out to be important, most likely a villain.  But, nope again, thankfully the film avoids that sort of development.)  Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, returning to the role years after playing the character in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, in a wonderful bit of Marvel movie continuity) is a big jerk in the film, but even he is not really a villain.  Instead, all of the drama and pathos in Civil War comes from the breaking of the Avengers and the escalating emotional conflicts between the characters.  This is an incredible achievement.

Civil War embraces the continuity of the Marvel cinematic universe in a big, big way.  I think this film can certainly be enjoyed by newbies, but for serious fans of these Marvel films this film is filled with payoff after payoff and an array of wonderful moments of continuity both big and small.  Although sadly Hayley Atwell is not in this film as Cap’s first true love Peggy Carter, her character is nevertheless enormously important to the story in a very emotional way.  John Slattery returns (after previous appearances in Iron Man 2 and Ant Man) in flashback material as the elderly Howard Stark (a character played, in his younger version, by Dominic Cooper in Captain America: The First Avenger as well as the Peggy Carter TV series).  Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) alludes to Hank Pym’s dislike of the Stark family.  Some wonderful scenes between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch begin to playfully hint at the deeper relationship the characters enjoyed in the comics.  There is a great scene discussing the mysterious nature of the Infinity gem resting on the Vision’s forehead, something that we know is going to come into play very soon in the Infinity War films.  The deep friendship between Tony Stark and Rhodey (as developed across all three Iron Man films), the friendship between Cap and Sam Wilson/the Falcon and also between Cap and the Black Widow (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), the connection between Ant Man and the Falcon (as seen in Ant Man), and so many other character relationships are all acknowledged and embraced by the story told in Civil War.  All of these character-relationships are given attention and all of them feed into the drama of the story.  It’s extraordinary.

(One of my very favorite bits of continuity in the film was the way we finally, finally got an acknowledgement of the end of Iron Man Three in which Tony blew up all of his armors.  I commented at the time that while that made thematic sense in that particular film, it made no sense in an expanding Marvel cinematic universe in which we knew Iron Man was going to continue to be appearing in Avengers films.  Indeed, Age of Ultron made no effort whatsoever to explain why Tony was right back in the Iron Man armor at the start of that film.  So I loved how Tony gives a speech in this film that finally addresses that, and recontextualizes that development as another of his failures to stick to a commitment, something which has apparently driven Pepper to leave him.  Speaking of which, that the Tony-Pepper relationship had ended was another surprising and powerful beat of character development in this film, and works to help show us a Tony in this film who is more isolated and desperate than we have seen him before.)

After the Tony/Cap split, pretty much every superhero in the Marvel cinematic universe is forced to take sides, and the huge fight in the Berlin airport is a work of extraordinary genius and joy.  I hate to keep whaling on Batman v. Superman, but in that film’s big multi-super-hero show-down, basically all Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman wind up doing is taking turns hitting Doomsday as hard as they can.  By contrast, the Berlin fight is a far more sophisticated and well-thought-out sequence of film-making in which we get to see one exciting and fun new super-hero face-off after another, as each character uses his/her specific individual powers in interesting new ways.  No character gets lost in the melee.  Everyone gets their beats and their moments to shine.  The over-all battle is made up of a number of smaller sequences, with each one more dizzyingly entertaining than the next.  This whole review could be picking out individual moments from that battle that I love, from Tony’s “Underoos!” revelation, to Black Panther’s claws versus Cap’s shield, from Ant Man inside the Iron Man suit to the “are we still friends?” moment between Clint and Natasha, from the revelation of Giant Man to Black Widow’s decision in the hangar to Spidey versus the Winter Soldier and Falcon.

Holy cow, I’ve gotten so deep into this review and I haven’t mentioned Spidey yet!  Every sequence with the new Spider-Man is a joy.  This is something I never ever ever ever believed would happen, because Spider-Man was owned by Sony, a totally separate company from the Disney-owned Marvel Studios.  But the impossible has indeed happened and there he was, in all his red-and-blue spandexed glory, Spider-Man in a Marvel Studios film.  Tom Holland was perfect, and I can’t wait to see him in his own film.  Casting Marisa Tomei as Aunt May brings a whole new spin to the character (this is a much younger May than we’re used to seeing), and I am excited to see where this goes.  I loved every second of Tony’s flirting with May.  I loved where in Spider-Man’s story this movie picks up the character, and I love this movie’s in-universe explanation for where he gets his Spidey-suit (the best explanation in any of these movies so far).  The only great thing about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (click here for my lengthy dissection of that train-wreck) was that film’s perfect, and I mean perfect, version of the Spider-Man suit.  This movie’s version goes in a different, more retro direction (dig the brighter colors), and while The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suit gets the nod from me, this version of Spidey still looks awesome.  There is a lot more Spider-Man in this movie than I’d ever expected, and ever moment is wonderful, and absolute joy.  I can’t wait to see this character headline his own movie next year, and I am super-excited that Robert Downey Jr. will be appearing in it.

