'Captain America: Civil War' Or, The Consequences Of Conflict
With its gothic-inspired Gotham sets and brooding hero, Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) may have been the first modern superhero film, but really the current tidal wave we’ve been riding didn’t get started until after the advent of CGI special effects. By the time the 2000 film “X-Men” came out, filmmakers had the visual tools needed to create mass destruction onscreen, and with few exceptions they’ve been going to town ever since.
Sure, some of the movies have stopped along the way to try and tell a decent story. There was “Spider-Man 2” with Tobey Maguire as a young hero struggling with his personal life as well as a super villain. In 2008, “Iron Man” found a cocky arms manufacturer (Robert Downey Jr.) coming to grips with the power of his weapons and trying to keep them out of the wrong hands. But by “The Avengers” (2012), that same character joined Captain America, Hulk, Thor, and friends to stop a Norse god and a giant worm from destroying New York, and still managed to demolish several city blocks in the process. The second Avengers movie as well as DC’s Superman films “Man of Steel” reached new heights of mayhem. By the time “Batman vs. Superman” came out earlier this year, the blowback online was happening. What the $*&# is wrong with these guys? Entire city blocks are destroyed in the course of their battles! Couldn’t they, well, lure the bad guys to a field somewhere instead?
Unfortunately, bad guys want to do bad things where people are. That’s what makes them bad. So kudos to Marvel for at least trying to address some of the consequences of conflict in “Captain America: Civil War.” As the movie opens, the Avengers are in Lagos, working to stop the theft of a biological weapon. When one of the thieves attempts to blow himself (and the weapon) up, the telekinetic Scarlet Witch displaces the explosion from the crowd into the air, destroying one side of a building in the process.
It’s the last straw. The accumulated deaths from all of these Marvel Cinematic Universe movies leads the United Nations to suggest an international initiative to govern the Avengers (and presumably other super-beings as well?). Iron Man, having been deeply affected by the destruction his team caused in the last Avengers movie, thinks the initiative will keep them in check. Captain America, having witnessed the corruption of the American government in *his* last movie, thinks it a bad idea to have the Avengers under the eyes of an international governing body.
With that, the heroes split themselves into factions rallying behind #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan and we’re off. As Captain America tries to rescue his friend Bucky, the Winter Soldier from carrying out another Manchurian Candidate-style hit job, we learn some of the secrets behind Iron Man’s motivation and meet other characters whose lives have been affected by the Avengers’ actions. There are some spectacular early fight sequences that are nevertheless hard to comprehend thanks to camera work using what looks like the same 45 degree shutter effect Steven Spielberg employed in “Saving Private Ryan.” Coupled with the extreme speed of, say, Black Widow’s martial arts skills, the scenes become disorienting, an overly-sharpened whirl of action. A climatic scene on an airplane tarmac is better staged, and also lets each of the superheroes' distinctive personalities shine through, even in battle.
The Avengers are at their best, ironically, when they’re interacting with each other away from the field of battle. Chris Evans and Downey Jr. have a great rapport; I can believe they’re friends that regretfully find themselves on opposite sides. But there’s a whole lot of plot in this movie, and a ton of characters that if you haven’t been keeping up with the franchise, will be completely lost on you. (I did find myself regretting missing “Ant-Man” last summer. Boy, Paul Rudd is a hoot here.)
Ultimately, “Captain America: Civil War” doesn’t fully engage with the moral and political questions it brings up, and cops out on at least one opportunity to depict real loss. It needs shorter battle scenes and a few more expository passages. In the end, it also serves as a setup for the next chapter in the never-ending MCU story. But it’s a summer (spring?) movie with half a brain in its costumed skull, and I’m thankful for that.