CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – Review
It’s finally time to pack away the bulky Winter coats and jackets, or at least regulate them to the far corners of the closet, because Summer has truly arrived. A new tradition heralding the seasonal start began eight years ago with the first major Marvel Studios release IRON MAN, and almost every first weekend of May since has seen another “box office buster” storm the nation’s, now the world’s, theatre screens. Like the “star-spangled man”, these exec do have a plan, mapping out groups of films as a “phase”. That 2008 classic marked the beginning of “phase one” that concluded with the first titanic team-up of heroes, MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS. “Phase two” finished up last Summer with ANT-MAN and the second Avengers epic. Who better to usher in the beginning of “phase three” than the first Avenger himself, Steve Rogers? But the good Captain now faces a challenge perhaps greater than the Hydra hordes that infested SHIELD in his second solo film. The sentinel of liberty is pitted against his friends and fellow Avengers in the globe spanning adventure CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR.
The story actually begins 25 years ago in Siberia, as James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is awakened from his cryogenic slumber to complete another murder mission as the Winter Soldier. Jump forward to modern-day Lagos in Africa, as Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff AKA the Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) team with Avengers “newbies” Wanda Maximoff AKA the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to stop a gang led by an old enemy. Suddenly the battle takes an unplanned turn, leading to a unforeseeable tragedy. Meanwhile Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) has finished the presentation of a new simulator at MIT, when he is confronted by the relative of an innocent lost during an Avengers operation. Later the Avengers are summoned to a meeting with new Secretary of State, Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), the former General who tried to take down the Hulk. He reminds them of the destruction left in the wake of the Avengers, then presents a thick book, the “Sokovian Accords”. He wants each Avenger to review the tome then sign an agreement to only assemble after approval by members of the United Nations. Steve has reservations about such restrictions, while Tony believes that they should be “put in check”. But as the debate rages, Steve and Sam continue their search for Bucky. Days later an attack occurs in Vienna during a special address to the UN by the king of the secretive African nation of Wakanda. The country’s Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) swears revenge. Police security footage reveals the Winter Soldier at the scene. Can Steve find his old friend before the authorities and T’Challa, who is also the fierce warrior the Black Panther, do? And what will happen if Steve and his supporters refuse to sign those Accords? Will the Avengers “dis-assemble”?
With such a large cast it comes as a great surprise, joyous really, that each actor really gets a chance to shine (this is something that the Star Trek and X-Men films struggle with). The story anchor is, of course, the title hero. Evans slips into Steve Rogers just as you may slip into a warm, comfy sweater. After five features, Evans has made Cap a truly human hero, a man who always rises to the occasion, despite the odds or his own doubts. Yes, he’s an iconic symbol, but he’s still a guy from Brooklyn. You might say that the film has an equal co-anchor in the always entertaining Mr. Downey. He’s still a master of the devastating quip or insult (and there’s plenty here), but we see Tony’s darker self, a man dealing with past regrets while having great trepidation about the road he’s taken. Mackie’s a superb soldier who still has time for a wisecrack or three. Of all the heroes, Johansson as the Widow is perhaps the most conflicted. She has great loyalty to both Tony and Steve, but she wants no more innocent blood on her hands. Stan as Bucky still seems to be a fog, struggling to find his own humanity, but unable to quell the beast that has been placed inside him. Olsen’s Wanda also struggles as she tries to control her powers and not be consumed by guilt when those powers are not enough to avert catastrophe. She shares great screen chemistry with Paul Bettany as the aloof, otherworldly android, the Vision. He begins a hesitant friendship with Wanda, one that seems in conflict with his programming (wow, he’s got a cooking app). Emily VanCamp finally opens up to Cap, sharing the truth about her connection to him. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Don Cheadle as James “War Machine” Rhodes are solid as the world-weary soldiers on opposite sides (the archer is most worried about leaving his family). Hurt, reprising his role from 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, adds an air of stern gravitas as he tries to reign in the group. And Paul Rudd’s starstruck Scott Lang brings some much-needed levity to the high stakes showdown while his Ant-Man more than proves his value.
Hey, they even added a few new folks into the mix. Martin Freeman is quite engaging in his brief role as VanCamp’s arrogant new boss, Everett Ross. Daniel Bruhl adds an air of menace as the mysterious Zemo, a shadowy figure with an unexplained (until the final act) agenda. Boseman has a dignified regal bearing as T’Challa until loss unlocks the Black Panther’s rage, making us look forward to his upcoming solo feature film. But the breakout new addition to the Marvel movie universe may be Tom Holland as Peter Parker, the amazing Spider-Man. “But, we’ve seen the wall-crawler on screen before!”, you say. Well, not in the hands of Marvel Studios. After five features, Sony Pictures has finally joined forces with them to relaunch the franchise. Spidey will be able to guest in the other films and vice versa. Holland (so great in the 2012 disaster drama THE IMPOSSIBLE), brings a vulnerable charm to Pete while exuding boyish enthusiasm (and lots of “smack talk” chatter) to ole'”webhead”, stealing every scene, and leaving us anxiously awaiting his screen return in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. Now this is our Spidey!
The brothers Russo (Anthony and Joe) prove that their tag-team triumph on CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER was truly no fluke. They masterfully juggle the myriad of “super folk”, while never making the film feel bloated. There’s a lean vitality to their action set pieces, from the flawed opener, to the traffic chase, and the apartment assault. But the most remarkable action sequence, setting a high water mark for future super hero flicks, is the big airport showdown, the “tumult on the tarmac” you might say (hey, I just did). It’s a visual stunner with over a dozen heroes giving a new meaning to the old Astaire standard as they suddenly “change partners and dance”, making for many astounding match-ups. There’s an infectious sense of fun (so lacking in another recent comics-inspired face off). While this would be the big finale for most flicks, the Russos opt for a more intimate last confrontation that packs an emotional wallop thanks to the great script by Marvel movie vets Christopher Markus and Stephan McFeely. Besides the physical battles, this is a story that deals with important issues, very relevant to our times with the enhanced heroes echoing real-life concerns over security and international boundaries. elaborating on the excellent recent comics mini-series written by Mark Millar. Neither Tony or Steve is 100% right or wrong. Plus the city-wide mass destruction is kept to a minimum, never becoming another tiresome bit of “disaster porn”. Many fans felt that the Marvel films may have lost their way with the last Avengers film. Now the Russos has gotten the train back on the track, making the Marvel Universe a welcome vacation spot at the multiplex (in the words of Liz Lemmon on TV’s “30 Rock”, “I want to go to there”). When we look back on these “phase” sets of films, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR will shine as one of the best. At ease, Cap!
5 out of 5