Captain America: Civil War


Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brűhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Kani, John Slattery, Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

 

In this post-911 world, we often have to consider the importance of security versus freedom. How much power do we allow our government to have? Is it worth giving up our freedom to be protected? And when does it stop being worth it?

Following the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron the Avengers have continued to operate without the guidance of Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man but they still continue to clean out the remnants of Hydra and travel the globe to stop threats of terrorism and barbarity. They are on one such mission to stop Crossbones (Grillo) from obtaining a biological weapon. They do stop the former SHIELD agent turned supervillain but at a staggering cost.

The nations of the world can no longer stand idly by while their citizens are reduced to collateral damage. They sign a treaty known as the Sokovia Accords (named for the fictional country that was decimated by the Avengers battle with Ultron) to put the Avengers under United Nations control, only sent on missions approved by the Security Council.

Stark has put his pen to paper and signed already and expects his good friend Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America to do the same but to Stark’s shock, Rogers refuses. He feels that the Avengers will not only function less effectively as the tools of bureaucrats and politicians, but that without self-autonomy, more lives will be lost than saved.

It’s not an easy question and not everyone falls on the same side. The Avengers eventually become two different teams, at war with one another. Things get worse when Bucky Barnes (Stan) – a.k.a. the Winter Soldier and Cap’s friend from pre-World War II Brooklyn has had the mind control that was implanted into him by Hydra used to send him on a rampage that ends up with a high-profile murder. T’challa (Boseman) a.k.a. The Black Panther, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, rich in minerals (including the rare vibranium that is what Cap’s shield is constructed out of) and technology, vows to take down Barnes and execute him. Cap can’t let that happen as it, strictly speaking, isn’t Bucky’s fault.

So it is friends against friends, the U.S. government against the Avengers, Iron Man against Captain America. No matter what, this won’t end well and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be changed permanently as a result.

This is in some ways the most complicated and thought-provoking film in Marvel’s history. It does tackle a subject that has real world ramifications and comes up with no easy answers – it also doesn’t cop out either, which is to the filmmaker’s credit. When those who ask why the Marvel films are so much more popular than the DC films (at least currently), the simple answer is that Marvel is making better movies. With the exception of some of the Batman films (by Messrs. Burton and Nolan) Marvel’s movies are more interesting, have more character development, and quite frankly are more fun to watch.

Civil War is a little bit darker in hue than the majority of Marvel’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in Gotham. There are no real villains in it for one thing – yes, there is a character named Zemo (Brűhl) who shares a last name with old Marvel villain Baron Zemo who was a Nazi mad scientist and a Hydra operative, but this Zemo is actually in a lot of ways a sympathetic character who has reasons for his madness. And the conflict between Cap and Shellhead are between two heroes doing what they believe is right.

Downey in fact steals the film from Captain America; he is tortured by the damage he has done as a superhero and as a man. His relationship is tanking and he believes that the world would be a better place if the Avengers accepted some oversight and accountability. His anguish not only at what he has caused to occur but in the conflict with his friend Cap is palpable. Downey is an Oscar-nominated actor and this is by far his best performance as Iron Man yet.

The action sequences have to be at the core of any superhero film and they are spectacular here. There’s a fight at a German airport that may go down as one of the best in Marvel history and it utilizes the talents of many of the supporting characters and a couple of new ones, including the previously mentioned Black Panther but also the brand new Spider-Man (Holland). Holland may be the best Spider-Man yet (sorry Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and acquits himself well both as Spider-Man and as Peter Parker. Based on the snippet of him and Aunt May (Tomei) in this film, I am much more interested in seeing Spider-Man Homecoming next year than I already was.

All of the characters here other than a few who have little more than cameos are shown to be quite human and as humans are, imperfect. This makes the superheroes more relatable to everyone. Who hasn’t had relationship troubles, or felt like they didn’t belong, or chafed at having their autonomy taken from them, or mistrusted authority, or agonized over inventing a self-aware robot that nearly wiped out the human race? Okay, maybe not the last one.

The plot here is dense and for those not really immersed in the Marvel Universe, it may all be too much. In many ways, this is the first Marvel film I felt that it would be actually advantageous to have seen all of the ones preceding it in order to understand it better. It can still stand on its own, but I have to admit that the more you know about the MCU, the easier this will go down. There are also a whole lot of characters here and their relationships and motivations may not be clear to everyone. I suppose that’s just a byproduct of having so many films in the MCU now.

The Russos have shown themselves very capable directors. While I don’t think this film quite measures up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier in terms of quality, it’s damn close. The brothers have been handed the reins to the next to Avengers films and this one shows that the franchise is in safe hands.

REASONS TO GO: Great battle sequences. Excellent debate starter (security vs. freedom). Portrays the heroes as fallible and human.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too much plot and character. Occasionally confusing, particularly to casual viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of superhero violence, action and mayhem, more than you can shake a stick at.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 2 hours and 27 minutes long, this is the longest Marvel movie to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Love, Don’t Cross That River

Ant-Man


Ant-Man on the wrong side of the tracks.

Ant-Man on the wrong side of the tracks.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Anthony Mackie, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Abby Ryder Fortson, David Dastmaichian, T.I, Hayley Atwell, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Martin Donovan, Garrett Morris, Gregg Turkington, Rod Hallett, Joe Chrest, Hayley Lovitt. Directed by Peyton Reed

Good things come in small packages. It’s a truism that was likely created by short people. Still, it can be true even for superheroes.

