Thursday, 28 April 2016

Captain America: Civil War (or why Civil War is better than Batman vs Superman)

(M) ★★★★

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo.

Cast: 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, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl.

"Wait - are we running to something or away from something?"
BEING the nerd that I am, it’s difficult to assess this, the 13th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), without comparing it to Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the second film in the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU).

(It’s also difficult to write this review without going overboard on the acronyms – do I really have to write out Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, or can we get by with BvS and CA:CW?)

Both films deal with similar ideas – in a world where superheroes exist, who keeps the superheroes in check? It’s the very question at the centre of the greatest superhero graphic novel of all time, Alan Moore’s Watchmen – “who watches the watchmen?”. How would the world function with so much power in the hands of so few people? And how would you minimise the collateral damage if those few people started throwing their weight around?

Both films also focus on a large number of super-powered characters, introducing new ones and revisiting old favourites. Both films also take great pride in pitting the heroes against each other – that’s the raison d’etre of BvS and CA:CW.

The thing about comparing these two films – and this is the point where the DC fans on Twitter will start calling me a paid-off Marvel shill – is that CA:CW does all of the above really well. BvS, by comparison, does almost all of the above poorly.

CA:CW centres on the fallout from some of the previous MCU films (a working knowledge of the MCU is helpful but not necessarily essential). The mismatched bunch of heroes known as The Avengers has been gallivanting around the globe avenging, but unfortunately innocent civilians have been getting in the crossfire.

The UN, personified by General Ross (Hurt, last seen in the MCU in The Incredible Hulk), presents The Avengers with an ultimatum – sign up as UN-sanctioned superheroes and do as you're told, or don’t. Unfortunately the “don’t” means you will likely be regarded as a vigilante and potentially a criminal.

Tony Stark AKA Iron Man (Downey Jr) is confronted by the repercussions of his actions and decides to sign on. Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Evans) is still haunted by the deception of his previous bosses (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and feels The Avengers work best independent of governmental meddlings. This sets up a super-powered schism that is not likely to end well.

There are other factors in play, such as the loose threads of what happened to The Winter Soldier (Stan) and the arrival of Black Panther (Boseman), but mainly this is about building up to Captain America and Iron Man duking it out, as was the case with Batman and Superman in BvS.

CA:CW builds to that punch-up in a smart, measured way. The heroes discuss the problem, express their ideological viewpoints in a balanced manner, but continually fail to agree, with the stakes getting higher and higher until they reach the metaphorical equivalent of pistols at dawn. In other words, it’s pretty much the opposite of the illogical and awkward set-up that led Batman and Superman to go tete-a-tete in BvS, where the film had to actively work to avoid its two heroes from having a sensible conversation as it would have quickly resolved all the issues that supposedly underpinned the story, making the much-anticipated titular fight redundant.

Furthermore, CA:CW’s approach raises the stakes. Batman and Superman could have easily sorted things out by talking, but instead made them both come off as irrational macho idiots when they finally fought (although, to be fair, it is a good fight). Meanwhile, most of the 12 (yep, a whole dozen) heroes who battle it out in CA:CW have legitimate arguments for believing what they believe, and thus they are fighting for a cause or a truth they hold dear. This is not fighting for the sake of fighting because it says that’s what has to happen on the movie poster – this is action driven by characters, and narrative compelled by decisions, choices and ideas. In other words, the big battle makes sense in the scope of the story and is an inevitable outcome.

And where BvS struggled to incorporate Wonder Woman (who could be edited out of the film with little impact on the story) and its other numerous cameos (which could have been cut even more easily), CA:CW breezes through its role call of caped crusaders like it’s no big deal. It introduces Spider-man and Black Panther with easy, natural dialogues (although to be fair Spider-man’s introduction is a little forced) and gives them reasons to take part in proceedings. It also handles its 10 other characters comfortably – they contribute to the narrative, set-pieces, themes, discussion, and humour of the film (on that last point I should point out I have no issue with the ‘dark’ tone of BvS). Every character is far more than a gratuitous easter egg thrown in to merely spruik the next movies – they are pieces in the story’s puzzle.

But that’s enough of the nerd fight. On it’s own CA:CW is another fine addition to the MCU. It combines the usual humourous banter and the life-on-the-line drama, with the climax providing a real sense that the MCU will be irrevocably changed after the credits roll.

It’s getting harder for these intertwined films to stand alone, but CA:CW works hard to be watchable without requiring homework, while also rewarding the dedicated followers of the MCU and the comics they’re loosely based on. For example, newcomers will quickly figure what Ant-Man is all about, while the return customers will revel in Captain America throwing back to his first film by saying “I can do this all day” – a line that, in context, says a lot about the character.

Speaking of the comics, this Civil War is very different to the Civil War of its source material, but carries on Marvel’s ability to cherry pick ideas from its pages successfully to create something new that still feels true to the source in some way. The scope of this film is smaller than the Civil War of the comics, but the directors and MCU brains trust have made the Civil War idea work in the MCU.

The Russos have kept some of the conspiracy thriller tone they used in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but married it with action sequences edited like a modern war movie. At times it borders on the blizzard editing that is far too prominent in current actioners, but mostly it stays on the right side of watchable.

The cast is uniformly great. If it hasn’t been said enough already, let’s say it again – Marvel have cast their movies impeccably. We can’t imagine anyone other than Downey Jr and Evans as Iron Man or Captain America, but ditto for everyone else. Rudd confirms he was a great choice for Scott Lang aka Ant-Man, Paul Bettany’s Vision is a weirdly wonderful creation, and so far it seems like the casting directors have outdone themselves yet again with their new Spider-Man.

I feel sorry for DC fans. Marvel continues to hit it out of the park with its movies. They made an Ant-Man movie and one with a talking raccoon in it for chrissake, but DC can’t even get Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to work well in a movie together.

Now, where do I collect my Marvel shill cheque?

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