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It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when Marvel makes a bad movie. I don’t mean as in “Hey, this isn’t as good as the first one!” or “This feels tonally at odds with the others and/or of lower stakes;” I mean an entry that actually outright kind of sucks – and I’m not counting the third season of AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. even though, yeah, Season 3 does kind of suck overall. I mean at some point, just by the law of averages, one of these things is going to outright bad… and at this point I’m curious to know what that means, because my suspicion is that the answer is “not much.”
By now the Marvel machinery works so well that comparisons to Swiss watches are no longer adequate: The studio’s output is more like the water-cycle at this point, turning hype into engagement into narrative and back into hype so efficiently that it feels fully capable of processing a failure and moving on: If DOCTOR STRANGE turns out to not be good in November whatever new slivers of worldbuilding detail it contributes to the bigger picture will still be poured over in forgiveness-generating detail until GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2 wins everyone back in May with SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING batting cleanup in July. Whenever the subject of “superhero fatigue” comes up, I continue to maintain that the I’m-tired-of-this/lets-take-a-break/oh-hey-a-new-one-I’m-reminded-why-I-like-this cycle that used to be a years-long process for genre movies now takes mere months and happened for Marvel in the brief interlude between AGE OF ULTRON and ANT-MAN.
I bring this up because among the surprises to be found in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is just how leisurely and self-assured it feels about its own existence. Despite the sensationalism of its basic setup (Friends becomes enemies! Superhero civics debate! The End of The Avengers!?) and the frenetic pace of its narrative, in terms of tone and self-regard it’s the most “lived-in” feeling blockbuster in recent memory – capable of thrilling and confidently carrying a two or three of the most satisfying setpieces the genre has ever managed to deliver up its sleeve like an emergency mood-booster, but secure to an almost zen-like state that A.) it has the goods and B.) even if it doesn’t have quite the goods it thinks it does, we’re not going to “turn” on the MCU now.
The result is that, while it could well be (on balance) the best Marvel movie since THE AVENGERS (and a more fitting thematic follow-up to that feature than its own sequel by a substantial measure) it’s also among the most deliberately-plotted and “comfy” installments in whole Marvel mega-franchise – the action movie equivalent of a hit TV show wheeling out the big guns for sweeps week secure (along with the audience) in the awareness that there’s still plenty of episodes to go before the finale.
That should be bizarre, given that the entire plot of the film is about (literally) blowing the status quo of the MCU’s central narrative hub to smithereens, but it makes sense given the degree of investment expected of the audience for all that “blowing up” to matter: We care because we love these characters and their world, we love these characters and their world because we’ve gotten to know them over more than a dozen prior films, because we love them and their world we know there will be many dozens of films to come – so, for a change, even though the action is big as ever the actual stakes are comparatively small and intimate: The world doesn’t need to be ending and it’s pointless to pretend that the MCU storyline could “finish” here, so instead lets enjoy watching our favorite characters work out some issues, develop some new dimensions and occasionally set off some new fireworks. In fact, without giving too much away, this is the first film in awhile where the mystery of what’s “really” driving an escalating series of small, personal grievances turns out to be… A smaller, even more personal grievance.
The plot you already know from the ubiquitous trailers: Something goes wrong during a routine Avengers mission that leads to collateral damage and takes the already faded bloom off the rose of having superheroes running around unchecked with enough of the global public that the U.N. steps in to force Captain America and company to become a regulated outfit. Some say yes, others say no, Cap’s “no” becomes more emphatic when a terrorist strike during the signing of the new deal is blamed on The Winter Soldier – aka Cap’s brainwashed ex-HYDRA cyborg assassin bestie Bucky Barnes – and he (after being convinced of his friend is innocent and something more sinister is afoot) goes rogue to hunt for the real culprit. Complicating matters further, one of the U.N. signatories killed in the attack was the King of the secretive African nation of Wakanda; whose son has now donned the ceremonial battle-armor of The Black Panther in order to hunt down and kill The Winter Soldier himself.
The big question mark hovering over the film from the beginning has been whether or not this was the point where the overriding commitment to a shared universe would overwhelm the individual storyline: Sure, it’s nice to see the cast hanging around and not having to wonder where all the other heroes went during a solo movie; but are we getting the “lite” version of an AVENGERS sequel at the expense of a CAPTAIN AMERICA movie?
Luckily, the answer turns out to be… it can be both: This is definitely CAPTAIN AMERICA 3 – and, more importantly, the direct continuation of the WINTER SOLDIER storyline – but since Captain America LIVES in Avengers Headquarters and the other Avengers comprise about 99% of his known social circle it really can’t help but also be an AVENGERS movie. And with that aforementioned leisurely confidence in place, CIVIL WAR wisely opts to take some of that well-earned audience goodwill and spend it on fleshing-out the character stuff that’s been driving these movies from the beginning: So Vision and Scarlet Witch get some character development, Falcon and War Machine get to voice their opinions about the way their more prominent allies conduct business, Black Widow gets to be morally-complicated on a more than superficial level… hell, Black Panther get’s an entire introductory character arc two years in advance of his own movie!
(Seriously – I’m really curious what the BLACK PANTHER movie is going to be about now that a version of the story you’d kind of expect them to tell in the first BLACK PANTHER movie has now already been told in background of this one.)