Meanwhile, the movie’s other major character introduction, Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/the Black Panther, is also very successful.  Mr. Boseman is terrific, giving T’Challa a dignity while also letting us see his youth and his passion.  We’ve been hearing about Wakanda and Vibranium for a while now in these Marvel movies, and so it’s great to see those elements step into the foreground big-time.  I love the way in which T’Challa is brought into the story as a pivot-point between the Cap/Tony divide.  T’Challa is given his own, very personal reason for wanting the Winter Soldier dead, and it works perfectly in the story.  I love his arc in the film.

I’m still going to try to avoid completely spoiling anything but we are now wading deeper into SPOILERS territory so, again, readers beware.

The final fight between Cap and Tony is extraordinary, viscerally thrilling and emotionally devastating.  There has been a certain story-point in the Marvel universe backstory that has been referred to many times before in these movies.  They haven’t made a big deal of screaming THIS IS A MYSTERY! but there has been enough vagueness surrounding this event that I’ve often wondered about whether that was going somewhere.  When I started reading about this particular movie, and that the Winter Soldier was going to be at the center of the Tony/Cap schism, I wondered if the folks behind the Marvel movies had the guts to go where I thought they might be going.  Indeed they did, and the final revelation at the end of Civil War is extraordinary, powerful and shattering because of the weight of all these previous films.  The writers even had a chance to pull back somewhat on the revelation by giving Cap some plausible deniability.  That would have been easy to do and a lesser film series wouldn’t have hesitated to have done so in order to avoid tarnishing any of its heroes.  But to my surprise and great admiration, Civil War avoids that “out” and instead goes all-in on this ending, and it is devastating.  I loved every second of this climax.  What a new and wonderful way to end one of these huge-budget super-hero movies.

Other thoughts:

They worked Redwing into the film!  I loved it!

I loved Tony’s Iron Man glove that popped out of his watch.

I loved Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier.  He was solid in the first two Cap movies but here he is truly perfect as this character.

I love that these films haven’t forgotten about Hydra.  That organization casts a long shadow over the Marvel movies.

How can they keep coming up with more great Stan Lee cameos??  This was another winner.

The last shot of the film was terrific.  I also enjoyed the two stingers, though neither was a classic.  (SPOILERS HERE gang so beware!!)  When the camera started panning at the end of the first one I thought we’d at last get a real look at the Marvel cinematic universe’s version of Wakanda but unfortunately we didn’t get much.  I also didn’t love learning that Bucky was going back into cryo-freeze, that felt like a cop-out ending.  I’d rather, after everything Cap sacrificed in the movie, that we’d see Bucky trying to embrace his past and start living a “normal” life again.  Then the final end-credits teaser was fun but, like the first one, it wasn’t as revelatory as I’d hoped.  Both teasers were just a little more of what characters we’d already seen in the movie.  I was hoping for a glimpse of Doctor Strange, or maybe something more with Thanos and/or the Infinity Gems, or a quick catch-up with Banner or Thor.  Oh well.

I was glad that they fleshed out Agent 13/Sharon Carter (played by Emily VanCamp) in this film, though I’m not sure they quite earned that kiss moment.  Particularly coming so quickly after Peggy’s funeral, it felt a little out of nowehere.  Still, the “proud of our boy” looks from both Sam and Bucky were hilarious.

Alfre Woodard’s single scene was terrific.  I’d thought we’d see her again later in the movie.  (In the Civil War comics, that character and Tony formed a friendly relationship eventually.)  But she did everything she needed to do in that one single scene.

Time for me to repeat the same complaint I have made about pretty much every single super-hero movie for years: why won’t they give us distinct, hummable character themes?  These Marvel movies should be a glorious medley of the individual super-hero themes, rather than just generic action/adventure music.  This is the biggest missed opportunity of these Marvel Studios films.

I was surprised by the twist involving Rhodey, but it made perfect sense and upped the stakes for the final act.  Robert Downey Jr. played those moments magnificently, and Don Cheadle’s final scene in the movie was terrific.  I love that this Iron Man supporting character has been included so majorly in Avengers: Age of Ultron and now here.

Captain America: Civil War succeeds pretty much everywhere.  It is a triumph, a magnificent accomplishment and a vindication of everything that Marvel Studios set out to do when they started this ride back in 2008.  I am sure Marvel is going to stumble again somewhere but right now they seem to be doing everything right.  This is a film I can’t wait to see again, hopefully as soon as possible!

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