Monday, May 16, 2016

Film Review: Captain America - Civil War

Sexuality/Nudity  No Objection*
Violence  Acceptable**
Vulgarity  Acceptable**
Anti-Catholic Philosophy  No Objection**

When they first introduced the Marvel Cinematic Universe all those years ago, I think its safe to say that Captain America was many people's least favorite Avenger.  Perhaps that is too harsh.  At the very least, many people found him a bit on the bland side.  

But now after two fantastic solo movie sequels, Captain America is without a doubt the main hero of the MCU.  This is fantastic reminders that in the hands of great writers and directors, there are no bland characters.  This a great credit the directors Joe and Anthony Russo.

Captain America: Civil War is amazing in the fact that it feels like both an Avengers sequel and a Captain America movie.  All of the main heroes have their strong moments where it almost feels like an ensemble film.  But you never lose the fact that above all this is a story about Captain America.

The story follows the events of both Age of Ultron and The Winter Soldier.  The Avengers enter into an international conflict which leads to civilian casualties.  The Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) has taken a step back from his Hulk-hunting obsession to inform the Avengers about the Sokovia Accords.  Essentially this plan states that the Avengers would be overseen by the United Nations and that the would only intervene with UN approval.

This splits the team down the middle along philosophical lines.  Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is still feeling the aftershocks of his own lack of control in Age of Ultron and so backs the Accords.  Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) is suspicious of them and sees them as a burecratic obstacle to doing the right thing.  The other Avengers line up behind one or the other.  Things, however, go from tense to hostile when a terrorist attack is blamed on Cap's oldest friend "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and the lines which were once ideological become so much more.  

As a philosopher, I love the fact that this is a superhero movie about ideas.  Tony and Steve are fantastic friends whose convictions are pulling them apart.  Anyone who has any kind of political or religious divide in their family and friends understands this tension.  And as in our own relationships, we hope that our mutual respect and affection will overcome all of the differences.  That is what makes Civil War so universal and so tragic.

And the ideas are not simply black and white.  Even though Captain America is the title hero, Tony is not necessarily in the wrong.  Not since watching the TV series Battlestar Galactica have I had the wonderfully frustrating experience of seeing two points of view that are in a sense both right, but sadly leads to great conflict.  

Tony has experienced the destructive power of playing God first hand.  He believes in the frailty of human judgment.  He does not trust his own inclinations and so desires to place the power he wields in the hands of legitimate authorities.  He thinks that great power in the hands of someone who doesn't think they could be wrong is too dangerous.

Steve is someone who has never doubted his inner moral compass.  His conscience is too solidly formed for him to ignore it.  As he says, "The safest hands are our own."  He doesn't see himself as above legitimate authority.  But he does say that the duty to what is right, even when the authorities tell you not to, is the most important thing to being a hero.

Steve thinks Tony doubts himself too much.

Tony thinks Steve doubts himself too little.

Because there is so much philosophy behind there is a lot of down time for exposition, but this only serves to deepen the tension and character development.  Because this is a sequel, very few introductions need to be made at this point and the characters can begin growing from the first scene.

But the large amounts of exposition do not take away from a fantastic action film.  I have read a number people who said that this movie was reminiscent of childhood when you would take all of your superhero action figures and have them fight each other.  And truth be told, there is a child-like joy in watching this come to life.  This is especially true when it comes to Spider-Man (Tom Holland) who brings a whole new life an energy to an already high-octane show.

The actions sequences are spectacular.  The hit you with small details (like showing our heroes run faster than cars through the streets) along with the eye-popping special effects.

But even through the philosophy the Russo Brothers remember that art must not only be provocative but evocative in order to work.  Ultimately, the battle comes down to some primary emotional chords that are so simple that they pull at the heart (but I will not spoil those here).  There is also an "evil villain" plot that is essential to moving the story forward, but is much less interesting (or so it seems) than the hero conflict.

I should take some time to make notes about the performances:

-Evans once again brings a level of steady maturity and charisma to a part that could be seen as bland and naive.  His Captain America is one who is idealistic and realistic while playing both those contradictions at once.
-This is the best performance Downey Jr. has done as Tony Stark.  He has been funnier and more charming, but he has never been this intense.  You can feel his anxiety as he sees everything slowly slipping towards destruction and Downey Jr. makes you twist inside the way Tony does.  I really think he should (but won't) get an Oscar nomination for this.
-Chadwick Boseman is introduced as the super hero Black Panther.  Boseman comes on with a kingly stature and presents an intriguing and charismatic figure who will be easily be able to lead his own feature.
-Tom Holland as Spider-Man is refreshingly young and it shows.  The youthfulness of the character sets him apart from the others and brings a wonderful fun to all of the tension.
-Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan have a great chemistry as Falcon and the Winter Soldier, each pushing against each other in a side-kick rivalry over Cap.

The other actors do an excellent job as well, never breaking the spell by breaking that fourth wall.  

The biggest downside to this movie is how much it feels like a transitional movie.  So many different stories will have their jumping-off-point from the events of this film.  Even though Winter Soldier was also open-ended for sequels, that film had more of a sense of completion and closure than this.  I came away with a distinct feeling that this film was mainly about setting the board for the big battle later.

As a Catholic, one of the things I really loved was that this movie was ultimately about conscience.  It is a great illustration of how two people could have developed their consciences in different ways and yet they are morally bound to obey them.  It is a story that is about standing up for one's convictions.  

And as Dumbledore said, it is one thing to stand up to your enemies but another thing entirely to stand up to your friends.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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