And yes – especially in the second act – it does start to feel like the proper AVENGERS sequel that AGE OF ULTRON never quite managed to be, if for no other reason than it’s as strongly a movie about a team falling apart as that first film was about a team coming together. But once the plot heads into its conclusion and the full scope and purpose of the narrative is laid bare, it becomes extremely clear that CIVIL WAR is fundamentally Captain America’s movie above all else – in as much as the thematic core is all about the push-pull of doing what you want emotionally versus doing what’s right and he’s the Avenger that embodies that inner conflict moreso than anyone else in the franchise.
The narrative arc they wring out of that, where it’s completely understandable that the other characters are more than a little skeptical that Cap’s thinking clearly when he decides to basically fight the entire rest of the world in order to clear his friend’s name, is legitimately fascinating to watch play out in such surprisingly complex terms; and instead of hogging the spotlight as many had feared Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man turns out to be a perfectly-chosen mirror-opposite to the same arc: Sure, he seems to be doing what he thinks is right; but it’s also clear that retirement not really working out and no longer having any Avenging to fall back on is letting his personal demons consume him all over again. And the dynamics at play that allow the pair to maintain their ideological “sides” while gradually trading places in terms of the attitude is a such a strange but interesting way to construct an emotional narrative I can’t help but admire it.
The strength of all that heart-on-sleeve operatic emotionality is why I’m having a hard time settling on whether or not this or WINTER SOLDIER is actually the better movie. It’d be hard to argue that SOLDIER was the more rigidly coherent and polished work in terms of structure, but CIVIL WAR is substantially more satisfying from a “pure cinema” perspective: There are some pretty hard to ignore logical leaps a play – mainly in that the entire scenario hinges on someone being able to both manipulate and predict the exact actions of dozens of individuals and entire national governments without really explaining how said someone was able to do – so but the payoff is SO strong and hits SO hard it’s genuinely hard to care… and also, yeah, because it’s a Marvel movie and by now we’ve all been trained to give that sort of thing the benefit of the doubt since three movies from now it’ll probably turn he had a magic rock or something.
But yeah – it’s a superhero movie, but it’s practically structured like the macho-melodrama version of a MARX BROS comedy: The storyline is “there” but it’s largely incidental to the true purpose of creating scenarios for the characters to literally figuratively “bounce off” of one another: So if it’ll help remind everyone just how natural it is for people in this universe trip over themselves for the chance to fight alongside Captain America and having Ant-Man show up will do that? Then you do that. And if it’ll add some necessary complexity to Tony Stark’s storyline to have him help out an underprivileged teenager and that gives you an opportunity to introduce Spider-Man to everybody? Then you do that, too. And that means you’ve got two more dynamic characters for a big show-stopping end of Act 2 blowout where everyone vents their long-simmering frustrations with one another and since they’re all varying degrees of super-powered godlings it escalates into one of the most ridiculous yet amazing action sequences ever put to film – and yes, it’s as awesome and worth the price all on its own as you’ve heard.
But however cool it all is, what sticks around and satisfies about CIVIL WAR is the emotion-driven character work that the action scenes ultimately exist to facilitate and underline – which is why it’s hard to find fault with the actual plot being kind of a superfluous shell game: By the time the big all-cards-on-the-table finale has rolled around we find – even as the mysteries have all been solved, the cause of the superhero Civil War has been identified and the narrative reasons behind the fighting have ceased – the fighting isn’t over because the dark secrets, deep-seated character flaws and furious emotional pain involved have transcended the plot-mechanics that brought them to the surface in the first place; and sometimes things like that don’t just “go away” because the inciting disaster has averted. When was the last time that was the moral of a “serious” or “grownup” movie – let alone a movie where freakin’ Ant-Man is a featured player?
And what’s most impressive of all, from a broader cultural standpoint, is that while it’s a given that the smug set will be all too happy to hand CIVIL WAR the backhanded compliment of having accomplished all this “in spite of being just another Marvel movie;” the fact is the weird, risky, offbeat, atypical stuff that makes the film work is largely only possible because Marvel has created a cultural zeitgeist for CIVIL WAR to inhabit. You simply couldn’t have a character-driven movie in this genre with this dense of an emotional narrative if so much work hadn’t already been done establishing these characters and their world in the first place: What starts as a geopolitical conflict of high-minded hypotheticals narrows down into an extended-family schism among a dozen or so ideological standard bearers and then compresses all the way down to an intensely personal brawl where it’s genuinely, viscerally difficult to root completely for (or against) either side.
That’s an impressive feat of storytelling in any genre; and while I’m not 100% convinced that CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is itself the best film the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced, it’s far and away the best example of why it was worth constructing in the first place – and why it’s not going anywhere any time soon.
P.S. In case you were wondering: Tom Holland is fantastic… but I feel like Tobey Maguire is still going to be the best Spider-Man. That being said, I’m increasingly of the mind that the Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN probably needs to go on the shelf with the Richard Donner SUPERMAN i.e. “Yes, these will never be equaled and you can’t keep marking down every subsequent attempt for not living up to unattainable miracles.” The new SPIDER-MAN works and I think HOMECOMING is in good hands.