Scott Lang (Rudd) is not a thief. He’s a burglar. But not your ordinary burglar. He’s a man with a Masters in Electrical Engineering and plenty of skills with a computer. He saw that a software company had been ripping off its customers, so he decided just to return the funds they had been overcharging to their customers. Kind of a modern day Robin Hood.

But even though his good buddy Luis (Pena) puts him up, Scott is finding it hard to make it in the outside world. Even a job at Baskin-Robbins doesn’t pan out when they find out he’s an ex-con. Baskin-Robbins always finds out. Anyway, his ex-wife (Greer) doesn’t want him anywhere near their cute daughter Cassie (Fortson) and her new husband Paxton (Cannavale), a cop, is going to make sure he stays away.

Hank Pym (Douglas) is a brilliant inventor who came up with a particle that compresses molecules, enabling the wearer of the suit he invented to utilize them to shrink to the size of an insect. He left SHIELD after a disagreement with Howard Stark (Slattery) and more to the point, Mitchell Carson (Donovan) led him to resign.

He entered the private sector and took on a protégé named Darren Cross (Stoll). After the death of his wife, Janet van Dyne (Lovitt) led to an estrangement with his daughter Hope (Lilly) to the point where she now uses her mother’s maiden name as her own, he had largely left the company. He only came back in because Cross was on the verge of discovering the secret to his particles – and planned to use a weaponized version of the suit to sell to the highest bidder. He needs someone to steal the suit and erase all the data from the system pertaining to it. But who could pull it off?

Of course it’s Scott Lang. And he and Hope (who, finding out about Cross’ plans has teamed up with her father) have a very short time to train Scott in using the suit properly, to fight effectively in it and use all the properties (like controlling ants) to become a hero in his own right. But will it be enough to beat the villainous Yellowjacket – the alter ego of Cross?

One of the things I have admired most about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the movies are not interchangeable. Each of them has their own style and Ant-Man continues that tradition. This is much more light in tone than the previous entries in the Marvel Universe, more like Guardians of the Galaxy than Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latter of which immediately preceded it in the Marvel timeline.

And maybe the MCU needed it; I think that other than the staunchest of Marvel fans were feeling a touch of burn-out after Age of Ultron. For whatever reason the powers-that-be at Disney decided that this would come out a mere two and a half months after the preceding movie which is a poor tactical decision and will likely cost this movie millions of box office dollars. Perhaps they just wanted a longer gap between the movie that ends Marvel’s Phase II (which this one does) and the one that begins Phase III (which Captain America: Civil War will on May 6, 2016). Still, with the Avengers still in a lot of theaters, it doesn’t make sense to release this one. I guess they’re getting ready to ratcheting up the film production to three a year rather than two which Marvel is planning on doing in 2017.

In any case, I suspect that the relatively low box office numbers (which would still be the envy of plenty of summer films) is largely due to the short turnaround. It may also be due to fan dissatisfaction over the change in director (see below) as fan favorite Edgar Wright left (or was forced out as many conspiracy-minded fanboys have opined) and Peyton Reed came aboard. I can’t say that Reed was a crackerjack replacement, but he does tend to keep things very simple in terms of framing shots and blocking action, but he also realizes this is necessarily effects-driven and allows the digital wizards to do their thing and do it they do.

The effects are for the most part well-executed, although the 2001-style sequence near the end of the movie as Scott enters the Microverse is a bit psychedelic, some might even say Dali-esque. The movie works best when they are in the world with ants as big as SUVs and where Thomas the Tank Engine becomes a runaway locomotive.

Rudd has always been a personable actor with a flair for the sarcastic and his winning personality is at full throttle here. He has bulked up his musculature to superheroic proportions and despite the fact that he is playing a convict (albeit a philanthropic one) the audience roots for him from beginning to end. There were those who might have rolled their eyes when he was cast but again, it turns out to be perfect casting as Marvel seems extremely adept at matching their superheroes with the right actors to play them.

I’ve always been a big Michael Douglas fan and for me, he is the best reason to go see this. Hank Pym is undeniably the best character he’s gotten in ages and this is his best performance in years. This is the Michael Douglas we remember from such films as Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction. He owns the screen every time he’s on it.

In the supporting realm, Evangeline Lilly is somewhat enigmatic in her pageboy haircut that reminded me of silent movie star Louise Brooks; ever since her breakout performance in Lost she hasn’t really gotten a part that takes advantage of her skills until now. Hopefully she’ll get plenty of good parts off of her performance here. Also Pena shows remarkable comic ability here; he has tended to play second banana roles for the most part – lots of cops on his filmography – but he steals the show here.

The light-hearted tone may be disappointing to fans who prefer their superheroes dark and undoubtedly we’ll get plenty of that in the next several Marvel films starting with Fantastic Four next month. Still, this is fine summer entertainment, better than the majority of the blockbusters that have appeared this summer to date and that’s saying something. This won’t stand up with the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it won’t disappoint either. Marvel keeps on rolling and I for one continue to look forward to each new Marvel movie with anticipation.

REASONS TO GO: A little more light-hearted than most superhero films. Douglas gives his best performance in years.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too light for hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES: Superhero-style violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally developed by Edgar Wright who had brought the film to casting; however he dropped out at the 11th hour due to creative differences with Disney who had bought Marvel Studios in the intervening years; Reed stepped in, retaining the cast Wright had chosen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredible Shrinking Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Shaun the Sheep Movie